Saturday, September 17, 2011

Launch day, savvy teens, and snap judgements

By Sam Intrator, Project Coach

Yesterday we launched our opening session of the Project Coach Academy. First sessions are pivotal. They remind me of a line from a novelist talking about how long he worked at revising the first line of his latest work. He said something like, “first lines are portals to this world that I’ve created.” Well first sessions are portals to our program’s world. First sessions launch our world and here is a short list of what we aspired to do!
  1. Introduce new coaches to the Project Coach Way
  2. Build the spirit or the culture that will enable us to work together
  3. Introduce the core and essential skills that anchor our program
  4. Communicate the standards and boundaries that will guide our work
  5. Model the nature of how we will interact together
  6. Begin to connect and bring to life those relationships between staff and youth that function as the white blood cells of an organization like ours.
I’m a big believer in that teenagers are savvy consumers with highly evolved and developed sensibilities. They grow up in a culture where people are ‘selling to them all the time’ so they are accustomed to making decisions about what has value and what is valueless. I also think that they have highly nuanced decision making prowess, they tend to look at a product, a class, a person, a situation -- appraise its attributes and then churn out a crude decision:
“Dude, that suck!”
“That was so boring.”
“That was awesome.”
No nuance, subtlety, or gradations. I tend to believe young people operate with a binary system of evaluation: fail or pass. We’re not like the Apple app store where you get to rate on a scale of 1-5. So, as we launch Project Coach-- we have the chance to sell ourselves, showoff our gadgetry, communicate our utility, evoke a sense of promise in an effort to be designated of worth by the young people we intend to serve.

Let me raise the stakes even more: Not only do these initial valuations matter, but they may happen in a blink. When David Brooks reviews the research on first impressions, the findings from the realm of neuroscience ratchet up the pressure. He tells that our judgments spill our fully formed in milliseconds: “Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov of Princeton have found that people can make snap judgments about a person’s trustworthiness, competence, aggressiveness and likability within the first tenth of a second. These sorts of first glimpses are astonishingly accurate in predicting how people will feel about each other months later. People rarely revise their first impression, they just become more confident that they are right. In other research, Todorov gave his subjects microsecond glimpses of the faces of competing politicians. His research subjects could predict, with 70 percent accuracy, who would win the election between the two candidates.”

Willis and Todorov found that we respond intutitively to faces in ways so fast and rapid that our rational, reasoned, critical thinking mind has little contribution to our decision. Todorov says, "We decide very quickly whether a person possesses many of the traits we feel are important, such as likeability and competence, even though we have not exchanged a single word with them.  It appears that we are hard-wired to draw these inferences in a fast, unreflective way."  There is that saying, "who and what is the face of your program?" I guess this suggests that 'our face' matters to whether people will like us, trust, believe in us.

So we have microseconds to prove our worth. “No pressure there!” Even if we have a longer span of time, the research suggests that the first impression is substantially durable and important. So the pressure is on-- those first impressions matter and for what it’s worth, my advice is to intensively prepare so you feel like you can control the message that young people get about your program, but then I have a hunch it comes down to something like this.

One of our veteran teen coaches walks into the room alongside one of the new recruits. As he walks in he catches a glimpse of our program director and he lights up and they greet each other with a warm hand clasp. “How is it going,” asks the program director with a warm and effusive smile. “Going great,” says the veteran. “I’ve been to school everyday this week.”  I watched the newbie taking this all in and I could literally imagine his brain doing the high-level algorithms that go into a snap judgment. “Is this a place I want to be?  Are these people that I can be around? Will I belong?” My sense is that you can design a first day with appropriate ice breakers, snappy handouts, clear expectations, but the spirit and soul of a program is discerned through the currents of connection and relationship that can’t be as easily and intentionally choreographed.

What do you do to make your program launch successfully? How do you think about the crucial and pivotal decision about the 'face' of your program?

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