The social art of conversation

I can stand up in crowded spaces and talk about typography, present design solutions to theatres of students and coach authors through publishing via webinars.All of that paled into insignificance when, five years ago I stood in up in front of the Faculty of Arts at Anglia Ruskin University and spoke for the first time about why honest conversations about involuntary childlessness, infertility and IVF matter.

I wish I had photos, not because I want a record of my utter terror, but because of the expressions on the faces of the audience. I don’t think this mixed demographic of global students and lecturers, about four hundred of them, had realised that there was a conversation to be had. If you’ve never been through it, why would you? But given those statistics that we all know so well, I figured that maybe, just maybe, there was someone out there who knew and someone who got it.

Perhaps I’m too optimistic as I come to terms with my life without children? I have said before in World Childless Week content that if I had never been through my journey, I would never have known what to say. Yet we can be guilty of assuming that others will know. Some people will always lack sensitivity and simply don’t want to understand, but there are gems out there who will make an effort. The friend that is a parent who likes your post, who sees you at a party and tells you they read your blog post but didn’t know what to say online does exist. I like to think it’s leading by example.

Thus in a huge leap of faith, I was volunteering to speak to my peers at the university. At the end, there was studious silence which is terrifying when you’ve given your soul to something so important. Did anyone listen? Is that person asleep? To be fair to the audience, the fine art student before me had presented an entertaining piece on researching beer label illustrations which seemed to involve a lot of time in pubs.

Nevertheless, in the minutes, hours and weeks that followed, students came forward to ask more about my project and volunteered for the research workshops that I set up to test my theories. Some were yet to have children, others were parents and many childless or childfree. From this conversation (because good talks result in conversation) came Walk In Our Shoes (aided by further peer review from Gateway Women and The Dovecote). I’ve since mentored design students in workshops to help them learn that conversation and feedback really matter in creating an appealing and viable outcome.

The studious silence is a common response with audiences, on social media, in person, or at events where fertility isn’t the overarching theme and the audience might be business owners who could be parents (what I called a ‘mixed audience’). Worries over lack of engagement is a theme that is discussed often in the support groups I’ve been part of and by friends who are also involuntary childless. You may have heard of the phrase ‘your discomfort is not my problem’. Yet if we are worried about this, perhaps it is? What can we do about it?

With mixed audiences, it can be effective to appeal to the very thing we fear and hate. The fix. People generally like to help so one way to tackle your content in person or online is to appeal to that instinct.

I have found that presenting in a Pecha Kucha format (a presentation comprising twenty slides shown for 20 seconds each) particularly effective. One of the best Pecha Kuchas was given by Lindsay from the Empty Space Grief Project who spoke about grief and childlessness in the form of a ‘shit sandwich’. It was very daring and very impactful.

Getting get answers, advice and solutions is the key ethos behind founding (and hosting) the Twitter Chat, @childlesshour (Sundays 8pm GMT). This is another way to share the message. The hashtag is easily searchable and the content will start to be curated soon (a rather mammoth task as it’s a very lively affair). We talk about specific themes and in it’s own way, this too is an extension of the Walk In Our Shoes concept of real-life stories about involuntary childlessness, but in 240 character snippets.

Sometimes it goes wrong. In counselling (as the person receiving counselling and in a recent study module), the approach of ‘on our own terms’ is a useful one to keep in mind. The talk that failed was one on the theme of adversity last June. My belief is that design saved my sanity. As a design project, thus Walk In Our Shoes was fundamental to this, but did it feel like I was overcoming adversity?  No, I don’t think so and perhaps that showed in the way I tackled the talk. I also don’t think that banging on about my journey is that interesting. People attend talks to get answers, advice and solutions not hear a life story of someone they’ve just met. But they might be curious about how working practices or being creative, can help with mental health. Sometimes reshaping the talk or the content of your blog is the key.

Never be afraid to share your story, but always lead by example and try to be social about the way you do it and ask for feedback, within your peers. I’m a great supporter of other initiatives in infertility and childlessness. As a collective we can be immensely powerful and hugely supportive of what we do.

Originally published in the March and April issue of The CNBC magazine, to subscribe to this contact Nicci and Andrew Fletcher