The Two Ingredients Required for Successful Engagement

At some point, every facilitator eventually runs out of activities they can do with a group. It’s natural and bound to happen. This exact thing happened to a friend of mine, Kevin Prentiss, who was running a 10-day long summer program for a group of students at Stanford University. After 10-days of facilitating activities and content, his bag of tricks was empty. He found himself on the tenth day with an extra hour of time that he needed to fill for the 150 students in a large grassy courtyard on campus. In a flash of genius, he circled up four students nearby and asked them if they’d be interested in playing a game. They eagerly nodded in agreement. What they didn’t know was that Kevin’s plan was more of a social experiment than a game. 

In their huddle, Kevin explained that the name of the game was “Scream and Run!” The students laughed as he explained further, “Your challenge is to run as fast as you can towards the rest of the group while screaming . Then run back doing the same.” The group laughed again. “Oh, but one thing, we won’t tell anyone what we are doing unless they come over here and ask us. Ok?” 

The group nodded and lined up to start the experiment. Kevin yelled “Go!” and off they went. The four students turned towards 146 of their unsuspecting peers, started running, and with their mouths wide open, yelled the whole time. By the time they got back to the corner of the grassy field with Kevin, they all were hysterically laughing and high-fiving each other.

The experiment proved successful, because a group of five other students came over to the corner and asked, “What’s going on? What’s going on?” 

Kevin explained the game to them and they pledged their support for round two. The group lined up, Kevin yelled “Go!” again. The group of nine charged forward on the grassy field with mouths wide open. 

After they came back and gave each other high-fives, another group of 10 students came over to the corner and asked, “What’s going on? What’s going on?” 

Scream and Run!

Again, Kevin explained and they joined. This went on for six rounds before every single student was waiting in the corner for Kevin to yell “Go!” so they could scream and run. All Kevin was thinking at that moment was how stupid the game was, but how successful his experiment had been. 

Kevin probably could’ve come up with any game and it would’ve been a success with that group. This is because Kevin knew he had the two critical ingredients needed to make any activity successful. Those ingredients are: numbers and relationships.

1. Numbers

There is energy in a critical mass. If you have enough people all moving in the same direction, it’s going to be a success. The challenge with numbers, however, is that you can’t always guarantee you’ll have them. If only we could always know ahead of time that all of our engagement activities would be at max capacity. This issue is why the second ingredient is important.

2. Relationships

You know that thing you do when you and your good friends get together that is totally ridiculous? Maybe it’s wrapping each other’s birthday presents in the most complex packaging possible so the other person has to spend hours trying to open it. Or maybe it’s sending each other pictures of faces that you see in the food you eat. To an outsider, these things are ridiculous and totally a waste of time. But to you and your good friends, they are almost obsessively engaging. Why such a difference? Well, the answer is the strength of the relationship. The stronger the relationship, the more likely you can influence someone to do something regardless of how odd the idea might be to an outsider. In short, rapport equals influence. 

In Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler’s book, Connected – The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks*, the topic of social connections and influence comes up often based on their research. They call the spread of influence within a social group the Three Degrees of Influence Rule. The idea being that our influence on others is strongest with those closest to us. Our influence will continue on two more degrees, but dissipates each level and drops off by the fourth degree of connections. Just as much as we can influence the people closest to us, they can influence us as well. 

“Everything we do or say tends to ripple through our network, having an impact on our friends (one degree), our friends’ friends (two degrees), and even our friends’ friends’ friends (three degrees). Our influence gradually dissipates and ceases to have a noticeable effect on people beyond the social frontier that lies at three degrees of separation.” – Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler

In Summary…

In Kevin’s scream and run experiment, he not only had numbers, but he also had deep relationships with all the students. He knew that no matter what he did, it was going to work and the group would have fun. Having both numbers and relationships is the ultimate best situation. 

Next time you are hosting an activity, check in to see if you have numbers and/or relationships. If the time comes and you are lacking numbers, you better work the room to build as many relationships as possible.

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