It used to be that you only had to compete with the view out of the window when you were talking to a group of people. Now, you have to compete with the view of the world available through people’s mobile devices. You know when your audience arrives and sets up their laptops that you have a challenge ahead of you. A few of them might be planning to take notes using their laptop but most will be distracted by the constant flow of information delivered by email and messaging applications. Of course, you can use the same technology to embellish your presentation and to hold their attention; but often the result is ‘death by Powerpoint’ and the audience retreats into their own worlds – doing their own thing.
There’s a nice quote from an interview with Eric Clapton in the San Diego Union Tribune (September 4th, 2005): ‘It’s very hard, so I try and make it as engaging as it can be. But you have to face the fact that, no matter how good it is, you can only hold their attention for a little while.‘ So, you have to plan you talk in small steps and to re-engage your audience at the start of each step. There needs to be a narrative and the same rules apply as when writing [see post entitled ‘Reader, Reader, Reader’ on April 15th, 2015]. Powerpoint is not a requisite nor a substitute but preparation is essential. As a group of undergraduate students told me during a recent visit to another university, they can easily spot the lecturers who prepare conscientiously and are worth listening to.
I am at a scientific conference this week where a wide range of speaking skills will be on display and I have my mobile devices with me to provide alternative stimulation. The real value of the conference is the opportunity to interact with other researchers in a community of knowledge and for that we need shorter talks and more time for discussion. But the mechanics of modern scientific conferences is a separate issue!
Image: view from lecture theatre on London campus where I taught science and technology leadership last year [see post entitled ‘Leadership is like shepherding‘ on May 10th, 2017].