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von Andrea Geipel und Abhay Adhikari (Guest)

Thumbnail picture by Azam Masoumzadeh

Perhaps it’s lazy to start a reflections post with superlatives. But Season 1 of Meaning Making During a Pandemic hosted by Deutsches Museum really did exceed our expectations. It was the start of a fantastic collaboration between us - Abhay Adhikari and Andrea Geipel, considering we’d met in person just once, in January of this year. Much of the conception and planning for this programme happened virtually. Despite our apprehensions, Meaning Making was very well received. The programme was fully booked within the first eight hours of launch with a long waiting list. And most importantly, it was a rewarding experience to work with our participants - international cultural and media professionals - across the five episodes.

As we start preparation for Season 2, in this post, we’ve outlined some of the key guideline principles that we follow. We hope this is useful for anyone who is exploring - learning and developing, digital storytelling or organising virtual events.

Should we educate, inform or entertain?

As project leads, we were both suffering from Zoom fatigue as early as April when we started planning for Season 1 of Meaning Making. Having attended a couple of webinars ourselves, we found that sometimes, the threshold of participation was set too high. This included - the pace at which these sessions were conducted, the sheer volume of information on offer, and the demand for undivided attention coupled with very limited scope of participation - typically a Q&A session towards the end. 

“...the purpose of the Meaning Programme was to educate and inform, but also to entertain our participants.”

Strangely, though, there was another aspect of our ‘digital lives’ with similar characteristics, but it wasn’t problematic. We were both binge-watching Netflix and listening to loads of podcasts. Perhaps, we discussed, because they came with a promise of entertainment. And that quickly became our guiding principle - the purpose of the Meaning Making Programme was to educate and inform, but also to entertain our participants.

That’s why we refer to each session as an episode, not a masterclass nor a webinar. The programme is structured as a narrative with a clear throughline - as cultural and media professionals, how do we use storytelling to clarify our relevance to our community. And each episode has a well-defined story arc (the theme), which contributes to the overall narrative. 

There are some structural elements common to all episodes, but these elements give equal emphasis to information (short talks, provocations) and participation (live polls and group discussions). And there are moments of unexpectedness, like when we started the episode on engagement with a murder mystery. Or when we included an eight-minute mindfulness meditation as part of the well-being episode. 

As the programme leads, our role was to facilitate a conversation where we were fully expected to improvise. This helped us create an environment that was conducive to frank and occasional meandering conversations, but we had to figure how to bring this virtual discussion back to the thread of the episode. It’s no surprise then, after the first couple of episodes, before we got used to this way of working, we were completely wiped out for the rest of the day. But the pressure to make sense of what was happening in each episode was on us, not the participants. 

Theory or lived experience?

Whilst we are living through extraordinarily challenging times, we know that our participants in the cultural sector and public media have had to embrace that catch-all buzzword - disruption - for years. This includes disruption that comes in the form of new digital technologies, of changing audience behaviours, political and social upheaval and a rapidly changing demographic. But in spite of that, we find ways of creating value through the work we are doing. 

This brings us to the second guiding principle of the Meaning Making programme. It was designed to support our participants to reflect on their practice from different perspectives. Less theory and more lived experience. Furthermore, throughout the programme, we were discussing ideas at a scale that wouldn’t overwhelm and seemed achievable. Secondly, we encouraged our speakers not to present massive successes nor did we feel the need to fetishise failure. Instead, we spent a lot of time exploring the small steps that create a solid foundation for any project. 

“When a colleague from a different sector expresses a problem that you’re so familiar with in an entirely different way, that brings a lot of clarity and insight.”

Another aspect that worked well was having guest speakers from different backgrounds. When a colleague from a different sector expresses a problem that one is familiar with, in an entirely different way, that brings a lot of clarity and insight.

A lot of these steps were taken instinctively by us. There were a lot of ‘What If…’ and ‘Could we…’ questions. But thankfully, our evaluation guru - Natalie Nelissen - did an excellent job parsing the feedback from each episode that helped us validate as well as adapt our programme in real time. Overall, we know this approach worked because 83% of our participants felt they could apply the new concepts they were exploring in our programme into their day-to-day practice.

Production really matters

There were so many variables in the first season of Meaning Making - the themes, the episodic structure, the international profile of our participants, and our multi-sector guest speakers from India, USA, UK and Germany. As programme leads, it was our responsibility to ensure that the programme offered an interesting and genuinely useful experience to our participants who were investing a lot of time - 10 hours across the five episodes - in us. This is where we realised we needed a fantastic production team. 

Jenni Müeller, who has organised international conferences, took over the sundry communication with our participants, and in the process created new digital assets such as a rather fun comic on how to use Zoom. She also managed all text-based interactions during an episode. This meant that everyone - the participants and the speakers - had a clear point of contact for any technical and operational query. This is reflected in the consistently high score we received for participant experience across all five episodes. 

“Instead of a recording of the session...we felt this multi-platform approach would make Meaning Making more accessible. “

Instead of recording the session, we decided to share highlights from each episode using different media - a comic book and a 15 minute podcast - as we felt a multi-platform approach would make Meaning Making more accessible. 

The challenging job of producing a weekly 10-page comic was taken on by artist Azam Mazoumzadeh, who combined the highlights with her personal reflections. It was important to include her reflections as they added yet another perspective for people to explore the themes we were discussing. Ralph Würschinger, our audio engineer, coached us into the art of creating succinct 15-minute podcast recordings in which we revisited the central theme of the episode and answered participant questions. The metrics and participant feedback shows that these assets were consistently used throughout the programme.

Whilst we didn’t feel the pressure to perform during the episode, it was important that everyone in the team felt at ease. Therefore, we had a dress rehearsal before every episode during which we tested ‘the surprise’ of the week and made sure our guest speakers felt comfortable with the medium. We feel these rehearsals helped us improvise. As a result, there were no awkward pauses or stilted conversations. 

What’s happening in Season 2?

Thanks to the glowing feedback we’ve received from our participants we decided to run Season 2 of Meaning Making again at the Deutsches Museum. In this season, we’ve added a new episode - on sustainability. We also feature a more diverse cast of guest speakers from New Zealand, India, Nigeria, Germany, Spain, Italy, USA and UK. More importantly, in Season 1, many of our participants were eager to apply their learning in their own projects, so the new season will include mentoring. Once again, the programme has attracted international participation. We’ve also found a way to increase the number of participants and we continue to work with our brilliant production team.

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