Want your team to think together well? Get the “forum” right

Nick IngramStrategy0 Comments

The forum in Rome

The idea of choosing the right “forum” to make your speech the best it can be is as old as the Greeks and Romans. But I would contend that getting the right “forum” is also vital if you want your team’s conversation (and therefore thinking) to be the best it can be.

The “forum” is an idea from the ancient art of Rhetoric – the art of crafting a convincing argument. Dennis Glover, in his book “The art of great speeches: and why we remember them” names the four key elements of any great speech as:

  • The ethos of the speaker: their character and credibility
  • The pathos of their words: how they connect emotionally with the audience
  • The logos of their argument: how coherently their argument hangs together and makes sense
  • And, the forum in which the speech is delivered: how the surroundings enhance the message, or the standing of the speaker

I’ve been thinking a lot about how rhetoric intersects with group facilitation recently (building on my experiences at Second Road from a few years ago, which is a consulting group blazing the trail with a lot of this thinking). I suspect you can map the four elements of a compelling speech into four elements of a strong facilitated conversation. I’ll probably blog on this a bit more in posts to come, but today I just want to talk about getting the forum right in a conversation.

So how important is the forum for a good conversation? Well, firstly, let’s have a look at how important a forum is for a good speech.

Think of George W Bush and September 11th. All that day he had been on Airforce One, after the attacks, and it was not clear to the American people where their President was. So, the symbolism of having their President speak to them from the Oval Office late on the evening of 9/11 was vital:

My argument here is that George Bush could have said almost anything in that speech. The critical element of that speech was the forum in which it was given. The Oval Office symbolised the President’s authority – and in a real sense the country’s strength. The fact that the Oval Office was still standing, and safe enough for the President to be in, was a powerful symbol.

Think also of the famous “bullhorn” speech the President gave a few days later at the World Trade Centre site. Apparently he hadn’t planned to make a speech at all. But when he was there the team thought it would be a good idea. He grabbed a bullhorn and climbed on top of some rubble with the help of a firefighter.

Again, the forum of that speech made it. And in fact, I reckon the forum helped Bush to his most eloquent moment of his entire presidency: “I hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” I remember seeing that speech live on CNN (it was Saturday morning after the attacks in Australia). I thought at the time – this is the moment his Presidency will be remembered for. I was probably wrong about that (the “Mission Accomplished” debacle saw to that) – but I can admit to some feeling of smugness when David Frum put the bullhorn speech on the front cover of his book a few years later.

We’ve had some interesting examples of forums gone wrong recently. If you’ve been listening to Serial you’ll know that one of the reasons Obama is getting so much heat about the freeing of Bowe Bergdahl is because he gave the speech announcing his freedom in the Rose Garden.

The forum for that speech signaled such a degree of seriousness and respect that many military people felt it was inappropriate given that Bergdahl had walked off his post in Afghanistan.

And just last week I couldn’t help but wonder what Malcolm Turnbull was doing announcing a major change to the nation’s tax system at, of all places, a football oval. No wonder it didn’t get anywhere.

So when it comes to a conversation, as opposed to a speech, how important is the forum? Clearly, you have to take care of the little things:

  • Natural light
  • Good air
  • Avoid big board tables if possible
  • Have a whiteboard for visualising the argument
  • Allow plenty of space for moving around
  • Make sure everyone can see and hear each other.

But I wonder if there are other elements that draw more on the world of Rhetoric that are also useful:

  • Ensure that the venue for the conversation doesn’t privilege one person or team’s rank over others.
  • Ensure that the forum signals the importance of the conversation – and the respect for everyone attending.
  • Make sure the forum emphasizes confidentiality when it’s appropriate.

I suspect there’s a whole lot more stuff here that would benefit from more unpacking.

Let me know any observations you have on this.

As always, if you would like to sign up to receive weekly posts of this blog, drop me a line at nick@clearthinking.co.

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