Big conversations inspire, but small conversations lead to change


September 5, 2016

Big conversations, such as conferences with keynotes and plenary debates, increase awareness of a problem, a solution, or a leader. Big conversations attract famous speakers and large audiences in person and streaming. Therefore, they are easy to quantify and measure. Big conversations inspire. But small conversations create change. To make an impact, we need both.

So how do we bridge from passive information to active dialogue, from sharing concerns to voicing action, from merely recognizing problems to actually solving them? We can do this by narrowing down from the general to the specific, focusing on the concrete rather than the abstract, and funneling from the big conversations to the intimate conversations.

Unlike big conversations that share information, often through personal experiences to large, faceless audiences, small conversations require you to invite eight to ten people for personal conversation. Small conversation does not mean small talk, but rather, direct dialogue.

Don’t be afraid to include people with different backgrounds, professions and approaches. In fact, diversity enhances conversation, offering new perspectives to old problems.

Small conversations need a clear question or an aim that you share in advance so that participants can prepare. Share background information, initial thoughts, or previous research around the problem. Preparation leads to a better conversation.

Small conversations also need one person who keeps participants from drifting away from the topic and leads everyone to a final solution, conclusion, or decision. Ideally another person takes notes so the herder and participants can focus on contributing rather than recording the conversation. Notes are important: We’ve all experienced praise for something that we’ve said, but later cannot recall what we actually said.

For conversations to flow with continuity (note: logic), ask participants to turn off mobile phones and ban social media from the room. As a rule of thumb, follow the Chatham House Rule: When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.

Choose a location that is discrete, like a private meeting room or a private dining hall in a restaurant. Exploit opportunities at events where people are already gathering, such as the World Economic Forum, or Aspen Ideas Festival. Experience shows the best times to host small conversations are early mornings, before the distractions start. If you can, host them at a round table – literally, a round table – so everybody sees and is seen equally. It knocks the corners off the social implications of who sits at the head.

And don’t underestimate conversations that organically grow. Have an extra chair at hand. You never know who might join the conversation and say, “What a coincidence, I was just talking with the keynote speaker, she should be here, really.”

This is the new format for real conversations. The conversations that matter.