Tom Whitby (aka @TomWhitby) posed an interesting question a few weeks ago asking “Are EDU conferences meeting our needs?” We can probably expand that to include most conferences and ask if there are things we can do to make the whole conference experience better. Tom writes:
I always wonder why experienced educators with a firm grasp on learning and methods of teaching would subject their audience of adults to presentations that they know would never work with their students.
The sage on the stage with powerpoint clicker in hand is not the best way to teach and is not usually best way to get an group of adults thinking either. I say usually because TED Talks are a sage on a stage with a powerpoint clicker in hand and lets face it, they work. Some people have the skills to turn a presentation into a performance that sticks. Sometimes the stickiness is due to the uniqueness of the information and sometimes it due to the style and presence of the presenter. With Ted Talks it’s often both an amazing new way to see the world presented in a spell binding way. What about the rest of us? What do we do when we have information or a perspective that we want to share but lack the tricks of the presentation trade? How do we make our conference presentations stickier?
There is lots of great information about the actual format of presentation slides so we’ll leave that part alone. This is more of an “in addition to” or an “OMG I don’t have time to become a creative genius in slide creation” type post.
This is not just for boy scouts. Preparation includes practice and while practice may not make perfect it does make it permanent. If you are uncomfortable in front of a group the biggest gift you can give yourself is rote learning the content of your presentation. Yes, i used the “R” word. Practice your presentation a lot. State based learning theory suggests that we should practice what we want to remember in a state that resemble the conditions under which we need to perform. So, unless you are delivering you presentation in front of your computer or in your lazy chair at home you might want to stand up and imagine the room that you will be in when you do your presentation. If possible, enlist your family, friends or pets as practice audience members. Remember to imagine people really enjoying your presentation too! Visualizing the outcome works.
Asking question at the beginning of a presentation, and throughout, cues audience members minds to pay attention. You remember the don’t think about the blue box thing aka you cannot think about not thinking about something. Questions work the same way. You cannot not think about a response, when you hear a question. If time is a challenge you don’t have to get people to answer, just say something like – My presentation today is in response to these questions.. then ask the questions. All thinking begins with questions, not answers, so if you want your presentations to be stickier include questions.
There are a couple of ways to do this. During the presentation, if you have time, conduct a short Think, Pair, Share. This is like a formative assessment and if you create simple and open ended questions that folks can chew on and chat about briefly and then summarize easily you will increase the stickiness factor exponentially. Remember, we don’t remember what happens in a presentation (or anywhere else), we remember what we think about what happens. So give people a few minutes to think and then to talk (think out loud) and then to share (constructivism in action). If this is not possible, and even if you do this, provide a way for individuals and the entire group to reflect after the presentation. One way to do this is to use Thoughtstream to invite people to reflect individually and then share those reflections with a wider group. Yes, you can do this on paper too but be warned that doing this on paper is a lot of work for you. You can also do it via email or survey but again, more work for you. In any case, ask questions like:
- What did you learn from this presentation?
- Will you do anything differently as a result of this presentation?
- Describe what you will do differently?
- What new ideas bubbled up for you during this presentation?
Ask for feedback
You can make this part of the invitation to reflect or make it a separate activity. Feed your facilitator is a mantra that I’ve shouted over many years of providing facilitator training. Quality feedback feeds the ego with a healthy balanced diet. Ask for feedback regularly as a way of seeing yourself through other peoples eyes. You may be surprised by the feedback you receive. Most of us are way harder on ourselves than others are so be prepared for some positive feedback mixed with surprising glimpses into what we are personally unaware of – What do you mean I clicked my pen to the tune of Row Row Row Your Boat all the way through the presentation?! – Ask questions like:
- Please tell me how my presentation affected you?
- In what ways did this presentation meet your needs and expectations?
- In what ways did it miss the mark?
- What can I do to make this presentation better?
- What can I do to improve the way I present?
Questions like that will get you the food you need to grow as a presenter.
Making conferences better
These are things individuals can do to make presentations at conferences better. What about the conference as a whole? Do the same principles apply? I think they could. As Tom suggests – preparation – ensuring social media channels are available and organized ahead of time helps. Maybe provide a poster at the entrance or a cheat sheet for folks who are new to the backchannel. Something as simple as a short explainer about how to use the official Twitter hashtag for the conference can make all the difference. Uhm.. ya, make sure you have a hashtag picked out and promoted ahead of time. A QR Code or two can work wonders also, providing people either know how to use them or have easy access to learn how to use them.
An obvious part of preparation is making sure the topics presented at the conference are timely and well thought out. Hey, could this be an occasion to source your community for topics? Again Thoughtstream is a great way to do just that but other methods can work also. For example Google Drive is being used by many an educator to get suggestions about what presentations and presenters are most wanted at EduCamps.
Providing opportunities for questions and asking for formative feedback can be done in a myriad of creative ways. How about feedback stations or posters with post-its so attendees can provide real time feedback. Think graffiti wall or a repurposed affinity charting process.
Most conferences include some kind of post assessment process, often on paper or via survey. These are kind of like an ungraded test. How about a dedicated blog site set up in advance that provides opportunities for reflection and ongoing connection? Just remember to send out invitations to reflect a day or two after the conference. If you wait too long people will forget salient points and if you invite too soon you risk your invite being buried in email. Timing counts but not as much as the act of inviting people to reflect on the conference, provide feedback and maintain connections with the folks they met.
The point here is that there are so many ways to improve the conference experience… ditto for any group learning experience… that we should’t be at a loss for ideas. So what stops us?