March 25, 2010

Reflections on PresentationCampToronto

March 25, 2010 - Categories: kaizen, speaking

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?


Key tip I’d give other presenters:

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!