BackTalk: Reimagining Report-Outs and Group Shares

Anthony Weeks

Sometimes, we want to change the world. Other times, we make adjustments where we can.

When I proposed my breakout session for the 2019 International Forum of Visual Practitioners conference, recently held at Montclair State University in New Jersey, I knew I wasn’t offering something truly life-changing. My inspiration came from a more selfish place. Over the last twenty years, in my work as a graphic facilitator, I visually documented, captured, and scribed hundreds, if not thousands, of meetings and group conversations.

In many of these hundreds of meetings, I came to dread these three words:

“Let’s report out.”

For any of us who has been in a professional or community meeting or workshop, you know what I mean. We listen to some presentations, the facilitator sends us off into small groups, and then, in the spirit of exchanging group wisdom, we are asked to “report out.” Table by table, we stand by our flip charts or hold up our table templates and dutifully read out what we “learned.”

Let me disclaim here that I don’t hate small-group work nor do I object to the sharing of knowledge. In fact, many a lively, spirited, and thoughtful discussion has transpired in these table talks. When we create spaces for people to talk about issues, topics, and questions of importance, people usually rise to the occasion.

As the visual scribe, I am responsible for “writing what people say.” It’s often a fun, challenging, and important job because I get to listen to the richness of the conversation, be present for the nuggets of brilliance and the threads of story that emerge, and create a visual chronicle of what transpires. There’s a hum and buzz that happens when groups get into a groove of productive and meaningful conversation. The story almost tells itself. People speak from their hearts, brains, and guts. I didn’t invent the term “group genius”, but I know it when it happens. The genius borne by wealth of experience, story, and creativity makes my job easier because I need only tap into that beautiful, bountiful energy, and I, too, rise to the occasion. If I have ever been “brilliant” in my work, I would offer that I was merely manifesting on the page/sheet/board what was happening in the room.

How do we reward small groups for their energy, zeal, and enthusiasm?

We subject them to a stultifying, soporific, and uninspired report-out.

Stultifying, soporific, and uninspired report-outs make my job hard. Granted, nobody ever said that my job should be made easier. I am paid well for what I do. Still, when I hear those words — “Let’s report out” — I know that any buzz or hum that was once present in the room will smolder and die, as if someone had doused the embers of a campfire. We move from scintillating and effervescent to perfunctory and confined. We become willing participants in extinguishing any joy in the process of ideation while turning the discovery of potential genius into a chore of drudgery. Report-outs are usually a surrender to the expected, rather than an elevation to the enlightened.

This is what often happens:

· Without proper direction and focus, participants in the small group talk about EVERYTHING that they talked about.

· The “report-out” time is often quite short, so people feel compelled to talk at rapid-fire speed in order to cover everything they discussed.

· The term “report-out” says it all. People “report” rather than “elevate” because they feel like they need to, somehow, transform effervescence into a sober list. After all, we are here to do business! We need to be serious in our intent. There is no time for speaking from the heart, identifying the emotion behind the ideas, and focusing on what is MOST important. “Let’s be serious and intentional!” — and let’s eviscerate any attempt at making true meaning and sense.

· Output and quantity are valued more than quality and sensemaking. I was in a meeting recently where the CEO proclaimed loudly, before the report out, “it’s ALL important. We don’t need to prioritize because we need to do it ALL!” Good luck with that. What you prioritize speaks volumes about what you value.

· The format of the report-out usually doesn’t reward creativity. It’s about “creating content”, even if the content deserves prioritization and an identification of what the game-changing ideas might be. The more ideas, the better…or so it seems. (Are you REALLY going to have the capacity to address 27 “big” ideas? Okay….) Want to capture every single word? Put a template or blank sheet of paper on each table and have the groups document to their hearts’ content. That doesn’t mean that everything needs to be “reported out.” Repeat: report-outs should ELEVATE and ENLIVEN what happens in the small groups. They shouldn’t be an instant replay.

While groups are reporting out, I’m at my paper, scribbling furiously to try to get it all down. Again, I’m not averse to being in service as a scribe and a listener. However, how does one listen with intent and write down what people say when each group has a dozen ideas, delivered in a monotonous torrent, and the facilitator does nothing to moderate the flow except to turn once in a while to ask of me, “Did you get all that?”?

Yes, facilitators, who I love and adore, I’m talking to and about you.

Let’s do something different.

When I conceived of “BackTalk: Reimagining Report-Outs and Group Shares” for the 2019 IFVP conference, it was an act of resistance. I don’t want to do report-outs the way we always have! Let me say it again: I don’t want to do report-outs the way we always have. Yes, small-group work is important. Yes, I want to be of service. Yes, I want to elevate the great ideas! And…the way we’ve been doing it for the last twenty years is completely wrong.

Let me offer three tips about report-outs. This is a start. If I’m going to complain about something, I may as well give some alternatives.

1.) Be clear about your INTENTION and PURPOSE for the report-out. What are you asking groups to DO? Provide some direction. If you are sending people off into small groups to talk, what do you want them to talk about? Are they clear about the task? Are they free to explore? With what would you like them to come back?

2.) Not everything that is said needs to be WRITTEN DOWN. I’m good at what I do. I can write very fast, I can synthesize rapidly, and I can write legibly. That being said, have you ever timed how long it takes just to write down your name and what you do? If you are subjecting me to a deluge of ideas, many of which I may not have heard before, how do you think I’m going to make sense of them AND write them all down in ninety seconds? We need to be in alignment here. What is important? What is most useful? How do we sift through them, in the moment, to make sense of these ideas and bits of content?

3.) Make it fun, interesting, and engaging. WOW! Imagine that? Could we actually make report-outs fun, interesting, and engaging?! Let’s think of small-group work as “the work.” What do we need to do to elevate “the work”? Perhaps we should measure ourselves and our impact by the ways in which we enliven the conversation and perpetuate the joy of discovery.

People are often put in positions of “facilitation” even if they are not necessarily knowledgeable or capable in the role.

“Hey, we are having this meeting. Can you facilitate? Just keep time and call on people. That’s really all you need to do.”

No.

Facilitation is what separates a timed regurgitation of information and data from a conversation about what matters. Knowing HOW to do that is a skill. Some people have built their careers around this capability. Even for those who have, I would challenge them to rethink the “report-out” as part of their facilitative repertoire. Is it accomplishing what you want it to do, or are you just not sure what to do next?

Here are some ideas.

I only had 90 minutes when I presented the workshop in Montclair, so I didn’t have the opportunity to present a whole landscape of ideas about facilitating report-outs. I presented three different methods of report-outs to provide a taste of what could be. My ideas are neither the best nor the only. They are but three — some brain tinglers to re-animate the report-out process so that it needn’t be the ugly and sad repository of boring ideas.

One Big Thing

Purpose: Allow for divergence in the group discussion, but aim for convergence, prioritization, and identification of what is MOST important (among many good ideas)

  • Identify a discussion question or topic, such as this: “If you were a design consultant for an organization that wanted to become a model ‘learning organization’ where employees felt continually challenged, stimulated, and inspired to try new things, how would you begin to build a culture that supported continuous and generative learning?”
  • You will have 15 minutes to explore a universe of ideas. Make sure everyone gets to participate. Identify a discussion moderator and a scribe. Feel free to write down all your ideas as they develop.
  • Toward the end of the small group time, identify your top 1–4 ideas. These should be the ideas that have the most “traction” and interest from the group. Of these 1–4 ideas, identify “one big thing” that you believe is MOST IMPORTANT or CRUCIAL. Be prepared to offer another “one big thing” if another group puts your initial idea out into the room during the share back.
  • During the report-back, the facilitator will guide the large group conversation through brief interviews with the table(s). The interview will consist of a few questions: What is your ONE BIG THING? Why is this most important? How did your group arrive at this one big thing? Was there consensus? Dissent? What did that look like? Was it difficult to arrive at one big thing, or was it apparent from the beginning?

When we prototyped this method in the workshops in Montclair, the groups that played with it found that they could find focus when given a constraint. Moreover, the “one big thing” that they chose were ideas sufficiently ample and elastic to allow other ideas to fall in underneath it. Groups are not really limited by “one big thing.” They are just compelled to identify a cogent center that helps to organize other ideas that might be adjacent. It is important, though, to ask groups: “What’s your ONE BIG THING?” If it isn’t apparent, interviewing the group about why “one big thing” was a difficult destination can be a useful conversation. Focus, priority, and purpose are most important here. Yes, you want to do it all…AND, if you had to start somewhere, where would it be?

Once Upon A Time

Purpose: To discover a narrative arc within the conversation and the ideation process. What are you moving from? What are moving toward? Who will be affected? Who will love this idea? Who will hate it? What are the inherent tensions or challenges?

  • Identify an issue, question, or topic, like : “If you were a design consultant for an organization that wanted to become a model ‘learning organization’ where employees felt continually challenged, stimulated, and inspired to try new things, how would you begin to build a culture that supported continuous and generative learning?”
  • You will have 15 minutes to craft a story about what you would like to do, how the plan will work, why it is important, and what is the shift that will happen. Pay special attention to the EMOTION of the story and make it compelling. Who needs to care about this? How will you create engagement through your story?
  • Your challenge here is to create an arc or a flow, not a list.
  • Is it clear what you are moving FROM and moving TOWARD?
  • Feel free to draw out your story as needed. Is it a storyboard? A sequence drawing? A flow chart? You may also act out your story if the spirit moves you.
  • Challenge yourself to internalize the story so that you don’t have to read it. What kind of story can you tell from your gut?

Stories are fun and interesting — films, novels, poems, songs, spoken word, comic books, graffiti. We love stories. We find ourselves in them. When we are asked to tell our own stories in a work/professional context, though, we become skeptical about the power of stories. Often, we dismiss them as childish, frivolous, unprofessional, and wasteful. Actually, the stories ARE the work. Stories are the work. How else do you think you will engage people? Through data? Through force? Through coercion?

Giving people a reason to believe, a focus on a central tension or problem, and a pathway of “moving from — moving toward” are all core tenets of good storytelling. Why should people care? How does this story land emotionally? What is the problem that is being addressed here? Where are we going? This is storytelling. When we facilitate a conversation around the development of a narrative, we create an environment where stories will emerge. As philosopher and spiritual leader Anthony de Mello wrote: “The shortest distance between a human being and the truth is a story.”

The Pitch

Purpose: To advocate for a particular position, perspective, or viewpoint, and to engage a group around an idea or story to move them to action.

  • Identify an issue, question, or topic: “If you were a design consultant for an organization that wanted to become a model ‘learning organization’ where employees felt continually challenged, stimulated, and inspired to try new things, how would you begin to build a culture that supported continuous and generative learning?”
  • With “The Pitch”, you are not only trying to inform but also to persuade.
  • How will you give your audience the information they need to know, but also create an experience in which your listeners are moved to consider your point of view, have a clear idea of what you are advocating for, and want to know more?
  • Visuals, stories, and even acting are strongly recommended!
  • How do you create an experience of interest and fun without being silly or frivolous?
  • Paint a clear picture of your PREFERRED future.

Instead of just droning on about various and sundry data points that you gathered in your small-group discussion, what if you were charged with trying to CONVINCE people that what you had to say was valuable, provocative, and could potentially effect substantive change? That’s what The Pitch does.

The Pitch compels groups to tell a story. It also asks small groups to put a stake in the ground, identify what is MOST important, and promote an idea that is worthy of action and investment. Perhaps The Pitch won’t be the best idea. Still, by providing a space in which groups advocate for a particular course of action, based on the available resources of the group, The Pitch gives groups an opportunity to stand for something. We assume that when people speak from the heart, as well as from a place of wisdom and experience, they tell us what matters most. What is the recommended course of action? What is the cri de coeur? Advocacy and persuasion differ from pure exposition when we give people a reason to care. That’s what The Pitch is all about: what is the reason to care?

There is another group that deserves attention here: The Control Group. The Control Group represents the usual way of doing things. How can we reflect back what usually happens? The control groups in New Jersey did a marvelous job of amplifying the bad behaviors we usually associate with report-outs, the customary ways of inducing boredom and ennui, and the awful ways in which we ask people to share their “best thinking” by confining them in boxes that allow for little else but regurgitation without meaning-making. When we show people what doesn’t work, no matter how ridiculous or over-the-top, we see more clearly what we need to do — and need NOT to do. We know how it usually goes. When we poke fun at it, we still gain some insight about what we OUGHT to do to make report-outs better.

The Control Group

Purpose: To do things as they always have been done and to be as boring and uninspiring as possible.

  • Identify an issue, question, or topic: “If you were a design consultant for an organization that wanted to become a model ‘learning organization’ where employees felt continually challenged, stimulated, and inspired to try new things, how would you begin to build a culture that supported continuous and generative learning?”
  • Come up with as many ideas, both aspirational and tactical, as possible.
  • Feel free to go off on tangents, talk about things that are peripheral to the subject at hand, and hold forth on topics that interest you.
  • Create long lists. Endless lists. Lists that go on for days.
  • Please make no distinction among the ideas that are important and the ideas that are tangential or irrelevant.
  • During the report back time, please read your lists in their entirety, preferably in a rapid-fire and monotonous tone of voice.
  • If Anthony tries to interrupt you, just wave him off and say, “No, no, this is important. It’s all important.” (At some point, I WILL interrupt you!)
  • Feel free to go into great detail about your group process, who said what, and offer a sweeping global perspective about the topic of “learning.”
  • If you choose, please nod to the graphic recorder and say, “Did you get all that?”
  • Your job is to show us what NOT to do in a report out.

It goes without saying that these three (or four) methods are not the only ways to do report-outs. There are innumerable ways of taking small-group wisdom and holding it up to the light. Let’s explore. Let’s be daring. Let’s do business NOT as usual. There is no right answer here — although there is a wrong one: to do things the same way we always have. We can’t do things the same way. It’s not just for the sake of the poor, put-upon graphic recorder who has to dutifully write down what we have to say. It’s for the sake of the CONVERSATION. We could do so much better. Words like “capture” seem to conjure images of imprisoning fireflies in a jar. We can do better than that. What if we liberated ideas and let them take flight around the room? What if we thought of small-group work as an energy that absolutely needed to be freed?

Maybe in California, such analogies are permissible. I hope it’s not just a California thing. When I did the workshop on report-outs in New Jersey, at the conference, no less than three participants from all parts of the world came up to me and said, in various ways, “Report-outs are a GLOBAL problem!”

I felt gratified…and satisfied. I offered something else. This is the problem: to gather insights and ideas in a way that feels generative and expansive, not limited and confined. One of the wonderful and beautiful things about the work of facilitation is that we have the chance to be in conversation with people in conversation. Don’t we owe it to them to make it a conversation that truly matters? Moreover, don’t we owe it to them to make it a conversation that changes the world?

“Is life not a thousand times too short for us to bore ourselves?” So said Friedrich Nietzsche, allegedly. If Nietzsche, the nihilist, found boredom to be abhorrent, shouldn’t we? No report-outs. No boredom. Ideation + imagination + conversation=liberation.

BackTalk: Reimagining Report Out and Group Shares 2019. By Anthony Weeks. All rights reserved.

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