A tale of two students...
In the last century, two girls, born barely five months apart and related by degrees, had parents who chose to live near each other hoping the girls would become friends.
And they did—running through sprinklers together in summer’s heat; playing board games indoors in inclement weather; going to nearby parks. They learned to dance the latest dances with the boy who lived in the house between them and another who delivered their newspapers.
One girl, a fan of reading (“the reader”), was thrilled when old enough to walk to the library alone to bring home stacks of books, some from outside the “children’s section” because of the interesting titles or covers. The other (“pianist”), taking after her mother, learned to play piano.
The reader, too, was “encouraged” (pressured!) to take piano lessons where she had to be further encouraged (okay, bribed with autographed stars’ photos) to learn for recitals because to play she had to memorize notes and memorizing was not how she learned. The pianist played as if music were literally in her fingers.
They walked to grammar school together, the reader responsible to get the pianist to school because as good as she played, she was a bit scattered in getting out the door. Scattered though she was, the pianist had top grades while the reader struggled to memorize the dates, names, and numbers required to pass the tests to move to the next grade.
The reader found a role as a leader, becoming the first seventh grader to ever be president of the public “K-8” (kindergarten to 8th grade) school’s student council.
In high school, the pianist was popular, in the Honor Society, and graduated near the top of the class. The reader still struggled to pass tests that required memorizing and spitting back facts. She excelled at classes with a few teachers who told stories and related, with stories, the lessons taught.
During study hall, and though she didn’t take art classes, our reader sat in the art teacher’s room. Surrounded by music and visuals, she read required lessons and absorbed more than in a study hall, a large room with rows and rows of chairs in straight rows. The memorable surroundings contributed to her concentration.
Both girls went to college. The pianist excelled at her classes, graduating to teach high school French.
The reader knew from day one when registering for college classes that this was not for her. Freshman, required to take a language, would be required to memorize, like memorizing piano notes for recitals and facts to pass tests in past schooling.
She thought “if this is truly ‘higher education’ and I’m paying my way, I’ll take Greek,” believing she’d learn about a culture and history while still learning enough of the language to pass exams. “No,” they said. “Only upper classmen are allowed to take Greek.”
She diligently went to her classes, typing others’ papers and doing their laundry to fund her schooling and not disappoint her family. She found her niche in leadership roles for on- and off-campus organizations. She learned her strengths, she took more college and other classes, and went on to a diverse path that lead her to events, meetings, hospitality, and teaching.
What was the point of that story?
Smiling: Some of you want this to get to bulleted information to provide the “answers”—the “how to” for meetings or to sell products or services, find a job or excel in a job.
It took many years for the reader—the life-long learner, she later understood to call herself (noted here by Jeffrey Cufaude in a TEDX talk—you figured out it was me, didn’t you?) to understand how she learned: through illustrations, surroundings, connections, stories and applications.
No one ever explained it nor did few, except Stan Blum (civics, using current events); Jim Payne (speech, where debate training used stories); Lenore Clippinger (English Lit, who let those who wanted sit on the classroom floor); and Bing Davis (art, not taken but whose classroom provided an atmosphere for learning.) These teachers—who today would be the ‘sages on stages’ (or screens)—provided the core understanding of learning.
Now, when learning virtually, memories are not created because the space is alike. If it’s just bullet points with no connection, or worse, an entire conference without a story-weaver (not the same as an “MC”) to tie it together, it is just words with nothing to draw one in or to remember what’s taught.
How will we create memories virtually?
I read, buried in the Style (as in “lifestyle” vs. Business) section of the print edition of the Washington Post, “How will we remember virtual celebrations?” It was illustrated by a photo of a cake with candles, and a child wearing a party hat and COVID-19-protective mask. The article showed why many are not creating virtual meetings that will instill memories, take the place of experiences in a place where there are cues to inspire memories.
Intrigued, I reached out to one of those quoted in the article, Dr. Gabriel Radvansky. We set up, yes, a Zoom conversation.
From the start, I was engaged. His comfortable and accessible style, his smile, his stories illustrating his points, engaged me. Part of that was the intimacy of the conversation—just the two of us, face to face, even though there was distance and technology between us.
He spoke of his experiences teaching and how difficult it will be this first semester for his Psychology 101 class that must, because of class size (350) and need to distance for safety, be taught virtually.
He will record the classes pertinent points and then schedule time to talk with students live. That personal interaction, where, from all I heard, will be filled with stories, will then set the lessons firmly in the students’ minds, just as we who plan meetings want what is said in sessions taken away to use immediately and remembered.
I also asked my niece, Leslie Eisenstodt Sullivan, an award-winning middle and high school teacher, about how she illustrates history and social studies to help the students connect and remember. She thinks there is no other way to do so than storytelling. Clearly others—her students who have consistently gone on to the National History Day competition, and those who award teaching honors—agree.
The choices: a large room where we are distanced or virtual...
Dr. Radvansky said it’s not his preference to teach virtually. He prefers being in the presence of the students. He likes to move about, observe the students’ reactions, interact with them, ask questions, and call on them to see what they think and how they respond to points he’s made, through stories.
Students have textbooks from which they can read the lessons. Just reading a textbook, or listening to a lecture with bullet points (like many of the conference sessions attended, especially those with “Q&A at the end”) will not be the same, as his teaching methods—illustrations through storytelling of how to apply the lessons learned – or our participants’ experiences together at conferences.
Early illustrations of how meetings and conferences are being physically held show either chairs set “straight-ahead” theater-style (I shudder) and distanced, or virtually. I think the illustration of the service at the U.S. Capitol for the late Congressman John Lewis show a far better option for theater-in-the-round as a way to create more intimacy and engagement if and when we are to gather physically.
Virtual meetings look alike...
Boxes of people on a Zoom or other platform screen. Or avatars in booths selling their wares. Or boxes to click to take us to a pre-recorded session. Basically, time sitting on our tushes, sometimes only given short breaks or the ability to interact through chat with others.
There is little memorable in most of the virtual meetings I’ve attended, except when:
The bullet points...
Think about the webinars and physical sessions/meetings/conferences you’ve attended. Consider a subject for our work, like contracts, where there are lots of "it depends" responses to questions. If there are methods to explain the information’s applications—a story of a contentious issue, for example—it would be better understood. Fortunately, many industry attorneys do so.
1. Bullet points are fine when illustrated with stories or graphics.
2. Two authors’ who excel at this are Guy Kawasaki’s The MacIntosh Way (and here in a Meetings Today profile), with stories beautifully and humorously told that illustrated the early days of the Mac draw the audience in to his experiences and to learning; and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Anti-Racist (and his new children’s book, Anti-Racist Baby) use his life to illustrate the points so that one can identify with what must be understood.
3.Intimacy of delivery—speakers leaning forward toward the camera/screen to engage the audience as if it were “just you”—and use of illustrations like those Keith Knight, Gentleman Cartoonist used for a presentation, Red, White, Black and Blue: Cartoonist Keith Knight Addresses America’s Racial Illiteracy at The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at The Ohio State University—will further engage the audience and create memories from which they will learn.
4.Music creates atmosphere. Surely in your organizations are people as creative as this to write and perform a song to open or close a meeting and that indicate you’ll all be back together again ... eventually.
Because in learning, there are always action steps, aren’t there? It’s better than a test!
And finally …
I asked Dr. Radvansky how, at conferences, he’d create different learning. He responded:
“When I am at a conference, I usually talk about my frustration with some idea in the field, work I've seen, my own work, and such, and then make a story about how I went about addressing it. Something like:
I had been looking at this data set for a while, and it just didn't make sense to me. So, I tried doing this one thing, and that was a complete mess. I felt like a failure, and so I tried to see if the answer was in this other sub-literature, and they refused to give me any answers (bastards). So, I had to figure out something new myself, so I tried this other thing. I did it partly because I thought it might work, but mostly because I didn't know any better. And, wow, it did work. I am surprised as you are.
I don't know if this kind of thing is a story so much as a conversation with myself that is both informative and more engaging because it is not as dry as some of the other talks.
It's my general approach to these kinds of things, and how I run my lab meetings. I can't really do this with papers so much. The reviewers don't like it, and I probably shouldn't be doing it in writing anyway. Still there is some story to tell, and I try to tell it without stepping out of the formal frameworks that we all have to work in. Anything worth doing makes a good story (maybe not a great one, but hopefully a good one).”
More to read...
Be intrigued by the topic of storytelling and how it can help those in any audience—at physical and virtual meetings—learn better.
This is all from information found prior to calling Dr. Radvansky.
From his official bio:
Dr. Radvansky's research is focused on the development of mental model theory for human memory and cognition. Mental models are a person’s representation of a situation that they experienced/read/heard about. Most of this research is aimed at understanding how people create, organize, store and retrieve mental models. This research is also directed at understanding how younger and older adults differ on their use of mental models.
Selected papers and excerpts:
“Events are what happens to us, what we do, what we anticipate with pleasure or dread, and what we remember with fondness or regret. Much of our behavior is guided by our understanding of events. We perceive events when we observe the world unfolding around us, participate in events when we act on the world, simulate events that we hear or read about, and use our knowledge of events to solve problems. In this book, Radvansky and Zacks provide the first integrated framework for event cognition and attempt to synthesize the available psychological and neuroscience data within it. This synthesis leads to new proposals about several traditional areas in psychology and neuroscience: perception, attention, language understanding, memory, and problem solving. This book represents the first attempt to present the field of event cognition as a unified domain. Radvansky and Zacks have written it with a diverse readership in mind. It is intended for a wide range of researchers within cognitive science, including psychology, neuroscience, computer science, philosophy, anthropology, and education, but also aims to be useful for other readers interested in events, such as those in the fields of literature, film theory, and history.”
From a chapter on Interactive Events:
“This chapter looks at how cognition operates in the arena of interactive events. Research on this topic builds on studies of the interaction between action planning and perception. In recent years this line of work has received a big boost from the development of virtual reality technologies that allow the experimenter to study cognition in extended events while exerting a reasonable amount of control over the experimental situation. By creating virtual environments, the experimenter can actively and experimentally manipulate a wide variety of aspects of an event to a degree that would be prohibitive if actual environments were used. This sort of research is only just beginning, but it already has enabled some insights into human cognition that would otherwise be very difficult or impossible to assess. The chapter uses the event horizon model as a guiding framework for presenting and discussing this material.”
From Inc., Storytelling Tips to Better Communicate Your Brand Message
And this, Maya Angelou and the magic of storytelling in a conference setting
which begins: “As Dr. Angelou entered the conference hall, the air was electric with excitement and awe. Even at 85, she invigorates a crowd as if she were a rock star! She started to speak and the crowd hushed to hear her every word. From beginning to end, she did not lecture, she did not follow an outline—she simply told stories.
Bonus! In my energizing conversation with Dr. Radvansky, he, when I asked what I could do in return for his time, said nothing. I pushed. He suggested I tell Joel (my husband) three jokes over lunch. Telling him I was a bad joke-teller, he gave me the gift of one I could remember:
Q.: Where do you go when you’re cold?
A.: To the corner of a room … where it’s always 90 degrees.
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