From Camelot to the Boardroom, the Rise of Live Polling

Guest post by Dr. David Campt and Matthew Freeman

Whether you know it or not

If you already use live polling, you’re part of a historic paradigm shift in human interaction.

For thousands of years (or hundreds of thousands) entire societies have worked in support of decisions they didn’t make. Usually a leader or a group of leaders made these choices, even life or death decisions like:

  • Where should we build our next encampment?
  • Should we approach that other group across the valley as friends or foes?
  • What do we do with the person among us who is disruptive?
  • Who should our leaders be, so that we can outsource some of these bigger decisions and go about our daily lives?

The idea that a decision should, at least partially, reflect the preference of the group it impacts emerged around 2500 years ago in Athens (check out Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece, 2007). Democratic practices like counting votes may have begun there, as one of many strategies groups used to sort out what they wanted to do.

But it’s never been all about the vote

Often other strategies had much more sway than a show of hands. Strategies that reflected the preference of the few, not the many:

  • Demagoguery to create false enemies
  • Coercion and intimidation
  • Bribery of influential people
  • Purposeful deceit
  • Rational persuasion, lobbying, and so on

Even with the spread of democracy, and the idea that the group’s perspective should have bearing on decisions, we still see these other strategies come into play all too often. The larger the group, the more burdensome, inaccurate, and time-consuming it becomes to gather everyone’s vote. When groups become too large for easy and accurate voting, the other, less democratic strategies often gain greater influence.

The paradigm is shifting again

When people look back at this time period 500 years from now, I think that they will see live, audience polling as the third of three successive paradigm shifts in the history of human gatherings:

Revolution #1: The microphone, which suddenly allowed one person to address and persuade thousands at a time.

Revolution #2: The projector, which was further boosted by the development of PowerPoint. Now people could both hear and see a depiction of the presenter’s thoughts, with greater clarity and/or power.

Revolution #3: Audience response technology. It arrived in the 1970s in the form of speed polling, but has leaped forward again in just the past ten years, thanks to the internet and the prevalence of mobile phones and devices.

Any group that convenes today can have as much input from the group as they want. And compared to the cost of meeting (including people’s time), getting input is now extremely cost-effective.

How does live polling change the meeting landscape?

The recent shift to live, web-based polling technology extends the possibilities for how minds can meet. Now, everyone can have access to the thoughts of every person in the room, without any noise, effort, or bravery, whether they are answering multiple-choice questions about where to order dinner, or open-ended questions about their concerns for the organization.

Regardless of whether the meeting is focused on helping people understand the topic at hand, hearing from every person in the group to inform a decision, or just teeing up a conversation, this instant mind-reading capability is a new adaptation in the ancient and often time-consuming ritual we call a meeting. Adding live polling fundamentally changes what meetings are, and may usher in a new era in the way human beings cooperate.

We’re the early adopters, and we have a mission

For some people, notions like the long march toward greater human cooperation is rather fanciful and off point. But as 21st century innovators and the new vanguard of live audience polling, we need to be able to talk about the benefits of what we offer with greater clarity, and at a very practical level.

In our book,  Read the Room for Real: How a Simple Technology Creates Better Meetings, Matthew and I mention many of the the better-known benefits of web-based polling – such as greater engagement and information retention, but we also include important benefits that tend to get overlooked:

  • Presenters become more responsive to the group, and cannot as easily go on autopilot.
  • Meeting attendees have a greater appreciation of diversity in the group, because the displayed results focus attention on the group’s responses, not just their own.
  • People become more reflective, and think more deeply about why they and others have the perspectives they do.
  • Those who pay for the meetings tend to think more broadly about what the meeting can accomplish, since they now have the capacity to create a whole-group survey with a high response rate.

The right message for the right person

As we travel the country advocating that corporate managers, city planners, trainers, event planners and others use this technology, Matthew and I have learned to be more strategic about which arguments to muster for which audiences. You can use them too, to help along the cause of better meetings for groups everywhere. For example,

Is the meeting coordinator concerned with rational decision-making? If so, it might make sense to point out the ways that polling brings more perspectives to the table, and lessens the chance of making mistakes, by considering all points of view.

Is the organizer concerned about giving introverts a way to speak out comfortably? Perhaps focus on how anonymous polling protects meetings from becoming overrun by a few loud voices, and offers quiet attendees an easy way to express themselves.

Is the organizer concerned with building community? Share stories about how a live, open-response poll lowered people’s perceived barriers, and made them realize the differences they saw between themselves and others were not as great as they thought.

We wrote the book on the live polling revolution

Matthew and I have been polling geeks for more than 10 years, and now we’ve written the first book ever about the revolutionary effects of live polls on meetings.

Our hope is that, for those who already know and love live polling, our book will provide a deeper understanding of how the technology works. We also hope that polling fans will find it a guide to the revolution that they are already engaged in, even if they don’t currently see their work as ground-breaking. And maybe it will even help a few polling fans convince their organizations to adopt the technology site-wide.

Read the Room for Real: How a Simple Technology Creates Better Meetings launches July 4 weekend, partly because we think that America should declare its independence from bad meetings! We do hope you’ll join us.

About the authors: Dr. David Campt and Matthew Freeman are the authors of Read the Room for Real: How a Simple Technology Creates Better Meetings. They hope to start a national conversation about how to improve meetings for humans everywhere.

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