Tag Archives: presenting

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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Laugh? I nearly got a D: teaching as stand-up comedy.

Just been watching a clip from last weekend’s Presentation Camp LA (which, if I’d known more than 12 hours in advance that it was happening, I’d have found some way of attending) — Lisa Braithewaite talks about the importance of enthusiasm, but she also touches on the theme of storytelling, about telling anecdotes that engage the audience. This TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson, in which he uses a string of often humorous anecdotes to make some very serious points about education, illustrates the power of storytelling to inform and educate.

I mentioned before that I’m not the best when it comes to anecdotes, particularly those acquired through personal experience. I have all this self-conscious stuff going on: “Oh but Chris, you talk about yourself all the time already …” That, and quite often my brain moves too fast for my mouth, so stuff comes out wrong. On the whole, I’d much rather listen to you tell your funny anecdote, and give a reasonable facsimile of it later to my husband, who doesn’t mind — too much — if I sometimes step on the punchline.

But to be an engaging presenter, sometimes you just gotta tell stories. So I decided I would make a list of personal anecdotes that I could use in teaching.

Guess what: I totally blanked. Nothing. Nada. Rien.

Brief rewind: I spent last Friday night watching Sarah Pascoe and Ardal O’Hanlon do standup routines, part of the Cambridge Comedy Festival. They were funny; it won’t surprise you that they were all about storytelling, and I found myself wondering how much of it was based in reality.

My own life is hardly dull, and while I’m constantly making jokes about the things that happen to me, these are entirely disposable; my humour is all about creating stuff on the fly, which is maybe one of the reasons I enjoy teaching so much. But I just can’t really get my brain to do anecdotes, unless they are jokes I have told a lot (which is why the joke that begins “It is summer … it is France …” gets better every time I tell it).

The more I think about it, the more I realise that teaching is basically improvisation; a sort of educational stand-up comedy. It really helps to be able to use humour, and to deal with things on the fly, segue random dialogue back into your central theme and have everyone see how it fits in.

There’s also a synergy (a gestalt, if we’re flying the 800 Verbal flag) between a teacher and their audience that belies the common student expectation that teachers will somehow fill their passive minds with the knowledge they need; I don’t think students always realise how much they are a fundamental part of teaching, just as an audience is part of the comedy routine. This synergy is a beautiful thing: even if two classes are ostensibly the same, something different is created each time, because of that interaction between the teacher and the students. I often have to teach the same session several times, but it’s rarely the same twice, which is wonderful because it stops things from getting stale.

Kevin McCarron wrote a wonderful piece on his experiences as a lecturer and stand-up compere. In it, he raises several of the points I’ve been thinking about, such as the dynamic formed between teacher and students, but also offers some challenging opinions: for example, good political stand-up can make you angry, and McCarron argues that this can be highly educational. Evoking an emotional response from students is important; he reminds us that the students who drop out are those who have failed to engage.

McCarron also points out that if the audience knows the punchline, you don’t have to tell it. This can be a pretty frightening concept to academics, who are classically conditioned to be obsessively completist about information delivery. But it works beautifully: watch Eddie Izzard do it at the start of this clip (contains language NSFW). The audience does the work, and that’s the meat of the joke; learning is not a passive process any more than humour is. Izzard is also a master of the recurring motif: just when you think he’s wandered off into the wilderness, never to be seen again, back he comes with the punchline. A good comedian — a good teacher — takes you with them on their journey, and the more outlandish (=memorable) it is, the better.

Kevin McCarron’s article, which I hope you will read, also turned me on to this book by Oliver Double, stand-up comedian and lecturer, which I have ordered. We need to think a lot harder about that dynamic, that synergy, in the classroom, and McCarron is right: doing a PhD does not prepare you for teaching.

So, yeah, I’m gonna learn to tell anecdotes. From a book. Because that’s how we do things in academia :P

(When I originally googled “teaching is like stand-up comedy”, I found this, which was exactly what I was looking for, except that (a) it was a bit short on laughs and (b) I couldn’t finish it, it was so dull.)

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Visual identity in the classroom

When I was in high school, we had a history teacher who had long stringy hair and the voice of a 60-a-day smoker.  She gave the appearance of having lived two or three times over in her fortysomething years; the rumour was that her desk drawers were full of empty vodka bottles.  But don’t ask me what I learned in her class, because I’ve no idea (and I liked history) — everything that happened there was much less interesting than my teacher’s unconventional manner and appearance.  The mind loves to cling to distinctive things.

I think a lot about my visual appearance in the classroom because I am vain because I know from first-hand experience that physical appearance can overpower the message.  And it’s worse when your audience doesn’t know you, because then they make stuff up about you; the mind loves a good mystery.  Stories are sticky and actively putting a story together helps you remember it better later on, so it’s no wonder that people remember more about the (imagined) life of the speaker than they do about the actual content.

Businesspeople have known about this gig for centuries, which is why they mostly dress smartly but anonymously: level the sartorial playing field, and the message comes to the fore.  (Arguably, the same thing is going on in the army, the martial arts, and in schools that require a uniform, though I guess some of that is also about minimising the influence of status and personal identity.)  If people’s dress-code is consistent, anonymous, then their sartorial message remains the same, day to day: I am a professional person and I subscribe to the values and/or directives of this organisation.  (Of course, sometimes it’s fun to play on those assumptions.)

I am absolutely not telling others what to wear – that dubious privilege rests with my high school headmaster*.  I’d just like people to think about it first; if you at least have some idea of the distractions facing your audience, you can decide which to eradicate and which to ignore — for instance, some days I get out of bed and I just want to wear orange.  But I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that Steve Jobs, who appreciates the value of uncluttered presentation, rarely takes the podium without his trademark black turtleneck and jeans.  Seth Godin, who makes a living teaching people how to sell their message, believes so hard in minimising irrelevant distractions that he has no hair ;-)  When celebrities who are normally better known for their red-carpet attire get serious and start promoting charities or UN work, then out comes the suit. The distinction is clear: pay attention to my message today, not to my body or my outfit.

At the APS convention there was a neat poster about how dressing less formally made students rate lecturers as more approachable — but this effect diminished over time (presumably as students got to know the lecturer a bit more and stopped having to rely on quick and dirty attributions).  So I guess the take-home message is: the less well you know your audience, the more you should consider the impact of what you’re wearing. Which is probably pretty intuitive anyway, but now there is data.

* My high school went through a patch of making all first- and second-years wear uniform, or something close to it; after we hit third year they more or less ceased to care, though I never did forgive the headmaster, who had a bit of a Mr Bronson thing going on, for not letting me wear my beloved fedora.

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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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