Thursday, 5 February 2009

Delivering good presentations

A rather attractive hedge
Writing this post served to fill in time yesterday. I was showing people round the campus after lectures, and then meeting the IT staff to act as a student guinea pig for the networked Nutritional Analysis software that they are trying to get working.

In the morning we had another session in the Communication Skills module. I'm finding this module extremely well taught, very interesting, and above all - relevant. It's difficult to find relevance in knowing the molecular structure of conjugated linoleic acid, but talking about how to do a really good presentation and critically analysing a research paper are both activities that are very pertinent to the role of a dietitian.

I always thought I was pretty good at doing presentations when I worked for RNIB. I tried to make them interesting, I had tons of enthusiasm, and people told me they enjoyed the sessions I did. Now I'm thinking hard about whether I've been a bit too confident, or even complacent.

In the first year of this course we had to do an assessed presentation, and my mark was on the low side - not a fail by any means, but not as good as I thought it could be. At the start of this year I did a mini-presentation to the new intake of mature students, along with two other final-year students. I was struck by how much better their delivery was compared with mine - again, I had bags of enthusiasm, but perhaps I lost a little coherence as a result.

I'm now looking back and thinking about how I could have done better. Being a student means that I watch presentations from different lecturers every day, and it's interesting to compare lecturers' styles of delivery and how they've structured their content. While the point was made this morning that teaching and presenting aren't the same, it's still possible to draw conclusions about what works in front of a critical audience, and what doesn't.

I know that I always need to prepare carefully - standing up and practising out loud always leads to changes in the structure of the 'storyline'. I find bits to add in and leave out, as well as settling on the actual words to use, and often, the words not to use. When I actually stand up in front of the audience, though, I enter a different state. It's a combination of nerves and adrenaline, and I think I rather let it drive me through the presentation, rather than controlling the energy and channelling it into good delivery. With a great deal of verve, I follow the routine I've practised, but I lose an element of self-awareness.

I once went on a course led by professional media types where we had the opportunity to deliver our message in a variety of forms, including to tape (for radio), to camera (like those correspondents who appear on a screen), and video recorded live in a studio with a real interviewer. I found it almost impossible to think quickly and speak fluently while having to maintain body language and social norms of appearance. The live video interview was the worst, speaking to camera was easier, and talking into a tape machine was by far the best. It seems I have to 'switch off' my body language and analytical thought processes in order to deliver a complex message under pressure.

In front of an audience one has to stand normally, gesture normally, and ideally, look at them properly. If there are questions, one has to think on one's feet. But to deliver a fluent message (especially with minimal notes), I can't manage all this. I can't be looking at them and aware of my own self at the same time as thinking about what I'm going to say and how I'm going to say it, and then respond to complex questions in a logical manner.

I can manage to sustain the correct level of eye contact in social situations, but as the complexity and importance of the message increases, my ability to simultaneously maintain social norms drops off. I'm sure this is one reason why I've been so comfortable with people who can't see too well - I can turn my eyes anywhere I like and sit back or lean forwards without prejudicing the communication channels.

What I need to do is try to be more aware of what I'm doing while I'm doing it - am I speaking slowly enough? Am I delivering the message as coherently and fluently as possible? Am I standing and gesturing in an odd way that I'm not even aware of? Am I really looking at the audience, or just facing in their general direction? I must practise on the next visit day, when prospective students come to the campus and I get to talk to them and show them round.

Stop Press: We have snow! Proper amounts of snow this time, not just a sprinkling. Today I only have Computing Techniques in the afternoon, so I've written in to say I won't be there, and I'm staying at home - if I should have any car-related incident, it would be an utter disaster, so I'm not risking it today. It's a welcome opportunity to get a whole lot of work done without having to spend all those hours driving - but first I must take a few pictures of the virgin snow.

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