Ronald Gross

No one can resist looking in a mirror. I once used this principle to solve the problem of an office building owner whose elevators moved much too slowly. "Put mirrors around the doors to the elevators on every floor," I suggested. That virtually ended the complaints about slow elevators.

The same thing goes for your conferees. There's no better way to seize their attention than to give them a chance to look in the mirror. But how do you do that for an audience of a thousand attendees?

One way I have found immensely powerful is to use a Responder System --those little key-pads at each participant's chair, with which they can respond to multiple choice questions about themselves --- and instantly see their collective responses projected up-front in colorful graphs.

For example, I recently spoke to an audience of hospital systemrators about fostering innovation in their institutions. I started by giving them a vivid picture of their own commitment (or lack of it) to fostering innovation.

First, I asked them: "How much time do you actually spend each week on fostering innovation? Please press key #1 if you spend under one hour, key #2 if you spend from one to 3 hours, etc."

Instantly, a bar graph displayed their collective behavior on the screen in dazzling color. I did not say a word -- I let them observe for themselves how little time most of them spent at this task (60% spent under two hours per week).

People do not argue with their own data. Each of them could see for themselves where they fit into the overall pattern. (You might want to picture yourself what you think the distribution would be in your field.)

One third through my presentation, I displayed a dozen of the most promising innovations in administration in comparable fields. "How many of these are you using in your organization?," I asked. Again, within seconds every member of the audience could see where they stood in relation to the whole group.

I used six questions like these in the course of a 70-minute presentation. The process kept the audience active, and attentive. Eliciting here-and-now information like this about the group you are addressing, and then speaking directly to the findings, is the ultimate in "customizing" a presentation.

Of course, you can also use the Responder System to invite conferees to respond to a more complex question or even to a video simulation. In the program for trial lawyers, "Hardball Tactics and Difficult Judges" produced by Professional Education Systems, participants view a two-minute vignette in which one lawyer is on the phone trying to bully the other lawyer into agreeing to a postponement of the trial. Viewers choose one of two responses: (1) I'd show up in court ready for trial, (2) I'd send my witnesses home and object to the judge. Then, with their choices projected in graphic form, they hear a discussion of the issue by a panel of experts.

No budget for a Responder System? Your can use this approach with "low-tech" strategies that cost nothing. For example, for smaller groups I use the "Change Curve" to invite such participation. In this exercise, participants put a colored dot on a giant U-curve of the
process of change, displaying where they are on the curve, where their boss is, etc.

You can even use a simple show of hands in imaginative ways -- by having 3 - 5 differently colored 3x5 cards at each participant's place, and having people hold up the appropriate color. "Please hold up your red card if you prefer the Theory Y concept of supervision."

What's important isn't which technology you use. It's finding ways to get your participants active and involved. Holding up a "mirror" gets their attention, elicits their response, and sparks interest in your subject. Then, show them how to apply what they have found out about themselves. THAT'S learning!

Ronald Gross chairs the Innovation Seminar at Columbia University and addresses association conventions. For information call (800) 813-2195 or e-mail RonaldGross.com