Preaching to the Arts/Culture Choir: Change or Face an Empty Room

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Whenever I attend a major arts related conference or convention, a workshop, a networking event, a webinar or quite simply a venue where people gather (even better when there’s an open bar), I’m always on the lookout for meaningful connections with people who teach me something new, excite my brain and challenge or inspire me to take action around a specific cause.

The empty room
The empty room

And you know what? It’s okay to get up and leave. If there’s no innovation, creativity, fun and excitement happening in the room around a topic that interests me I’m headed towards the direction of the exit sign.

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Care to join me?

When it comes to a certain population of the arts non-profit sector it has become more visibly obvious that many people are out of touch with the changing times of technology and how we communicate with one another.

I’m starting to wonder when, if ever will they wake up and get a clue.

A growing personal interest in technology and the media, specifically social media and tools like online learning, crowd sourcing, mobile technology, apps and “the cloud” has shifted my thought process lately around what I want to see and hear when I’m among my non-profit arts and education friends.

Or, more frankly speaking, I’m feeling a greater urgency to get up and leave the room (or drop that webinar) when I feel like my time is being wasted on old ideology, technology and methods of sharing information.

The beloved and often really bad PowerPoint presentation

There’s actually a book on the topic: Love Presenting Hate (badly used) PowerPoint.

I recently attended a branding and marketing seminar sponsored by a reputable non-profit arts organization in New York City. The speaker, a retired branding and marketing professional, presented his entire speech referencing black and white text laden PowerPoint slides. To make me squirm in my seat even more, he proceeded to repeat word for word the content between poorly executed “my wife made me do this” banter.

Not only was he a horrible facilitator (and lousy comedian), he brought absolutely no substance or value to this organization’s main attraction: branding. No photographs, no color, no visual reference to a company’s brand or marketing strategy for example a website page, no logo samples; nothing but words.

White wall
The empty white wall

Most of the attendees, granted a majority in the elder category, were captivated. For me, the experience was like watching an episode of Mad Men in black and white with people sitting around a conference table staring at an empty white wall. Where’s the conversation, the artistic excitement? What’s the take away from a boring white wall?

There are really cool, user-friendly tools like Prezi, SlideRocket and Apple’s Keynote, to name a few, that create engaging, colorful presentations that actually have movement. Why are people afraid to break free from their PowerPoint comfort zones? Meanwhile, I’m losing important brain cell activity.

Have you seen any good video lately?

I attended a local Community Board meeting in Chelsea a few weeks ago where representatives from the Whitney Museum presented a video update as their presentation on construction of their new building. It was short, to the point, visually stimulating and beautiful. I actually got a little teary eyed – over a building.

You can watch the construction of the building in real time through a web cam linked to the museum’s website. I can take a quick look at live video of the new Whitney project happening downtown along the Hudson River to gauge current NYC weather. How cool and engaging is that? The Whitney Museum is building a new audience while they build a new museum – literally.

Many workshops at the recent APAP conference in New York City also included presentations that engaged audiences through the use of video and sharing interactive activities on website pages. Matthew Moore from the Digital Farm Collective shared time lapse video of the life of food growing from the field to its final destination on the shelf. “Change is constant,” Moore said. “If you’re not disrupting your own technology, someone else will do it for you.”

The too easily overused and boring webinar

Another thing I’ve been noticing lately? Webinars have become essentially the online version of bad PowerPoint presentations except facilitators can’t witness in person the constant sighing, clock watching and squirming of butts in seats. Please make this uninteresting snore of a formality stop!

I have been a guest on the Huffington Post’s online news outlet HuffPost Live. The concept is fairly simple. They invite guests through Google Hangout, a video conferencing tool, then live hosts in NYC and LA interact with the panelists through video chat. This option is limited to a smaller number of people, but like Skype, it is a form of communication that companies should start modeling.

Forward thinking around communication is not a novelty; it is an absolute necessity for survival in today’s fast-paced world. When it comes to the arts and culture sector in particular, there are simply no more excuses for the lack of innovation and creativity. The way information is presented and how ideas are shared needs to change – STAT!

Technology is changing the world. Kids in Africa have cell phones.

Africa goes mobile
Africa goes mobile

How about mobile technology? Are you aware, for instance, that there are children who live in remote impoverished places like Africa that are connecting to the cloud virtually educating themselves and interacting with the world through the use of a mobile phone?

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Hans Vestberg, President and CEO of Ericsson Communications Group spoke last September in New York City at the Social Good Summit (sponsored in part by Ericsson, Mashable and The United Nations Foundation) where he described how “all the intelligence is in the cloud,” students from all over the world will “connect to learn” and things like social media and the Arab Spring have proven that information will no longer be restricted by national borders or the internet.

The Pew Research Center just released a data update on January 30, 2013 from their ongoing Pew Internet: Mobile project. Between the ages of 18-29 the percentage of young people that own a cell phone in the US is 93% with 65% having a smart phone. In growing numbers young people are using their mobile phones for everything including donating online, purchasing tickets to events and talking and tweeting about the experience afterwards.

In a recent Inc. Magazine interview Brian David Johnson, Intel’s in-house “futurist” says, “Get yourself a 13-year old mentor. The perspective of someone who has grown up with computing power in his pocket, always being connected, is fascinating.”

Social Good Summit in NYC
Social Good Summit in NYC

The Social Good Summit blew me away with the artistry and lightning fast speed in which technology, social entrepreneurship, global innovation and creativity came together both in New York City at the 92nd Street Y and virtually from all across the world in real time. An entire ballroom for bloggers and journalists (who mostly looked to be under the age of 30) was dedicated for watching live stream of the event, tracking the Twitter feed on a giant screen and rooms for attendee networking all happened simultaneously.

This is exciting stuff people! It’s a model the arts and culture sector could learn a great deal from. It’s time to move away from PowerPoint slides, stop putting panelists behind tables in freezing cold hotel ballrooms, make room for more networking, social interaction and don’t be sacred of technology. It’s not going away!

As I write this blog I realize I’m becoming an information snob with growing impatience for old ways of communicating and presenting ideas. Eventually in moments of clarity when I stop the internal shouting about what’s not working I remind myself to keep gravitating towards networks of people who are indeed “getting it.”

I wonder when the room is empty who will notice.

(Please note: in order not to rat any one person or organization out specifically I had to write the majority of this blog from a generalized “they” and “them” perspective – my apologies for being respectfully vague).

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Jessica Wilt is a professional dancer, arts education consultant and freelance blogger living in New York City where she is actively involved in arts, education, technology, advocacy and politics. Wilt is the founder of ArtsEdTechNYC, a VOICE Charter School Board Trustee and currently is acting Chair of the Arts Education Council with Americans for the Arts where she is a guest ARTSblog contributor.

  • Maybe I’m one of those elders you refer to, Jessica. But for me, it’s all about content. Does this person have something to say that teaches me something? Am I mesmerized by this story? Do I feel alive and more connected to myself and my own imagination? Slick visuals, like beautifully coiffed and dressed people, elicit nothing from me if the core is hollow.

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  • Jessica Wilt

    Thanks for your comments and questions Juliet! I’m starting to notice a generational gap happening between what I refer to as “elder” leaders in the arts non-profit sector and the up and coming Millennials who have grown up with technology since birth. I’m somewhere in between. Content and telling a compelling story are absolutely the most important factors for engagement (in any sector). I’ve grown tired of having my time wasted by workshops, panels and conferences that present themselves as “innovators” or “experts” simply because the buzz word is catchy. Many haven’t quite grasped how quickly the world is changing around them and when technology is used in smart and meaningful ways the experience is quite wonderful. Those who are open to change and who surround themselves with innovative people will succeed. Check out http://www.emcarts.org as one perfect example of what works well!