The He(art) of Presenting

Two weeks ago, I completed a module on presentation skills and delivery. I have given many presentations over the years, mainly in the forms of lectures and talks while facilitating learning among adult learners. So, while I’m always a little edgy before going on ‘stage,’ I am well-versed in and truly enjoy presenting. It isn’t just the vanity of the limelight, however dim it likely is in lecture halls and conference rooms. Rather, I believe it is at the essential core of teaching that makes ILT (instructor-led training) or in-classroom teaching so enjoyable and vital to me: I am up there, imparting knowledge, starting a discussion, planting a seed.

What I learned in that three-day module, presented by Sandra Harris and Chris Hutcheson, is at the he(art) of presenting is preparation and process. Of course, I have prepared countless learning and presentational materials. Yet, I rarely thought about it systematic terms. Like many others, I often jumped in typing up points on Powerpoint before thinking of the “bottom line,” or the ultimate aim for the learners and audience of the presentation. In one sentence, what was might presentation about? What was in it for them (the audience)?

Admittedly, as a university lecturer, you focus on the content and delivering that content. Your course outline, learning goals and desired skills taught, are governed by university regulations and oversight. This dynamic is likely familiar to those who do workplace learning, too: you design and deliver curricula within organizational guidelines and expectations. However, in your actual presentations and learning exercises, you have a great deal of flexibility to shape learning experiences. Moreover, greater attention to the process can build a more relevant presentation with ideas that are stickier than usual.

So, over the three days, we practiced short and long presentations, we learned about the power of using metaphors to simplify and deepen our main ideas and we began to appreciate the beauty of a simple structure of an introduction with an agenda for the presentation, three key objectives, and a conclusion that reinforced the bottom line. We also had the opportunity to be video recorded while giving our presentation to small groups of our peers.

Being recorded is one thing; watching it afterward is quite another. Of course, to say that we’re our worst critics is a cliche. Nonetheless, watching oneself, however, excruciating, is, after the first few times, and incredible, mind-opening, learning experience. For one, it reminded me, how much I enjoyed the modality of teaching, presenting and facilitating. Two, it gave me pause to consider myself more intently – my posture, voice, hands, body, eye contact – and in what ways I was interfering with the delivery of the bottom line. For, as evolutionary psychologists and cognitive scientists are telling us, so much of the way we learn is affecting in how we read, connect with and engage with the presentation process. If the presenter is performing behaviours that interfere with the audience’s ability to connect and engage with the presentation, the presentation is less successful than it could be, irrespective of how salient the content is.

The module summoned the experience of attending a session on presentation by Mark Bowden and Michael Bungay Stanier at the CSTD Annual Conference in November 2013. There, Bowden and Bungay Stanier, eschewed PowerPoint and, harnessing their insights in our neural architecture from evolutionary and cognitive psychology, as well as some cultural anthropology, showed us how to better connect with and engage with the “tribe.” They showed us how to command attention and respect, but also to signal our approachability (as opposed to authority). They showed us “bodily planes,” how our placement of our arms and hands can indicate zealous passion (which may or may not be credible) vs. truth and the significance of establishing trust with the tribe to facilitate a deep form of both engagement with the presentation and learning transfer. And, that in the end, is what we all want as presenters.

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