Collaboration hacks - let's do great together. My talk at Reasons to be Creative, Brighton.

Brighton in September is the place to be, with tons of good events and interesting people in town for the Digital Festival. I had the honour of speaking at Reasons to be Creative, a 3-day conference bringing together people from interactive media, web design, illustration, installation art, and technology.

Be deliberate about how you collaborate with others

As creative people, it's natural for us to work iteratively. We explore different approaches to solve a technical problem. We try out and compare different layouts. We play around with fonts, colours, gradients.

When it comes to working with other people, we stop to experiment with new things, and instead stick to tried-and-tested ways of working. In my talk, I aimed to encourage people to try out different 'thinking tools' and facilitation techniques. I invited attendees to reflect on their own toolbox, and their own cognitive needs and preferences. How an individual learns and remembers things, how an individual prefers to express herself, can have a big impact on how well she works with others. 

In a nutshell, this is what my talk was about. It was more personal than any other talk I have given, and I decided to include a rather risky, unusual bit of audience participation. I'm hoping to adapt it and give an improved version of the talk again, so I won't be sharing the slides or a full write-up here. An attendee called me 'a dark horse', which is awesome, so I don't want to take the surprise element away from future audiences!

Rather, I will tell you what I've learned about presenting, and at the end of this post you can find all the resources I reference in my talk.

How to create empathy with your audience and keep them engaged

When preparing for a talk, I like to watch videos of presentations that got great feedback, like the Stefan Sagmeister talk at Flash on the Beach, or some of the sessions recorded at last year's Build conference. Many good speakers use a personal story or anecdote to create empathy with the audience, and ideally this personal story is revelant to the topic of the talk, and used again in the end to bring it all together.

An hour is long for a talk, especially after lunch. My personal story worked well to get the audience's attention, and eased people in. It also helped me to relax into the talk. It takes preparation to tell a good story well, but once you have the structure nailed, it's very easy to tell, and made me feel comfortable on stage. So, it's interesting for the audience, and it's useful for you.

I was on at the last day, hence in front of people weakened by late nights and overly full brains. People can't pay attention for too long, so if you're giving a long presentation, consider breaking it up. Matt Sheret recommended to tell a joke, and while he is good at that, I'm not. My talk was about collaboration, so I decided to include a collaboration exercise halfway through.

Use music to facilitate audience participation

My collaboration exercise was the one bit I was worried about, as it was unpredictable. No one else at the conference had done any large-scale audience interaction, hence I had to plan time in for people to form teams. It can cost time to get people's attention back. I don't like to shush people or clap or shout, so I used music.

During exercises, have music running on lower volume, ideally music with no lyrics. Turn the music off when you want to shift attention back to you. I know this is effective in workshops, but even in such a large room it worked like magic. Maybe it was the well-behaved audience, but as soon as the music stopped, people shut up and turned to me. The whole exercise took less time than expected, and in the end I finished the talk with time for questions.

I also play my own music before the talk, usually a song I listened to while preparing and rehearsing (to make me feel comfortable, and to create a vibe). My playlist for this one:

  • Cyanide Sisters - Com Truise
  • Korock - Holy Fuck
  • Never Stop - The Bad Plus
  • Anthem For The Earnest - The Bad Plus
  • Northern Something - Tortoise

Resources from my talk

I'm obsessively intersted in collaboration, hence have read a lot on the topic over the past few years. Here's a list of books, talks and articles that fed directly into my talk:

Scott Doorley & Scott Witthoft, Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Standford University. Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration (2012).

Scott Page. The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, And Societies (2007).

Values and Frames: The Common Cause Handbook (2011).

Jean Tabaka. Collaboration Explained: Facilitation Skills for Software Project Leaders (2006).

Margaret Heffernan. Dare to Disagree. TED talk.

Michael Michalko. How Geniuses Think. The Creativity Post, April 28, 2012.

I mentioed the Rich Picture and the Business Model Canvas when talking about my own toolbox. I've written a brief description for each one here.