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

July 3, 2013

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.


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.


Presentation Skills: TED, Jonathan Haidt, and the Grand Finale

March 27, 2012

Trainer-teacher-learners watching psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s newly-posted TED talk can learn a lot about expectations, delivery, and audience engagement. Agreeing to speak publically on the topic of “Religion, Evolution, and the Ecstasy of Self-transcendence,” Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind and The Happiness Hypothesis, certainly creates high expectations and the likelihood of conflict. In our emotionally-charged times, even a discussion about whether to discuss religion publically can make participants uncomfortable, as evidenced by an unrelated LinkedIn discussion thread several months ago.

Yet there he is, moving gently, firmly, and engagingly forward in that challenging 18-minute talk that has already attracted more than 300,000 viewings and more than 350 comments online in less than two weeks—with the not-unexpected range of support and opposition that the topic could be expected to inspire.

For those of us intrigued by how presenters effectively reach us, there’s even more to consider once we have absorbed the content of his talk. Haidt’s presentation appears to be very much of and from the heart, delivered in that high-quality way that is the hallmark of the great TED (technology, entertainment, and design) talks. You can see him gauging and connecting with at least some of his audience when he uses the standard presentation technique of asking for a show of hands in response to questions he asks at the beginning of the session. He continues to use his voice in a way that is appropriate to his topic and his audience: calm, collected, yet far from unemotional. He incorporates visually stimulating imagery into the talk through static as well as animated slides.

Then he turns everything on its head.

At precisely the moment in which we believe he is winding down, he goes for the clincher reversal—the one that transforms an intriguing talk into something highly memorable. When it appears that he is about to end his session three minutes early, he surprises us with the following comment: “So, that was my talk, delivered in the standard TED way. And now I’m going to give the talk all over again, in three minutes, in a more full-spectrum sort of way.”

Before we can catch our breath or even spend a few seconds absorbing what he has just said, we’re back in the thick of things—but in an entirely new way that sucks us in and doesn’t let us go until he once again is finished. This is far more than a presenter’s standard recap via an oral repetition of key points. Or the ritual reading of notes from a flipchart or bullet points on a slide. Or checklists of key points on a handout. Or tossing a ball around the room and asking learners to recall something they learned from the session we just finished leading.

None of us may ever again be able to use any of those instantly antiquated trainer tricks once we’ve seen Haidt’s full-spectrum format.   He propels us into that three-minute version—as compellingly and excitingly as we’re drawn into a roller coaster ride in an amusement park—by completely integrating the new abbreviated version of his talk into a video playing on a screen behind and above him on the stage. Combining re-edited images drawn from the earlier part of his talk into the lively video format, he uses each image—displayed as a series of quick-cut shots interspersed with new images—to effectively trigger memories of entire segments of his initial talk in the second or two it takes for us to re-view each image. And, by adding unobtrusive yet lively music into the soundtrack, he appeals to that part of our brain that more effectively learns by having multiple forms of complementary stimulation as we are taking in information.

It is at once familiar. Unexpected. Dynamic. Intriguing. And exciting. More importantly, it works. It makes us more deeply assimilate all he has proposed, and he certainly wakes up anyone who was not already fully awake. Furthermore, he alerts those of us attentive to creative presentation techniques that this simple unexpected act of giving an abbreviated talk within the context of a somewhat longer talk is an ingenious and effective way to draw an audience into a presentation in a stimulating and pleasurable way—one that is guaranteed to leave audience members/learners with a highly memorable experience. Which is exactly what we hope to achieve each time we play that honored and honorable role of facilitating someone else’s learning process.


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