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Presentation Skills

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Find your light

 

I’ve been collaborating with a colleague who teaches performing arts in putting together a “stage presence” workshop for educators and presenters. Our joint approach was sparked by a hallway conversation a few months ago about how stage and theatre performers have much in common with teachers: both need to foster an immediate, emotional connection with the audience/class, and both need to create and sustain an atmosphere of excitement, engagement and inspiration. In addition, all performers, teachers and presenters occasionally experience equipment malfunctions, bad venues, challenging audiences, and unexpected events. What separates the veterans from the beginners is in how we respond, improvise and model ‘grace under pressure’.

A common axiom among theatre performers is to “find your light”. That is, step out onto the stage and find the spotlight. Lately I’ve been thinking about the implications of metaphorically finding your light. In a classroom or lecture hall there aren’t usually spotlights and curtain calls, and the best educators are more occupied with facilitating students’ learning as opposed to occupying centre stage. So, what does finding your light mean in the context of presentation and teaching skills?

I think that in teaching and presenting, our “light” is our truest, most authentic self. If we can model authenticity in a group, with all of the attendant risk and vulnerability that entails, we encourage others to do the same. It is something of a paradox – approaching a presentation as a conversation versus a performance is the essence of great performance! Theatre ‘works’ when it’s a conversation with the audience (either explicitly in experimental theatre, or implicitly in traditional “never break the fourth wall” approaches). And while acting, by definition, involves assuming a character, great actors fully inhabit their character. All that we teachers/presenters have to do is fully inhabit ourselves.

There is something about stepping up to the front of the room that makes people freeze up. It’s a shame when that happens, because we are most engaged when we encounter others as their real selves. Finding your light is about shining your light – for all to see.

 

 

bike flowers

 

How do you want to travel?

 

Presentations and workshops are particular journeys for all participants – the facilitator included. From an overall accountability perspective, responsibility for the session sits squarely on the shoulders of the presenter, and rightly so. The content, pacing, climate and structure need to be clearly communicated and consistently enacted. Course evaluations assess how effectively presenters perform across these domains, and offer immediate feedback for improvement. But what about the audience?

Lately I’ve been thinking about individual audience members’ accountability, and the delicacy in creating a climate where each person in the room feels as invested in the value and success of the event as the presenter. This goes beyond learning outcomes and focuses on process (how we engage) as well as content (what we learn).

Most workshops and presentations typically start with some or all of:

  • Learning outcomes
  • Session overview or outline
  • Participants’ learning goals
  • Pre-session learning assessments.

However, few workshops explicitly build in a chance for participants to identify how they will contribute. In other words, reflecting on how we learn and participate, what might hold us back, and what would make it safe to take risks and participate in ways that might feel downright uncomfortable. I think these questions are crucial precursors to the usual content-focused questions or assessments, because a conversation about process sets the stage for joint responsibility for engagement.

It comes down to a conversation about how we (both presenter and group) collectively want to make the journey together. From a presenter’s perspective, this means starting out by asking questions such as:

  1. Are you coming to this session as a spectator or as a participant?
  2. What are some possible ways into the content that would resonate for you, and how could you amplify these entry points?
  3. What would it take to make you want to step outside your comfort zone?
  4. If you decided to take some risks in the interest of your own ‘deep learning’, how can the group support you?
  5. How will you translate and adapt ideas or applications to make them 100% relevant for you?

You don’t have to ask all five questions, and there are a wealth of other questions you could pose. The key is our intentionality in creating time for all participants to reflect on their roles, and on the nature of the voyage they are going to take with you and one-another.

And the next time I attend a presentation or workshop (or a class, meeting, performance, celebration or other opportunity to actively engage), I will be asking myself: “How do I want to travel?”

 

 

 

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Honesty is the best poetry

I’ve written elsewhere about “PowerPoint Best Practices” and why slide design can make the world a happier place. Images are like poems: their economy is such that they immediately engage our affective (versus cognitive) domain – and affect is hugely influential in learning and knowledge retention. I was briefly obsessed with imagist poetry as a teenager: “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time”.  (It left its mark.)

The same disciplined simplicity is at the heart of the best and most effective use of beautiful/disturbing/thought-provoking/unexpected visuals accompanying a presentation. (PS: Check out this anthology if you want to learn more about imagism)

“Sounds good, but how can I visually translate MY ideas?”  (especially an image that is compelling, novel and adds value)

It’s a fair question. Most academics are trained to frame our ideas and concepts in words, not pictures. Yet words and pictures are both just symbols. For example, this slide deck for a full day workshop on advanced practice in Motivational Interviewing is approximately 80% images – used as placeholders for each of the practice-based activities I facilitated throughout the day.

In short: think about how you would define or translate the one key idea behind what you are trying to communicate. It is more than an excercise in finding pretty pictures – ruthless simplification forces us to reflect on the essential. That which we intend to be most memorable. This can only be a good thing for both presenter and audience!

Major Caveat: Visual communication is especially critical in relation to numeric data. Twenty years ago I never thought of data visualization as a career path, yet these modern-day dowsers are crucial to our understanding of the digital ocean. And that’s a whole other conversation: check out Big Data Science on Twitter. I am a rank amateur compared to what these people do.

If I were presenting this article to you, here is my slide:

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(Honesty is the best poetry, Queen St West, Toronto, Canada )

fish swimming sky

If you want to get out alive, never swim against the current

A few weeks ago a colleague shared a harrowing story of a presentation gone wrong. It was one of those scenarios where you don’t anticipate much controversy about what you have to offer, and the group appears jovial. But beware – large groups can sometimes behave like jungle cats. One moment, the regal beast is basking in the sun and purring, and then suddenly the powerful claws will slash and wound. Perhaps this sounds overly dramatic, but I’ve yet to meet a presenter who – somewhere – does not carry a scar from such an encounter. When it’s just you in the “cage” with a couple hundred slumbering lions, it’s best to keep alert and look them in the eyes!

Now, I am not implying that presenters should fear their audiences. Presentations offer an unparalleled opportunity to inspire, communicate and connect. And I’m not suggesting that it’s us (presenters) against them (audiences). That said, we know that individuals have distinct personalities and moods. And like individuals, a group’s mood can shift rapidly; sometimes without warning. It can feel mighty lonely at the front of the room when the group turns ugly.

I’ve written elsewhere about how to “TAME” difficult or challenging participants. But what to do when the whole group seems against you?

The first order of business is listen to understand. What did you say that triggered discord? What might be behind the objections, concerns, indignation or outright scorn among audience members? Modeling a stance of eager curiosity and a humble willingness to listen is disarming. It is profoundly respectful.

Example: “It sounds like this is something we really need to pay attention to. Would you or others be willing to share more? I’m so glad that you spoke up – thank you for raising this.”

The second essential step is to step outside of the content – that is, what you and others are saying – and reflect on the process. Group process refers to the how versus the what. This is expecially important to do if Step 1 results in pure venting and is not especially productive for the group as a whole. The power of reflecting on process as opposed to content is that you make it not just your problem, but the group’s problem. Plus, it is almost certain that while there are dissenting voices in the room, there are also voices that want to help you get things back on track – if you give them the opportunity.

Example: “I want to take a step back and reflect on what’s happening in the room. I noticed that when I said […], there were some strong reactions. I’m wondering what would be most helpful from me at this point? What do others think?”

The third point is to keep an open mind. It may be that you’re pretty invested in the idea or perspective that you are sharing and the audience members’ opposing opinions have provoked defensiveness on your part. This never goes down well. Defensiveness on a presenter’s part can be like throwing gas on a fire. Stay open to the possibility that you might indeed be missing something important, and that the group is offering you a true gift by pointing it out. That doesn’t mean you are obliged to do exactly what others want you to do, or even to change your thinking. It’s simple reciprocity – if I want others to listen to me with an open mind, I need to be willing to do the same.

Example: (inside voice) “Hmmm…I was not expecting this reaction. I wonder if there are others who might have the same reaction. This is worth considering carefully.”

In short, always swim with the current.  Trust me, you will eventually make it to shore with only a few scrapes and bruises!

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firepit

 

 

“Every person is like all others, some others, and no others.”

 

Night air, pine trees, starlight and throw another log on the fire. Sitting around a fire-pit makes us all storytellers.

This weekend I finally heard the complete narrative of my dad’s1981 road trip through Canada’s Maritime provinces with Uncle Ulysses. Including the ill-advised (in retrospect) meal of fresh-cooked clams that led to their acute and enduring distress. Like all heroes, Euclid and Ulysses (actual names) valiantly carried on through their itinerary of roadside museums and historic landmarks. It all culminated on the final night of the trip where, after three days of fasting, they deemed it safe to order pizza as an accompaniment to the 6-pack of beer they’d picked up earlier. The smell of fresh pizza proved too much to bear, and as my father put it, “I said: ‘Please don’t hit the beer’; and we never did eat the pizza”. To this day, neither of them has ever tasted shellfish again.

I loved that story, and even more I loved the experience of hearing the story. The fireside version took around 15 minutes and was punctuated with the audience’s questions, observations, digressions, reflections and laughter. It was engaging, relateable, suspenseful, totally human.

This makes me think more about the axiom of “tell more stories” in presentations and workshops. For listeners, the most powerful storytelling experiences are not passive, but rather, involve actively participating as co-authors in the telling. Even in large groups or online or asynchronous learning environments this can take the form of an internal conversation and co-authoring, as each of us relates to our own lives and our personal stories.

So…my lesson learned is to try going beyond just telling stories, and to intentionally create avenues for the audience to participate in the telling. Most training venues and classrooms don’t permit campfires, but I’m inspired to find ways to leverage stories as powerful shared experiences. Every story represents the rich complexity of human experience, as each of us is “like all others, some others, and no others” (paraphrasing Murray and Kluckhohn, 1953).

Stories connect our content to others in powerful ways. Being a better presenter has to involve getting better at storytelling.

 

 

 

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Begin with the ending, end with the beginning

 

The best presentations are structured like a really good story, with a clear beginning, middle and end. Dale Carnegie’s famous axiom offers a skeleton how-to: “Tell the audience what you’re going to say, say it; then tell them what you’ve said.” But starting your talk with “Today I am going to share with you…”  is not the most dynamic or compelling way to capture an audience’s attention. On the other hand, people want a road map – it’s important to orient the group to what they are about to learn and experience.

 

Begin with the ending

So, what does “beginning with the ending” look like in practice? For me, the ending doesn’t reference the conclusion of my presentation. Rather, the real ending – the whole purpose and intent of my presentation – are the implications for attitudinal, behavioural and/or practice change. In other words, I like to start with where I want the audience to end up – not me!

For example, when I offer clinical workshops on Motivational Interviewing, I begin by asking the group to reflect on specific clients that they find challenging: “Imagine it’s Monday morning, and you get to work, look at your calendar, and see that the first three clients you’re scheduled to see are the most difficult individuals that you’re working with. How are you feeling?” Common responses include “stressed”, “anxious”, “hopeless”, “frustrated” , “annoyed with the person who scheduled these clients!”. Then I say: “Now imagine that you’ve finished this workshop, you get to work tomorrow morning, and you see these same three clients booked into your calendar – and you actually look forward to your morning because you get to try out the skills and strategies that we are going to learn today!”

This brief thought experiment gets people involved right away because it establishes not only the relevance of the content, but its application beyond the workshop.

 

End with the beginning

I agree that it’s useful to offer a summary of what I’ve covered as I wrap up a presentation or workshop (“tell them what you told them”), but that’s not the end. After summarizing, I make a point of explicitly circling back to the beginning by inviting participants to reflect on where they were when we started our collective learning journey, where they are now…and where they want to go. Bridging the knowledge-practice gap is a challenge, yet therein lies the value of the whole experience. Setting concrete implementation objectives and a plan for follow-up is key.

I also point to the ending as a beginning, and to our continuing development as an ongoing series of new beginnings. We are always still beginning, each time from a different place.

Finally, ending with a great quotation is always a nice touch. Here’s one of my favourite quotes on motivation and change:

Andy warhol quote

 

So…what will you try out in your next presentation?

 

 

 

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Artifice and performance are the enemies of engagement

 

I gave a talk yesterday on presentation and facilitation skills, and one of the key themes was the importance of shifting our focus away from ourselves (“Am I doing a good job?” “Do I measure up?”), and directing our attention to the needs and interests of the audience. This marks the crucial shift from performance to conversation.

Paradoxically, at the same time we also need to pay attention to being ourselves. I was struck once again by the “simple but not easy” axiom as it relates to authenticity. On one hand, what is simpler than just being who we are? But on the other hand, what is harder than offering our real, true self in front of a large (or smallish) group?

“The snow goose need not bath to make itself white.

Neither need you do anything but be yourself.” (Lao Tzu)

 

I’ve never seen a snow goose, but I’ve seen quite a lot of snow this winter. And up close every snow flake is unique and beautiful.

The most engaging presenters are fully focused and radically authentic.

 

 

 

 

 

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