Friday, 9 May 2014

The Naked Presenter comes to class - are you ready?

Those who know me may well be familiar with my other blog, where I write about technology-supported language teaching. However, as even most technophile teachers I know will readily admit, pedagogy and learner needs still have to be our starting point: technology is a tool, a means to an end.

This new blog will therefore explore second-language communication in its various aspects, and will focus on the development of communicative competence in particular. My perspective (for the time being at least) remains predominantly that of a teacher of adult learners of Business English and other forms of ESP, but I hope that the topics addressed will still be of interest to a rather wider readership.

Today I'd like to look at the subject of presentation skills coaching, with reference to a book I've just recently read: Garr Reynolds' excellent The Naked Presenter (New Riders, 2011). His earlier Presentation Zen and Presentation Zen Design place significant emphasis on graphic design - but here the focus is on naturalness of communication during delivery: the goal is presentation shorn of all but what's essential to communication, and devoid of any artificiality or power distance.

As authenticity and audience engagement are hugely important to those we wish to coach, I'd therefore like to summarize what I took to be Reynolds' key points!

Delivery, not slides, is key to a talk, Reynolds argues (and I imagine few would disagree!). The aim of a talk should be to establish "natural" or "personal" connections with the audience: speakers are more effective and more remembered that way. If tools or techniques are used along the way, it should only ever be in order to clarify, simply and support that rapport.

As such, a "large conversation" is much more conducive to rapport than a lecture. Presenters whose aim is to influence the audience should start from where the audience is, show them a new direction and help them to explore it, all the while remaining authentic and true to themselves.

Speakers should therefore:
  • Have a clear purpose, and idea of how they intend to influence the audience.
  • Take great care to avoid inflicting cognitive overload on the audience! Else they'll forget what was said - presenters shouldn't overfill slides with content.
  • Resist the temptation to cover too much in their talk. It's far better to be restrained - again, presenters shouldn't overload the audience.
  • If possible, tell stories in which negatives are overcome. It's engaging and memorable! And exploit rhetorical contrasts, too (incidentally, Nancy Duarte's favourite is that between "what is", and "what could be"). 
  • Keep things simple! A simple story structure is Problem / What caused it / How and why we solved it.
Reynolds also has lots of commonsense advice here:
  • The best talk introductions are at least one of the following: Personal, Unexpected, Novel, Challenging, or Humorous. (The acronym PUNCH is quite easy to remember!)
  • Engage your audience with passion! Let people know how and why you are deeply interested in the topic, and why they should be, too. Don't be afraid to smile, get close to your audience, or be humorous.
  • Vary the pace every 10 minutes, if not sooner: give the audience what Dr John Medina calls an "emotionally competent stimulus" (ECS) - e.g. a relevant story, video clip, case study, image projected onto a screen, or even amusing anecdote - to allow the audience to relax as you make transitions between talk elements.
  • Speak steadily (not fast), simply and not too much. Vary the volume and pitch of your voice naturally, and don't be afraid to make use of silence or pauses.
  • Be flexible and prepared to change course if the situation demands it - this shows empathy for your audience. And don't overrun - this shows respect.
  • Give the audience something to do: ask them a question, show them a video clip, do a role-play, or have a discussion activity!
  • End powerfully! You could take the talk back to the beginning, summarize your main points, tell a story (just as you did at the beginning?), make them laugh, or display a quote.
As for taking questions at the end, Reynolds' advice seems pretty standard: respect your audience, keep answers brief, stay in control, and know when to stop. His top tip for presenters who want to master the art: practice! Persistence is key.

So what can we and our learners take from this?
I'd say quite a lot! Reynolds' advice can help just about everybody if taken seriously: many, many presenters (myself included, when I first began) make the mistake of making things way too complicated and focusing on content first and the audience only afterwards.

Given the chance, I reckon it would be an excellent idea to plan lessons which explore these concepts with learners. Mark Powell (author of Dynamic Presentations) certainly already knows his Presentation Zen, but some of the language he introduces is quite sophisticated, meaning you'll probably see the greatest uptake of his ideas at higher language ability levels. What we have here with the Naked Presenter is a non-prescriptive framework within which teachers can happily tailor tuition to students' needs.

Anyhow, if you're interested in making use of these ideas, why not get in touch? I'd be pleased to hear from you.

Reynolds, G. (2011). The Naked Presenter. New Riders, California.

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