29 Topics in 90 Minutes

At Web Content 2008, I gave a talk and also ran a two-hour workshop. I thought I’d share a technique I used for the workshop, which was entitled “29 Web 2.0 Tools: What They Are, How They Work” I didn’t much feel like building a two-hour slide show, and anticipated dodgy web access. Instead, I wanted to encourage plenty of interactivity and audience participation. My hope is that, if people come to the session with questions, they’ll get them answered.

For this session, I developed a very low-tech educational aid. I wrote the names of the 29 tools on 5″ x 8″ index cards, and hung them, in random order, from a long string that stretched across the room. Here’s a blurry photo of what it looked like. I was fortunate to have a 50′ clothes line in a room that was 35′ wide.

I asked the audience to yell out the name of a particular tool. I’d pull that one off the string, toss it on the floor, and then talk about it for a couple of minutes. Sometimes I’d ask the audience member who choose the topic whether they had specific questions, or I’d ask the room if anyone had a related story to tell. Once that topic was exhausted (that took anywhere from 15 seconds to 10 minutes), I asked for another topic suggestion from the line.

29 Plays in 59 Minutes

I lifted this idea wholesale from a Theatre Skam show I saw more than a decade ago called “29 Plays in 59 Minutes”. The play begins with cards numbered 1 to 29 hung on a string across the stage. Each card has the name of a very short play or sketch on the back. The audience yells out a random number, and actors perform that sketch. Another number, another play. They try to get through all 29 in 59 minutes.

Back in 1996, I wrote a review of the show for the Victoria News (wow, that website suffers under my ad-blocking plugin). Unbelievably, I see that I faxed my reviews in. Here’s a bit of what I said:

“29 plays in 59 minutes” covers a lot of ground. More ideas were present in this tiny, awkward space in one night than have been at the McPherson Playhouse all year. While it is not for the feint of heart, this is theatre as it should be: current, confrontational and provocative.

In looking for that review, I found something else I wrote–a little essay called “Random Theatre”. My favourite part of this kind of construction is the unlikely juxtaposition:

By themselves, most would be at least mildly engaging. It is their juxtaposition that makes them fascinating. How do we receive a skit about trying to get laid after seeing an affecting piece about the killing of fourteen women in Montreal? Are we touched or repulsed? Isn’t this just like changing channels?

It’s also a little like blogging.

Theatre Skam lifted the idea from the Neo-Futurists, who started it as “30 Plays in 60 Minutes”.

Next Time, Clothespins

It seemed to go over well. It’s a gimmick, though I’d prefer to call it a prop, or a bit of staging. I think it kept people on their toes, and it became obvious which topics people really cared about. It also gives the audience a preview of what I plan to talk about, and enables me to frame the topic without being limited to a prepared script.

When I do this workshop again, I’d make these changes:

  • For each topic, I’d asked the audience member who chose it why they did, or whether they had something specific they wanted to learn about. I’d probably talk a bit first, then check back with them, so as to not make it a prerequisite of yelling out a topic.
  • We got through all 29 topics in 90 minutes. For an hour session, I might prepare by making a quick note on the back of each card, reminding myself about a case study or explanation I could quickly rattle off.
  • It would have been handy to have web access. I didn’t need it often, but explaining RSS is way easier with a live browser. I would have liked to play the Commoncraft explanation for Twitter (yes, I bought a license from their store).
  • I’d buy clothespins to keep the cards on the line. I used tape, and it was unreliable. This made for a little entertainment during the talk (“MySpace fell again”), but it would make things simpler. Plus, the cards would be easier to re-use.

All in all, I enjoyed the random, slightly messy sense that accompanies this gimmick. I hope the audience did, too.


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