Blue Man Group – I

First, some background. I submit that there are currently two very big extremes in the world of software conferences: Death by Powerpoint and Open Spaces.

The Death By PowerPoint Conferences involve going to see eight speakers a day read a list of bullet points off of slides. Now and again you’ll see a metric. The outline of nearly every single presentation is usually something like this:

Opening Joke (Optional)
Intro – Thesis
– Point A (Support 1, 2)
– Point B (Support 1, 2)
– Point C (Support 1, 2)
A, B, C, therefore – Thesis

It turns out that this is a terrible way to convey information. First, it’s redundant – you end up making your point three times. Second, it’s lossy – PowerPoint bullets are inherently terse. Third, it’s a waste of your time. You would be better off reading a three-page paper that described the idea, or just reading the slides. At least reading the slides would only take ten minutes, instead of an entire hour.


The other extreme, Open Spaces, is an emergent ideal. You have a poster with rooms and times, people write down what they are interested in, and you show up and discuss. In Open Spaces, everyone takes on some responsibility to interact. This is better in that people are actually talking about things they are interested in, but it has a few challenges. The lecture model is familiar and easy for many people; Open Spaces make them uncomfortable. And while open spaces may work as a form of communal-learning, they ain’t great for instructor-based training.

What could we learn about presentations from Blue Man Group?

Just about everything.

First off, Blue Man Group is three guys dressed in black, with every inch of exposed skin covered in some weird blue coating. They don’t talk, but instead use gestures to convey meaning – successfully. Of the three, one is the leader, one is the curious one, and the third is the “big jerk.” Despite the fact that the look identical, ten minutes into the act you can tell them apart by expression and behavior.

Then there is audience involvement. Not interaction – involvement. While you wait for the show to start, a flashing LED sign tells you the VIPs who are present, and asks you to wish various people “Happy Birthday.” The staff hands out bits of headband-sized recycled paper, asking you to turn them into some kind of jewelry. (I wrapped mine around my arm; most people wrapped them around the head.)

During the show, the blue men turned all kinds of things (mostly PVC pipes) into percussion instruments, sprayed paint onto drums, splashed it everywhere and created art, had a backup band that played music, had various sets and skits that included video, and managed to make a point or two about the environment.

Whew. I haven’t even scratched the surface.

The Blue Men brought an audience member on-stage, did Improvisational Comedy with her, then brought a second volunteer up, had him put on a poncho, tied him upside down, threw paint on him, then threw him against a piece of canvas to make art.

And it was all in good fun.

Ok. So what we have here is a simple message (like protect the environment) covered in art, music, video, and comedy. There was a simple script that the blue men could deviate from in the name of humor. Most of the events were scripted, but they came off as improv – like when someone came in late and the blue men shined a theatre light on them. That probably happens in every second show, but it sure felt improvisational.

So what should software training be?

-> Not open spaces and not a lecture model. Something in the middle, that involves more senses than just the hearing. We need to give examples, provide exercises, and let the audience steer the work. More than being told how to gather requirements, our audience needs to experience and feel it for themselves. This feeling of having done it reinforces training in a way that no metrics ever could.

In my book, training should be fun, meaningful, and leave you with some idea of what to do on Monday. Blue Man Group is theatre, it is entertainment – but I think it gave a better combination of meaning and what to do than many software talks.

If a SW talk isn’t fun and meaningful, no one is going to remember anything else about it.

This doesn’t feel done, bit it’s late. What do you think?

One comment on “Blue Man Group – I

  1. When I teach, I incorporate experiential pieces into the workshop. I try to do so when I speak (for 45 minutes or an hour), and it’s much harder to do so.

    And, some participants (who would rather be attendees) don’t like it. They want to be lectured to. Oh well.

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