Thoughts from “Remote Presentations That Rock”, changing dynamics

| leadership, presentation, reflection, speaking

Yesterday, I gave my Remote Presentations That Rock session at the IBM Technical Leadership Exchange virtual conference. 98 people attended and shared their insights with me through a lively text discussion, lots of whiteboard interaction, and the occasional phone question. It was a high-energy presentation – I poured lots into it, and people gave me lots of energy back. We finished exactly on time thanks to tip #3 (Make time for learning) and tip #6 (Start strong and end strong). One of the organizers said it was one of the best presentations she’d seen.

What worked well

  • Snagging a conference room meant that I could turn my energy level up.I had explained my situation to the concierge that morning, and she regretfully informed me that all of the project rooms had been booked. A few minutes before the set-up time for my session, I went to the mobility concierge again to see if there were any areas in the building where I might park myself near a phone and still not bother people. She said that one of the project rooms still hadn’t been claimed, and she was going to release it and give it to me. Whew! This is why you should be on good terms with people… They can save your day unexpectedly.
  • Interaction gave me insights. I asked people to use Elluminate’s text and laser pointer tool to let people interact with the slide content – indicating their position on a spectrum of tactical and strategic presentations, the combination of in-person and remote presentations, the reasons why remote presentations fail, their top challenge as a remote presenter, and their underlying reason for that challenge. The results surprised me, and I’m glad I asked those questions instead of just going with my assumptions. There was much more of a spread than I expected. More people made lots of strategic presentations than I thought. People listed the general concerns I thought people would have, and then some more. People’s top challenges (they could pick only one) included practically all the challenges of remote presentations. There seemed to be a fairly even spread between the root causes of these challenges, too – lack of role models, challenges of interest, and lack of time. In fact, people liked interacting with the whiteboard so much, that they interacted and gave me feedback even for slides where I didn’t explicitly ask for feedback, and many continued using the laser pointer tool instead of using the A/B/C polling tool on another slide. And the text chat was fantastic. People were asking and answering questions, sharing tips and ideas, and teaching me a lot about what mattered to people.

    For my next presentation, I’d love to find a way to incorporate more real-time feedback throughout the session. Maybe if I left the whiteboard on and asked them to indicate something (state of understanding?) while listening… Elluminate has tools for indicating some feedback, but it’s displayed in the participant list and therefore mostly out of sight. Visually indicating feedback on the slides themselves would be more engaging, I think.

  • The webcam worked out really well. I almost always use a webcam when giving remote presentations, because it makes things just that much more personal. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the project room had a clean and simple teal background, which was a vast improvement over the dimly-lit rooms in 120 Bloor and the cluttered background at home (unless I unfolded the cloth background we have for photo shoots, but propping that up somewhere is difficult). On the webcam, the teal background added a little bit of personality and energy to the image.

    Because of my parents (my dad’s an advertising photographer) and my amateur interest in photography, I knew that good lighting could make a big difference. Although the room’s top-lighting evenly lit the background, it lit my face with high contrast – bad for detail and a feeling of connection! I was thinking of using one of the desk lamps to improve my lighting, but they were clamped to the desks and the power cords were routed within the cubicle dividers, so I couldn’t borrow any of them. Fortunately, I had a hat. (Oh, the many uses of a hat…) The hat brim blocked the light from the top, the room diffused light on my face so that I wasn’t in shadow, the webcam compensated for the brightness levels (and here the teal background helped again; white would have probably been too bright), and we were good to go. The only thing that was missing was a reflector or a secondary light source to provide shaping. ;) I could’ve brought the clamp-lights we have at home, but I didn’t make space for them in my bag. (And I might’ve been tempted to color-gel them too, as they’re daylight-balanced instead of tungsten-balanced… Ah, pickiness! ;) )

    Webcams make a huge difference in terms of communicating energy. People tell me I’m great at sharing my enthusiasm on the phone, but seeing someone be passionate about a topic is even more effective.

    Lesson: Webcams are great. You should definitely have one if you do lots of remote presentations. Also, hats are good for dealing with top lighting. ;) Better yet, plan your remote presentation setup in advance, and bring extra light if you can.

  • The combination of hand-written comments and sketches worked out, too. In the process of creating this presentation, discovered that I could draw more than stick figures (yay!). But those sketches felt a bit more polished and formal than my hand-written messages and stick figures, because I’d obviously put a lot of time into it. The tablet I bought made it easy for me to add simple annotations, although the Elluminate pen tool was jaggy and didn’t smooth the curves. People liked the hand-written comments, though, and they felt that it made the presentations more personable. =)
  • Picking people’s brains rocks. I love discovering the expertise of people around me. Marc Hood contacted me before the session because he was assigned to record it. I asked him if he’d recorded many sessions before, and I was delighted to hear that he’d done thousands. Knowing that, I couldn’t pass up the chance to ask him what characterized the best presentations he’d seen so far. He ended up sharing lots of tips with me on the importance of conversational intimacy, comfort with video, and other things he’d picked up in his experience as a videographer, and I’m going to keep picking his brain about what great presenters are like.

(Yes, I think about these things.)

I think the key thing I’d like to do even better next time is to collect real-time feedback throughout the session. That would be cool, particularly if I end up with interesting data after that.

One of the best things about doing presentations with plenty of time for Q&A is that the resulting discussion helps me think about fascinating topics. For example, one of the participants asked about the advice I gave on encouraging interaction and planning plenty of time for questions. He pointed out that this involved different group mechanics.

As I thought about that change in group mechanics, I realized that I really do flip the “expert-audience” dynamic on its head. When I present, I’m not an all-knowing, all-powerful expert, and I’m not just talking to silent listeners in a darkened auditorium. My mental model of a presentation is that of a well-lit circle of participants. I might be there to share what I’ve learned, but other people also bring a lot of questions, experiences and insights. My work as a speaker is to set the stage for a conversation and get people to think and talk. Sometimes, in quieter cultures, that reflection and conversation happens outside my session, and that’s okay. More and more, though, people really step up to that challenge. They share terrific thoughts during the Q&A, and I learn so much more than what I would have if I had come in “knowing everything”.

I can see how this flip might be difficult or unexpected. In many cultures, the idea of active speaker and passive listener is strong. Traditional education is structured that way. Hierarchical organizations work that way. So it might not always work as perfectly as it did yesterday, but it’s worth it. It might need a little more introduction to encourage people to participate. It might require several attempts before people see it’s okay. It might also be that people may not have the conversation right there with you, but they’ll think about it and talk about it afterwards, and that’s great too.

Adapting is challenging, but the benefits of the approach are so compelling that I don’t want to give presentations any other way. Even in a real-life keynote where I can’t have that two-way communication going on in the background, I try to expand the conversation both before and after the presentation.

Now that I think about it, I can see how the same theme of experimenting with the power dynamic runs through other aspects of my life. I’m relatively new to IBM, having joined it right after grad school. I read books and talk to people about great management and leadership (and many other things). I influence the way people feel about the organization, and how they see their connection to the big picture. I haven’t waited for someone to give me a job position or title that reflects that, because the opportunities to make a difference are all around me, and I want to help others see those opportunities for themselves too.

Even when I was growing up, I thought about dynamics. I read parenting books, getting a better understanding of what my parents were thinking about. I realized that they’re not all-knowing and that they’re also figuring some things out for the first time (despite raising two other kids).

I’d like to keep playing with dynamics as I grow older. If I manage people, I’d like to be the kind of manager focused on serving people and making sure they have what they need to excel. If I follow the executive career path, I’d like to be the kind of executive who values listening to people from all over the organization and outside it. If I build a business, I’d like it to be the kind of business that looks for a problem and solves it instead of making a solution in search of a problem.

I’m sure I’ll revisit this topic and the other ideas shared in that session. I suspect it’ll be well worth the time I spent preparing and delivering the session, and reflecting on the results. This, too, is work: gaining a little more understanding, changing the way we work just a little bit more, and sharing my experiences with others.

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