ALA Annual Conference 2013: Presentation Pain and Pleasure (Tips for Presenters)

Those of us immersed in training-teaching-learning are always on the prowl for ways to improve our presentation skills, so attending gatherings like the 2013 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference here in Chicago for the past several days has given us the equivalent of a presenter’s master class.

There were quite literally moments when we found ourselves exclaiming “I wish I had done that.” There were also those painful moments when we watched someone else falling into a presentation trap we wish we had avoided.

ALA_2013_Chicago_Logo_FINAL_CLR_0 (1)One of the most exquisite learning moments for me came as I was sitting with ALA Learning Round Table colleagues at one of their conference board meetings. The conversation centered around the question of whether the group should incur the cost of having a microphone for a presenter at a small event at an upcoming conference. I halfway—but only halfway—jokingly suggested that anyone who needed a microphone for that event in that small venue probably wasn’t the right presenter for the session.

ALA_Learning_Round-Table_LogoAnd that’s when a lovely colleague, with absolutely no rancor in her voice, said that although she knows many presenters believe they don’t need microphones to be heard, those presenters are inadvertently excluding members of their audience who are hearing-impaired—as she is. It was a humbling yet wonderfully instructive moment for any of us who let our egos get in the way of our goal of making it easy for every learner to participate in the learning opportunities we have agreed to provide—particularly those of us doltish enough to have never been aware of how effectively some of our longtime colleagues deal with challenges we never noticed they faced. Her comment was instructive—and inspirational. I immediately moved into full trainer-teacher-learner mode, documented that presentation tip, and tweeted it out to the conference backchannel as well as to colleagues across the country in the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) in the hope that a few more learners will benefit from our colleague’s suggestion.

Not so easy to share in the moment were the examples of poor preparation or presentation techniques that plagued colleagues at some of the sessions I attended—just as these same problems, somewhat surprisingly, plague some ASTD conference presenters even though we work in a profession where first-rate communication skills are essential. To have pointed those problems out via Twitter at the time they were happening would have tantamount to publicly humiliating the presenters—and I’m sorry to say that there actually were people on the conference backchannel who engaged in exactly that sort of cruel and unnecessary behavior. But I think it’s fair game, long after the presentations have ended and there is no obvious need to identify individuals under discussion, to offer yet another brief presenter’s tip sheet for anyone who wants to avoid the sort of presentation mistakes all of us have made—and wished we hadn’t.

We all learn the hard way that we need to plan, practice, revise, plan, practice, revise, and plan some more in the weeks and days leading up to our presentation. This will keep us from finding that parts of slides or entire slides have somehow disappeared from our PowerPoint slide decks when we’re in front of our audience.

It’s also very important to be in the space where we are presenting at least 30 minutes before we begin our presentation so we can be sure, by viewing the slides on the screen in that space, that any tech gremlins that have crept into our slides can be adjusted. That prevents us from finding that columns of text have shifted (which raises the question of why we’re even bombarding our learners with columns of text) and become an indecipherable jumble of words.

Being in the room before others arrive also allows for a final sound check of the microphone—and remember, we do want a microphone even if we think we won’t need one. Checking links to onsite resources we plan to use will prevent us from wasting five or ten minutes struggling to bring up a video or other online resource when we actually should be engaging with our audience during our formal presentation time. And being present as others arrive also offers the invaluable opportunity to begin connecting with the learners before the formal presentation begins and to be sure that their expectations for the session are what we are planning to deliver.

Avoiding references to how we have had to condense hour-long/day-long presentations into the much shorter period of time we have during the session we are currently delivering accomplishes nothing other than making us sound ungrateful and adding a bit of stress to learners who feel as if they are going to have to be extra attentive if they want to absorb this condensed version of what we wanted to offer. We knew, when we accepted the gift of being able to share information and resources with colleagues, how much time we had. It’s just plain polite to publicly thank those who brought us into that learning space and to effectively use the time we have rather than wasting any of it apologizing or grousing about the lack of time to do our subject—and our audience—justice.

Using slides that interact with and support our oral presentation rather than including the history of the world on a single slide keeps our presentations engaging rather than turning them into frustrating, overwhelming experiences during which audience members are forced to unsuccessfully try reading all that text while also trying to take in what we are saying. And we certainly don’t want to read content on the slides to our learners; we can safely assume they already know how to read, so if we want them to absorb content, we can join them in looking at the slide and giving ourselves enough time to read a line or two (e.g., an appropriate quote from someone who said it better than we ever will be able to say it), and we can use those slides to provide engaging images designed to help learners absorb key points.

Answering questions immediately rather than trying to postpone responses demonstrates that we care about our audience’s learning needs. There’s no reason why we can’t provide a one-line response—if we have one—and then return to our planned presentation after assuring learners that a longer explanation is on its way later in the presentation if that’s the case. We can also provide that one-line response and encourage interested audience members to join us after the session or contact us later via email to further explore the topic. Asking audience members to hold all questions until we are finished speaking implies that our content is more important than their questions are—not particularly the message we want to send to people who were nice enough to choose to spend their extremely limited and valuable time with us.

If we see our presentation/learning-facilitation opportunities as a collaboration with those who have agreed to spend time with us, we’re well on the way to providing the sort of transformative experiences that are at the heart of successful training-teaching-learning. And, not so surprisingly, we may even have the rewarding experiences of being asked to present again or to hear, years later, from those who learned from us, applied what we offered, and sought us out to thank us for offering them something of value.

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