Dead Wildebeests and the Self Conscious Crocodile: Pres4Lib 2009

The Library is a learning place!On Friday, I went to the Pres4Lib conference organized by the bloggers of Library Garden. It was a conference for presenters and trainers and focused on ways to improve presentation skills and use of media aids. I generally don’t do a lot of presentations in a month, but I do run programs and classes so any sort of help for talking in front of people is a boon to me.

After a good night’s sleep and a glance at my notes, there is a theme that emerges for me: presentations are the product of a human and media symbiotic relationship. While it is true that a person can present without any outside aids (slides, handouts, and the like), the norm for presentations has shifted to a multimedia experience. At a minimum, there should be a visual aid to go along with the speaker’s dialogue. This is the axis point that the relationship of person and technology revolves around, for one can dramatically impact (even overshadow) the other. This isn’t something new to presenters, but it is more of a cautionary tale as presentation tools gain new features.  In addition, each factor is radically different: the human is subjective, the media is objective.

In the Birds of a Feather groups that I attended, there was a lot of talk about the personal aspects of presenting. It felt more like an informal presentation support group in which people swapped stories and traded tips about what works for them. The psychological value of these sessions was innumerable as reminded me that (1) I’m not the only one who gets butterflies, “ums” and “ahs”, and is trying to be comfortable in front of an audience and (2) that presentation style is unique to the person. As for the first, the conference has given me a network of fellow presenters that I can reach out to for advice, encouragement, and commiseration. A little confidence that can come from peer encouragement can go a long way. It also gave me additional ways to think of the audience that my presentation anxiety had not allowed me to previously consider: that the audience does not want the presenter to fail, that they want to get something out of it (even if it means not being uncomfortable during the whole duration of their disinterest in what you have to say), and that they should be treated as passengers in your presentation. To this last aspect, the mere mental image of being a driver giving a tour of a town to his passengers is an oddly soothing thought for me. It erases the notion of adversarial intent and puts me on the same side as those who are hearing me speak: a journey of sight and sound, if you will. 

As for the second point, it is about becoming comfortable with your own personality as a presentation style. A soft spoken introverted nature can be as powerful as a boisterous energetic extrovert when the speaker appears (for lack of a better term) natural. It is the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” of presentation skills: working with your personality strengths while minimizing your “weaknesses”. While not all personality types are equally suited for engaging an audience, it is through using your unique combination of traits that can make the presentation memorable. The comfort of being in your own skin combined with the appearance of confidence in rhetoric are distinguishing features that an audience can latch onto and appreciate. I don’t want to break down into clichés such as “You are a beautiful little snowflake”, but for each speaker, the presentation style is personal. Find your comfort zone, be confident in the expression of your concepts and ideas, and let that move your audience to follow you.

The role of media in a presentation is devilishly simple: it is to drive home the talking points of the speaker. And the Devil, as they say, is in the details. There are a number of potential aids in the speaker’s toolbox these days: slides, movies, audio, pictures, whiteboards, and handouts are but a few items to be used. But which ones truly work to support the point you want to make?

Steven Bell’s lightning talk about using video in presentations was my major eye opening experience for the conference. The incorporation of video into a presentation opens up fresh and bold avenues of supporting the presenter’s dialogue. It’s more than just something to keep the audience awake, it is an attention-grabber-and-never-let-go-er. With interview style videos, you can create co-presenters who repeat or reinforce your talking points. It’s the ultimate in "But don’t take my word for it!” type of persuasive speech. The weight and credibility that people lend to a third party is a powerful tool that should be utilized more often when telling a narrative. In addition, it is more exciting than a graph, figure, or other non-moving visual demonstration. Don’t let a chart say it if you can have a real person proclaim it. The ability to use video to show people what you are talking about is an incredible tool in this increasingly visual society.

A close second was John DeMasney’s talk about Picasa presentation slides. While PowerPoint is a standard to most speakers, the flexibility of Picasa in image generation was exciting to me. Static pictures can be used to suggest themes and ideas to get the audience thinking about something before you even say a work about it. With Creative Common images, there is a massive multitude of copyright safe images that can be used in slides. Let the pictures be the accompanying visual to your words. It’s so simple yet so powerful for a speaker; for me, it was a reminder that even the most simple of visual materials can create the desired audience reaction and engagement. 

(Note: Each of the Lightning Talks was excellent. I could talk about all of them but I wanted to pick the ones that got me all aflutter. Check out the video archive on the Pres4Lib wiki to see all of them. I highly recommend it.)

The lesson here is to marry the presentation media with your style in a way that compliments each aspect the most. In mentioning marriage, the rule of thumb attributed to bridal parties might actually explain it best: the bridesmaids (your accompanying media) should look good, but not as good as the bride (you). The right kind and amount of visual and auditory aids should intertwine and support your talking points. Every additional material should move the audience closer to the goal of your talk, whether it is to inform, train, or otherwise. It should also compliment the presenter’s style and manner which is (as stated above) uniquely their own. It is the symbiotic relationship between person and media that makes the presentation a memorable full sensory experience.

I am very thankful to the Pres4Lib organizers for putting this together. And I am certainly looking forward to another shot at Battledecks next year. I plan on improving upon my previous effort.

As to the title of the this post, I offer you the following convoluted anecdote:

I have been reading the book “Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life” by Len Fisher. In one of the chapters, he talks about a game theory scenario called The Volunteer’s Dilemma. This situation entails a group that is facing a problem in which an action needs to be taken but the person who volunteers to take the action opens themselves up to a greater risk of a negative effect. However, if no one takes the action, the entire group suffers. In the book, Len describes a herd of wildebeest crossing the plains of Africa. To reach new grazing lands to sustain the herd, they have to cross rivers. These rivers are the domain of very hungry and territorial crocodiles. If the herd doesn’t cross the river, they will surely die of starvation from the lack of adequate food. So, the first arrivals stand on the edge of the river until the pressure behind them builds to a point where a wildebeest “volunteers” (pushed or of own volition) to start crossing the river. This brave beast risks being the crocodile’s first meal, but the rest of herd can now cross at a (relatively) reduced risk.

I told that background story so I could tell you this story as it relates to Pres4Lib.

So, in the first Bird of a Feather session in the morning, the topic of discussion was called Getting Started. We’ve talked about “hooks” (grabbing the audience’s attention), about introducing any elephants in the room as an icebreaker, and had turned the topic to transitions (moving between different talking points and formats). Amy Kearns had asked about what to do when you ask a question of the audience and no one answers. Someone said that you just leave the question out there till the audience actually answers when I rather “brightly” said to the group.

“Oh! That sounds just like The Volunteer’s Dilemma!”

After explaining what this was, I related the presentation situation to the dilemma. The audience is the herd of wildebeest, the crocodiles represent the feeling of being self conscience, and the river is the question posed by the presenter. While it is true that the presenter can get the audience off the hook by answering the question, they have all lost a chance to open up a dialogue with the presenter. A fear of being wrong or awkward or other possible negative outcomes in answering in front of a group is “the self conscious crocodile”, the thing preventing people from freely answering the question. No one wants to get eaten by that dinosaur throwback and so they stand at the proverbial river bank shifting in place. Even so, with a taciturn audience, you could even mention this scenario as a secondary icebreaker and a means to further elicit an answer.

So, there is no need to think of your audience naked. Unless, of course, the thought of a room full of naked wildebeests is somewhat soothing.