Presentations on Presentations: Levels of Engagement

February 14, 2012

Given the strong belief that a fear of public speaking is the greatest fear most people have, it’s probably no surprise that we’re surrounded by presentations on presentations. Or that we can’t seem to be around our training-teaching-learning colleagues without finding ourselves engaged in conversations on the topic.

Looking at upcoming events for members of American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) chapters recently, even I was surprised to see how many, without formally coordinating their efforts, had scheduled keynote addresses on presentation skills and how to engage learners. (I’ll be attending one with ASTD Mount Diablo colleagues later this month, and just missed one at the ASTD South Florida Chapter earlier this month.)

Diving into a live online discussion with colleagues on Maurice Coleman’s latest T is for Training podcast late last week brought the topic to center stage again as we spent most of our time together talking about the challenges of writing training materials for other trainers. And during the discussion, a colleague mentioned a newly-posted and completely fascinating TED talk, by Nancy Duarte, on the structure of highly effective speeches (Steve Job’s introduction of the iPhone, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech).

All of this comes right at a time when I had the great good fortune to spend a couple of hours with Jerry Weissman, one of the most highly respected presentation coaches in the corporate world, and author of several books including Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story.

You have to be good if you’re going to sell more than 100,000 copies of a book about how to be a better presenter. Jerry Weissman is good. And he gets to the heart of great presentation skills by reminding us, throughout this wonderfully engaging book, of the importance of story if we want to hold the attention of audiences at a time when attention spans are as ephemeral as yesterday’s tweets.

Whether we’re new to the art of presentation or are experienced presenter-trainer-teachers benefitting from the useful reminders Weissman provides, he carries us through the presentation cycle with lots of guidance, including warnings of how we can go wrong: not offering clear points, not offering a clear benefit to our audiences (what’s in it for them, not us), not creating a clear flow of thought and information in our work, offering more details than an audience can absorb, or creating presentations that last too long.

He also offers the structure that telling a good story provides: taking listeners from where they are (Point A) to where they need to be (Point B) in ways that focus on them rather than on us. He provides a concise survey of structures we can incorporate into presentations to make them flow and reminds us of the importance of “verbalization”—rehearsing our work out loud “just as you will on the day of your actual presentation” (p. 164) numerous times so that the story that is at the heart of all we do will flow naturally from us to those who are depending on us to make that all-important journey from Point A to Point B. Furthermore, he models the very skills he is trying to develop by incorporating presentation stories throughout his book in an effort to help us understand the process viscerally as well as intellectually.

It’s often the lines that seem to be most casually tossed off that take us most deeply to the heart of presentation professionalism. Writing about his attendance at investment banking conferences, he tells us that he is there “because they let me observe many presentations in one place, in a short time.” And if someone of his experience and reputation is attending presentations to pick up tips, it makes us ask ourselves why we aren’t equally engaged in seeing what others are doing if we’re at all serious about continually honing our own skills.

There’s no mistaking the seriousness with which Weissman expects and encourages us to approach the art of presentation: “…every presentation is a mission-critical event” (p. 168). With that as our guiding light, we should all be on our way to successful and engaging experiences for those we serve.

We have plenty of great role models out there, including Cliff Atkinson and his Beyond Bullet Points, and Garr Reynolds and his PresentationZen. And we’re all aware of the syndrome known as “Death by PowerPoint”—those dreadfully painful moments when someone fills a slide with incredibly dense blocks of illegible type—and then insists on reading every word of the text as if that somehow is going to engage us in the topic rather than make us wish we were dead.

With so many resources available, we need to remind ourselves that help is on the way. In fact, it’s all around us. If only we’re willing to grab it and run with it.


Employee Learning Week: ASTD, Champions, and Results to Celebrate

December 5, 2011

What’s learning worth? Quite a bit, as we see when we look to our ASTD (American Society for Training & Development) South Florida Chapter colleagues’ Champions of Learning event scheduled as part of ASTD’s nationwide celebration of Employee Learning Week (currently underway, from December 5-9).

An ASTD State of the Industry report shows that U.S. organizations spent $125 billion on employee learning and development as recently as two years ago, and organizations to be honored by South Florida Chapter members at their event on December 8 show another side of the coin: learning initiatives save significant amounts of money as well as push companies well past their own earning projections.

Starting from the premise that this is a week to highlight the strong connections between learning and producing positive results within organizations, South Florida Chapter members invited businesses, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies to submit descriptions of their learning successes with an eye toward impact on the organization, people, business results, and/or community. They also encouraged submissions that took creativity and relevance of the programs into consideration.

Those of us who served on the committee to judge the entries this year found plenty of lessons worth sharing. The companies and organizations, for example, shared a commitment to creating communities of learning. They connect personal development of employees to better business results, and evaluate these workplace learning and performance efforts to see how they can be improved to better serve their learners. And they take a creatively dynamic approach that sometimes includes a sense of playfulness but never loses sight of documenting serious results.

The specific stories bring this to a very human and inspiring level. The Broward County Public Schools Human Resource Developing eight-member training team serves its 20,000 participants through a program that results in learners enacting new strategies on the job. The City of Tamarac sought collaborative partners to produce learning opportunities it could not have produced by itself. The Institute of Organization Development makes a real difference, through its certification program for organization development professionals, by producing a program that helps more than 70 percent of its graduates achieve significant career boosts. Jarden Consumer Solutions and Titan America used corporate mergers as the starting point for innovative workplace learning and performance endeavors that have produced positive business results at a multinational level. Two Office Depot projects stand out as great examples of how learning is connected to business results—one that gives employees improved e-learning offerings and one that fosters growth among “high potential directors.” Santovenia Adult Day Care, Inc. takes a wonderfully playful approach—laughter yoga—to reducing stress among employees in a very stressful and challenging work environment.

In a set of endeavors that is consistently appealing and wide-ranging in approach, it’s hard to single out any one project as being better than others. The trainer-teacher-learner in me, however, was particularly enamored of the Home Depot project to upgrade its e-learning offerings by engaging learners through shorter, more dynamic sessions. To achieve their goal, the trainers themselves had to play the role of leaners: they couldn’t proceed with the project until they had explored and learned about a variety of tools they could incorporate into producing the lessons; they also had to learn how to better connect with their learners so they could “give them the tools, information and skills they needed to be successful on the job.” The task was completed with the best of instructional design models clearly in mind: defining a need, doing research to determine what technology would be most appropriate and affordable, designing interactive learning opportunities, using a variety of tools (video, music, audio, and clickable tabs) to produce something fun, interesting, and engaging, and evaluating the results. The payoff is a workplace learning and performance effort that saves time for employees through those shorter, more focused learning opportunities; produced payroll expense savings of $100,000; and provided “a dramatic reduction” in time spent on trouble-shooting issues.

It’s equally worth noting that the result of Jarden Consumer Solutions’ project, after 10 years of efforts, is “our organization has achieved outstanding results by exceeding forecasts” year after year; the City of Tamarac’s “Supervision in Government, in operation for more than eight years and involving collaboration among a variety of agencies in South Florida, is breathtakingly spectacular for its vision and its longevity; and Santovenia Adult Day Care’s laughter yoga leaves learners feeling more confident and positive at work, and leaves customers reporting greater levels of satisfaction than were previously documented.

Which should, of course make all of us smile as we celebrate learning successes this week with the champions who produce them around the world.


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