Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Ten Commandments of Scribing

Last month I was conducting a facilitation training on the West Coast with one of my co-trainers, Ma'ikwe Ludwig. As commonly happens, when student facilitators work they often ask another person in the class to scribe (capturing the essence of what people are saying on flip chart paper, a whiteboard, or a chalkboard) to help participants track what was said—giving them a visual reminder, so they needn't rely solely on memory. 

(One significant advantage to the training is that students learn the craft as a cadre of peers who can help each other along the way. That means there are plenty of people willing and able to fill support roles in service to whomever is the lead facilitator. That includes conducting openings and closings, creating graphics or charts of background info, doorkeeping [taking latecomers aside to fill them in on what's happening, allowing them to get up to speed without slowing everyone else down], and note taking. The most common support request is having a fellow student scribe.)

Because there is often awkwardness about how to do this well, Ma'ikwe took the time to spell it out in an impromptu teaching moment. Inspired by her summary, I'm recapitulating it here, embellished with my own commentary.

In no particular order, here are Scribing's Ten Commandments (well, guidelines):

1. Nuggetizing
The heart of good scribing is being able to accurately capture the essence of what someone says—in less time than it takes them to say it—with a phrase or perhaps a couple of words. We call it "nuggetizing," to distinguish it from court transcripts, or verbatim minutes. (One of the reasons that we like students to use scribes is that it gives them useful practice at a bread-and-butter facilitative skill: separating signal from noise. Thus, when one student is behind the wheel and another is scribing, two are getting on-the-job training at once.)

2. Form Follows Function
It's worthwhile for the scribe to pause at the outset to reflect on how their product will intended to be used. The answer often suggests a way to organize what you collect. For example, the simplest way to record statements is on a running list that goes from top to bottom of the first page, then top to bottom of the second page, and so on. But if you know ahead of time that comments will likely fall into four major categories, the utility of the list may be significantly boosted if you prepare five sheets of paper: one each for the four anticipated categories, plus one catchall for anything arriving from left field. Now you've got a home for whatever comes along and the end product will automatically be sorted. Nice.

Hint #1: In the end, it's far likelier that what was said will be more useful than when it was said.

3. Clump Like Comments
If you leave enough space between entries, it is often possible to add later comments that are similar (though not identical) to previous ones already posted. Any aggregating of like sentiments on the fly will be greatly appreciated when your done and looking for themes (which I guarantee will happen, or should).

Hint #2: If someone offers the same comment to one already up, you can adopt a simple convention to denote that: use a check mark or a star (*) next to it to indicate that that thing has been said an additional time (** would indicate that it's been said thrice, etc).

4. Grammar Amnesty 
In the heat of the moment such niceties as spelling and grammar can suffer collateral damage. Even though Strunk & White may turn in their graves, don't get hung up on proper English. As long as meaning is preserved, take your best pass at it and move on. (Going the other way, if you're the facilitator and your scribe has written "god judgement"—instead of "good judgment"—I suggest you grin and bear it.)

5. Eschew Obfuscation
All the clever wording in the world will count for naught if your scribblings cannot be discerned from the far corners of the room. With that in mind, only choose from among dark markers: steer clear of yellow, orange, pink, lavender, and light green. And while we're at it, be wary of scented markers as well: in a poorly ventilated space there are people who can get rather huffy if they're forced to be huffing marker fumes. No need to push the edges of your audience's sensitivities.

Hint #3: It can assist tired eyes to track clearly if you employ alternate colors when recording adjacent thoughts, and you can earn extra credit with drawings (even cartoons) that capture the essence of the point—rebuses can work as well or better than words, and it can make for more aesthetically pleasing charts into the bargain.

6. Write Large 
Bowing to the same god as in the previous point, make sure that the size of your lettering is sufficient that aging eyes can easily read your offerings from across the room. Your prime directive here is legibility; not saving trees.

7. Handle Push Back with Grace
Speakers will not always agree with your word choices when summarizing what they said. If a speaker believes you've mischaracterized them, try to be at ease when fielding their request for modification. (And it's OK, by the way, to stop the action now and then to ask a speaker if your nugget captured their point well enough—so long as you don't do it too often.)

Hint #4: For some people paraphrasing does not work; if you do not use their exact words they will object to what you've written. For those folks you'll have to mirror what they said—even if you discern no difference between what they said and what you offered. Just go with it.

8. Match the Number of Scribes to the Need
For most conversations (whether open discussion or rounds) one scribe is generally sufficient to keep up with the traffic. That may not be true however, if you're conducting a brainstorm, which can often be energetic and fast-paced. Rather than slowing down the creative process (heaven forbid), it typically works better to assign a second scribe, where they each take turns capturing comments.

9. Don't Scribe Everything
Scribing is an option, not an imperative. You should have a clear sense of the benefit you'll derive from using a scribe, or don't use one. In general it's to help capture ideas, both to reduce a tendency to repeat and to not lose an idea because there were too many to remember. It can also help a group identify themes and next steps.

That said, scribing can be distracting (perhaps people are watching the scribe more than the speaker; perhaps the scribe is drawing attention away from the facilitator). It can also pull people away from the energy appropriate for the task at hand. Thus, it's typically beneficial to scribe brainstorms, yet too heady for heart circles—where the focus is more on enhancing or repairing relationships and less on problem solving.

All in all, be judicious about using scribes.

10. The Facilitator Is the Boss
Finally, at the end of the day, you are in service to the lead facilitator and you should bow to what they want from you as scribe. If you are at all confused or uncertain about how to carry out your role, be sure to huddle with them and clear that up ahead of the meeting. If you disagree with their thinking and are unable to persuade them to your viewpoint, don't sabotage their work; do your best to accommodate their wishes and talk with them about it further after the meeting.

That said, if you find yourself confused midstream, it's perfectly fine to stop the action for a minute and ask for clarification. While no one wants to witness a floor fight between the facilitator and the scribe (perhaps battling for control of the dry erase markers), neither does anyone want to witness an uncertain scribe twist in the wind. Use your common sense.

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