Independence Day 2.0: More Democracy Every Day!

Co-authored by David Campt

We celebrate our freedom to voice our opinions this July 4, more than 200 years after Americans told the English we were tired of not being heard.

Pursuing democratic freedoms to voice our opinions is a form of patriotism. Americans today are commonly in situations in which their perspective does not count. In meetings at work, in our community organizations, and places of worship, our leaders do not create settings where we listen from all points of view. Most people can easily think of a situation during the last month in which someone in authority in one of these settings created a gathering but seemed incapable of or disinterested in hearing the perspective of the majority.

Leaders often create settings where there is a lot of talking to the group, and very little hearing from the group. Usually, we as participants leave such gatherings feeling that such meetings were a waste of time, and go back to our desk and send each other pictures of ribbons that say, "Congratulations on surviving a meeting that could have been an email."

We need a different model. Americans need to declare our independence from bad and boring meetings. We can do better.

Fortunately, we don't need to create something as beautifully radical as the Declaration of Independence. We just need to call on a tool that is widely available but is now used for different purposes. The tool is speed audience polling, and it allows a person running a meting to ask the group a question, have everyone enter their answer (usually multiple choice but sometimes open ended) anonymously, and then have the group instantly see a picture representing the range of responses.

Most people have seen this tool used for entertainment purposes. You may have seen it as the audience lifeline on "Who wants to be a millionaire?" You may have seen it when the networks engage a studio audience to give their moment to moment responses to the presidential debates. If you are someone who spots trends in how events are managed, you might notice that polling is starting to creep into other entertainment settings, such as talk shows, football games, or even church services.

We call polling technology SPEIK (rhymes with speak), for Speed Polling to Enhance Input and Knowledge. The growth of this technology is way too slow, given how empowering and transformative it is. We have no objection to using SPEIK to improve entertainment events, but as longtime civic engagement specialists we just don't understand why speed polling technology is not used more often by people who lead meetings to make meetings better. Corporations constantly ask Americans our opinion. You can't buy a burger, finish a cable service call, or order something on line without someone asking if we will fill out a survey. Corporations know that they can make better decisions about their offerings' if they get input from their customers. They also ask because they know that if we feel like our voice matters, we will be a little more loyal to them and more likely come back to them instead of the competitors.

According to some studies, most people with white collar jobs attend about 62 meetings per month in meetings. Given how important meetings are, we need to start exploiting the same advantages of increasing engagement and accessing group wisdom in our meetings at work and in communities.

People twiddling their thumbs in interminably bad meetings can demand better. When we go to planning department's meeting about the neighborhood plan, people need to ask why they are not using SPEIK technology to hear from everyone. When we go to a company training and the workshop leaders don't see they have lost the group, we need to ask why they are not using an affordable and easy technology to check whether the group is getting the message.

When this country decides to start having community meetings about police community relations and race, we can use SPEIK technology to understand the experiences and viewpoints of people of different ages, races, and neighborhoods so that we can work on common solutions.

If our workplace and community leaders are going to make us endure these things called meetings which are very expensive (given the value of everyone's time) we need to start ensure we hear from everybody -- even if only to confirm that we have understood the bosses. SPEIK lets us all weigh in.

On this July 4th, let's declare our independence from bad meetings. It's time to demand that we all be heard when we gather, not just on election day, but everyday.

David Campt and Lisa Schirch are co-authors of the Little Book of Dialogue for Difficult Subjects (2007). Campt's latest book, Read the Room for Real: How a Simple Technology Creates Better Meetings, with Matthew Freeman, is purposely launching on Independence Day weekend. For more information, go to www.readtheroomforreal.com