Schroedinger’s Audience: A Con and a Pro

It’s Tuesday 3:15 pm. I’m delivering a virtual session titled “Even You Can Be a Facilitator”. It’s about running meetings using Mural and how much easier it is to facilitate workshops this way than face-to-face in a meeting room. The audience is my colleagues from our Austin IT office.

It’s not going particularly well. I’ve just shown a template for a problem-solving discussion and asked: “Anyone can think of an example where you could use it?”

It’s fifteen seconds since I asked and still silence. Not a good sign. There are fifteen people on the Webex (our online meeting tool) and only one of them – let’s call him Konstantin – has his webcam on. Konstantin answered two questions I asked just before, so now he is staying silent.

I’m wondering, perhaps everyone else lost interest? Got distracted? Went to the bathroom?

Perhaps I should have planned the session more cautiously. I joined two minutes late because I was delivering another training for my colleagues from Prague the preceding 90 minutes. There, the topic was Insights personality assessment. The complete topic switch must have come at the cost of me having a slow start in the Mural session.

It’s thirty seconds now. What should I do? If I speak now, it will be an admission of loss. I look at the participants, or rather, at the rectangles with their initials. Konstantin looks ready to wait it out. But what about the fourteen others?

They might be all bored. But maybe, they are all sweating now. They’re fully engaged, crumbling under pressure, and trying to come up with the example I asked for.

I realize – I am facing Schroedinger’s audience. Until I check with them, they are both bored and excited.

Forty seconds and still no answer.

So what if my session is really not going well?

The total lack of feedback is killing me. I remember Scott Berkun writing about why – in live presentations – he always prefers a tough room to an empty room: 

“I can always see or hear what’s going on — who’s listening, who’s bored. My senses work to my advantage. And if I happen to say something completely stupid and inappropriate, like perhaps forget where I am and claim how great it is to be in Boston when I’m actually lecturing somewhere in NYC, I know instantly how the crowd feels about what I said, even if it’s only their desire to kill me. I always have the chance to respond to how the audience is responding to me. But there is no audience feedback in most TV studios. This means you might say exactly what the audience hoped, perhaps the secrets to instant weight loss or how to achieve immediate world domination (or peace, if you’re a sissy), but you would get no real-time reaction. (…) It’s far worse being in an empty room than a tough room.”

Scott Berkun, Confessions of a Public Speaker

My advantage is that while I can’t see them – they can’t see each other either. If Michael sitting in his basement office in the suburbs of Austin feels like he is not getting it – unlike in a face-to-face session where he would have visual contact with the other attendees – now he has no idea how the others are feeling about the session. It’s me, the trainer, who is speaking and who is on video. It’s me who is the only indication of whether things are going well – or not.

A blissful realization.

I keep smiling, attempting to give the impression that this one minute of silence was precisely what I intended from the very beginning.

I collect all the remaining energy and enthusiasm I can and say with confidence: “Excellent! Now, when you have your examples in mind, let’s have a look at some of the other templates.”

Having realized it’s just up to me to create the image that everything is all right, puts me at ease. The words start flowing more easily, and they start making more sense. I pose the following question a bit more clearly and get some engagement right away. Two of the participants even switch their cameras on while answering.

We end the session on a high by having everyone engage in the “Mural Obstacle Run” exercise. Everyone has to complete a list of tasks representing the tool’s features in a race against the others. The rush of adrenaline shows in people’s reactions (some of whom now unmuted themselves), which are enthusiastic as I’m closing the training. The Schroedinger’s audience turned out to be okay this time.

I make a mental note never again to schedule one training session right after another. And that no matter how bad I feel in a moment, I must never show it – as only when the trainer shows things are not going well, the audience can be sure about it.

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