IATEFL Glasgow starts on Monday, so I thought I’d re-post this blog, which I wrote in February 2011. I realise that the start of 2012 has several similarities to the start of 2011 (eg my first European plenary talk being at the Çevre Koleji Conference in Istanbul), so I’ve up-dated it ….
I have a new talk for 2012, entitled Ten quotes to make you think and I did it for the first time at the Çevre conference a couple of weeks ago. And, yes, yet again I was VERY nervous.
Whenever I get nervous before a talk, I remember a conversation I had with an ELT star before his plenary at a conference in Greece several years ago. He was really quite apprehensive, and kept saying he felt that this was the talk when he was finally going to get ‘rumbled’ – in other words, this audience would realise that he was a charlatan.
This particular speaker is one of the very few who has a totally justified reputation as a true great of the modern ELT world. But even he was nervous before a talk, and I think that’s good (see point 10, below).
In a quiet moment before my Çevre talk, I made a few notes to remind myself what I have to do to be the best I can when giving conference talks and workshops.
Catherine Walter has written a terrific set of think-abouts for IATEFL presenters, and I really recommend that anyone coming to Glasgow should read them because they’re great.
Here, for what they’re worth, are my thoughts along the same lines.
Ken’s ten rules for conference presentations
This is so obvious I shouldn’t need to write it, but it’s clear that although some speakers know what they want to say, they haven’t gone through the motions of how they will say it and how the audience will react. They often have too much information – or too little. I remember watching one presenter who had come all the way from Taiwan for Cardiff IATEFL two years ago. He had a 45-minute slot, and ran out of things to say after a quarter of an hour.
Rehearsing a talk should be like rehearsing a play, the only difference being you don’t actually have to learn your lines. When you’ve finished writing it, you should talk it through at LEAST a dozen times, preferably once or twice a day for the week before the event.
And if you expect audience participation of any kind, work out how you are going to achieve it. Be prepared to tell people what they have to do THREE TIMES if necessary. Some teachers don’t believe you really want them to do something the first two times you tell them.
2 Watch and learn
If you’re attending a big conference, the chances are you will have the opportunity to see other presenters at work before your time arrives. Plenary speakers have their own ways to engaging with an audience, but if you’re doing a regular talk/workshop, the way a plenary works (or doesn’t work) won’t have much relevance to your presentation.
On the other hand, watching other people do smaller talks and workshops can be really useful. Take every available chance to watch your peers at work, and try to attend a presentation in the room that you will be using.
Make notes about the success or otherwise of the presentation. Did the presenter make the participants feel welcome? Did they make the point of their presentation clear? Was the content what the programme suggested it would be? And especially, did the presenter connect with everyone in the room?
3 Don’t drink
OK, OK … this is going to sound like your dad warning you about a night out in town. But I’m serious about this one.
Drinking a lot the night before a talk doesn’t just give you a sore head (and anyway, sore heads have usually gone by the time serious conference talks begin). If the speaker has been drinking, you can hear it in their voice. The person says: ‘Good afternoon, my name is …” and then spends the next five minutes clearing their throat.
Tobacco isn’t that good either, but I know from experience there’s no point in suggesting to a smoker that they don’t have that last-minute gasper before they go on stage.
And going to bed early and getting a good night’s sleep is — OK, OK – I’ll stop the nanny-state advice now!
4 Do a vocal warm up
If you’re doing a plenary or a talk in a big room, they should give you a microphone. If you aren’t, you probably have to rely on your own voice. Either way, but especially if you’re working without a mic, you need to warm up your voice.
I worked with actors for more than 25 years and I was always impressed by their warm-up routines, the importance of which had been drummed into them at drama school. An actor would no more think of performing, or rehearsing for that matter, without carefully warming up their voice than they would of going on stage without learning their lines.
I’m always astonished that ELT teacher training hardly ever refers to the importance of voice. At International House London in the 1970s, a brilliant teacher and former actor called Joan Holby did an in-service training course called Voice Production and Mime. Joan is sadly no longer with us, but the success of her methods lives on in the presentation skills of those who attended her course.
5 Get into the room beforehand
However much you rehearse your talk at home, it will be different when you’re actually in the room. Conference rooms tend to be in use all the time but, if you can, get into your designated space when it isn’t being used and practise as much of the talk as possible. And talk to the back wall of the room. In other words, project – it’s a waste of time if the only people who can hear you are sitting on the front row.
6 Dress to impress
I know some presenters like to dress down for presentations because they don’t want to look ‘too smart’ in front of an audience of teachers who may come from countries where teachers aren’t paid very well.
All very commendable and egalitarian, but I think the opposite argument is more persuasive. If teachers travel half way across their country to see a talk, or indeed half way across the world to IATEFL-UK or TESOL-US, they may not be THAT impressed to see a presenter wearing a black AC/DC tour T-shirt and faded blue jeans.
Smart is good and … um… how can I best put this? Think about the implications of sweat marks on the clothes you choose.
7 Make the audience feel special
I don’t mean you should start by saying how humble and amazed you are to be talking at this particular conference. I mean that when you walk in, look around at the group, smile and thank them for choosing your presentation. Try to make eye-contact with as many people as you can before you start. Apart from anything else, the smiles you get back will tell you where the most amenable punters are sitting!
I have been to so many presentations where the speaker actually failed to make eye-contact with any of the participants during the entire talk. Not looking at people is bad but actually very easy to achieve – just look at the powerpoint all the time. See the next point for more on this.
I have also witnessed presenters who for some reason seemed to be unhappy about having to give a talk at all. About ten years ago, I went to a music workshop in Hungary which was being given by a local rising star of the ELT world. Seventy of us packed into a room with seating for about fifty. As often happens in situations like that, the atmosphere was good-natured and expectant.
The rising star walked into the room and stared at the crowd with an annoyed look on her face.
“I only have twenty photo-copies,” she said, glaring at us.
Well, thanks for making us all feel so good about coming!
8 Powerpoint (or whatever) – less is more
We’ve all suffered ‘death by powerpoint’ but it’s a brave presenter who turns up at a conference without some kind of projected information. Two people who didn’t have some kind of projection were Andrew Wright at ISTEK 2010, and the amazing Paul Nation at JALT a couple of years ago. They were both well worth listening to without a screen of information glowing away behind them.
However, we mere mortals usually need some back-up. Catherine Walter’s IATEFL check-list includes some very useful information about powerpoint etiquette – font-size, for example, and a recommendation not to just read what’s on the screen.
I would just add that less is more – you can probably get the message across with much less written on the screen. And an image can be so much more effective than words.
And finally – whether or not you have a microphone, don’t EVER stand with your back to the audience and read from your powerpoint. If you need to quote from it, make sure your computer screen version is placed where you can read it while you’re still facing the participants.
9 Have some water and throat stuff available
Another obvious point – but another which many presenters forget about. There’s nothing worse than a speaker whose voice starts to disappear, an event which leads to half the audience rummaging in their bags to find a cough sweet. Or a presenter who looks around vaguely and says “Is there any water anywhere?”
Sort it before you start.
10 Nervous is good
To end as I began, I think it’s a very good thing to feel nervous before a presentation, however many times you’ve presented, and regardless of whether this is the first or twenty-first time you’ve done this particular talk.
There is one really good presenter I know who doesn’t appear to get nervous before talks. I first met her early one morning in the lobby of a hotel in São Paulo, Brazil, where a number of us were waiting to be ferried to a conference which should have been talking place just down the road. Due to a flood two days before, it had been transferred to a new venue fifty kilometres away.
In addition, the presenter in question had just got off a plane from Mexico City. She was told as she arrived at the hotel that her presentation had been re-scheduled, and she was on in about three hours’ time, two of which would be taken up by getting to the venue.
“Fine,” she said, nonchalantly. “Have I got time to change?”
She showed not a flicker of nerves on the way to the venue, where she did a superb workshop, during which she showed us – amongst other things – what a great dancer she was.
Yes, Julie, I’m talking about you. You are one of the most impressive presenters I’ve ever seen, and totally nerveless. But you’re in a very small minority of people who can deliver perfect stuff in front of an audience without just a FEW butterflies.
Nervous is good for most of us. Keeps us on our toes.
That’s it. Go out and enjoy any conferences that you are planning to visit.