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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Making the Jump to Prezi

“Prezi is not a replacement for PowerPoint.”

That’s what I was told in the workshop, at least. Having been a user for roughly four years now, I’m tempted to disagree, although with a caveat. If you’ve got a decent sense of visual communication, and reasonable graphical skills, then Prezi certainly can be a replacement for PowerPoint, and if it encourages you into a different mode of presentation that’s probably a good thing too.

But hold on a moment – what is Prezi?

It’s a presentation tool, first and foremost. I also sometimes use it as an organisational tool for laying out ideas that I’m never intending to present, but that’s a bonus rather than the point. The key way it’s different from PowerPoint (as the blurb happily states) is that it’s “non-linear”.

In PowerPoint, you make a slide, fill it with a few bullet points (if you’re unwise, too many bullet points, a purple wavy title and some kind of ghastly transition effect), whereas with Prezi you have more of a mind-map thing going on. It’s based principly around an online editor, which presents you with a blank canvas across which you can pan and zoom. Even before you put information on this canvas the movement suggests some kind of idea clustering, hopping from idea to idea, focusing, pulling back etc. etc. and this is very much the case.

Having had some architectural education I’m not a bad hand with Photoshop, which I’ve found tremendously useful for making things to put on my canvases, but this is not a prerequisite. The first thing you’ll notice when you fire up the editor is that Prezi suggests any of a range of attractive looking templates. These comprise a background image and various brackets and arrows in which the user has only to click for a textbox and then jot down whatever idea they fancy.

The movement of the camera is important, and should always be in your mind when you’re making a Prezi. That’s one of the main reasons I like it: it enables you to be a “director” for your ideas, starting out with a simple one that gets the attention of the audience, moving to the side a little or zooming out a bit to expand on it, following branches of ideas in succession to create trains of thought, finishing with an overview to show how things are linked… I could go on. It’s simple to use, provides more information, and can be very pretty in the right hands.

There are one or two things to point out though…

“How do I present my new masterpiece?” you may wonder. Well, there are two options. Either you can download the presentation, which will give you  a zipped folder that you unzip, in which you’ll find a file you can “play” with Adobe Flash Player. Once it’s open you just click with directional buttons or a slide-advancer like any other presentation and the camera will slide smoothly from one spot on your canvas to the next. According to the FAQs this should work fine with a Mac, but I’ve personally run into issues here, although I’ve never once had a problem with a Windows machine. As for Linux… um… I honestly don’t know.

To download your work you’ll need the right sort of account. Prezi offers a free educational account to folks with with academic email addresses (.ac.uk for example), but if you haven’t got one of those you’ll have to stump up for the premium account, or…

Go online and log in to Prezi. You can play your presentations in the same way from the website, but be warned, if you find yourself in a venue with poor internet connection you’d better be good at painting an image verbally.

The second thing to be aware of is one you may have heard about before in connection with Prezi: the dreaded motion sickness. There’s a simple rule here. Don’t make the camera move large distances at a single click or it’ll whizz across masses of bright colours, text and images in one stomach-voiding leap. Similarly, don’t build in rotations. You can do it, but a after few whole-image 180°  flips I guarantee your audience won’t be able to keep down their doughy little flapjacks and pots of yoghurt.

But with a bit of care and attention, some practice, a few run-throughs of the finished article, perhaps you’ll agree with me that Prezi offers a more sophisticated and attractive alternative for anyone ready to make the investment. Of course, if you’re reading this on the train with twenty minutes left in order to cobble together some semblance of a presentation before you arrive at your event, I’d suggest sticking with PowerPoint.