Monday, April 7, 2014


Unlocking Information


I admit it, I feel vulnerable putting this out there. But if you can't share what you learn . . .


I recently gave a presentation of historical information and although I have had fabulous feedback and thanks, I know that standing up and speaking in front of people is something I want to / need to work on. I wish to channel that passion I have for archives and museums into a more engaging TED-like style of talking instead of sounding like a scared robot full of facts. The content is rich, and it reaches some people no matter how I put it out there, but know I could do better. This feeling led me to do an inner audit of how I could improve my presentation skills, and I list the findings below. I also sought an advisor on what I could do to strengthen the way I deliver information like this, and her answer - the final point - surprised me very much. It's one of those obvious things that makes so much sense I wonder why I didn't get there earlier myself because of its brilliant simplicity. First listed, though, are the self-reflected lessons learned.

For the presentation, I had a lot of PowerPoint 'slides' to go through to tell a story in a pretty tight timeframe. What I decided is that the way to keep me on task was to pre-time the slides so they would automatically go forward as I read the script. I also thought this would be helpful because I wasn't exactly sure of the room set-up, and that I might want to walk around a bit and not have to keep going back and forth to the computer - setting a timer would do it for me. Well, you likely know where this is going. I practiced the presentation in an empty office, but, man, it is so different when you get in front of an actual group of people. In the moment of presentation, I added or subtracted things in to what I had planned to say and ran late - or early - even I though I thought I had left the right amount of time. Some of my slides either went forward without me, or sat there in an awkward pause. I was too chicken to go back and forth and so, ya, I sounded rushed and short-changed some stories and was a little draggy in other areas. Oops. And so, the lesson learned here is (ta-da):

Rule 1 Do not use timed slides.

And this brings me to that script I wrote out. Looking up at a group of people and then down to a bunch of sentences is confusing, and I lost my place a couple of times. I usually don't write out everything like I did for this presentation, but I wanted to make sure I got all the facts right. What ended up happening is that I felt like I was reading something and not engaging my audience. Or, worse, I was not sure what I was talking about. I don't think I have to memorize a script or anything but I will go back to having just cue cards - I do know my stuff! - and on these, I will:

Rule 2 Write word prompts for presentation notes.

The third thing is an oversight, and I have had a number of people gently tell me the struggled to hear my voice at this event. So strange, for I think I have a deep voice that carries. I guess it is the urge to 'go small' when I have the spotlight. Is this self-protective, I wonder, for if they can't hear me, they can't criticize? I need to get over that if because people came to see me and it is near disrespectful of their time to not speak up so they can hear. Therefore:

Rule 3 Ask the audience if they can hear me, and use a microphone if it is available. 

The final piece of advice, though, was my ah-ha moment, and it could very well make all the difference. As a museum and archives professional, I now think I tend to 'hide' behind the written word. I find writing comforting, for gives me time to edit and research and control the environment in which I pass along my message. But know what? It's passive. And that kind of communication truly is not enough anymore - I have to / need to / want to engage people directly, and hear what they have to say about what I put out there. I was actively seeking interaction when I volunteered to do this presentation. However, it takes a plan to get information across, a methodology, learning goals and adapted educational techniques. Now this may sound odd, especially as my grad studies was designed for collections managers AND educational specialists, but it was the first time I realized just how necessary it is for me to apply strategies when I, personally, share a story in this context. Ya, it's not just 'cool stuff' because I happen to like it. And so the last rule of presenting is for me:

Rule 4 Know why I want to pass this information along.  

I need to be prepared to answer the 'so what?' when I present, and therefore I will be taking an instructional skills workshop in early June to help me gain an understanding around learning and teaching methodologies. I will get a toolbox of tips, and will be up and in front of an audience repeatedly - and be videoed! - to test my effectiveness. This type of experience terrifies me, but is the only way to improve, and I can't tell you how excited I am for this opportunity.

Truly, what I take away from this is that I can't believe how energized I feel - it's like I unlocked a combination of sorts for the work I do. You know that feeling you get when you've dialed to the last number of a combination lock and it falls into your hands? It's like that. So, then, the first 'number' for my archives and museum work is the collections I work with, the second is providing access to this material, and the final is having a focussed message. This opens the door for my audience to fully understand where I'm coming from, provides an opportunity for them to join the conversation, and for the audience to have their own experience with the information put out there.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is truly the main point of the work I do.

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