Combating “Contact Glow” with Captivating Stories

I remember a distinct moment in a return visit to my high school during college, chatting with one of our assistant principals.

“What are you studying?”

“Communications and business, and I just decided to add a minor in film.”

“What are you going to do with that?”

I got this question a lot after adding the Film Studies minor. No, I had no plans to direct. No real plans to do professional film criticism, though I often do that in an amateur capacity. And I don’t have the constitution to act- makes me too visible.

However, I’ve found many ways to use my film minor in a few jobs I’ve had. I am very particular about creating a flow for events that makes sense in the mind. I am extraordinarily particular when I have to edit film and find an appropriate score. And, above much else, I am a sucker for good storytelling. Movies, done the right way, captivate. They consume. In Sally Hogshead’s words (which I have recently consumed and am finding countless ways to apply), they fascinate.

 

This past weekend, I finally got to see a big project of mine- a revamped iteration of our student organization training- come to fruition. While I didn’t realize it in these exact words, I was trying to build a program that fascinated. Rather than having student government officers break the group of roughly 200 into positional meetings and let them know about SGA’s expectations for them for the year (as previous iterations of the event had done), we allowed officers to spend a part of their morning defining the roles of their board in an interactive project, and then offered breakout workshops on how to effectively serve in those roles.

My attempts to fascinate thankfully succeeded, on a scale that truly blew me away. The number of snarky tweets about the day being a waste of time diminished significantly. Students praised and thanked me, unprovoked, for the change of focus in the event- it was no longer about what SGA needed from them, but rather about what their capabilities were and how SGA could help. And- most importantly to me- they engaged with the content. They took notes in a way that many of us had never seen at a previous event of this type.

[Hold this point for just a moment.]

IMAGE CREDIT: GrandYouth.org

This morning, on a day off earned from running this training on a weekend, I went to the movies. Surprisingly, years spent studying movies hasn’t (for the most part) ruined my viewer experience. And thankfully no one else ruined my film experience either.

If you’ve been to the movies recently, you’ll notice that there are more and more warnings about silencing and stopping usage of cell phones and other mobile devices. Movie theaters have become a rare safe haven from the near constant glow, buzz, and chirp of our mobile devices. I naturally thought about the connection of this phenomenon in training and educational environments.

I was interested to read a recent piece from Clay Shirky about why he, a prominent Internet and media researcher, elected to ban the use of mobile devices in his classroom.  One of his relevant points was that the use of these devices wasn’t just to protect the attention of the device user; it was to protect the attention of that user’s neighbors. As research in the area has shown us:

I have known, for years, that the basic research on multi-tasking was adding up, and that for anyone trying to do hard thinking (our spécialité de la maison, here at college), device use in class tends to be a net negative. Even with that consensus, however, it was still possible to imagine that the best way to handle the question was to tell the students about the research, and let them make up their own minds.

The “Nearby Peers” effect, though, shreds that rationale. There is no laissez-faire attitude to take when the degradation of focus is social. Allowing laptop use in class is like allowing boombox use in class — it lets each person choose whether to degrade the experience of those around them. (emphasis added)

When we ask moviegoers to silence their mobile devices, that’s not done to preserve the viewing experience of any one individual; it’s done to protect the viewing experience of the collective viewing public. And, with little exception (and those exceptions tend to be violent), such measures work. In exchange, the consumer is getting a product that, barring a bad choice of film, holds the attention in the place of the device. But it’s also worth it to note: if what’s in front of you is captivating enough, the seductive power of our ever-glowing devices decreases.

Now, back to the original point I asked you to hold. We saw precious few students captivated by their phones over the content that we presented. And they weren’t distracting others either. In its place was active engagement with those overseeing the workshops. Thoughtful questions asked, experiences shared, notes returned to groups with fevered discussion after they had been dismissed. No ban on devices was needed, because the temptation for attention to stray, dissipated significantly. Is it possible that we have students with herculean levels of resolve or superhero-level interest? Maybe. But I know them, and have seen them enough in other venues, to know that’s likely not the case.

As I worked with presenters to craft their content, I asked for a concentration on stories. I asked them to engage with the content they were going to be sharing, and I asked for them to facilitate in such a way that students could bring their own experiences to the table. For the first time, we brought alumni back to teach sessions; I requested that they bring their time as students to their sessions, and demonstrate what they learned from their experiences as student leaders. This was in stark contrast to sessions from previous years, which delivered directives and information in a manner divorced from its practical use. And as I say to the students I work with often, “That inspires nobody.”

It goes without saying: that’s what movies give us. They give us stories. They give us narratives that no matter how fantastic or whimsical, connect to something within. And if they’re captivating enough, quick enough to the point (this method shortened this training from 6 hours to 3 hours and 53 minutes), and attentively delivered and edited, they can help us examine our own actions and affect who we are when we leave the theater. I am excited to have created, guided, and implemented a training method that was able to do that. 

So, Ms. Stewart, that is what I’m doing with my film minor. Any questions?

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