Category Archives: Presenting

Assumptions about attentiveness: is eye contact engagement?

WitthayaPhonsawatAt BP’s Future of Learning event in November, we were lucky enough to have the fabulous Crystal Washington as our guest speaker at dinner (follow her on Twitter @CrysWashington).

Crystal delivered one of the most dynamic, engaging and passionate presentations I’ve seen for some time. Keeping the attention of a room full of people when you’ve got the after-dinner slot and everyone’s been at a conference all day isn’t easy! But that’s not the only reason why Crystal’s presence had us all talking throughout the next day.

Crystal gave us a whirlwind tour of social media: the dark side, the war stories, the lessons learnt the hard way by big businesses and unwitting individuals; the generational advantages afforded to both those young enough to have been using technology since infancy and those old enough to have experience of networking and business etiquette to inform their (strategic) use of it; and tips for how to make sense of the web of social networks out there and use them to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

During the Q&A time, someone picked up on the theme of generational differences and Twitter in particular, asking Crystal how she feels as a presenter if she’s in front of a Gen Y audience whose heads are down over their phones. Despite confessing that she doesn’t appreciate her siblings using their phones during dinner, Crystal replied quite firmly that this Gen Y audience scenario doesn’t bother her. She understands that these people are paying attention, they just do it in a different way from what speakers might be used to; this is their way of working and learning. Incidentally, Justin Mass asked the same question of Richard Culatta at Learning 2012 and got the same response: ‘nope, normal.’

Some people didn’t seem to believe Crystal, though: the next question was less of a question and more of a challenge. A lady at the next table pointed out, quite rightly, that I’d been on my phone almost the entire time Crystal had been speaking. She also said that she’d bet any money that I hadn’t been tweeting or taking notes.

Actually, that’s exactly what I’d been doing. In fact, it’s what I’d been doing all day. Crystal had been following our backchannel throughout the event and immediately came to my defence, pointing out that she’d have been more concerned if I wasn’t typing away on my phone while she was talking, as it would suggest I was less interested in what she had to say than I had been all day. After dinner, Crystal thanked me for being a perfect embodiment of one of her key points. Different generations (whether defined by age or by use of technology) have different ways of engaging and learning. This lady looked at me and made an assumption that I wasn’t paying attention – perhaps shopping online or browsing Facebook instead. By contrast, I was absolutely more engaged with Crystal’s content than I would have been had I not had my phone there.

Another aspect to this is the value of the tweets being shared. I found some of the comments on Justin Mass’ recent blog post about real-time activity switching interesting. Melissa Daimler says that she’s observed a move back towards low-tech experiences, towards people abandoning live-tweeting in favour of face-to-face conversation and then tweeting later. She says ‘the tweet is usually more thoughtful since they can give more context around it after having sat with the idea for a little.’ Actually, for me it’s the other way around. I think there is equal value in tweet-reporting (as it were) the content of a session as it happens, and then adding my own thoughtful context later in whatever format or medium is appropriate. I’m a fairly reflective person; I prefer to have time to think before I draw conclusions or make plans. So it suits me to contribute something in real-time, and this rapporteur-style of live-tweeting works for me, and then contribute more fully later if and when I feel I’ve got more to add from a personal perspective.

I’m not by any means saying that, if you aren’t live-tweeting or taking notes on a tablet or phone, you aren’t paying attention. That would be a ridiculous claim to make. I’m still partial to a beautiful notebook and still turn to my trusty pen and paper to take notes during meetings, when jotting down thoughts for my next book review, and in numerous other situations. But my experience over the past few months has been that live-tweeting does enhance my attention and focus in a seminar or conference situation. If I’m on Twitter (or even using a notepad app) I’m not able to easily flit between different apps, whereas if I’m taking paper notes it’s very easy for my attention to switch to my email or other things on my phone. I also have a tendency to doodle in the margins of my notepads which, though not always a sign that my mind has wandered, probably doesn’t convey engagement and interest.

A while back, when Craig Taylor was subject to similar cynicism, I declared myself firmly in the pen-and-paper camp. And I would still today choose to make paper notes rather than digital notes (using a notepad app on my phone or tablet). I prefer paper note-taking for the reasons I mentioned before: it caters better for my personal brand of shorthand, and so on. But live-tweeting is something different. Knowing that my notes are going to be read immediately by others enforces a certain level of discipline; it keeps me focused and concise, and totally engaged. So when it comes to a conference or similar event, I find myself increasingly choosing live-tweeting over paper notes.

Another commenter on Justin’s blog post, Travis Cunningham, says: ‘People are engaged in an activity when you mix feedback, friends and fun … Most trainings lack all three. Twitter adds all three.’ Thinking about it, Travis has pretty much got it bang on for me. Live-tweeting absolutely does not diminish my engagement; if anything it improves my focus and attention. And I enjoy it; it enhances the conference experience for me.

The day after the dinner with Crystal, several people thanked me for helping them see Twitter in a different light. I think if those people now don’t pass immediate judgement when they see someone tapping away on their phones, and perhaps even give some thought to what engagement with a speaker or session really is, then being singled out at the dinner was worth it! 

Image: Witthaya Phonsawat /

Five great resources for presenters

Does presenting come naturally to you? It definitely doesn’t to me. I’m a bit of a wallflower by nature and don’t usually enjoy being centre of attention. I think that’s why I enjoy writing: I can put a bit of me across without actually having anyone look at me.

The thought of speaking to a large group of people for any prolonged period of time (whether in a real or virtual venue) used to terrify me and still makes me nervous. But I kind of love the challenge at the same time. Over the past couple of years this is one of the areas of personal development I’ve really tried to focus on, taking every opportunity I’ve been given to push my boundaries and present. And do you know what? Even if things go wrong and even if I’ve never yet given the perfect presentation, I’m always pretty proud of myself when I’m done.

Anyway, I’ve now given a fair few face-to-face presentations (for the eLN) as well as a number of webinars (for IITT and LSG members). I’ve also just finished, and hopefully passed, the Institute’s Certified Online Learning Facilitator (COLF) course. I’m by no means an expert but because it’s something I’ve very consciously tried to work on I think I’ve pulled together some good resources for preparing and delivering online or live presentations. So I thought today I’d share some of the best.

I’ve used Olivia Mitchell’s presentation planner to map out my presentations over the past six months or so, and would really recommend it. I have felt more in control of the content, and people in the audience have also fed back positively on the clarity and structure of my presentations, which I would put largely down to using Olivia’s template. The site is also full of ideas and tips about preparing, designing and delivering presentations – it’s a great resource and one that I’ve referred to countless times since I discovered it.

This is one for the girls (sorry boys). Denise Graveline coaches female speakers and that’s what prompted her blog, but in fact men will find lots of useful content on here too. Some of the inspiring stories, speech analyses and confidence-boosting ideas are interesting, but what I find most useful are the practical tips for dealing with common difficulties that even the most experienced presenter can face, such as being confronted with a wall of silence when it’s time for Q&A.

I’ve just completed this course, provided by the Institute of IT Training. The course is delivered entirely online and is designed to develop the skills needed for successful facilitation of virtual classroom sessions – so it’s very much at the ‘learning’ end of the spectrum, rather than just ‘presenting’. The course includes some great topics, including slide design, storyboarding, maximising engagement and response, and using your voice effectively. Even if you’re not brand new to live online learning, this course is a great opportunity to practise and brush up on your skills.

If I find myself with a few moments to spare, I often have a browse of SlideShare and almost always find something that inspires me – slide designs that really work, and often some that don’t. One of my favourite contributers is @JesseDee – take a look at Steal this presentation! and You suck at PowerPoint! (for the basics) and 100 beautiful slides from Cannes Lions 2010 (for a collection of great slides by other people).

Finding the right images for your slides can be one of the most time-consuming parts of preparing a presentation. I don’t want to use basic ClipArt images, but I don’t want to spend lots of money purchasing flashy images from iStock or similar sites. FreeDigitalPhotos has a library which is extensive enough for all my needs and, as long as you include an acknowledgement somewhere in the presentation, it’s completely free. I used these free images for several months but found there were a small number I was using time and time again, so I splashed out recently and purchased high quality versions of those. Sam Burrough has also had the great idea of creating some kind of get-what-you-give image sharing community, so that could well provide another option before too long. Watch this space!

Image: jscreationzs /