I enjoyed the mini-conference, Blogging – a new conversation? yesterday.
I was supposed to talk about whether blogs were “the new source of authority”. This gave me an excuse to show this memorable clip of the last speech of Romanian Dictator Nicolai Ceausescu, just before his downfall. He addresses an apparently well-marshalled crowd of supporters… which quite suddenly turns against him. I used it to illustrate the pitfalls of a certain kind of authority, the sort that can collapse quite dramatically. (This reflects a comment made by David Weinberger at Reboot, that farce is what you get when former authority figures are the last to know they has lost their power).
I talked about an alternative view of authority to that of the external expert or dictator. This is the authority of people who acknowledge that they are the authors of their own experience. This is the transition that the crowd makes in this video – they decide to make their own meaning instead of being given one.
The desire for this kind of authority may account for why, in our allegedly time-starved times, millions of people find the time to write blogs that most of them expect few people to read: they write not because they expect to change the world, but because it’s satisfying simply to acknowledge their own experience.
Now being the author of your own experience can also lead to madness. You could say Ceausescu was way too stuck in his own authoring. And that’s where the social links of blogs come in, to create the potential for some shared meaning making, which is, I suppose, what communities do.
I treated my speech as an experiment in unPresenting (which may tie in with Doc Searls’ advocacy of unConferences) The trouble with standard presentations is they set the speaker up to be a mini-Ceausescu, and the audience to be like oppressed Romanians. The speaker takes the apparently respectful silence of the audience as an encouragement to carry on. There’s a bit of feedback missing (unless they read an IRC back channel) and while this format rarely leads to violent overthrow and revolution, it may set everyone up for an unsatisfying experience.
So I decided to make little preparation for my effort, other than to blog something about the idea of authority and pick up a few ideas from the response, and getting hold of the Ceausescu video. (Thanks to James for finding it). My intention was to set myself up to be in the present (aah, possibly a different slant on the meaning of the present in presenting) and spontaneous, and trust that the audience would somehow cope.
After a few minutes, I asked a rhetorical question, something like, “So what does this all mean?”. The point of a rhetorical question is that the speaker knows the answer and plans to tell the audience – a way of staying apart from the audience. Only, in that moment, I drew a complete blank. I realised I had no idea what the meaning was just at that point. On the traditional model, this is exactly why it’s vital to prepare and show up with a deck of slides. But on the unPresenting model, this is the best bit: when the speaker – ie me -joins the audience in not knowing what will happen next.
What actually happened? Some folks in the audience came up with some good responses to the question (perhaps they didn’t notice it was rhetorical), especially Lloyd Davis I hope he blogs what he said [UPDATE: He just did]. And I felt that my presentation mutated towards a conversation. Apparently, some people looking at me thought this was all a masterful trick. But the reality is that at best I found a way to be comfortable with my uncertainty, and didn’t feel the need to burble on to cover up! And the silence was not replaced by chaos but by some great thoughts from the audience. [UPDATE: Wow. Now I've listened to Lloyd's MP3 of it, I was shocked at how short the silences actually were, compared to how long they felt to me. And boy do I talk fast... Hmm, more to learn here Johnnie]
Is this the only way to present? No, and all the speakers found ways to connect with the audience, and to introduce informality and engagement.
And I plan to repeat the experiment.