Step away from the stage

3 Aug
microphone on stage
 

In my teenage years I was a huge Van Halen fan. There, I’ve said it, it’s out there. Now no matter what you think of men in Lycra, ridiculous guitar solos and the excesses of 70s and 80s American rock, there is little doubting that Van Halen knew how to put on a show. In fact, in the early 80s they were putting on some of the biggest touring rock performances that the world had ever seen. There are some great Van Halen stories (honestly, look them up) and with front man David Lee Roth, they provided the media with no shortage of rock n roll quotes and cliches, “I used to have a drug problem, now I make enough money”.

 

Anyway, an MTV interview with David Lee Roth – I think around the time he was forging a solo career – has always stuck in my mind. It was on the subject of performance:

 
“If you can’t do it in a white t-shirt, a pair of jeans, under one white light bulb … you can’t do it.”
 

Now I’m (painfully) aware that ELT and Marketing conferences are not full of rock star performances, but then again an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo from Jeremy Harmer really wouldn’t seem appropriate anyway. However, the idea that a genuine ability to perform is only truly revealed when you strip it back to the bare necessities, is for me just as true for conference presenters as it is for musicians.

 

I was reminded of this at a recent conference when a corrupted file meant the presenter found themselves standing in front of an audience without presentation slides. And yet they still managed to deliver an engaging, coherent and structured presentation. I doubt many speakers I’ve seen over the years could do the same if stripped of their PowerPoint crutch at the last minute. Yet surely having an engaging story to tell, or information to impart, should be the foundation of any good talk?

 

If an audience has chosen to come and listen to what you have to say at a conference, then I feel the least you can do as a speaker is carefully think through what you’re going to present, ensure that you have something worth saying, and rehearse, then rehearse again. The worst presentation I attended at IATEFL earlier this year was for what promised to be a case study of a new online professional development resource. About halfway through, and following a series of holiday snaps and lame metaphors about climbing mountains (supported by more dull holiday snaps) it became apparent that the online resource had yet to launch and the presenter was wasting both his time and the audience’s. Over the course of 30 minutes he proceeded to commit the following presentation sins:

 

1. Cover up your lack of anything meaningful to communicate by throwing together  some ‘amusing’ or visually stunning PowerPoint slides.

 

Although in this specific case the amateurish nature of the slides was what added an additional layer of irritation, I’m just as wary of iPad and MacBook users employing whatever software is in fashion. You can bet your extortionate conference fee they’ll have spent five times longer selecting images and animating their slides than thinking about and rehearsing what they’re going to say.

 

2. Blindly ignore the fact that your talk has nothing to do with the title and abstract you submitted 6 months ago, and stumble through a narrative that you sketched out in the bar last night.

 

Some people have a real talent for thinking on their feet and ad libing in front of an audience. However, most of us don’t. If heckling was more acceptable at professional conferences, perhaps some of the less self-aware presenters would start to get the message.

 

3. Read what’s written on your slides, word for word.

 

Like many people, and presumably you too if you’re reading this blog, I’m pretty good at reading. So if I’m part of a captive audience and I’m presented with a slide with words on, I’ll read them. I don’t need the presenter to read them to me. Technology should enhance what’s being presented, not serve as an autocue for the speaker. Conversely, if you include a slide that’s impossible to read, and introduce it with ‘sorry you can’t read this’ why have you bothered showing the slide in the first place?

 

Of course there are times when visuals are important, product demonstrations for example, and I’m not disputing that technology can add value to a presentation. However, I think an unplugged conference would genuinely bring out only the best and most competent of public speakers, and those who really had something to say. If you’ve got something great to talk about, then feel free to jazz it up with PowerPoint, Keynote, a brass band, dancing bears or whatever takes your fancy. But if the basics aren’t in place may I kindly suggest you sit back down in the audience until you have something worth presenting?

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