ASTD International Conference 2012: Cliff Atkinson, the Backchannel, and Many Happy Returns

May 18, 2012

I already had quite a few friends and colleagues in the world of training-teaching-learning a couple of weeks ago. Now the social fabric that sustains me has grown quite substantially. Let’s credit the backchannel for this change. Then think about what that backchannel could mean to you and all you serve.

Seeing dynamically interactive online extensions of the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) 2012 International Conference & Exposition Twitter backchannel in the week since the conference ended provides all of us with yet another example of how blended the world has become for trainer-teacher-learners. How quickly we are informally and quite naturally developing the sort of blended onsite-online social learning center/fourth places colleagues and I have been exploring. And how the interactions we have at conferences no longer start and end with physical onsite arrivals and departure.

As is the case with any form of effective training-teaching-learning, those conference interactions flourish through planning before the learning event/conference begins (someone has to create the Twitter hashtag that draws us all together); active participation during the event (the more you give, the more you receive); and sustainable long-term attention that continues far beyond the days a learning opportunity/conference brings us all together (following and contributing to the backchannel after the conference ends keeps this virtual social learning center alive and vibrant).

And discovering Cliff Atkinson’s The Backchannel: How Audiences Are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever as I was beginning to resurface a bit from the ASTD conference backchannel (#ASTD2012) a few days ago tells me that the best is yet to come in terms of where backchannels deliver on the promises they are offering.

An effective backchannel, as I wrote in an earlier article, works at many levels. It connects those who might otherwise be separated by the smallest as well as the largest of physical distances. It fosters a form of  mobile learning (m-learning) in that what we’re learning is disseminated to an even larger group of learners. It is increasingly providing a delightfully accessible tool that can as easily facilitate and augment the learning process in academic settings as it can in workplace learning and performance (staff training) endeavors.

On the other hand, it carries the potential to completely disrupt a presenter-teacher-trainer’s presentation. This is where Atkinson’s book on the backchannel comes into play invaluably. A guide every bit as appealing and potentially influential in the world of backchannel learning as his Beyond Bullet Points remains for onsite-online presentations, The Backchannel entices us into the subject immediately through a chapter carrying the title “Why Are You Calling Me a #@*% on Twitter?” and helps us see how a tweeter with a large following (nearly 15,000 people as I’m writing this) and a well-known presenter clashed quite publicly when the presenter saw the tweeter’s note with her derogatory remark about him. (For the record, she called him “a total dick,” and he decided to confront her face-to-face, while the presentation was still underway, by asking “What…what is my dickiness?”)

If you already sense that Atkinson’s mastery of storytelling and training is a wonderful talent to see in action, you’re well on the way to understanding that his book has something for each of us regardless of whether we’re new to the backchannel or already fairly comfortable in that rapidly-flowing stream of words and thoughts and resources. He shows us how to join a backchannel. Entertainingly reviews the rewards and risks of backchannel engagement with copious amounts of screenshots to lead us down that path. Offers presentation tips to make us more effective in our use of Twitter and its backchannels. And leads us through the process of effectively dealing with those dreaded-yet-inevitable moments when a backchannel becomes dangerous.

By the time we finish racing through this book and absorbing what we can—I suspect I’ll be rereading this one at least a few times— we’re far more comfortable with and appreciative of all that backchannels offer, and much more aware of how to be effective and civil members of the Twitterverse and its various interconnected streams. We’re richer for having explored and reflected upon the online resources supporting the book, e.g., his “Negotiating a Backchannel Agreement.” And we’re appreciative for what our own levels of involvement in backchannels returns to us.

Through the #ASTD2012 backchannel and subsequent online interactions including the #lrnchat session on May 17, 2012 , I came away from a conference with 9,000 attendees much richer at a deeply personal and professional level than I was two weeks ago. Through their confrontation and subsequent discussion, the tweeter and the presenter in Atkinson’s book walked away with their differences resolved. And you—yes, you—may end up finding your own rewards and satisfactions there the moment you are prepared to take the plunge into the backchannel/The Backchannel.


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.


Speed PowerPointing: Honing Our PowerPoint Presentation Skills

December 6, 2010

Trainers and other presenters have a knack for creating interesting challenges to improve their skills and effectiveness—to the benefit of all they serve. We’ve seen Pecha Kucha, Lightning Talks, and Ignite, those great formats for designing and delivering brief and creative presentations with a limited amount of time and a small number of PowerPoint slides. (One that remains particularly entertaining is colleague Peter Bromberg’s “What Do a Leaky Roof, a Greasy Spoon, a Bear Sighting , and a Man With a Tortoise in His Pants All Have in Common?”, and if the title doesn’t send you racing off to see it—again—maybe we should break this off right now.)

We’ve also seen the spread of Battledecks, a tongue-in-cheek macho challenge during which presenters compete against each other in front of an audience to see who can most creatively and effectively—with little advance preparation other than being given the topic to be addressed—string together the most compelling and cohesive presentation possible from sets of unrelated and oftentimes poorly matched images they are not allowed to view in advance.

And now, through the unexpected challenges of the workplace, we might be on the verge of yet another game to hone our skills: Speed PowerPointing.

Speed PowerPointing is what we do when someone asks us to prepare a short PowerPoint presentation 35 minutes before we are expected to meet with colleagues about a new proposal we are advancing. (As we codify this game, let’s set a ground rule of completing a PowerPoint deck of no more than 10 slides in one hour or less). We do not get extra credit or time for whining; any time we spend objecting is deducted from the 35 to 60 minutes we have been allotted. (Yes, this is tough, but Speed PowerPointing, like Battledecks, is not for the faint of heart.)

To up the ante, let’s agree that the final presentation cannot be comprised of what was initially requested in this case: simply transferring text from an existing document, formatting it into a series of one-line bullet points, and slapping a title slide onto it so we end up reading (or, worse yet, having our audience read) the words from the slides or printouts of the slides.

Prize-winning Speed PowerPointing must effectively and engagingly produce whatever results we are seeking; be weighted toward imagery interwoven with text—the less text, the better; and draw from the narrative flow of a Beyond Bullet Points presentation. (I suspect that at least a few trainer-presenters already are beginning to envision their own first Speed PowerPointing decks; if you’re rising to the challenge, you need to start your timer running. Now.)

What drove my first Speed PowerPointing effort was the aforementioned meeting, which was called to discuss a solution to our problem of tracking and making an ever-increasing volume of training documents available to an audience spread over a large geographic area and connected more by basic online resources than by any significant amount of face-to-face contact. The resources for the PowerPoint presentation were the one-page text proposal I had prepared for the 30-minute discussion; existing PowerPoint presentation templates I had previously developed to be consistent with the organization’s extremely detailed branding requirements, including logos, typefaces, and style sheets; online sources of images and graphics—I turned to Flickr for mine; and a desire to combine humor and creativity to be entertaining and persuasive.

The result, for my colleagues and for me, was a six-slide presentation that led to adoption of the proposal.

Our final slide deck—which I’m not reproducing here because there was some concern about making an in-house presentation available to a wider audience—started with a simple title slide addressing the issue of managing an explosive amount of documentation: “Where Did You Say You Put That? (A Proposed Marketing & Learning Document Library).”

All slides, in keeping with this company’s style, had white backgrounds, headlines in light blue type, the company logo in the lower left-hand corner as a footer, and the company name in the lower right-hand corner as part of that same footer. The bulleted text was a sans serif type in black to provide a contrast with the blue headlines.

Each of the subsequent slides addressed an aspect of the problem or proposed solution; included plenty of white space; bowed to the group’s insistence that some text in bullet-point form be inserted onto the slide (rather than having that information included in the speaker notes section of the slide presentation and presented orally); and included an appropriately eye-catching image that generally took up a third or more of the space and moved the narrative of the presentation forward rather than simply serving as a space-filler or repeating what was already being said, face-to-face, to those attending the meeting.

A slide addressing the challenges the company was facing in searching for documents it couldn’t find included the headline “goals: accessible & searchable” and a rescue-dog image that brought smiles to attendees’ faces. A slide addressing the too-much-information problem the company was facing included the headline “the online library: sifting through information” and an image that suggested all the ugliness of information overload. A slide outlining how the proposed online system should be tested included the headline “objectives: it’s all about testing” and an image of a test situation that resonated with everyone present. The final slide had the header “questions and comments” above a playful image that took advantage of the simple white background the company favors in its presentations.

One other tip: given the limited amount of time we have under the evolving rules of Speed Networking, it proves to be very effective to move the headlines and text onto slides first, seek appropriate images to complement the text next, then use PowerPoint’s slide sorter view near the end of the process to scan, on one screen, the entire presentation to catch and resolve visual inconsistencies.

And if it’s not obvious, let me be direct: I’d love to hear from anyone who effectively uses Speed PowerPointing to meet the presentation challenges we all face in a high-pressure world built on the idea that everything should have already been finished. At least five minutes ago.

Any

(image from photostream on Flicker)


Skype and Low-Cost E-learning Delivered at the Moment of Need

January 22, 2010

Delivering low- or no-cost e-learning at the moment of need seems to become easier every day through the use of Web 2.0 (online social networking) tools. Having written earlier this month about using Google Chat to deliver a dynamic, interactive, and effective online lesson to journalism students at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, I found myself experimenting on short notice with Skype as a live delivery tool yesterday for basic Excel and PowerPoint lessons.

The good news is that it worked; the even better news is that the immediate payoff for the learner might be a job she would very much love to have.

Our online learning experience developed after she received a call yesterday afternoon to let her know that she was being invited to interview for a position this afternoon. This appeared to be great news until the interviewer told her that the company needed someone with good Excel and PowerPoint skills. The interviewee/learner in this case had a basic familiarity with both programs, but felt less than confident that she could display proficiency during an interview. I assured her that I would be happy to meet with her face-to-face that evening to cover the basics of both programs, but scheduling conflicts and the fact that we live in different parts of the San Francisco Bay Area made that infeasible. We were at a momentary loss until a wonderful intermediary suggested that we attempt to conduct the lessons via Skype—which proved to be a godsend for both of us.

Making this work required little more than the (free) Skype connection; (inexpensive) webcams and audio-visual capabilities (built into her laptop, add-ons to my PC); a bit of creativity; and a lot of patience from both sides. It also obviously helped that we’re both comfortable with Skype and that she is an incredibly fast learner. We decided we would tackle Excel first, so established the Skype connection and kept the Skype window visible in the lower right-hand corner of our individual computers while we talked back and forth. We then each opened a blank Excel spreadsheet and created a sample budget together in the program so we could use and review the basic functions she would need to understand in her prospective workplace. Each time we completed something together, we would explicitly describe what we were seeing on our screens to be sure that we were creating identical documents. By the end of that hour-long session, we completed the rudimentary sample budget and reviewed the steps we had taken to create it, and she had a working document which she could use for further review, study, and explorations of the program.

After taking a break for a few hours, we returned later in the evening to create a sample PowerPoint presentation comprised of just a few slides with a Beyond Bullet Points approach so she again would learn by creating something useful and, at the same time, visually striking. Following the same procedures proved very effective; when she arrived for her interview this afternoon, she received compliments for having creatively crafted something which highlighted the products produced by her prospective employer.

Although many of us still remain convinced that there is a strong case to be made for face-to-face training in an onsite-online world, it’s equally clear that the term “face-to-face” is rapidly evolving as tools such as Skype create extremely effective opportunities for virtual (and virtually) face-to-face learning if trainer-teacher-learners are willing to experiment and those they help are willing to reach across the rapidly shrinking digital divide with their own equipment or through libraries and other gateways to Internet access.


Viral Learning (Just in Time)

January 15, 2010

Forget about viral marketing, the contemporary version of word-of-mouth promotion combined with Web 2.0 social networking tools.

Let’s popularize a relatively new, rarely encountered phrase—“viral learning”—and acknowledge San Francisco Public Library Access Services Manager Marti Goddard for unintentionally providing an example of how easily we can use this to the benefit of those working in libraries.

The story begins with a lunch Marti and I had. We were talking about articles on the topic of “Training, Story, and PowerPoint”; Cliff Atkinson’s Beyond Bullet Points; and how to make training and learning sticky. I had read both editions of Atkinson’s book, was using the ideas with Infopeople webcast and webinar presenters, and was about to do my first bullet-less PowerPoint presentation. Marti had not read a word of Atkinson’s book, but was intrigued by what she was hearing.

When we met again a week later for lunch, she proudly told me she had tried a bullet-less PowerPoint presentation and was delighted to receive enthusiastic, unsolicited comments about her slides from those who were present—which leads us to the idea of viral learning and how easy it is for anyone working in a library to put it to use. As Marti demonstrated, it is not difficult to informally exchange word-of-mouth descriptions of lessons we have learned so that they are immediately adapted, applied, and shared at the moment of need with others who might repeat the process in a quickly expanding group of learner-trainer-teachers.

This really is no different than the experience I had as a result of taking Michele Mizejewski’s “Web 2.0: A Hands-On Introduction for Library Staff” Infopeople workshop. I knew very little, at that point, about wikis, blogs, or RSS feeds. It wasn’t long before I was using Netvibes and iGoogle to read RSS feeds; writing articles on training and Web. 2.0 for two different blogs; experimenting with a rudimentary form of wikis with colleagues in Canada by using Google Docs; and, most importantly, engaging in viral learning by describing my successes (and failures) to others who might pass this learning-training on to others in our libraries and beyond.

Let the viral learning spread!

N.B.: An earlier version of this article was originally posted on Infoblog.


Training, Story, and PowerPoint (Part 3 of 3)

January 1, 2010

Having looked at how PowerPoint presentations with and without bullet points work in Part 1 of this series, and how Cliff Atkinson’s Beyond Bullet Points gives new life to an old tool in Part 2, let’s turn now to Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick and Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind to see how we can use these ideas to our advantage.

The Heath Brothers, in their book on “Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die,” use engagingly simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, and emotional stories to make the point that ideas stick when they are Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, and Emotional and include Stories (SUCCESs, as they remind us with a word designed to make the message even stickier). They do this in a way that makes any of us who are familiar with Beyond Bullet Points immediately recognize that these are concepts to be woven into our face-to-face and online learning offerings.

When they discuss the importance of helping someone learn through simulation –-imagining how they might react if they were part of the story they are hearing – and through inspiration, we easily make the leap to seeing how our own stories and those of our students can lead to simulation and additional inspiration. When we read the Heath brothers’ story about a Subway sandwich advertising executive who wanted to run a campaign promoting the taste of the company’s food rather than the much stickier story of how an obese young man lost more than 200 pounds on a diet of little more than Subway sandwiches, we have to look at ourselves and wonder what lessons we are burying under reams of facts and figures and bullet points.

“The goal here is to learn how to spot the stories that have potential,” the Heaths write (p. 230), and we are again struck by how SUCCESsful this advice might make our work.

Pink’s A Whole New Mind is equally effective as a tool for trainer-teacher-learners. His SUCCESs stories—like the one about how he went from drawing stick figures to producing a reasonably accurate self-portrait in a one-week period under the guidance of a fantastic instructor – make us sit up and ask, “Why can’t I teach and learn like that?”

The encouraging answer is that we can. By adapting the lessons offered by Atkinson, Pink, the Heath brothers, and many other creative trainer-teacher-learners, we recognize that old tools can bring new, powerful, and encouraging results which keep us all alert, inspired, and engaged.

N.B.: An earlier version of this article was originally posted on Infoblog.


Training, Story, and PowerPoint (Part 2 of 3)

January 1, 2010

“Tell me a story” has to be one of the most basic archetypal command-requests of our civilization. It is, therefore, completely natural that storytelling would be part of every endeavor we undertake, including training-teaching-learning. So let me tell you a story.

Attending a presentation by Leadership Challenge co-author Jim Kouzes a few years ago, I was looking forward to hearing stories about the qualities great leaders shared in common. I was as much fascinated by Kouzes’ use of a visual facilitator as I was by his engaging examples, so I took the opportunity to talk with visual facilitator John Ward after the presentation ended.

“Read Beyond Bullet Points,” Ward counseled me at one point in our brief conversation, and I did. Twice.

Cliff Atkinson’s book takes readers through a “Lights! Camera! Action!” system which starts all PowerPoint presentations with development of a great filmic narrative tool—a script—beginning with just a few major points each speaker/trainer wants to convey to an audience, then moving into a planning/storyboard phase with existing PowerPoint tools including the slide sorter function. Using the slide sorter assures that we see numerous slides in sequence at a glance so we won’t lose sight of the big picture while preparing individual slides.

Atkinson helps make it easy. He provides a story template in the book, through a CD-ROM which comes with the revised (2008) edition, and through his online Beyond Bullet Points website. The final phase of the process includes guidelines on how to offer a winning combination of narrative and visuals so that audiences remember what they are being offered.

As we read, learn from, and use the largely revised second edition of the book, we find Atkinson’s ideas coming even more clearly into focus. What he offers is the basic “Introduction to PowerPoint” course which so many of us sought and missed when we first began using the program as a training-teaching-learning tool, and he gives us an entirely new way of looking at an overly familiar and sometimes stale tool. He does it in a straightforward, helpful, guiding fashion, and is continuing to build a community of like-minded presenters through his website, blog, printed and online material, and—since we are in a Web 2.0 world—even a LinkedIn user group.

This appears to be a story with a happy ending; it leads to encouraging innovative presentations which learners will remember. What more could a trainer-teacher-learner want?

N.B.: An earlier version of this article was originally posted on Infoblog.

Next: Sticky Training and A Whole New Mind


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