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(Preparing) The Greatest Show on Earth

What do you see when you go to the circus? You see the amazing daredevil acrobatic teams, the perilously high tight rope walkers, the perfectly synchronized performing ducks… What you don’t necessarily see is the lifetime of concentrated training the acrobats have undergone, the many hours a day the jugglers practice, and the fact that the lion tamer is actually missing a thumb.

The incredible amount of preparation that it takes to pull off a thrilling, memorable and meaningful performance is what my organization is experiencing right now in the preparation of its quadrennial global Congress. Expectations of 8,000-10,000 attendees have raised the stakes for putting on a really exceptional event. What that means for us is not only getting the logistics right, but also engaging the audience – our colleagues, partners and visitors – in many different, exciting ways.

Some people might be born with the ability to juggle flaming torches while standing bareback on a cantering horse (in sequins no less.) For others, it takes some practice, preparation and a good deal of help. The same is true for our events. So, for the first time at a Congress, we have engaged an international team of professional facilitators as advisors, who will work with 54 of our colleagues leading on different Secretariat sessions. This facilitation team will help the leads to think through their events and make suggestions as to interactive tools and techniques that they might use to get their messages across and novel ways to engage the audience. Whether it is Open Space Technology, Conversation Cafes, or newly designed large group games, the goal is to see how we can break through the fourth wall between those on stage and those in the bleachers, to reach them, touch them, challenge them, learn from them, and engage them in our work.

Because this is rather experimental, we are going to capture our learning throughout the preparation as a part of the M&E process. So more will appear on this blog on the Congress Facilitation Advisory Team and its work to help us prepare our Greatest Show on Earth -suddenly I’m craving popcorn.

9 replies
  1. Gillian
    Gillian says:

    What are we learning so far about this process, in the start up phase? We have so far: identified and engaged our facilitation team; collected biodata (not yet shared on Sharepoint), contracted, matched people and sessions, sent out job aid templates and global deadlines, and for many had our first email exchange between the facilitation team and the session leads.

    What has worked well, and what suggestions do you have about what we could do differently in this start up phase next time?

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Leon: I have sent my first email to the leaders of the sessions that were assigned to me, I guess they have not answered me (after a week) due to different reasons, among others I can imagine that since they suggested the workshops it have passed to much time (?) and they might not be engaged enough (?), or nobody notice the official introduction email they received were we, the facilitators advisers will be around, and also they do not know our role and can be identified or perceived as intruders or outsiders.

    Due to the time, and deadlines, I wonder how much we can pressure.

  3. Liz Z
    Liz Z says:

    Liz Z: I, like Leon, haven’t heard from all my assigned session leaders. I have had one great conversation with one of my ‘teams’ and we bounced ideas around constructively. They seemed completely unaware of the May 15th or May 31st deadlines, so I am wondering if the slow response is becasue people are thinking – this event is in October, no rush to work out the details. Also like Leon, it is hard to judge whether we as ‘advisors’ can push for activity, or if that needs to come from within IUCN?
    The session leaders knowing more about the numbers, flexibility or not of the process etc would be good. I went into my conversation thinking I knew little about the process and came out realising a knew much more than them! This is FINE, and I think we might have got further in one conversation if we had all had a chance to think about the challenge in context beforehand. Hope that makes sense. Looking forward to more great conversations!

  4. minu
    minu says:

    Dear all, and hello from Berlin!
    Things started out well for me when I was contacted right away by one of my assigned session leads, and had a create exchange with her on the phone, followed by me sending my notes & additional thoughts to her.
    The other four I have emailed (brief, w/ my short bio attached and asking them to send me their doc’s and arrange a call). I’ve had one response, the others I have emailed again.
    My hunch is that people seem to believe that they need a ‘finished product’ before they send us anything or chat with us. A familiar experience for me.
    The one response I had for my email was to say that I will receive finished outline documents by the end of May. My response included a few general and informal thoughts on preparing a session.
    Overall, it seems I am more worried about deadlines than the session leads 😉
    Warm regards – Minu

  5. Gitanjali
    Gitanjali says:

    I have had a couple of exchanges with my five session leads however only two have responded. One delightful respondent sent me background reading materials, a passionate description about herself and a photo – clearly she is enthusiastically embracing the process. She also has great ideas for her workshop and is thinking outside the box with the decision to have no powerpoint presentations! Last week, I used Gillian’s very helpful job aids and sent each of them an outline with some parts partially completed (based on their submissions) and asked them to clarify their objectives etc. So far little response. I guess some of them may be thinking, ‘the workshop is not happening till October, I will work on it later’. I am hesitant to push people however I think a little further encouragement from IUCN may be helpful.

  6. Gillian
    Gillian says:

    Thanks so much for your blog reflections everyone. I wanted to add an additional comment, I think Minu is right that in some cases people feel they should have put considerable thought into the product before sharing it with the professionals. I guess it is important to reinforce the process nature of our interaction, and that we are there to help the session teams to move along the continuum of good to great. That might make them feel better. Thanks again everyone for the updates! Cheers, Gillian

  7. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Hello everyone,
    Gilian and I just had an exchange over the phone and thought it might be interesting now just before the deadline (31 May) is turning around the corner to check in with the other facilitators in order to see what you have been able to coach and develop with your workshops.
    As to my five workshops, three are about to come into harbor my the weekend. One is almost there and my fifth one is a bit “out-of-office” due to a chronic overload.
    The three which have evolved quite a bit over the last weeks are now going to incorporate the following methods in order to get more interaction going between the speakers and audience:
    – fish bowl within the Water Dialogue
    – World Café with the Red List Species
    – Buzz groups with the CO2 Geo-Engineering (marine)

    I hope I can get the other two to dare a step into interaction.

    All the best and greetings from Basel, Christine

  8. Edward Kellow
    Edward Kellow says:

    Hello everyone,

    I’ve been working with Tobias and I think he has come up with a good workshop with a catchy title. It’s all about the mountain of tongues.

    While it is hard in a short workshop to introduce any particularly mind blowing techniques, Tobias is going to use a large wall map of the Caucasus mountains and at the start of the workshop ask people to mark on the map where they are from. The point is that people get to position themselves physically on the map of the region – it’s a kind of grounding exercise – and also they get to talk to people and start to feel more comfortable in the group.
    Another way of doing this is to use the floor of the room as the map and ask people to stand in the place they think they belong.

    Sometimes when I have a large group and not much time, I use a variation on speed-dating. I ask people to pretend that they are at a tea party (very English I know) or at an Embassy Cocktail party (more UN) and they have 2 minutes to talk to one other person. I set the questions and ask people to move around 3 -4 times. This can bee a lot of fun. Some questions that I have used – and I tailor them to the group and context – Why brings your here? What do know about the topic? What do you want to learn? How did it feel when you walked in the room? What is your greatest fear about….

    Getting people to move about freely does wonders for the group dynamic and people’s level of engagement with the topic.

    Hope that’s useful



  9. Gillian
    Gillian says:

    Hi everyone, I relocated the last two comments about interactivity to the blog post entitled, “Games for 1000? Interactivity and Large Groups”, posted on Friday 30 May. I will keep those ideas posts together, so if you have “some ideas, you can post them there too! Thanks!

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