Sparklebursts.

Two months ago I had a big week at work. I was transitioning into my new role (a hybrid of facilitation, consulting and program management), so all of a sudden everything was not so automatic. With reluctance I barred myself from looking at Yammer for a couple of days. Afterwards, while trawling back through our Yammer Champions group (I’m one of half a dozen where I work) I saw a post – a few days old – asking for help.

The request was to share a stage. M, a fellow Yammer Champ, wanted to share her story of growing knowledge and confidence through using Yammer. I instantly regretted not seeing it earlier, and offered to help out. The forum was to be a NED talk (NED being short for Nimble Education Delivery, with the obvious correlations to a TED talk). Ours was to be the third such talk in our company.

Innately, I knew that I didn’t have the time to dedicate to it, but so many aspects compelled me. The notion of in-person story-telling. Being a pioneering part of a new wave of social learning in my company. Expressing the deep feelings that my Yammer experience has induced. The chance to inspire other people in my company who are early on their Yammer journey. But most of all, to back up the courage of M.

At our first coffee meeting with the convenor of the NED talks, M and I roughly outlined the content, and we were met with trust and excitement. Buoyed, we hung around for another 40 minutes ourselves and threw ideas around. I suggested a title – Social Growth – and it stuck.

Over the next 2 months, M and I tried to meet up once a week to develop the talk and then rehearse. Like many relationships I’ve formed in the six months I’ve been in our Melbourne head office, I previously barely knew M as a person apart from through her yammer posts. I had a profile in my mind of a community-minded, humble and driven person. That was confirmed for me through the process of preparing for the talk, but in an unusual way.

A shy person like me, M had embraced Yammer because of what the structure allowed; the egalitarian access to intelligent, passionate, diverse people. In the eyes of others, M had grown in confidence, built a personal brand, built a network through Yammer. Inherently, the NED talk was to stretch herself. She considered it was less of a stretch for her to take the stage alone, so she had asked for a collaborator.

Most self-aware people would have seen their limitations and shelved the idea. Most people – period – would have smelt their own fear and baulked at the very possible notion of public humiliation if it all went wrong. There was nothing life and death about this, but courage is courage, and when you see it up close, it inspires you and you recognise the hallmarks of leadership.

We both needed to look back through our history of Yammer posts over a 4 year period to come up with examples of our own growth. This in itself was cause for self-reflection, but it was the opinions – of the other party on these contributions respectively – that shone a different light. M found it difficult to recognise her leadership in helping others. In turn, I found it tough to look backwards at what I considered to be my previous self. Extinguishing each other’s self-doubt like this was a strange, sometimes awkward but overridingly rewarding way to get to know someone.

We needed to validate each other because of the process. After establishing we both had spent time in theatre when we were younger, we made an early decision to come up with a piece of performance art; unfortunately the process of creating art is invariably tortuous. We tried to meet up at least once a week, and more than once I came to a meeting with nothing. My mind was distracted with a new job and my creativity only ever comes in spurts. In recompense, I coached M on presenting.

In our final rehearsals, we booked conference rooms with big screens, and ran through the anchor visuals. I was obsessed with getting a structure in place, to anchor time and to ensure neither of us overshadowed the other. To do this we identified 18 examples from Yammer each; then told a short story of the context of each, finished with either what we learnt or how we felt.

We only had 20 minutes for the talk, so there was pressure to cram in content, but I knew it was more about what we left out, and the remnant space created. My favourite memory from the preparation was when I needed to communicate the appropriate pause length to M. As a measure of the trust that had built, I shared that for years I had imagined explosions of glitter going off above the head of an audience, and visualised it falling, to know where to look and how long to pause. I hadn’t ever described this to anyone before, nor given it a moniker. “Sparklebursts!” uttered M with glee. I smiled at the appreciation she showed for my method.

A fortnight ago was the day of the talk. During rehearsals M had memorised her lines, whereas I was having trouble, thus my tension. As a facilitator, everything is unscripted, but I knew that I needed to respect the process we had built. We purposely both wore black for visual cohesion. As people came in, we chatted excitedly to each other. The audience of 40-50 people barely filled a tenth of the auditorium, but I didn’t care. I knew the talk was being professionally filmed, and that would be where the ripples could spread beyond that day.

We took the stage. The opening titles unveiled in silence, building the drama. M went first, in deliberate recognition of her earlier start on yammer and the talk being her original idea. We switched every 90 seconds or so, going through themes of Beginning, Connecting, Learning, Support, Heroes, Experimenting and Leading. Our stories were our own, but crossed paths often. Just as we had learnt to do through Yammer, we made ourselves vulnerable, shared our flaws and wrong turns, so we and others could grow.

I think we shocked the audience a bit. Despite promising something ‘theatrical yet practical’ in the promotional blurb (that was my line, and it probably kept scores of people away!), we delivered something deliberately, and uncomfortably, personal. Faces looked intrigued, there wasn’t a standing ovation, and the Q & A at the end was full of thoughtful questions. We created curiosity.

Afterwards, I felt flat. I congratulated M as she had delivered a brilliant talk, but I felt guilty because I wasn’t being effusive in that praise. The flatness was a familiar feeling after achieving something that had taken a lot out of me to produce. I had had to wrestle with my earlier self to make it onto that stage, right at a time that I was trying to look forward. M, whom by now I considered to be a friend, did what friends do, and lifted me out of my funk. With a smile, she looked at me and said “Hey Paul, I remembered the sparklebursts.”

So I promised something in return. This blog post is to say thank you, M. I look forward to working with you even more to share the benefits of working out loud and social learning with our colleagues.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. I enjoyed reading this story and found it absorbing, so thanks for sharing.

    Great idea about imagining glitter falling over people’s heads. (That sure beats the outdated line about imagining people naked!)

    The tip I use is to pause for a number of seconds, and the number depends on whether you’re pausing within a sentence, or after it, or between paragraphs:
    http://wp.me/p1PHR3-Et

    That method requires quite a lot of concentration and relatively high-level thought though, which might be asking a bit much in the stress of the moment.

    I like the way your tip takes you “out of your head” and towards the audience, which is always a good thing. So I must give the sparklebursts a try!

    1. Paul Batfay says:

      Thanks Craig. I find in general with facilitation that a 3D visual of your techniques in front of you – in the moment – really works.

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