Media, making things and play: or how I began to love the f-word

Journalists from East and West African countries use Lego Serious Play to find common ground on “What makes good governance in Africa?” Photo: ©Guy Degen

For the past ten years or so, various media organisations, academic institutions and international media development agencies have invited me to lead journalism and media related workshops or courses. More often than not, the emphasis is placed on the t-word: training. I’m expected to be highly competent in a range of journalism skills and storytelling techniques and help people learn new stuff. I really like being a trainer and communicating ideas. It complements my work as a journalist and in many ways connects me with how I began professional life as a teacher — helping people to learn.

I’m also asked by media organisations to do the c-word: consulting. I might come into an organisation or a newsroom, observe, listen, ask a lot of questions and offer some analysis and advice. And that’s enjoyable too, as somewhere between teaching and journalism I worked as a consultant.

But about 3 or 4 years ago I began making a big shift in how I designed and implemented my workshops. I started to look more closely at the f-word: facilitating.

One of the methods I started exploring was LEGO® Serious Play®. LSP is one of several visual communication tools I use to help people develop creative ideas and solutions — but it’s by far the most fun. It’s not unusual for me now to travel with 20–30kgs of Lego bricks! In short, I design a workshop where I give colleagues a challenge; they build their answer with Lego; and then they share the stories of their models. These challenges progressively work towards the goal of the workshop. Together, the people I work with develop something new and often discover new things about themselves or about their team.

Activists in Ukraine explore civic media, press freedom and access to information with Lego. Photo © Guy Degen

It is the deep personal insights and stories that emerge through Serious Play that really swung me around to facilitating wholeheartedly. As the word facilitate suggests, helping or making it easier for people to do something or to work together to achieve their own goals is very different from standing at the front of the room and explaining something as an expert. It the context of journalism training and media development in particular, facilitating ways for colleagues to express who they are, what they aspire to be, or to design and develop the solution they need is hugely positive and is much more creative.

You can read more here about how I apply the Lego Serious Play methodology in the context of journalism training and media development projects. Some examples such a fusing Lego Serious Play with Design Thinking are also on my website.

But getting back to the f-word. The word facilitate used to strike an off-key note with me. (If you come across kids who say they aspire to be a “facilitator” please let me know!) Despite its etymology, facilitate to my ear used to sound like a hollow word as Orwell might have put it. That might be because we hear it overused in the corporate world. It is however a word, and an approach, that I embrace and I would encourage you too, and here’s another reason why.

Along with journalism or media related workshops, I’m also asked to lead Train-the-Trainer courses. TTT courses are usually 3–5 days in duration and are intended to school people in various techniques of communicating ideas and to help colleagues learn new skills. However, I really think some TTT courses are missing a trick. I would urge TTT courses to be renamed TTT+F. Spelling out clearly that trainers should also learn facilitating skills is essential. Depending on the goal of your workshop, there is a time to train skills and there is a time to facilitate ideas and collaboration.

In my opinion, journalism trainers and educators, particularly in the field of media development, need to add facilitating to their skills and move away from positioning themselves as foreign “experts” training local “participants”. And some c-words are helpful here. Craft ways in workshops for colleagues (and their audiences!) to co-create and to collaborate.

By adopting a more facilitating-led approach, I find myself applying more learning through play methods, and I suppose just simply experimenting and looking for new ways for colleagues to make interesting and relevant things in workshops.

For example, I lead a lot of mobile reporting workshops. Digital tools such as smartphones and apps allow us to make things, to make media, to make stories — usually very quickly. With just a few taps and swipes on a smartphone you can not only make a photograph, but you might add some text or even an audio clip and make something else. Making things is a lot of fun. It can also build confidence quickly and it can trigger other ideas — perhaps something unexpected and very creative. In a recent mobile reporting workshop in Kenya, my colleagues decided to adapt materials they gathered in a field reporting exercise to temporarily transform a village fish market into a photography exhibition.

Journalists from Kisumu in W. Kenya prepare a photo exhibit for PopUp Dunga Beach. Photo © Guy Degen

The word trigger and the idea of media as triggers for ideas and experiences is worth lingering over for a moment too.

If you work in media or media education I’d urge you to read David Gauntlett’s book Making Media Studies. And for those of you charged with developing a so-called “Digital Strategy” at your media organisation, this book is hugely thought provoking. There is an excellent chapter on Lego Serious Play too.

Gauntlet talks about media and media studies from the point of view of doing and making things and hands on engagement with media.

“We should look at media not as channels for communicating messages, and not as things. We should look at media as triggers for experiences and for making things happen. They can be places of conversations, exchange, and transformation. Media in the world means a fantastically messy set of networks filled with millions of sparks — some igniting new meanings, ideas and passions, and some just fading away.”

Gauntlett’s approach to media studies has helped me enormously to join a lot of the dots of what I’ve been trying to do — both as a journalist and as a trainer/facilitator. In many ways, helping to make ideas, proposals and designs more coherent. At the same time, it’s also triggered new ideas and orientated me towards different approaches — new experiences if you like.

The word trigger or to trigger something conveys a strong or perhaps swift and decisive action or result. In a development context, finding a way to trigger a reaction or to get people to buy into a proposition was something I first came across in rural Mali. Local Grio storytellers had very novel ways of triggering (as they called it) villages to abandon the practice of open defecation. I won’t go into the novel details here (!) but suffice to say it worked every time with astonishing results. People voluntarily changed their behaviour and actually took personal responsibility to develop solutions to improve village sanitation and ultimately their own health.

So for me, this form of a trigger has also been a valuable lesson. I am always looking for possible ways in a workshop to trigger colleagues’ interest; to get people to really “buy into” the proposition of a project; and, ultimately to think about taking personal responsibility for their own learning and professional development. I think if you can do that in a workshop then your colleagues/trainees will more likely be orientated towards life-long learning rather than just getting a certificate at the end of the workshop.

One last thought. All of this has also shaped my view that the most interesting things about media and journalism are not in media and journalism — they are everywhere else. Something to perhaps consider next time you’re at a journalism conference.

At the moment I’m drawing inspiration for my work from architecture and collaborative urban planning; rethinking business models; David Bowie’s thoughts on the internet; maker communities; typography; social innovation design; and art installations — just to name a few. All are triggers for new experiences and new ideas about media.