Back in 2009 a terrified version of myself, along with a group of others who were apprehensive if not terrified also, presented my first conference presentation. It was the New Professionals Conference in London and I had to stand on a stage in front of over 100 people and share a presentation I’d written. I say “had to” but actually I’d chosen to. I wanted to share my experiences using social networking (a relatively new thing back then!) and encourage other librarians to join me in blogging and tweeting. I wanted to experience public speaking at a professional conference to stretch myself. I felt physically ill until my presentation, but from about 20 seconds in to my presentation that all changed and I loved it. We were all first time speakers so the audience knew to go easy on us, and many of the audience were new professionals too. Everyone was so supportive, including those who weren’t new professionals but had come along to see what we had to say. People smiled at me as I spoke, and others took notes. Many people came up to me after my presentation to thank me, ask questions, and congratulate me. They told me I didn’t appear nervous (despite the fact that I was convinced I looked like a nervous wreck). Aside from the whole being absolutely terrified thing, I actually really enjoyed it.
So I did more. I wrote proposals for other conferences, and was invited to speak at other events. My confidence grew and although I always get nervous, I learnt how to deal with the nerves better and I knew that once I began speaking I’d be fine. I have always prepared well and only ever speak about topics I am very familiar with, and generally about things I am passionate about which always helps. I still get nervous, and I can definitely improve, but I think I’m starting to fall out of love with presenting in this way. Why? Well, I’ve been having an affair.
Some of the conferences I have been invited to speak at in more recent years have asked me to deliver a workshop rather than a presentation. This appeals to the part of me that really wants to help others develop – I always wanted to teach, and I find it incredibly rewarding. Seeing someone have a ‘light bulb moment’ because of something I’ve asked them to reflect on or to apply to their own context is wonderful. I generally find that for me, facilitating active learning results in something more exciting than the traditional method of delivering a presentation.
As a learner, I definitely prefer this approach (which I appreciate may skew my opinion). During the Clore Leadership Short Course in February, we had a number of external facilitators delivering full day or half day workshops over the two weeks. Many of them involved a lot of group discussion as well as group and individual activities. I absolutely loved it and learned so much, my head was full of ideas (it was exhausting too, but an incredible learning experience). On one of the days we entered the room and I noticed we had handouts with lots of presentation slides. My heart sunk. To be fair, we did have some discussion points in the session. I learned a few new things, and some of the points made were very interesting, but I felt like I was back in a conference room rather than in my lovely active learning bubble. I noticed as I was reflecting on the fortnight that the sessions I’d enjoyed the most were those where the facilitators prompted us to think for ourselves. They often didn’t share as much in terms of theory, and focused more on sharing their experiences and encouraging us to share our own experiences and perspectives. They were incredibly skilled facilitators, but in a different way to traditional presenting. They created a safe, supportive environment to enable us to share our thoughts and our learning without fear of ‘being wrong’. They encouraged us to explore things and learn from each other. They gave us space to think.
In the workshops I have delivered I know sometimes I have tried to pack too much content into them, and sadly the active learning parts are the parts that sometimes get cut a little short. However having been a participant in this type of environment I can now see that for many workshops less is definitely more in terms of sharing content and that for these types of situation more emphasis (and therefore more time) should be on the discussions, activities and opportunities for reflection.
Recently I’ve facilitated workshops on leadership, a topic that I believe we all have knowledge of in some way and something that although I do have experience of I do not consider myself an expert in (I don’t think I ever will be; I support the view that leadership is learned and that we always have more to learn about ourselves and how we interact with others). When I started planning the workshops, I had lots of ideas of activities I wanted to do, but I also for some reason felt like I needed presentation slides. In practice, I absolutely loved the activities I facilitated (and received good feedback on them) and I didn’t much enjoy the sections I “presented” – even when the slides were just photos or pictures with very little text. It felt too structured and didn’t enable me to adapt what I said as much. Facilitating rather than presenting is a very different experience; I found it just as tiring, if not moreso, but so much more rewarding. I learned about the participants and was able to support them as they needed it, and I could tailor the guidance I provided and the topics covered based on their needs. It’s definitely a skill I’d like to develop.
I think for most of the things I do there will be part that needs presentation slides, and I’m aware that some people prefer to learn in this way so I am unlikely to remove it completely, but I’ll certainly be thinking very carefully about whether a presentation is the most appropriate medium in future. Of course this does partly depend on the topic as well as the audience and the situation (venue, time etc.); I do think there is still a place for traditional presenting, and I’m sure I’ll continue to do it (I’ll be giving a presentation at a conference next week in fact!), but in future I’ll definitely be considering when honing my facilitation skills may be more appropriate than honing my presentation skills.
What do you think? Do you prefer presenting or facilitating? Any tips for developing my facilitating skills?