If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to find a good version of Plato’s allegory of the cave and read it. But this isn’t about the allegory itself — it’s about my attempt to use it to make a point, and how I failed. And then what I learned from that failure.

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To me, the allegory represents how painful real learning usually is. And perhaps it even means that learning truly only happens if it makes you uncomfortable. So I thought it would be great to use as the opening to a presentation I was making about the importance of a culture of learning in any organization. I shared with the audience, to my own delight and apparently to their boredom, the story of Plato’s protagonist who learns in degree what the actual nature of his world is. But my audience, I later learned, had never read Plato (some, who were from China, had not ever heard of Plato). And so the story fell flat. I failed to engage them from the beginning, which made the whole presentation that much harder to sell.

What I learned from this failure:

  1. I can’t assume that everyone is familiar with the classics, or even has an interest in them.
  2. I ignored the body language — honestly, it was clear from almost the start that I’d lost most of those attending the presentation.
  3. Perhaps Plato’s allegory isn’t as universal as I thought it was. I’m not sure that many, or any, of the Chinese attendees ever understood the point of the allegory.

What I plan to do next time … or at least what I might do …

  1. More images. I may try and upgrade my presentation deck to help the listeners visualize the allegory better.
  2. To my great disappointment, because I love Plato and this allegory in particular so much, I might try and find a shorter, more contemporary story.
  3. I might even eliminate a story from that portion of my presentation and just get straight to the point, perhaps backing it up with some reliable research.
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