March 25, 2010

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Reflections on PresentationCampToronto

At Tuesday’s PresentationCampToronto organized by Chris Gurney, I gave an eight-minute talk on relentlessly improving your presentation skills. This was followed by a Q&A session, then four other talks+Q&A, and then an informal panel discussion.

What worked well, and how can I do things even better?

  • I really liked working with just a single slide. I felt freer to walk around, gesture, and not worry about presentation remotes. My timing and velocity felt much more flexible. It meant that there were no surprises, but that’s okay too. It was easy to put together a single slide summarizing my key points and the seven things I wanted people to do.
  • I love Q&A. I really do. People often worry about controlling the message and telling their audience things. Me, I really like focusing on people – not audience, but people, participants, even co-creators! – and learning from them while they’re learning from me. If I’m doing a really short talk, I’m fine with doing the talk straight, and then focusing on Q&A once people have an idea of what I can help them with. If I’m doing a talk that’s longer than 5-10 minutes, I like having a backchannel to capture questions, or bringing in some interaction during the talk to break up the monotony and keep me on track.
  • I liked the panel. Panels with a theme like this make me happy. I find that more interesting than a wild romp through topics.
  • I’ve been thinking and writing about this topic for quite a while, so putting together a talk was easy. Practising what I preach! =)
  • I remembered to add my short URL. Next time, I’ll add my Twitter username too. It’s a small nudge to look me up.
  • Although I braindumped presentation kaizen ideas before, I didn’t write speaker’s notes for this particular talk. The talk still flowed smoothly because I’d thought about my key points and how they flowed together. I still like being able to point people to full speaker notes, though, so I’ll go back to doing that next time.
  • I really should get someone else to take video. Leaving my camera on a tripod or a chair doesn’t work, because I sometimes step out of frame. Next time, I need to make sure someone’s capturing video.
  • I think I’ll move to asking what I can help people with instead of asking if there are any questions. I sometimes remember to do that, and it’s more fun when I do. It’s fascinating how powerful little shifts in words can be. Anyway, we had no lack of questions and tips there. Yay! Always my favourite part of presenting…
  • I’ll also move back to doing a one-minute summary at the end of Q&A. I normally remember to do this because I’m keeping track of the time myself or I’ve notified the talk organizer to leave a few minutes at the end of Q&A, but I forgot to tell Chris Gurney this time, and I transitioned to the other speaker instead of wrapping up before transitioning.
  • Doing a presentation every week (mostly new stuff each time!) seemed a little scary, but I survived. March tends to be like that – still conference season, even without big face-to-face conferences! There are a couple of things that made this conference season different from the other ones:
    • Shorter prepared talks: PresCampTO was the longest prepared talk (8 minutes) and Ignite had the most slides (20). I did three talks that were essentially one-slide summaries (one visual, two text). After the prepared talk, it was all Q&A—except for Ignite, which didn’t have Q&A, which made me realize that I really like Q&A and I feel weird when it’s missing.
    • More reuse: I’ve been digging up ideas from my archives and preparing presentations about topics I’ve been thinking about for a while. Also, I’m seeing much more reuse of presentation assets, too. For example, Remote Presentations That Rock has been getting a lot of mileage at work. I just heard from someone in IBM Italy who wants to share it with her team. So it might be worth investing the time in doing video podcasts of interesting talks, because people tend to find those useful and reusable, and 7-20 minutes is a lot better than a recorded 60-minute webinar. Depending on the webinar style I choose (talk + Q&A or interleaved talk and Q&A), I could make it easier to extract the key 20 minutes from the webinar, too. Hmm…
    • Less preparation, or at least the preparation has been moved around: It used to take me four or more hours to prepare a talk. I’ve separated the process into blogging + slides, gotten better at braindumping ideas with a simple structure, and simplified the slides I make. Also, I’m getting used to this drawing thing, so I don’t have to spend as much time correcting my drawings! ;) So it takes me two hours for a new presentation that builds on things I’ve been thinking about, and it takes me five minutes to reuse something I’ve already prepared. =) Major new topics still need research and prep time, though.
    • Less travel: I was only out for one week, and that was for a small customer workshop. I like staying home. =)
  • Biking in a drizzle was good exercise. I wasn’t drenched or out of breath. Focusing on getting there without being run over turned out to be a good way to creatively relax. My tires were a little squishier on the way back, though, because they’d been out in the cold. Rain pants might be good for heavier rain.
  • Creative relaxation makes planning easier. When a topic has latched on my mind, I sometimes “hear” snippets of possible phrasing – part of my brain experimenting with putting words together, I guess. I’m also starting to be able to quickly imagine slides. I don’t remember experiencing that when I had started blogging and presenting. It started a few years ago, I think, and it has become more and more common as I’ve done more writing and more speaking. Thinking of blog posts or planning a presentation is certainly easier when you’re doing it without thinking—not because it’s so easy you could proverbially do it in your sleep, but because your mind is so used to playing with ideas that it will sneak off and do it when you’re focused on something else. (And yes, sometimes I dream of talks.) This could mean that I’m on the other side of this particular plateau of mediocrity:
     
    but fortunately, there’s always more to learn:

 

Key tip I’d give other presenters:

  • Make the most of your last slide. Take advantage of the extra time. Don’t just put “Q&A” or “Thanks” on it. Instead, end with a one-slide summary, your contact information, and perhaps some starting questions to kick off the Q&A period.
  • Always reflect on what you did well and how you can do even better. Relentless improvement is the way forward! =) Every talk is a learning opportunity. You’ve already done most of the hard work, so invest a little more to get even greater benefits.

Things to think about and blog about:

Feedback: Someone asked a question about whether feedback forms were useful. I think they’re awesome, if the questions are phrased properly and if people have the emotional connection needed to invest time in giving great feedback. I find webinars and online surveys give me much better feedback than paper feedback forms, because people usually don’t have the time to scribble more than a few words in person when they’re rushing off to another session, while people who care enough about leaving feedback online end up writing paragraphs. Very very useful.

One of the speakers said that he seeks out someone who can be a no-holds-barred critic, and that helps him strengthen his position. While that’s helpful when you want to argue a point, I think you also need people who can help you become a better presenter through coaching and inspiration. The challenge is that critics can often tell you what you shouldn’t do, but they might not be as good at telling you what you should do and what strengths you can build on. Example: Toastmasters is great for making you conscious of your ums and ahs, your lack of vocal variety, your need to slow down… but unless you’re in a club with great speakers, your feedback might be limited to those surface details, because no one can point the way forward. You need to know what “great” looks like.

So in terms of personal growth, I accept and understand critics, but I get much more inspiration and value from mentors and role models. Anyone can tell you that you have many flaws, but it takes real depth to tell you, specifically, where you can shine and which specific flaws you need to address so that you aren’t held back by them. This is different from people simply supporting you and telling you, “Your talk was nice.” Nice is not specific. Even “Your energy is inspiring” may not be specific enough, depending on what you need. You’re looking for someone who can tell you what you’re doing well and a few concrete steps you can take to do things even better.

Control: Many people think about controlling the message, controlling the audience, controlling the backchannel. I love turning the power structure upside down. I’m not the all-powerful, all-knowing speaker. I’m there to serve. I’m there so that I can help people learn about something or be inspired to do something. I don’t have to lie if I can’t answer a question. =) I’m perfectly happy coming in with something I’d like to talk about and then talking about something completely different if that’s what people want. I don’t know if I’d let all of us be bullied by an individual who wants to take things off track, because that’s never happened. I’ve never had an adversarial relationship with participants. If I face that situation in the future, though, I think I’d check with what the rest of the people want, and we can figure thing out together.

Try that people-centered approach sometime. Ditch the concept of an “audience” and connect with people. See it as a great opportunity to learn from them while they’re learning from you. Focus on service. It’s fun, and you’ll learn tons along the way.

Appearances: Someone asked a question about appearances. It was interesting to see how much this became part of the discussion, even though none of us had specifically addressed it in our talks.

Me, I’ll dress to minimize how much we all think about it, unless I want to make a point about the way I dress. This typically means a blouse, pants (skirts can be tricky on stage, particularly with panels), a blazer (maybe; usually no), and a scarf; or jeans and a T-shirt if I’m addressing a particular audience; or something memorable if I’m expecting a crowd. A hat is nice for picking me out later, although I won’t wear it on stage because it interferes with lighting. A white suit (or a blazer of an unusual colour) is also good for helping people find me in a crowd.

There’s only been one exception to this when it came to presentations. When I mis-planned things and didn’t have my presentation clothes available, I ended up in a full fuschia skirt and ruffled blouse speaking at an Enterprise 2.0 event in Toronto. Fortunately, it was a casual crowd. I didn’t let my outfit bother me, and neither did people, although one person came up to me afterwards and asked me what that bright red LED had been. (I’d tucked a voice recorder in there somewhere, too.) Anyway, if you do find yourself under- or over-dressed, keep calm and carry on.

So I think about the basics, and then I don’t worry about it. If my hair sticks out a little, if I have pimples, if my shoes managed to pick up another scuff, I’m not going to let that throw me off balance.

Balance. That’s probably it. Part of it is being comfortable in your own skin and your own clothes. Part of it is thinking about people and whether they’d be thrown off track by your appearance so much that they can’t listen to what you’re saying. You can still be you in that situation, but you have to make sure that your bio or your reputation sets people up so that they get over the shock early. Steve Jobs shocks no one when he shows up in a mock turtleneck. “Unconventional” is a handy word to put into your bio. “Creative” also tends to adjust people’s expectations. ;) You also have to make sure that you deliver the value promised, and you’re focused on being of service. It’s not about how cool you are, it’s about how well you can help people achieve their goals. (Yes, even the people who were required to be there.)

Kaizen: There, I’ve posted my notes for that talk. =) Check them out!