Paper or Plastic?

Workshops are a big part of our public engagement. What’s the best way to capture attention?

PHOTO: rawpixel on Unsplash

Resilience planning workshops are the main product that NEMAC delivers in our community resilience business line. The workshops usually consist of two parts: presentation of data and concepts, followed by a hands-on working session. The data and concepts we present are important to the decisions that the group needs to make, so we’re always looking for ways to improve our delivery.

I had the opportunity to observe a workshop a few months ago. My task was to watch and learn from our customers—learn about their pains, their gains, and the jobs they needed to do. I was particularly interested in how they used the workbooks we provided versus how they used the posters and maps we presented.

As I watched and observed the first presentation session, I noticed very few people had their workbooks open. Most of the attendees were doing other tasks. Not surprisingly, they were on their phones and laptops instead.
Community resilience workshop in Durham, NC, 2018. PHOTO: Dave Michelson, UNC Asheville’s NEMAC.

While it takes us a lot of time to produce a single workbook, it seemed that quite a few people were not using them. In fact, many people forgot to bring their workbook (they had been distributed during previous workshops), so we had compiled and brought extras that they could use.

Then…surprise! Jim Fox, our director and one of the workshop facilitators, walked over to one of the large (~3 ft × 4 ft) map posters set up in the room and began talking with it as a visual aide.

Everyone looked up with undivided attention. They started asking questions, opened their workbooks, and even took notes!
Notes! We provided small versions of all of the map posters so that participants would be able to study the information more closely, and also keep them in their workbooks for future reference. PHOTO: Dave Michelson, UNC Asheville’s NEMAC.

This piqued my interest. At first, I thought maybe it was a one-time event. After the first presentation, I mentioned it to the team and asked them to switch to a printed map when they could.

For the rest of the day, the situation repeated itself. Every time we talked alongside a poster or map, people changed their attention.

NEMAC’s Director Jim Fox facilitates a group during a resilience planning workshop in North Carolina’s Triangle region. PHOTO: Karin Rogers, UNC Asheville’s NEMAC.

Yes, this behavior is observed…but observations of what people do are arguably the most important facts we can learn. Not only were people more engaged with the maps, they also consistently told us how valuable the physical maps were.

Based on these observations, the NEMAC+FernLeaf team has dedicated substantial effort into adding standardized map products to AccelAdapt.

Although this not a purely scientific assessment, there is truth to it. My recommendation:

When giving a presentation that contains complex data, consider adding a paper poster — especially if you want people to remember what they’re learning and be engaged with you as they learn it.