Chapter 8. Abandon Your Recipes: Three Keys to Building Experience Sessions and Why You Should Try It
- Rachel Ropeik
For most people, what I have described above is not the typical experience of a professional conference session. Nevertheless, this was a session I led at the 2017 Museum Computer Network conference. It was called Slow Change: It’s Not a Consolation Prize,1 and it was an example of what I have come to call Experience Sessions: museum programs, conference sessions, and training workshops that focus as much on the quality and mood of the group’s time together as the content covered; that devote care and attention to the HOW of the session as much as the WHAT.
Experience Sessions are something I began offering years ago when I swore to myself that I’d never again give a conference presentation that followed the standard “PowerPoint slides + Q&A” format. I learn best about the interesting work people have done by seeing examples of it. When I leave the conference fog of several days’ intense mental focus, what I remember are the moments that broke the pattern and asked me to be in a different way. So those are the sessions I aim to create for others. In the past few years, I’ve seen a rise in Experience Sessions, and since I work full-time making museum experiences, I want to share some of the ideas underpinning good ones. How might you go about making your own Experience Session? Why bother with it in the first place? Gather round, as the storyteller might say, and come with me as I offer some suggestions.
Reading that description of a recent Gallery Encounter I created in the museum where I work2 (an in-museum version of an Experience Session), you might be reacting in any number of ways. That might sound right up your alley. It might sound awkward and invasive. It may or may not be the kind of thing you’d like to participate in yourself. Which brings me to my first key to creating a good Experience Session. An Experience Session Won’t Be for Everyone. The sooner you can embrace that knowledge, the sooner you’ll be able to commit to creating a truly memorable encounter. Priya Parker—whose book, The Art of Gathering, is indispensable reading for anyone interested in making Experience Sessions—sums up the philosophy behind this. “Gatherings that are willing to be alienating—which is different from being alienating—have a better chance to dazzle.”3 You have to risk leaving some people unimpressed for someone else to be really wowed.
In the Slow Change conference session, I asked participants to stay in the room and be attentive and present for the entire window of time. I asked them to be open (and vulnerable) to new ideas that might push at their own behavioral norms or workplace expectations. Those are big asks and not ones everyone at a professional conference wants to answer. When I approached people to participate in the Gallery Encounter, some weren’t interested. That was fine. I moved on to speak with someone else. Part of what makes an Experience Session truly connect is that it centers the people who opt-in. It’s their experience. I’m framing that experience, yes, but it’s not really about me and my priorities. To make it happen well, I need to set up the framework and guide the participants, but I must be willing to give up some of my own authority during our shared time, to let go of knowing exactly what will happen and allow the participants to make what they want of their time.
That’s the second key: De-Center Yourself, Give up Control, and Let It Be. I know this is hard, and it may seem counterintuitive. You have wisdom to share, and people are coming to you to hear it. You have a limited amount of time that you don’t want to waste. Those things are worth keeping in mind, yes, but if they are the most important motivators behind what you’re doing, then an Experience Session is not what you’re after. If what you are truly committed to is an Experience Session, then you are not only focusing on a topic, but aiming to bring a particular atmosphere and mood to your gathering. You’re approaching your gathering like Claude Monet, who set out to make his painting subjects not just haystacks and cathedrals and water lilies, but “the envelope” of weather and light and aura that surrounded those things. How you want to build your chosen aura will begin with your own inspiration, but it must then leave room for what others bring with them, and you must be okay with that being outside your own control.
This was the first Museum Teaching Mashup,4 which I co-facilitated in 2015 at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. It was held during the museum’s weeknight evening hours after a day of the National Art Education Association annual conference, and, in contrast to the formal presentations that art educators had been leading and listening to throughout the day, this event was set up to intentionally make space for not knowing what would happen. Everyone there had to trust their collaborators and the larger group, and no one could make anything go completely to plan. It was a capital-E-S Experience Session, and I share here one participant’s reflection (solicited in writing after a week had passed) that illustrates what can happen when people give up their comfortable control.
[I]t was particularly challenging to adapt as people responded to our instructions in a different way than I expected. We purposefully kept the instructions minimal but I had a specific behavior in mind. When that didn’t happen I momentarily panicked but decided to go with it instead of redirect people and see what happened. It wasn’t what we envisioned but I liked what happened…upon reflection, I see how important it is to let the people you work with and collaborate with feel empowered to contribute their ideas (even unrehearsed) and innovate. When we shut voices down or make every moment be carefully scripted, we may lose a spectacular idea.
In talking about this, I often use the metaphor of reins. There will be moments where you as facilitator need to hold the reins more tightly, but think of those as the framing moments rather than the bulk of your time, the bread of the sandwich rather than the meat. To take the example of the Museum Teaching Mashup, my co-facilitator and I opened with exercises to get energy flowing and promote a spirit of supportive creativity, and we closed with expressive gratitude and collective congratulations for everyone’s willing hearts and clever minds. During the bulk of the evening, however, we were there merely as timekeepers, while our participants literally led the show.
I want to offer an important, cautioning caveat here. De-centering yourself and letting others have control does not absolve you of all responsibility. You need to know when to pick up the reins. If, for example, during your Experience Session, someone says or does something offensive or hurtful, it’s up to you to step in and address the situation. If someone’s participation is taking your Experience Session beyond the scope of what you are there for (we’ve all heard the person who blithely diverts or dominates the cocktail party conversation), it’s up to you to steer things back on track. Pick up the reins when you need to. But then be able to loosen your grip on them again.
By giving up this control, you may be making yourself less comfortable, but remember that you’re de-centering yourself here. Instead, you are giving a gift to the participants in your Experience Session. You are letting them make of it whatever they want it to be. You’re allowing them to pass their time with you in a way that can inspire them however they are open to receive inspiration. As another Museum Teaching Mashup participant put it: When you participate in an experience like this… you get to leave with YOUR own experience, and not the thoughts of someone else. You made meaning for yourself, and that experience is likely to continue to stay in your mind even after you leave.
In this final scenario, you are me. It’s something of a meta-reflection on the experience of creating an Experience Session, in this case, the Empathy Jam5 session at MCN 2018. We’ve written about that collaboration at the end of this book, but it absolutely typified my third and final key to successfully putting together an Experience Session: Plan and Proceed with Curiosity and Collaboration.
It’s hard to plan Experience Sessions alone. It’s hard to give up control or develop a deeply impactful, potentially alienating Experience Session without the power of multiple minds at work. In all the examples I’ve included here, I planned in collaboration with others and depended on their feedback to make changes as I went. If it’s a conference session, join forces with like-minded peers. If it’s a project at work, enlist colleagues to test beta versions of your plan. If you really do want to make room for an encounter that feels surprising and new, think about other moments when you’ve felt that way yourself and what conditions made it happen.
In the language of job interviews, people toss around the phrase “transferable skills.” In the realm of Experience Sessions, I encourage you to apply the correlative idea of “transferable inspiration.” Who and where else can you turn for the ideas that make you tingle with creative excitement? Me, I like immersive theater and motivational6 decks7 of cards.8 You’ve surely had memorable encounters that sparked something emotionally powerful in you. Think about what elements of those Experience Sessions designed by others you might adapt to suit the purpose of your own.
To recap, here are three foundational keys for building Experience Sessions:
An Experience Session Won’t Be for Everyone
De-Center Yourself, Give up Control, and Let It Be
Plan and Proceed with Curiosity and Collaboration
I highly encourage you to fill out your keyring with your own additional keys. And I highly encourage you to consider taking the risk of developing Experience Sessions in the first place. They are certainly more challenging to create than a “PowerPoint slides + Q&A” presentation, but just as certainly more memorable and rewarding for you and the participants who decide to dive into the pool with you. So the next time you see a call for conference proposals or have a meeting to run or a workshop to plan, think about creating an Experience Session instead of your go-to, well-trod format. To borrow a randomly selected, perfectly apt Oblique Strategies prompt: Discover the recipes you are using and abandon them.
- “Slow Change: It’s Not a Consolation Prize,” Conference Presentation, Museum Computer Network, Pittsburgh, PA, 2017. https://bit.ly/2tojJP0 (accessed February 17, 2019). ↩
- Rachel Ropeik, “There’s No Right Way to Visit a Museum: Creating a New Summer Experience at the Guggenheim,” Checklist, July 25, 2018, https://bit.ly/2NbGTkN (accessed February 17, 2019). ↩
- Priya Parker, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters (New York: Riverhead Books, 2018), 23. ↩
- Rachel Ropeik, “Reflections on a Museum Experiment: Thoughts About the Museum Teaching Mashup,” Medium, April 13, 2015, https://bit.ly/2V7lvQz (accessed February 17, 2019). ↩
- “Empathy Jam,” Conference Presentation, Museum Computer Network, Denver, CO, 2018, https://bit.ly/2SQcPk7 (accessed February 17, 2019). ↩
- Katya Tylevich and Mikkel Sommer Christensen, Art Oracles: Creative & Life Inspiration from the Great Artists, Card deck, (London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd., August 7, 2017). ↩
- “The Space Deck,’ MuseumCamp. Card deck, 2015. ↩
- Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, “Oblique Strategies,” Oblique Strategies, http://obliquestrategies.ca/ (accessed February 17, 2019). ↩
- “Empathy Jam.” Conference Presentation. Museum Computer Network, Denver, CO, 2018. https://bit.ly/2SQcPk7 (accessed February 17, 2019).
- Eno, Brian, and Peter Schmidt. “Oblique Strategies.” Oblique Strategies. http://obliquestrategies.ca/ (accessed March 03, 2019).
- Parker, Priya. The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. New York: Riverhead Books, 2018.
- Ropeik, Rachel. “Reflections on a Museum Experiment: Thoughts About the Museum Teaching Mashup.” Medium. April 13, 2015. https://bit.ly/2V7lvQz (accessed February 17, 2019).
- ———. “There’s No Right Way to Visit a Museum: Creating a New Summer Experience at the Guggenheim.” Checklist. July 25, 2018. https://bit.ly/2NbGTkN (accessed February 17, 2019).
- “Slow Change: It’s Not a Consolation Prize,” Conference Presentation, Museum Computer Network, Pittsburgh, PA, 2017. https://bit.ly/2tojJP0 (accessed February 17, 2019).
- “The Space Deck,” MuseumCamp. Card deck, 2015.
- Tylevich, Katya, and Mikkel Sommer Christensen. Art Oracles: Creative & Life Inspiration from the Great Artists. Card deck. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd., August 7, 2017.