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.