Sudden Thoughts And Second Thoughts

Even Lightning Gets More Time

I like lightning talks. I have given four of them now. It’s a challenge to come up with a sensible presentation that still manages a good learning experience while hopefully entertaining the crowd. All have been in the 5 minute range. That’s precious little time to say anything of much substance – but I talk fast. To my way of thinking 5 minutes is the right amount of time for a sensible lightning talk. And it’s still challenging enough that many who try cannot complete in 5 minutes. Well I just saw a program announcement where they are offering the stupendously generous time of 3 minutes for a lightning talk. My reaction to that is “why bother?”. Is there really much of anything you can say or do of value in so short a time – and would you really want to be in the audience at this thing? Are we now having a competition to see who can come up with the shortest lightning talk program? What’s next? A 30-second lightning talk? Perhaps a lightning talk where you only get 140 characters. This is getting ridiculous.

Those Other L-School Grads Aren’t Getting Jobs and They Are Mad As Hell and Not Taking It

Have you been following what’s going on with those disgruntled law school graduates who are incredibly pissed off because no law firms are offering them high-paying jobs as soon as they are handed their diplomas? They made the choice to become lawyers, and they made the choice to go into deep debt ($100K or more is not uncommon). Now they are blaming their law schools and their career offices for misleading them about their job prospects. From a USA Today article:

A small but growing coalition of graduates, on blogs with names like “Scammed Hard” and “Shilling Me Softly,” blame their alma maters for luring them into expensive programs by overstating their employment prospects.

Then of course there is the law school graduate who calls herself Unemployed JD who is making an even bigger fuss by going on a hunger strike until law schools agree to divulge career data. That generated its own little controversy when it turned out the law school graduate behind the whole thing really did have a job. I’m not going to rehash all the details here – you can read the story if you care.

I’m not sure what to make of all this. I can understand the students getting upset if the law school recruiters and admissions advisers really did lead them to believe that 99.9% of law school grads get high-paying jobs within 6 months of graduation. But could the law schools have predicted three years ago when those students enrolled that the economy would tank and that law firms would lose lots of business. So it seems just a bit unrealistic for the students to turn around and blame the law schools.

Reading this, and knowing how the economic crisis has severely impacted libraries and their hiring practices in all sectors (both budget cuts and the slowing of retirements), it is difficult to feel any sympathy at all for law school students or lawyers. According to the USA Today article, among 2009 law school graduates, 88% are employed, and that’s down from 92% in 2007. I have no idea what percent of 2009 LIS students are employed, but I’m going to guess it’s no where near 88% – heck, I bet it’s not even 50%. So should we librarians really feel all that bad for the other L-School graduates? I don’t think so. And even if jobless LIS graduates were to go on hunger strikes, protest in the streets, run naked through the halls of Congress – do you think that even a single newspaper in this country would pay any attention (OK – maybe the running naked through the halls of Congress might attract some – after the arrests). Not a chance in hell. Did USA Today have anything to say about The Unemployed Librarian‘s blog? So sorry LIS grads. It looks like the lawyers will continue to get all the “Why Won’t Anyone Hire Me” attention.

BTW, I’m glad to report that Elizabeth, the unemployed librarian, is now the Employed Librarian. So there is some good news out there on the job front.

The Accidental Academic Library Janitor: Book Review

In this fascinating account of one librarian’s act of courage in taking on responsibilities at his library that no one else would dare accept, we learn the true meaning of professional passion. The Accidental Academic Library Janitor, authored by Jack Van Der Kammp, begins when Van Der Kammp is hired as the new Interlibrary Loan Librarian at Dippinger College. For two years Van Der Kammp labors at filling requests from students and faculty, all of which registers barely a nod of recognition from his co-workers or the administration. But like all librarians who achieve accidental greatness, Van Der Kammp passes through his crucible on a wintry day in February 2008.

Though not suitable for repetition in this highly respected journal, Van Der Kammp artfully recalls the worst poop incident in the history of the Susanna D. Drake Memorial Library. While his colleagues stand by in shock and disgust, Van Der Kammp goes looking for help only to realize the regular library janitor never made it to work that day. With no one else willing to go within 10 feet of the horrific scene, Van Der Kammp explains how he grabbed the pail, mop and Lysol, took matters into his own hands, and forged his destiny as The Accidental Academic Library Janitor.

Over eight insightfully written chapters, Van Der Kammp enlightens other academic librarians on how they too can become an Accidental Academic Library Janitor. Topics cover all the vital skills for would be library janitors such as best cleansers for greasy sink goo, keeping urinal cakes where they belong, how to remove pornographic graffiti from the men’s stalls, advanced techniques for fast cleanups after library raves, and most important of all, how to stay one step ahead of the real library janitor. Van Der Kammp’s book is a timely addition to the library literature because in this period of harsh budget cuts our academic libraries are constantly threatened with the loss of the janitorial staff. And when that happens, readers of The Accidental Academic Library Janitor will be poised to jump into action. Like Van Der Kammp, they too can become a prime candidate for the American Library Association’s Milton R. Grenich Library Housekeeper of the Year Prize, awarded annually by the LLAMA Interest Group on Sanitary Facility Management. Highly recommended for all academic library collections.

Scenes From A Conference

Scenes from a Conference – Part 1

Speaker: I hate PowerPoint. That’s why I’m using Prezi for my presentation today. Who (asks audience) uses Prezi? (a few hands go up).

Speaker: Yeah! (fist pump) Prezi is so cool.

Speaker’s first slide: Two bullet points. Speaker proceeds to talk over first slide for five minutes with no additional Prezi action.

Speaker’s second slide: Four bullet points. Speaker reads them off the slide. Wait. There was a really cool transition between slides one and two. Looks like a circle rotating. Impressive.

Speaker’s third slide: A screenshot that is impossible to read from anywhere in the room. But the transition from slide two to slide three was amazing – looks like slide three came out of nowhere.

Speaker’s fourth slide: Another impossible to see/interpret visual. Oh wait. It’s a graph. Speaker proceeds to explain it in detail while talking to the slide.

Speaker’s remaining slides: You get the idea.

Yes sir Mr. Cool Speaker. Using Prezi instead of PowerPoint certainly did make for a rockin’ presentation.

Point: It really doesn’t matter if you use PowerPoint or Prezi or no visuals at all. If you fail to put preparation, passion and practice into your presentation it’s going to be a bad experience for the audience. Remember that your presentation is about the audience and giving them a great experience, not showing them cool presentation technology. If you do want to try new presentation technology – go for it – but only if it serves the goal of enhancing the experience for the audience and the technology plays only a supporting role. Done well, the audience should hardly even notice it. They should be too engaged with your message and delivery.

Scenes from a Conference – Part 2

Speaker One: Thanks for attending my session. However, I’m sorry that I don’t have a PowerPoint (one person claps). I hope that won’t be a problem for you. I’ll do the best I can without them.

Speaker Two: Thanks for attending my session. The first thing I want to tell you is that I don’t have any PowerPoint slides. Then again, I don’t use it. PowerPoint is bad.

There’s no rule dictating that as a conference presenter you must use visuals, whether it’s PowerPoint, Prezi or anything else. So if you opt to just talk to the audience without visuals, that’s fine. What’s not so great is when presenters without visuals do one of the following:

(a) Apologize for not having visuals
(b) Proudly assert that there are no visuals

In the case of (a) the speaker feels that he or she is somehow disappointing the audience by failing to offer visuals. The speaker may not realize that the audience really isn’t all that concerned about the lack of visuals – unless the speaker’s topic could be better understood with some visual evidence.

In the case of (b) the speaker appears to be reveling in their choice to not use slides. He or she seems intent on letting the audience know he or she is a rebel who is bucking the trend by just talking without visuals. He or she wants everyone to know how different they are.

Point: No matter what the situation is, visuals or none, just don’t mention it at all. It’s not a good way to start a presentation. The audience really doesn’t care if you have visuals or not, nor do they need to hear you apologize or boast – whatever the case may be. The audience came to your session to hear what you have to say about the topic – to hear your message – not to hear you make pronouncements unrelated to the topic. So just get right to your talk. The audience will figure out pretty quickly that you don’t have visuals, and as long as the presentation succeeds at communicating the message, the audience will leave having had a good learning experience.

Bonus Tip: Avoid the impulse to start your presentation by giving an overview of your institution (e.g. student profile, number of books in the library, etc) and accompanying photos. I still encounter far too much of this at library conferences. The urge to do so is understandable because it’s something all speakers are comfortable with, and having something you’ll easily remember, and which is easy to present, is a way to get over the “start of the presentation jitters”. Again, the presentation is not about you and your comfort level – it’s about the audience and what they came to hear.

For your next presentation consider challenging yourself by starting with the most important piece of information the audience should hear (e.g., the results of your study, what you learned from your new student orientation program, etc), and if possible present it as a personal story – which is just as easy for a presenter to remember. If you want to talk about your library or institution you should be able to find multiple points throughout the presentation to slip those things in. For example: “So I was telling you about our new student orientation program. Big State U enrolls 10,000 freshmen each year – and that brings our total enrollment up to 50,000 FTEs.”

If you need to hear this from another source take a look at this blog post over at The Eloquent Woman – which is actually a pretty good blog for presentation tips and ideas.

Sudden Thoughts And Second Thoughts

Cooperation or Duplication

Here’s an interesting project from a few libraries out west that have decided to cooperatively build a library of video instructional tutorials. So far the tutorials cover the usual things, such as popular vs. scholarly journals, why you need to cite sources, and how to develop search terms. The Cooperative Library Instruction Project makes sense because why should every library be creating its own tutorials. Why not just have one generic tutorial, not specific to any library, that can be locally customized for use by many; wasn’t that the point of TILT. That saves time and faculty could also be directed to the site for incorporating the instruction into their courses. But isn’t the idea of sharing academic library tutorials the whole point of ACRL’s PRIMO repository of instructional materials? And why create new tutorials when there may be perfectly good ones out there? For example, I think this tutorial on scholarly versus popular is quite satisfactory. Why wouldn’t the cooperative include this rather than create a new one? Isn’t that the point of cooperation – not to reinvent the wheel? All that said, take a look at the Cooperative’s tutorials. You might prefer them to others you’ve tried.

Overheard on the Quiet Car

I recently took the Acela to Boston, and was able to get on the quiet car for the 5-hour ride back to Philadelphia. I couldn’t help but notice the conductor’s announcement: “This is the quiet car. There is no cell phone use allowed. All conversation must be kept at a whisper. In the quiet car we like to keep a library-like atmosphere.” I can’t say for sure but I’m guessing it’s been a while since that conductor visited a library.

Does This Mean They Liked Me?

It used to be that when you made a presentation at a library conference or symposium you’d get a few polite “nice job” comments after the talk, and if an attendee really enjoyed it he or she might send you a note afterwards – just as a token of appreciation for a job well done or to follow up with a question or two. Times have changed. After a recent presentation, when I next logged into my gmail account I saw I had eight new followers on my Twitter account. Now, I don’t know for sure if they all attended my program, but at least one or two of the names looked familiar and it seemed more than just a coincidence. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. I’m just not sure quite what it means. I’m guessing this is the contemporary way of signaling that someone’s presentation resonated with you. It’s kind of interesting in a way. In the old days we just exchanged notes and had it done with. There’s something more permanent about following someone. Sure, you can always stop following, but how often does that happen. It’s a commitment. It’s flattering (I think), but on the other hand I feel like I”m going to disappoint these folks because my tweets are far from stimulating and are rather few and far between. Perhaps I need to pick it up and deliver more. Ah, the pressures of modern life.

News for ALA Swag Whores

Heard something interesting on the radio today. The simple pen is no longer the number one swag item being given away by corporate exhibitors. It looks like 2009 was the year of hand sanitizer. That’s right. Exhibitors have replaced their cheesy pens with little hand sanitizer bottles emblazoned with their corporate logos. So if your main reason for going to ALA is to stock up on all the pens you’ll need to keep your family and friends well equipped with writing instruments for the year, you may be disappointed in 2010. Then again you could become everyone’s go-to-guy/gal for hand sanitizer. I will be looking closely for those truly savvy vendors who put two and two together and think creatively when coming up with swag that will keep those librarians coming back for more.

Going Through The Motions

Have you ever attended a presentation, sat through a class or lecture or possibly watched a music performance and afterwards felt that the speaker, instructor or performer simply sleepwalked through the whole thing? I’m sure all of us have at one time or another. It can be a real challenge to constantly motivate yourself to get excited to the level of delivering your best – whatever it is you are doing. It could be answering a question at your reference desk, teaching an instruction session or leading your colleagues through a meeting. Are you giving it your best and trying to make it as engaging as possible for the other person or are you simply going through the motions in order to get it done? Are you reminding yourself that even though you’ve done this a thousand times it may be the first time for the other person?

Earlier this fall I traveled to Georgia to give a keynote talk and a breakout session at a library conference. The breakout session was scheduled for 9:00 am the morning after the talk. After picking up the computer projector and speakers I needed (this was a set-it-up-yourself situtation) I proceeded to my designated room. With about 30 minutes to go before my talk I figured I’d relax in the back of the room, and then have 10 minutes at the end of the current session to get set up for my breakout. What I found there was unlike any presentation I’d come across at a library conference.

It was like stepping into the children’s department at my local library. Mr. Science had transformed a convention center room into his personal discovery center. Who was Mr. Science? Imagine a man dressed up in a lab coat with a crazy fright wig and some clown accoutrements; sort of like a kid’s mad scientist. With an elaborate backdrop, loads of props and books galore, I simply asked myself, “How on earth will I get set up for my session if he ends at 8:50 and I start at 9:00?” It looked like it had taken the better part of an hour for him to get his gear together and I guessed it might take half as long to break it down. But I decided not to fret about it and just relaxed and tried to pass the time. But an odd thing happened. I found myself really engaged with Mr. Science.

Now it could it be that I have the attention span of a child, and thus was perfectly suited to short skits with bad puns with eye-catching, magic-like tricks and illusions. Each one ended with a plug for a book which is a nice touch. But I think what grabbed my attention is that Mr. Science was putting everything he had into every moment of his program. I don’t doubt he’d done these corny tricks and told those bad jokes a thousand times before, but I could easily imagine a K-6 child seeing and hearing this all for the first time and being completely engaged and wowed by the experience. Even the big finale – yes – the old pull a rabbit out of a box trick – (anyone but a child could easily see where the rabbit really came from) – was performed with incredible enthusiasm. Then it was all over. Despite my satisfaction with Mr. Science I told him, no, he could not leave his stuff there while I ran my breakout session.

So what can we learn from Mr. Science? I can only imagine how tough it must be to deliver a presentation to an audience of children. Sure, we academic librarians must contend with some students who are distracted by their texting and web surfing, but what if they just got up and left or started acting out if you failed to keep them engaged. Most college students will just stay politely bored with you. Since we can’t pull rabbits out of hats we need to get the students engaged in their own learning. But beyond that each librarian educator must make a commitment to avoid simply going through the motions. If Mr. Science is a good example then bringing all of your enthusiasm to each meeting with students and faculty opens up the opportunity to create passionate users. Is this an easy thing to do? Not at all. It’s hard work. So how do you bring your A-game to every instruction session and presentation? That sounds like a future post, but if you have some tips to share please leave a comment.

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.