In which I call time on well-meaning but counter-productive events that aim to recruit and energise people to take action. “Epic fail”, as the young people used to say…
Two events on Saturday, both of them all-day but both so bad that I (law of two) hot-footed it. (I had planned to shuttle between the two – they were only ten minutes apart by bike).
The first was about an “economy for the 99%”. It started on time, but went downhill fast. One hundred and fifty people sat in rows giving their attention to three plenary speakers and the MC. There was no warm up exercise/turn to the person behind you/beside you. People were not welcomed or thanked for their attendance. Instead they were told things that they already knew about the two sponsoring organisations. Then a short but very very long talk with the problem-solution ratio all wrong, full of poorly-delivered received wisdom and empty of any colour, verve or energy.
Allegedly this day was going to be about educating and strategising. Um-hmm. The guy doing this, frankly, needs to either go on some (extensive) public-speaking training or else stick to his other jobs. Also, he hadn’t found-out-and-practised how to say the name of one of the people he was introducing. I was extremely embarrassed for him. After seven minutes of disastrous rambling, he introduced the plenary speakers. Fortunately the first of them said thanks to everyone for coming. But she then launched into a stump speech that would have come as no surprise whatsoever to the assembled throng.
One hundred and fifty people in the room being ego-fodder (many of them willingly no doubt). What a tragic waste.
So I cycled over to the other event. They lacked even name badges for the punters. As with the first event, no invite to talk to anyone, no effort at finding out what people already know. They’d invited a scientist to speak first up. This fetishisation of science – as if there is a linear relation between how much we know and what we will do, (and how effectively we will do it) – is beginning to get on my tits. But I guess it’s easy, and re-assuring to everyone, organisers and attendees alike.
After half an hour of this, being told things I either knew, or didn’t need to know, with a complete absence of any memorable metaphors, I cycled back to the first event.
The plenary had finished, with no time for questions, I’m told. So they were into the first “workshops”. Except the one I went to (and another I witnessed) most certainly were NOT workshops. They were mini-plenaries, with assorted experts talking at length (very very great length, in the one I went to – I managed to polish off the Morning Star, the Evening News and a goodly chunk of the Financial Times) to rows of people. And when they did break into small groups, it was only to formulate questions back to the panellists.
FFS: DON’T CALL THEM WORKSHOPS. THEY ARE LECTURES.
Look, there is obviously a time for the experts to do their thing, and a role for lectures. But to earn the right to take up the precious time of people who’ve travelled a long way (1) you have a moral obligation to put what you are going to say online in a simple format; as an article, or a youtube or powerpoint, or all three. And then people can start from a higher level in their questions to you, if they’ve had a chance to read/watch beforehand. Maybe all the speakers, sorry “workshop givers” have, but I got no hyperlinks to any such online resources between when I signed up to attend the day and when I went, and I found no such links on the official website.
So what did the two events have in common?
a) Really lousy low-energy openings
b) Nothing on “how to learn from our previous errors” (except in one workshop, near the end of the day, there was a brief oblique mention in the blurb. Not enough to make me go though)
c) a church feel – a church where we all know what we think, and we are there to be there, and to have been seen to be there. [this is, of course, snippy and sweeping and unfair, but I'm leaving it in to flag that the red mist has well and truly descended.]
d)They made me run (well, cycle) screaming.
e) a common assumption – the…
dialogue of the def-icit
The common assumption in both was that somehow people who have come (and they are very self-selected) both want and need yet more information before they can act, or act more, or act better.
This is known as the information-deficit model. And it’s been killed more times than Humphrey Bogart was in his decade of gangster flicks.
It’s an extremely convenient assumption, because it allows those people who are the policy wonks in organisations to have pride of place, dishing out information to a large audience. That’s good for their prestige and their egos. And for the health of the meeting and the movement? Not so much.(2)
“You are no longer the target demographic for these organisations”
I have some small sympathy for this argument. It’s true I’ve been to more of these than most people. But if they can’t hold the attention and enthusiasm of long-termers, doesn’t that just mean they are mostly going to “churn” newbies? And shouldn’t it be possible to make events that cater to ALL the potential allies you have?
“It’s the easiest way, and we are strapped for time and cash.”
So, like the drunk man you’re going to look under the lamp-post for your keys because that’s where the light is good, even though you lost them in the dark alley? Genius. And this idea that you are strapped for time. Well, that might be because you’ve not managed to attract and keep new folks? And do the open space techniques really take money? Think how much you’d save by not having quite so many guest speakers along!!
“It’s what people like/expect”
Erm, just because people like something doesn’t mean it’s good for them! Cigarettes? Chocolate cake in excess?! And although Henry Ford didn’t say “If I had asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses,” he should have.
(1) Not me, in this instance, but in my literally mis-spent youth I used to travel serious distances to attend these things.
(2) You may say, “where’s the evidence for that assumption?” Well, after a good decade and a half of watching English social movement organisations organise the same meeting and get the same shitty results, I’d say that the burden of proof is reversed. Show me how this model – of sitting people in rows and have them in plenaries throughout the day (workshop my arse!!) is successful in building a growing, learning, organising and winning movement, and I will gladly (yes, gladly) STFU about the smugosphere and ego-fodder.