October 24, 2014

Presentations are About More than Survival | From the Bell Tower

Among the general population, public speaking is feared more than death. Steven Bell’s experience at a few recent conferences suggests this is true – and it holds us back from giving our best presentation.

Having set up and tested things for a presentation I was about to give, I was waiting for the attendees to file into the auditorium. Then a member of the conference team came in and proceeded to tape a sign that said “reserved” to all the seats in the front row. I asked what that was all about, and this individual stated that the conference planners wanted to make sure the front row was available for seating just in case the auditorium became crowded. I said, “You probably don’t need to put those signs there. I rarely see anyone sit on the front row. You can expect them to stand in the back of the room.” You can guess what happened. No one sat on the front row. I happen to like sitting on the front row. I know there will be a seat, and I can see and hear better up close. Because I’m near the speaker I sometimes hear something at the end of the presentation that gets my attention.

It’s over – thankfully

“I survived it.” It’s more than just one speaker. I’ve now heard this several times – or perhaps some variant along the lines of “I’m so relieved that’s over,” or “Now I can go and enjoy the rest of the conference.” The speakers will usually say this as thanks are being shared and the exodus from the room begins. The speaker may say it to a co-presenter or a friend in the audience. As I try to understand this I connect what I’m hearing to this terrible fear associated with public speaking. I feel for these presenters who must endure considerable stress from months to moments before – and during their presentation. On occasion it appears the trepidation had little impact as the presentation goes well, but it occasionally contributes to a poorly delivered session. I can understand someone having considerable fear and uncertainty about speaking before an audience of their peers. It can be downright terrifying for some academic librarians, and even the most experienced speakers may still get a case of the jitters right before a talk. Public speaking should be about more than just surviving the experience. It should be about enjoying the experience, and really appreciating the opportunity to share ideas with colleagues. It should be about existing in the moment and celebrating that moment for all it’s worth.

Higher expectations

That’s “easier said than done” advice because speaking in public is a long-time fear inducer. The amount of pressure on presenters to “kill it” has ratcheted up, and it no doubt adds to any presenter’s fear that he or she will fail to meet expectations for an amazing presentation. Video from TED and other conferences provide constant access to fantastic presentations by highly skilled professionals. Top notch presenters raise the bar for everyone’s presentation. Stop using bullet points. Start using Prezi. Use more inspirational photos with just the right words. Add more integrated video.  With so much advice about what and what not to do, who could blame us for being paralyzed with fear when trying to figure out how to present. Why is everyone in the audience at a library conference expecting the next incarnation of Steve Jobs or Seth Godin? Most academic librarians present once or twice a year, if that. At that rate there’s no way to accumulate the practice needed to develop a great presentation style. What we should expect are academic librarians who will invest themselves in providing a good conference experience for attendees.

It’s about them – not you

“I know I shouldn’t read my notes but I want to make sure I get everything in this talk.” That’s how one speaker I heard recently started the presentation, and this is a perfect example of wanting to just survive the presentation. There’s a fear of missing something important, and worrying that attendees will leave not knowing everything about the topic. It’s also a perfect example of coming to the presentation with the wrong attitude. For this speaker the presentation is about wanting to tell the audience everything he or she thinks they have to know – even if they have to sit there and have notes read to them. Perhaps you are more comfortable reading notes from behind the lectern, but is that better or worse for the attendees? If presenters start from the premise that the talk is about the audience and making it a great experience for them, it changes the whole approach to preparing for the talk. Does the audience really need to know how many students attend your university? Probably not. Would they like to hear you tell a story that communicates why you’re passionate about the topic? They probably would. What else could you do to make your next presentation about the attendees and their experience?

Where to start

Begin by coming to your presentation preparation with an entirely different state of mind based on three core premises:

  1. It’s about the audience – not me;
  2. I’m going to enjoy this – not just survive it;
  3. I will live in the moment and it will be all right if I forget something or there’s a problem

Commit from the start to really throwing yourself into this presentation. Think about one thing to incorporate that is totally different from anything you’ve ever done before. Start by telling a personal story that connects to your theme. Draw one of your visuals – and don’t worry if you’re not an artist. Go through your presentation without notes – in which case you will absolutely miss something you wanted to say – and be all right with that. Start your presentation from the back of the room or just get into the audience at some point. Show a clip of a favorite video that makes a point. Any of these changes could take a speaker totally out of their element, and potentially create an entirely new dynamic for their presentation style.

If the “get it over” approach describes your presentation style, now is the time to get over it. When speakers are just doing their best to avoid making a wrong move, the audience feels it. Having carefully crafted slides won’t make a difference for the audience if it senses the speaker is just trying to get through the presentation. You want the attendees to leave feeling that you really gave it your all, and that you abandoned your usual constraints to make it a great time for them. I’m not a fan of EMINEM’s music but I do like his song “Lose Yourself.”  He sings:

You better lose yourself in the music, the moment
You own it, you better never let it go
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime yo

I sometimes listen to it before a talk. It reminds me to treat every opportunity to present as a precious gift I’ll never have again. I go into it knowing my methods might totally fail, but I’m going to lose myself in the moment because that’s the only way I know to make it about them and not myself. If you take a chance in losing yourself what you might find is that your presentation is not something you merely survive, but is what you do to really live.

This article was featured in Library Journal's Academic Newswire enewsletter. Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to your inbox for free.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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