Too Much Presentation Pressure

The greatest presentation I’ve ever seen at a library conference was many years ago at an ALA conference in Chicago. It may come as no surprise that the presenter was not a librarian. It was Stephen Covey of “seven habits” fame. The presentation was a highly planned, coreographed mix of dazzling slides, dynamic presentation style and mind-blowing segments involving audience members that perfectly demonstrated everything Covey had to tell us about why we needed to join his tribe. It was exactly what I’d expect from Covey. So why should I expect great or even good presentations from academic librarians who are hardly professional presenters like Covey?

Within the last month or so there’s been a resurgence of discussion about librarian presenting skills and how to improve them. Presentation talk is something that comes around every so often. I’ve written about presentations and presenting skills a number of times over the last few years. Most recently several blog posts about presenting were summarized at the Palinet Leadership Network. I applaude the efforts of these bloggers to the raise the bar for our presentations, and for providing advice for better presentations.

I want to write about presentations because I sat in on a few just recently while attending a regional meeting of a national information technology association. Over the course of the day I was subjected to more than a few marginal slides and graphics. I came away thinking that none of the presenters put much effort into their slides, their style of presenting them or how would they engage the attendees (asking if anyone has questions after 40 minutes of talking is not an engagement technique). I did attend one session that examined the uses of storytelling for creating community. The first segment was straight slides and talk over slides. The second segment was an actual folk story told by a professional storyteller. Quite an experience. In the final segment we got into groups and identifed meaningful lessons in the story. The last two segments were much better than the first.

This got me to thinking about whether our profession puts more pressure on itself to strive for better presentations than do other professions. Perhaps we are an anomaly in this respect. Most academic librarians do not go to the conferences of their colleagues in the admissions, student life or counseling offices. Do you think these folks have high expectations for more than just powerpoint slides with someone talking over them? Is it their custom to get activated by presenters who thoroughly engage them? Or do they just expect the bare minimum – bullet points with a guiding voice? At the conferences of our faculty colleagues you’ll find presenters reading papers. Yes, that’s still considered the norm for how to present at some scholarly conferences. Academic librarianship, I think, is an overachiever when it comes to presentation expectations.

Perhaps we’d be better off to lower our expectations for our conference presenters. We absolutely have a right to good presentations, to be engaged, and to participate. We should be the recipients of well thought out, well planned and well coordinated speeches (I still recall a presenter who had five minutes of time left, was on slide 42 of 67 slides – we had a slide handout – and cheerfully mentioned it was his first time using PowerPoint and it looked like he wouldn’t finish all his slides – in a way a big relief). On the other hand, most academic librarians might do one or two presentations a year at most; many do less. Like so many other things developing as a great presenter requires practice. One or two presentations a year just won’t get you there. In his recent book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell estimates that to be successful at anything you need to invest 10,000 hours of practice. I doubt that even the best librarian presenters have done 1,000 hours worth of presentations. Doing regular instruction sessions may help to keep one comfortable with public speaking, but presenting to an audience of one’s peers requires a considerably different mentality and approach.

Is it asking too much of someone who rarely presents to whip up a highly creative, highly visual, highly interactive presentation for a one-shot deal? Sure, if someone does multiple keynotes a year and is getting a respectable honorarium then the expectations should be much higher. But for the average academic librarian presenter perhaps we can manage to sit through 45 minutes of bullet points and talk over slides. As long as we learn something new or useful or it leads to a good discussion, I think that’s what counts. If we don’t learn anything new or are at worst just befuddled by someone’s presentation, well, we know whose presentation we probably won’t attend again.

So with a presentation overachieving profession such as ours can we somehow achieve a balance between really great presentations that are far and few between and really bad presentations we all dread sitting through? ACRL has tried to work on this in the past. They would invite speakers who’d be presenting at the ACRL conference in the spring to attend a workshop on presenting skills at ALA midwinter. The workshop leader went over all the basic tips for how to make better use of slides, tips for organizing a presentation and ideas for engaging the audience. That ACRL doesn’t do this anymore probably tells you that it didn’t help all that much. And even though there is a mass of information available on the Internet on how to present better, video examples, blogger discussions, and more that should help presenters to do better, we still sit through the kinds of presentations I sat through just recently.

We have some choices:

First, as a profession we can decide to lower our expectations, acknowledge that there’s no reason to put pressure on librarians to make great presentations, and refrain from an endless cycle of criticizing the quality of librarian presentations and hoping that advice articles and blog posts will made a difference. Let’s face it, most of us are not and will never be Seth Godin, Sir Kenneth Robinson or Steve Jobs when it comes to presenting. This might be a good decision for improving our collective mental health.

Second, we can radically rethink our conference presentations. Formal conferences and unconferences have tried the lightning talk or pecha kucha style of presentation and while these methods have their drawbacks they do eliminate the problem of long, bullet-ridden slide talks. They also put more emphasis on audience reaction and participation. I think both methods require good moderators. We could decide to adopt these formats in a bigger way at association conferences.

Third, we can rethink what it means to deliver a library conference/program presentation. I’ve been thinking it should be more like blogging. Blog posts aren’t expected to be highly polished and edited forms of writing. They should be rough around the edges. It’s a way to get out ideas that are just forming, and to allow the community to react through commentary – which helps to better shape the ideas in the long run. Why can’t our presentations be somewhat the same. Let’s encourage librarians to focus on getting out the ideas, telling the story and getting audience reaction, rather than emphasizing the quality of the slides/visuals and presentation style. That, I think, would go a long way towards reducing presentation pressure. Of course, it might also lead to some bad presentations. But would we be any worse off than we are now?

Finally, if we are really serious about an effort to improve librarian presentations at all of our conferences, my modest proposal is that our profession as a whole needs to do a better job of helping all its members to improve their presentation skills. One way we could all work together to move in this direction would be for conference sponsors, such as ALA and ACRL, to offer post-conference web-based evaluations where candid and frank praise and criticism could be provided for conference presentations. Comments could be provided for slides/visuals, opening sequence (did it engage or bore), effectiveness of props if used, speaker enthusiasm, audience engagement and other dimensions of good presentations. If I could obtain honest feedback on my presentations it would be tremendously helpful – and anonymous criticism is fine as long as it’s professional. And I know that other presenters would benefit from reading it too. Think of it as a learning community for presenters.

But offering feedback and commentary on someone’s presentation takes time. We all have to commit to communally improving the quality of our profession’s presentations. If we really want better presentations it is up to us to make a difference.

24 thoughts on “Too Much Presentation Pressure

  1. Great post, Steven.

    We’ve all sat through bad presentations by our librarian peers while at the same time feeling a sense of solidarity with the less-than-stellar presenter who is up there sweating and droning. In the audience, I think we all feel, Hey, that’s me up there, just another working stiff bravely fulfilling a requirement for tenure or promotion.

    I do take exception to this idea you put forth: “At the conferences of our faculty colleagues you’ll find presenters reading papers. Yes, that’s still considered the norm for how to present at some scholarly conferences.”

    When a presenter is a good writer, I am very happy to hear a paper read. That technique probably doesn’t work so well with a statistics-heavy paper full of pseudo-scientific prose. But a thoughtful essay-style paper, elegantly written, makes a fine presentation, I think, and it’s a tradtion of the academic community that should not be so lightly dismissed. It has its place alongside the whiz-bang, “highly-successful” presentations of gods-who-tread-the-earth such as Steven Covey.

  2. Stephen, really thought provoking post, and I will think more about it (but I don’t generally think lowering our standards for scholarship is a good idea in any way).

    Personally, I don’t see any reason to cut someone slack for bad powerpoint. I personally would rather attend a good, thoughtful, useful presentation without a powerpoint running behind than a presentation brought weeping to it’s knees by bad powerpoint, or ask presenters to spend their scarce time developing entertaining but uninformative graphics to amuse me and/or distract me from their content.

  3. Steven, I found your blog post very interesting. There are a couple of things I’d like to respond to.

    1. With respect to possibly “livening up” the presentations – and I agree that slide after slide of PowerPoint bullet-points with a voice-over from the presenter can be mind-numbing (albeit the “norm” – one idea might be to set 2 rules: 1. No PowerPoint allowed! 2. Presenters can have a 1-page outline to refer to and that’s it!

    Not that that would necessarily turn a mediocre presenter into a public speaking superstar, but at least that would put the focus on the presenter instead of a projection screen…

    2. Getting / offering feedback on presentation skills is a bit dicey: my direct experience over many years of public speaking and presenting and training is that people are typically polite. Sure, there’s the occasional person who’s happy to rip you to shreds, and I’ll estimate that your group of Librarians would likely be able to offer feedback that might even be somewhat useful, but therein lies the rub: If I’m out golfing (I don’t golf, this is just an analogy) “Joe Schmoe’s” feedback on my game is worthless to me even if he’s a better golfer. Now if Tiger Woods’ golf coach has something to say, now I’m listening, but then there will probably be an invoice attached!

    Finally, perhaps you could offer some kind of valuable prize for the person voted as having the most interesting/exciting presentation?

    Best,
    David Portney

  4. Re “whether our profession puts more pressure on itself to strive for better presentations than do other professions:”

    We go through a cycle every couple of years in my field of decrying bad PP, bad talks, etc., but rarely get to the point of offering the sensible suggestions above (unfortunately). For my part, I really dedicated myself to polishing up my own talks after one year of attending our nat’l conference on my own dime. Since then, I’ve tried to prepare as though the entire audience has paid to be there. I don’t know that I’m quite there yet, but I’ve gotten better, and I treat it as something that is important to work on.

    A second thing that I’ve tried to do (as a graduate director in a PhD program) is to create lower-stake opportunities for my students (and me!) to practice these skills and to get formative feedback. During a recent faculty search, I heard some of those students talking about the research talks as presentations (and how they would do things themselves), which I take as a good sign!

    Nice post…

    cgb

  5. Despite being one of those people complaining and writing about bad presentations, I’m not sure there really is all that much pressure to present well. If there is pressure most people seem to be dealing with it quite well by just ignoring it.

  6. What about offering help to presenters BEFORE the conference? Presenters may be painfully aware of how dull their presentations are and simply not know where to start to improve the experience for the audience. If there were some colleagues willing to provide review support for PP slides before the conference we may be able to liven up or pare down the presentations before sitting through them.

  7. I, too, have been dismayed by boring powerpoint at library conferences, but, as rmm says, I know it’s been me before, too. As an audience member, I can just ignore boring powerpoint and focus on watching and listening to the speaker. I also agree with rww that hearing a paper read is often a perfectly appropriate way to receive information at a conference, and it has the advantage, too, of helping the presenter stay on topic and on time.

    While dynamic speakers with entertaining speaking styles are always a pleasure to hear at conferences, I am more concerned with well-researched, well-organized, original content than presentation style – plain-jane powerpoint or paper-reading is fine with me if I feel like the content itself is engaging. I think this is kind of what Steven is getting at when he suggests we “encourage librarians to focus on getting out the ideas, telling the story and getting audience reaction, rather than emphasizing the quality of the slides/visuals and presentation style.” I feel like I’ve seen plenty of librarian conference presentations that I thought were thin on content, and those have been the most frustrating for me to sit through.

    Conferences at which I have presented have always forwarded me the survey feedback from attendees. But I agree with David – that this might be more helpful coming from people with acknowledged expertise on presenting. If we think many of our colleagues don’t present well, we might be wise to take their feedback with some reservations!

  8. Librarians are expected to adequately convey their ideas all the time. Sometimes that means doing presentations at staff meetings, at community events and at conferences. Being good at giving a presentation is something every librarian and library worker should strive for. It could indeed mean the difference between having an idea accepted or an idea ignored.

    BTW while some have said that they are tolerant of those who don’t do good presentations at a conference, how many bad presentations have you walked out on? None? Never been tempted? And what if that person had better presentation skills? Would you be more likely to stay in order to hear the information?

    BTW I hope that all MLS students have opportunities in school to learn how to do good presentations. Even when they go on job interviews (and have to do job talks), it is a skill that will serve them well.

  9. I think good presentation skills are essential, and I firmly believe that we should expect good presentations from our colleagues. As academic librarians, many of us teach at least occasionally, thus theoretically honing our presentation skills even without presenting at conferences. As a conference attendee, I do expect to get something out of the presentations I watch. Just as I expect our articles to be well-written. The message won’t get across clearly if our communication skills — written or oral — aren’t strong.

    I would like to see us promote good presentation skills more in our library schools (which I do a wee bit in my reference class), in libraries where we work, and in our conferences. Another way to help improve our collective skills might be to have conference sessions on presentation skills … possibly with some role-playing? comments from the audience? interactivity? This could be helpful not only for future conferences, but also for our students.

  10. Hi Steven,

    A very thought provoking post! However, I think you present some false choices here…

    There is a middle ground between devoting a lot of time to learning how to do a great presentation and simply droning on with bad slides and a monotone.

    Here’s how to do a decent presentation in a few short steps. Ask (and answer):

    1) Who is my audience?

    2) What is my goal? As a result of hearing me, I want participants to do___________ (insert specific change in behavior)

    3) What do participants need to know make it likely that they will do__________?

    4) What do they NOT need to know (but maybe it would be nice for them to know? Put that in a handout, wiki, or website. Or just skip it if it’s not that germane.)

    5) What order do they need to know it in? (sequence your content, please).

    6) Knowing that lecture is a terribly ineffective way to change someone’s behavior, or increase their knowledge, what questions can I ask, conversation can I generate, images, sounds, videos can I show, stories/analogies can I share, to get my point(s) across?? (i.e. what can I do to make sure they are not bored witless?)

    7) If you’re using slides: Are they actually readable?? Cuz see if they’re not readable, why bother using them? So:
    - no more than 6 lines of text, six words across (the 6×6 rule)
    - Use a sans serif font. Please!
    - Light text on dark background will give maximum readability in rooms with too much light
    - Use slide to supplement/enhance the information — not to deliver every bit of it.

    Now for bonus points:

    1) Review your talk making sure you have a strong opening that either asks a provocative question, or issues a challenge.

    2) Practice doing your presentation for a few people and asking their feedback.

    3) Review your presentation to make sure you have a mix of questions, stories, images and (if you’re feeling lucky) humor.

    This is not that time-consuming, and it’s not that difficult. It just takes a little thought and a little focus.

    If you’re not going to take the time to actually have your presentation achieve an effect, then why bother? I think most librarians could invest 19.7% more time in exchange for 80.3% more effectiveness. (see I got all statistical, figuring this is an academic audience I’m writing for–haha)

    TThree final points:

    1) The CLENE Round Table is going to have a kick ass pre-conference on Presentation Skills in July. Join our listserv (http://lists.ala.org/wws/info/clenert) or subscribe to our news feed (http://clenenews.blogspot.com/) for details.

    2) Agreed, feedback is key. But giving feedback is in-and-of-itself a skill. Yes, let’s design some good eval forms for the masses to fill out, but it might be just as useful (if not more so) to ask a friend/colleague who knows what good presenting is to sit in and take notes for you and then offer the technical feedback (separating judgment, from observation).

    3) Steven, you are a kick-ass presenter! I see you use great visuals, sound, humor, body language. Your presentations are well-structured, logical, thought-provoking and engaging on many levels. So what are your quick-n-dirty suggestions for the new presenter, or the old one who wants to liven things up?

  11. Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I’m joining this conversation after hearing it discussed on today’s “T is for Training” webinar (http://www.talkshoe.com/talkshoe/web/talkCast.jsp?masterId=24719&cmd=tc): I come down firmly on the side of the discussion suggesting that we should never lower our presentation standards if we expect to be taken seriously and if we want to meet the needs of our customers/audiences. Yes, developing good presentation skills takes practice. Yes, it’s a lot of work. And yes, the payoffs are enormous. Since I don’t want to spend (waste) time enduring presentations which do not effectively convey information, I don’t feel comfortable subjecting others to that sort of presentation (at least not intentionally). And a key point here: many of us affiliated with libraries or providers of library training-teaching-learning programs are realizing that training is becoming more important to library staff and users than it has ever been. If we don’t rise to the challenge, that part of our responsibilities will gladly and enthusiastically be filled by others, and we will continue hearing the nonsensical question “are libraries still relevant?”

  12. Nice post, Steven.

    I recently served on a conference program committee of an annual teaching and learning with technology conference most likely sponsored by the “national information technology association” you mentioned. I have presented at several different conferences hosted by this national information technology association and each time I received feedback not only from audience members about my presentation (invaluable!) but also feedback on my proposal (invaluable too!).

    As a conference program committee member I actually had access to the speaker audience feedback and it weighed into decisions to accept presentations (it was one of many criteria). We only used the speaker audience feedback to look for red flags. As a committee we talked a lot about how we might help people with their presenting skills, but nothing has been decided.

    As someone who read a whole lot of conference proposals, it was clear to me that some folks need help with presenting their ideas in writing as well. The conference program chair (who also happened to be high up in the administration of the organization) even allowed folks to submit their proposals to her for feedback before the final submission. She viewed this as professional development. Most people who took advantage of this option were non-native English speakers.

    I would highly advocate for presenter feedback at both the presenting and proposal writing levels. After all, participating in conferences in professional development and we should help each other grow in that capacity.

    This conference I assisted with was much smaller than ALA or ACRL, but it still seems that there could be ways to provide various levels of feedback.

  13. Thanks for the thoughtful comments – and challenges – to my post on presenting. Even in the comments I can feel some of that pressure coming through. Offering help and hints in advance may enable some librarians to do a better job but this help has been widely available and it doesn’t seem to be getting the job done. For some presenters maybe. But no one seemed to take up my point about practice and experience – and how crucial that is. If we want librarians to be better presenters – and we clearly have high expectations for good presentations at our programs – just giving tips isn’t enough. We need to give people authentic practice and opportunities to learn and improve by doing. Peter – I hope the CLENE roundtable will go beyond giving advice but will actually put librarians in presentation situations to give them authentic practice. You ask what my tip is. I don’t really know if I have a good one other than to practice and experiment. Get out and do as many presentations as you can – and try something new/different everytime. Sometimes it won’t work but you won’t know if you don’t try. Peter – you happened to catch one of my good presentations. I’ve had some that haven’t worked so well. But if you never have a presentation that didn’t go as you planned you probably aren’t trying new things. My most recent presentation, a 5-minute lightning talk, used stick figure drawings. Very little text. Just the drawings. My art is not good. I had no idea how people would react. But they liked it. I think it was not the drawings, but the design of the presentation which was built around a story. I guess that’s my final tip. Move away from presenting facts, and move towards telling your story.

  14. Steven:

    If all of us really missed the point about practice and experience–and it appears we dd–it was only because you gave us so much to chew on in your original article. Having jus finished Gladwell’s “Outliers,” I’ve find myself looking even more at the importance of practice and experience–something that was never far from my mind anyway and looking for ways to make sure those critically important elements are not ignored in everything I do. I can assure you, since Lori Reed and I are doing CLENE’s ALA morning preconference workshop in Chicago this summer, that attendees are not going to be listening to nonstop lectures; we’re working on exercises to engage everyone, to give them fun and thought-provoking experiences they can apply in their workplace, and to leave them with ideas of what they can do next to continue improving their presentation skills. And, as always happens in communities of trainer-teacher-learners, we suspect we’re going to learn more than a few things along the way while having a good time.

  15. For those using MS PPT, look at:
    Beyond Bullet Points -http://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Bullet-Points-PowerPoint%C2%AE-Presentations/dp/0735623872/ref=sr_1_15?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1233585612&sr=1-15
    and for all:
    Slide:ology – http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0596522347/garrreynoldsc-20
    The Association of Research Libraries used to do a “training skills institute” that had, as one of its components, presentation skills. No longer available, there is now a nice niche for some continuing education in this arena. Would it be helpful for ACRL to do either e-learning or in person events on this topic?

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