Moving forwards by embracing what’s uncomfortable

Earlier this year I went along to the annual conference of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) Wales because I’d been asked to run a one hour seminar session on my research.

How on earth, I wondered, was I meant to saunter confidently into a meeting room, hoping that twenty professionals would not only turn up to listen to what I had to say, but also do what I asked them to do?

Pondering this, both then and now, has brought me to a little 1-2-3 of success in such situations that I’m going to share. It’s nothing too earth-shattering, and indeed largely reflects things said by wise folks such as Seth Godin.

  1. Frightening situations can be a source of strength, if approached in the right way. “What doesn’t kill you…” etc. etc.
  2. It’s all about the right group of people. If you’re at a conference, you can pretty much guarantee everyone is there to engage with you. After all, they’ve chosen to interrupt their busy schedules to come along.
  3. Prepare good content. Obvious really. Once you deal with the fear of challenging situations, and once you’re reasonably sure you’ve got a receptive audience to communicate with, you’ve then got to say something worth hearing.

That last point was the worrying one. Given it was a conference, and given that I’d been invited there in the first place, I felt reasonably happy about points 1 and 2, but as for content…? I’d need a little help.

Fortunately, working at a university, I was surrounded by people who are potential fonts of knowledge on this front. I had less experience of running seminars than presentations or student tutorials, and seminars are a little different as they take longer and require some form of discussion. I found a friend and asked for his advice. In essence, the gist of what I learned, both from him and from actually doing the thing, is as follows:

  • Warm up the room. Everyone is a bit nervous to start off. In fact, it may be simplest to assume that your guests are more nervous than you are. They know that seminars are interactive, after all. You might be one of those vindictive seminar leaders who likes to put people on the spot for no good reason. Taking a moment to chat to people as they come in, and doing a short intro speech saying who you are, is a great opportunity for a rapport to be started. Everyone in the room needs to feel comfortable that you aren’t going to do anything disturbing.
  • Splitting the room into groups is a great way of managing people. It allows you to ensure everyone is getting involved, and it also provides a perfect opportunity to play groups off against each other. That’s a great way of stimulating conversations, by the way. Speaking of which…
  • Good conversation is about getting the guests to interact with each other, rather than getting a one-way dialogue going between you and an individual. Finding ways to get them arguing with each other (constructively) is key. Groups come in handy.
  • Keep to time. Start and end promptly, even if there are stragglers. This also applies to tutorials, presentations, and anything similar where you’re managing a room. If you don’t (and I’ve been guilty of this myself) you’re insulting those who have bothered to turn up on time.
  • Structure. Related to timekeeping, I discovered it’s helpful to be really clear about when the activities of the session are, what order they’re in, how long they’re going to take. Some people don’t need too much liturgy, but for most, a clear sense of where they are in the session and how the different parts of it fit together is advantageous.
  • If you’re running an activity and intend to get people to feedback their results to the rest of the room, make this clear in advance. That way you’ll minimise the awkward moment where nobody wants to do it and the glance goes around before a victim is found and coerced into “volunteering”.
  • Assume everything will take slightly longer than it looks like it should on paper.
  • Consider how people are sitting in the room, what directions they’re facing. If you’re going to start out with a presentation to cover some background and introduce an activity, will everyone be able to see easily if they’re arranged in circles around tables? Similarly, if they’re sitting lecture-style, or in a horseshoe, how are they going to put their heads together?
  • Don’t be afraid of starting out with something intellectually provocative. The idea is to stimulate discussion, and that relies on investing people in the topic and making sure it’s a topic people will have different responses to. A hook at the outset can be thought of as a stepping-off point, something familiar to the guests that will serve as a starting point of the thought process you wish to explore.

With the above points in my notebook I was able to get a structure worked out that actually went pretty well, thus fulfilling the third of the three points I outlined at the start! I was really tired beforehand, mentally exhausted, and not sure I could pull it off. The effort hurt, but I met some lovely, interesting people, got Tweeted, got complemented by the great Ian Anstice, and forced myself to organise my thoughts for the benefit of others, which is often productive in its own right.

And that’s about all for now I think! I’m not the world’s most experienced seminar-runner, so I expect quite a lot of you folks are more clued up and could add points to this, so…

Are you a 24-carat seminar-smiting pro? What are your top tips for getting the most out of a room full of people? Does advice on organising a seminar translate well to other areas of life? Comments below…

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One thought on “Moving forwards by embracing what’s uncomfortable

  1. Pingback: A few thoughts on young people’s use of library space – The Use of Words

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