Friday, July 17, 2009

Learning in adversity

It’s funny how we learn much more when things go wrong than when they go right. I had another great learning experience yesterday.

I was delivering a training workshop for 10 front line healthcare employees. As usual I arrived early at the venue in good time to set up the laptop and projector and generally get myself well prepared. I love to arrive well in advance of start time.

All was well until I came to switch on the laptop and it didn't work. Despite our best efforts we just couldn’t get the projector and laptop to ‘talk to each other’ so it meant ‘winging’ the session without the aid of my usual PowerPoint presentation.

Though initially feeling sort of partly undressed I quickly warmed to the session as we proceeded without the ‘safety net’ of the technology. I found myself thoroughly enjoying the interaction with the participants. I’m sure the level of interaction was higher than normal – or maybe that was just me telling myself that to justify the ‘acting on one’s feet’s style that was forced by circumstances beyond my control.

I am a great fan of technology and I do believe PowerPoint adds value to training sessions when used sensibly, I wonder though if PowerPoint has become more important than it need be. In other words I guess I’m saying:

“Just cos we can, don’t mean we have to use it”

I am not saying I will not use PowerPoint in future training session but it has made me think seriously about over reliance on technology. We must know our subject so that we can cope when we hit technical hitches.

Maybe I will switch my balance in favour of fewer slides.

I have always said technology is the slave not the master – this was powerful evidence close to home.


Marilyn Jess, DTM said...

Hi Trevor,

This just happened at our Toastmasters meeting last Tuesday. Not to me, to the speaker I was evaluating. I will now blog about it, and what we did to solve it!

Trevor Gay said...

Amazing co-incidence Marilyn - I will visit your Blog to find the answer!

Rocky said...

Great topic. Adversity is often our greatest teacher. I really like your story of having to step outside the comfort zone in your training. It actually made you better as a presenter and forced to have a better connection with your audience. Good story. I would like to see more built around the concept of adversity. We often do all we can to avoid it, but when it presents itself it more often than not makes us become better.

Trevor Gay said...

Hi Rocky - Thanks Amigo. I’ve always believed we learn more from things that go wrong. This really put me on the spot and the best part about it in the end was appreciating the value of preparation. I had worked hard in advance of this particular course so it helped when the technology broke down that I knew the topic well.

Nothing beats preparation is another great lesson.

dave wheeler said...


As a corporate trainer I often am forced to teach using programs developed by our company's courseware designers...the self proclaimed "Wizards of Powerpoint". Some specialize in "helicoptering" text at every available opportunity, others never met a build or transition they didn't try to include on a single slide. I too have had Powerpoint malfunctions...some intentional... and I know where you're coming from.

Preparation is key and indeed enable one to overcome the technology gremlins. Adapt, improvise, and overcome...trainer/facilitator essential skills for sure...

Trevor Gay said...

Hi Dave - As one of my old bosses used to say:

"There's only one thing worse than animated slides - and that more animated slides"

Personally I hate them both as a watcher and as a presenter. Pretty patterns and helicoptering images cannot cover up a poor presentation.

Marilyn Jess, DTM said...

Great discussion. Adversity teaches more than when things go as planned.

Rocky, I like how you mention that this forces you to build a better connection to the audience. It can elevate a good speech to one that is unforgettable.

I didn't mention the next point in my blog post. This was the member's third prepared speech. While he spoke there was a noticeable noise level from the room next door. He never flinched. That's real poise under fire!

Trevor Gay said...

"Keeping one's head when all around are losing theirs" by the sound of it Marilyn.

I hope your husband's health is improving.

Best wishes


Mark JF said...

The acid test would be to look at the feedback scores for the session and compare them to your usual ratings. And then to review any comments.

What this highlights to me is how easy it is to get into a routine: pitch up, plug in, present. Sure, we all think we're tailoring the presentation to the audience but the reality is we're using mostly the same slides with mostly the same stories to make mostly the same points.

My questions to you, Trevor, are: what interaction did you get that you wouldn't ordinarily have got? how can you work that into future presentations (e.g. have a section where you sit down and talk with the audience)? what are you going to change in your 'standard' presentation as a result of this unscheduled experiment in re-working it?

One key point: "I have always said technology is the master..." Errr.... shouldn't that be the other way round: isn't technology the slave?

mark jf said...

To this day, one of the best presentations I have ever seen featured every transition, sound effect, slide build and effect that MicroSoft ever put in to PowerPoint.

It was an internal presentation of the company's financial performance for the just-finished year and plan for the next, done by the FD. So - sorry FD's - expectations weren't high.

But it was brilliant because: the effects complemented the points he was making; he was making those points logically and enthusiastically; he used humour, logic and concern to give a realistic and understandable analysis; he had clearly rehearsed and rehearsed and then rehearsed a bit more.

The lesson for me was clear: it's not about technology and it's not about showmanship; t is about making a good point as well as you can.

Trevor Gay said...

Hi Mark –first of all thanks for spotting the deliberate mistake about ‘slave and master’ – I’ve corrected it in the posting as you will see – and more evidence that preparation beats everything - clearly I did not prepare that posting well enough!

Trevor Gay said...

Mark – I have looked at the feedback scores and the comments from that session and there are definitely things I have learned. I ALWAYS review my scores as critically and objectively as possible and the comments are usually just as important – some would say more important - than the scores.

You are right about getting onto a regular routine and pattern. There is danger of that in all of us I think. I feel blessed that variety is my spice of life. I run training session on maybe a dozen core topics – all different. But even those I run regularly I love to try and make sure I bring variety into them.

The interaction I got that I don’t normally get is a great question. I felt there was more eye contact with the audience and it therefore felt more intimate although that may have been my perception. I like to think that all my training sessions have that good bend of formality/informal.

I will definitely make more time in the presentation assisted training sessions to ‘sit and chat’ a bit more.

I love the story of your FD – sounds like my kind of person – mixing humour with serious stuff and make it interesting enough to get your message over effectively is an art !

Thanks as always Mark for your excellent comments

Dan Gunter said...

Excellent dialog here. I remember one little workshop where the electricity completely went out. Fortunately, it was a fairly pleasant day so all 13 of us just grabbed up our materials and went outside to a patio that happened to be right outside the conference room doors and was shaded. We covered the material and had a great time. We unintentionally (but fortunately) strayed from the outline a bit. The more relaxed, less formal feel for the next hour and a half had more group participation and experience sharing than the usual workshop. Much more dialog, much less "presentation."

Things happen for a reason.

Trevor Gay said...

Great story Dan -thanks for sharing.

In my last job as a healthcare manager 5 years ago we regularly held meetings with Doctors and Nurses in the garden of our offices. It always felt more productive! :-)

Hope you are well Sir after your recent tribulations!

John O'Leary said...

Your story, Trevor, has always been my worst fear. I usually prepare for the worst, however, and I try to not depend on the slides. BTW, I just switched my slide shows to Keynote. It's a whole new learning curve but I'm giving myself the summer to master it. I highly recommend it over Powerpoint if you're using a Mac.

Trevor Gay said...

Hi John - I've never got into the 'Mac mentality' and I haven't used Keynote either.

I've just started e-mailing myself copies of PowerPoint presentations to my g mail address which is a back up job in case this situation crops up again.

Amazing isn't it how things can be just 'up there' suspended in cyber space and there are no capacity issues! -

There's a thought John - Will we ever 'fill' cyberspace could be my next blog topic!!!

David Wike said...

Of course, there are certain things that are much easier to demonstrate with PP or other visual aids, but it is surprising how one can get along without it if necessary. Try ‘painting’ word pictures rather than relying on technology.

In my view, animation is best avoided. It seems that I’m not alone. In a recent post, Seth Godin said, “You can animate, but only if you have a note from your doctor.”

Dan Gunter said...

Trevor and David,

One obvious way to minimize the impact of projector failures is to print out "participant notes" sheets of the slide presentation and hand them out beforehand. That has a copy of each slide. If they are numbered, you say "Looking at slide # so-and-so there in your handout..." Some presenters don't like to give those out for fear the participants will be busy scanning ahead and trying to guess the meaning of the slides instead of fully engaging in the discussion that's going on presently. However, if you are giving them good information and making it enjoyable, that's usually not a big problem.

I find participants actually like being able to scribble their own additional notes on those handouts. When they go back to those notes after the presentation or workshop, they often recall MORE of what was talked about, not because they wrote everything down, but because the visual cue of seeing the slide again in print triggers more of the feel of mentally being at the presentation again.

Just my thoughts.

Marilyn Jess, DTM said...

Hi David and Trevor,

This statement nails it:

"Try ‘painting’ word pictures rather than relying on technology."

This is Rule #1 for speakers.

I have a tech friend who is not a fan of slides. He claims they only work the left side of the brain, and I agree.

The other downside of relying on slides/tech is that you have less time for interaction between folk, and that is where the best learning often happens. Not from my talking head, LOL.

My PR training session last week had no slides, and included fantastic PR ideas shared in groups of four.

John O'Leary said...

David - I'd be curious to hear your (and Seth's) complaints about slide animations. Is because they can be distracting? Too cute? Prone to glitches?

David Wike said...

Dan – Yes, if you are going to use slides, then a back up like you suggest is a good idea. I have mixed views about giving stuff out in advance for the reasons you highlight. However, the argument for doing so is equally persuasive.

Marilyn – Speaker training coming out! I think that all presenters would benefit from speaker training as distinct from presentation training. I am sure that would reduce the reliance on technology.

John – I think it’s a bit like websites: just because you can doesn’t mean that you should. I am not really saying never ever use animation but I think that it should be used with great caution – actually that goes for PowerPoint in general. Usually I find that animation is a distraction. The golden rule should be ‘does it help the audience to understand the idea that you are trying to communicate?’

A friend of mine who is a very experienced speaker defines communication as ‘the transfer of an idea from one mind to another.’ I suggest that all presenters, trainers and speakers would do well to remember that when deciding how to ‘perform’. And yes, I believe that it should be a performance if you are to engage and captivate the audience.

Trevor Gay said...

A fascinating discussion here - thanks folks.

I remember probably 15 years ago when PowerPoint was not so well known but a growing trend. I went to a very large healthcare seminar in London. Five or six doctors had to do a presentation about a particular topic. All but one of them used PP slides and they were undoubtedly very slick presentations. One doctor spoke without the aid of any slides. I remember the content of that doctor’s presentation and I have no recollection of the content of the others. I would say; “It’s the person not the props”

I believe PowerPoint can support a good speaker and make a performance better. But a good speaker will perform well, with or without slides.