I was asked to speak on sustainability at a Corporate of great repute. I was working on my presentation using PowerPoint just few hours before the talk.
I normally keep a good stock of sustainability related slides and depending on the audience, pick and tweak as necessary. This approach is monotonous many times and kills creativity (as you live here on the dead!) but when you get into this rut of speaking and work on the presentation in the last hour– then you just give up and compromise. I was editing my PowerPoint slides with these mixed feelings and just then my good friend Professor walked in.
“When will you stop this practice of doing PowerPoint Prasad” he said “Teaching an exciting subject like sustainability with PowerPoint is the most boring thing to do”.
I knew that my friend always spoke his mind, was a rebellion in this own right (especially when it came to teaching), but this time, I fought, struggled and argued to tell him that this was a presentation to a corporate audience, serious guys, who expect those glossy presentations, quotes from Big Shots and Business leaders, and some startling statistics /graphs are needed to show how sustainability makes a business case. My fiend pooh poohed my arguments and asked if I could give him the floor this time to teach sustainability in his own way. He said he would not be using the PowerPoints.
I felt a bit uncomfortable. There was some risk of the “unknown”. But my curiosity would not let me put his proposition aside. So as a compromise, I offered him to front end his talk and said that after his Non-PowerPoint approach, I will do my usual PowerPoint slide presentation- as what was promised to the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) of the Corporate.
“No messing around my friend” I said this couple of times. And my friend smiled and said “No worries – leave to me”
“I need to prepare a bit” he said. He disappeared for 15 minutes and came with a ream of photocopying paper and a pack of 20 assorted pens of various colours. I became even more curious and also a bit nervous.
We reached the venue and some 40 participants were already there sitting in a large room. The CSO came to me, greeted us and asked for my pen drive for the PowerPoint projection. “Everything is set Sir – let us test however whether your slides work”. I passed on my pen drive, introduced my Professor friend and said that there was a slight change in the program. My friend will be doing a kind of introduction to sustainability first and then I will be following with my formal PowerPoint presentation. The CSO was kind enough to agree and I was indeed relived. The CSO announced this “little” change and gave a brief intro to both of us. He simply introduced the Professor as my good old friend as he didn’t know him. Any case he wasn’t critical.
The Professor then took the charge of the opening session.
The participants were sitting in the room in 3 rows with each row having 12 people. The Professor asked all participants in the second and third rows to leave the hall. He also asked the CSO to leave. This was rather odd and unexpected. But all followed his instruction and came out to the lobby.
The Professor then distributed to the 12 participants sitting in the front row, blank photocopying papers. Each participant was given a colour pen. He then simply left the room and asked me to follow him. While closing the door he said to the participants “See you after 5 minutes!”.
There were no instructions on what to do for 5 minutes. The participants were really startled. All they had with them was a paper and pen. So most decided to do something on their own. Some drew pictures, some wrote their names and some even practiced their signatures. Then they chatted a bit generally showing their surprise on what was going on and speculated what will happen next!
After precisely 5 minutes, my Professor friend opened the door. He said “ Thank you”
“Please leave the papers and pen on your seat and exit the lecture hall”. All the 12 participants left the room and came to the lobby where coffee was waiting for them with cookies.
The second batch of 12 that was sitting in the second row was now let in. My friend did the same stunt as before. As he was closing the door, one of the participants asked him “Sir, what are we supposed to do?” and he made an innocent face – equally confused and said “Honestly, I don’t know! – do what you feel like”
The participants in the second batch also did ‘something’ with the left over papers and the pens. Some added more to what was earlier drawn. If someone in first batch had drawn a hollow circle, participant in the second batch filled it with a solid colour to make it look better!
After another 5 minutes, the third “batch” got in and my friend repeated the “performance”. This time, as he was closing the door, one participant looked at the scribbled papers lying on the desks, and said “ There is no space now to write on the papers anymore –please give us new blank papers so that we can write”. And more participants expressed the same request. My friend did not say a word. Just closed the door and let the third batch do what they could.
Participants in the third batch were not happy with the used or abused paper. They still attempted to do some writing. There was a dustbin in the room with a sign “use me”. “This paper is now useless“ one participant said as he was throwing the paper in the dustbin. Some thought of doing something more interesting. One participant knew origami so he made interesting products like a giraffe, a house and an aeroplane. Few copied.
Once the five minutes were over, the Professor asked all the participants come in the lecture hall and take their seats. Once all settled down, he spoke.
“Thank you friends for your participation. I gave you a paper and pen with no instructions. You decided to use the paper and pen to write. Was there any need to write? You could have just let the paper and pen be there and spent 5 minutes to chat with each other or even meditate! One of you perhaps started writing and others followed. You wrote on the paper to express your thoughts or put you identity”
“Paper is like the mother earth – it’s a finite resource you have. Pen is the technology, economic activity – the business. Most of you used or spoiled the resource you had for your own interests – interests that were not even clear to you individually or to the group as a whole”
“Each batch that followed – continued what was done by the earlier batch-mechanically and more intensively. The paper got now less “white space” left . The resources got depleted and degraded –more and more. Each batch represented a generation….”
“As generations marched on, you started asking for another paper .. Another earth! Is this possible? – You just had one paper – you just have one earth to live on”
“ We must think of sustainability when we use our resources – our consumptive thinking must be tamed, our wasteful use of resources must cease”
“And some of you threw the “wasted paper” in the dustbin. Some created interesting products out of the wasted paper using their origami skills – you thus turned around wasted resource into useful products. That’s the innovation you need towards reusing the resources – we need more of such innovations if we want to be sustainable”
With these words, my Professor friend paused. I saw on his face a complex set of expressions – a serious note, a gentle smile and an “accidental revelation”.
He ended his session with these words.
And there was a silence.
I could see that the participants understood the message –and deeply. They had perhaps actually experienced or discovered sustainability.
The participants then spoke, expressed what they learnt and my Professor friend responded with case studies that were insightful and inspiring.
I realized that there was no need for me to give a PowerPoint presentation anymore. “Let us stop here” I said. I asked the CSO to return my pen drive and thanked the Corporate for inviting me.
The next day I received a call from another Corporate to speak on Sustainability. The CSO said ‘ Sir,, we will make all the projection arrangements – just bring your pen drive of PowerPoint slides”.
I said, no slides please- All I need is a ream of photocopying papers and two dozen colour pens!!. The CSO was startled. And I was never invited!!
Follow me if you like my blog