Tag Archives: body language

Lessons from Trainersville

Yesterday I ran my first ever day-long training workshop.

I’ve done plenty of workshops before, and written my own material, but this was the first time I’d ever planned, written and delivered an entire day on my own, start to finish: a big brain-dump of (nearly) everything I know and think about information presentation.

It didn’t start well. The venue, the British Psychological Society‘s offices in Leicester, was about 120 miles from where I live; all the advice you ever read about training events is “know your venue”, but I’d never been there before. I arrived with an hour to spare and found that the room we’d been allocated, for 21 workshop participants and me, was about 18′ x 12’ — maybe enough room for people to sit in tight rows, if they didn’t move much, or mind getting to know each other rather well, and god knew where the projector was going to go. And no tables. How were we going to do small group work?

Lesson 1: Unless you have nine lives, or live right across the planet, visit the venue first.

Simon, who worked the front desk, but also whose job it was to set up rooms, was fantastic. He talked to some people and got us moved to the big boardroom next door, the one in which only 10 people were scheduled to meet that day. We hulked tables around and marched chairs up and down the corridor. By the time the first participants arrived, everything was in place: tables, chairs, workshop packs. I think it drove Simon’s blood-pressure all the way up to 11, but he was ace, a real superstar. His colleague Rob likewise: they just took it all in stride.

Lesson 2: Great support staff are worth their weight in gold.

And then the workshop started. The morning was all about understanding teaching and learning; from there, we spent a bit of time before lunch creating visual aids. People started out very serious, but when I gave them explicit permission to be childlike and enjoy themselves with the pens and coloured paper, everything changed, and we got some great drawings and some really imaginative visual storytelling. One of the main points I wanted to get across was that you can’t start planning your information delivery from inside the slide software, or you — and your audience — are doomed to endless bullet-points and text-heavy visuals. Creativity should be fun; having fun with stationery isn’t something we get to do much anymore as adults, and a lot of people seemed to really engage with it.

Lesson 3: Getting in touch with your inner child is a fantastic spur to creativity.

In the afternoon, we talked about structuring your narrative and use of body-language. I played them the two clips that Nancy Duarte so generously posted on her blog, showing her body language before and after her training at Decker Communications. The participants were great: straight away they picked up on all the things Nancy herself said about her appearance — that before the training, she looked nervous, fidgety, bored-looking, insecure. Then I showed them the ‘after’ clip, and they ate it up: the bold gestures, the confidence, the presence. Go Nancy! I think we all wanted to go get trained at Decker after that :o)

Lesson 4: Show, don’t tell. I had originally planned to talk a bit about body-language, but I’m so glad I just showed the clips: everyone got it, instantly.

Of course, it didn’t all go smoothly. The projector decided, part-way through the afternoon, that lemon yellow was really the only colour worth projecting; we had a rather spectacular coffee-machine flood; the room was ridiculously hot; I quietly cut two exercises from the schedule when it became clear that we were running out of time because — the best reason in the world, this — people were engaged and wanted to talk about stuff. We dealt with all of these, and the world didn’t end. In fact, during the coffee flood, people pitched right in and helped clean up.

Lesson 5: Be flexible, and don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself.

The whole workshop went really well, and participant feedback was great. Crucially, people seemed to get the relevance of what I was telling them, and see how they could put the material into practice themselves. The most useful facet of the day, the one most people said they would implement in their own work, seems to have been cognitive load: the idea that if you throw too much sensory information at someone, most of it won’t stick (like this post about TMI in education). Lots of people talked, in their feedback, about paring down their visuals, and reducing the information load on their audience. Job done!

I absolutely loved the whole experience, and learned loads. If my participants got even half as much as I did out of it, then I’m happy.

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You need to love your audience (at least a little) if you want them to love you back

One of the nice things about doing what I do is that frequently, I get to sit and listen to other people communicate their research. Sometimes they manage to do this despite their visual aids, and sometimes they manage it despite the non-verbal messages they are conveying.

I listened to someone speak recently and was blown away by how strict she looked. Facially, sartorially, and even her body language: it completely distracted me from the science, which was a shame, because it was interesting stuff. But I couldn’t get past the visuals.

So okay, I’m exceptionally distracted by the visual stuff, but it’s the job of a good presenter to get past that kind of thing straightaway. First impressions count; in fact, making a good first impression is particularly important, since even if observers are wrong in their initial assessment, they may conveniently overlook evidence that contradicts it. It’s essential to make an effort when presenting in front of people you don’t know: we’re less likely to cut strangers a little slack, and more likely to assume that their behaviour relates to personality, rather than the situation.

Here’s the politically incorrect bit: physical appearance can present an obstacle. On the one hand, stuff what people think — because seriously, it should be about the message, not face- or body-fascism. But on the other, it’s increasingly hard to separate style from substance. If you know that your face is severe, it’s probably worth making an effort to be warm and animated, so your appearance doesn’t do all the talking: when we don’t know much about someone, we tend to form judgements based on their face. There’s also a persistent myth that we get the face we deserve, and I would imagine it’s pretty hard to decouple that from the quick judgements we form about strangers.

Seth Godin argues that you have to love your audience – that the presenter who loves his audience the most, wins. I’d add that if you don’t love — or know — your audience, you need to learn to fake it, because they can tell.

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