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Winning the Conference Presentation

"Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world." - Robert McKee

It's that wonderful time of year. It's time for us to submit our content for the handful of conference sessions we'll be facilitating during the coming year. I'm fortunate enough to have been able to attend more than one hundred conferences through the years, I present at nearly all those I visit. I used to have an aversion to public speaking, that's long gone. My preparations and presentation strategies have evolved. Unfortunately, many of the so-called innovative #edtech sessions I've attended recently are still mired in the sit-n-git style of the previous century. We can do better, and if we aspire to make our classrooms places of great learning, then we must do better.

** Caution, this post is likely to contain some snarky sarcasm, but for the most part, my purpose is to share some observations and some research-based practices to help you win your conference presentation. **

This topic has been rolling around in my head for quite some time. Particularly since reading Alfie Kohn's piece, "How Not to Get a Standing Ovation at a Teacher's Conference."

"I’m still trying to figure out how to structure my presentations for educators so they’re more interactive — partly in order to model how classrooms should operate. I’m still wrestling with how to discuss the damaging effects of traditional educational practices without making it sound as if I’m blaming people who rely on them." - Alfie Kohn

First, be you. Why are you there? What is your essential message? Share your story. Stories are the glue that helps transfer wisdom, propel ideas, and connect new information with background knowledge and schemas. Rudyard Kipling said, "If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten."

"When we are being told a story, things in our brain change dramatically. Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too." - Leo Widrich

Second, create redundancy and interaction with your technology. For the most part, my conference experiences reside in the #EdTech realm. Using tech to support the theme or activity is sort of a given, but not a requirement. I've learned the hard way, stuff will fail at the most inopportune time. Keep calm, you'll have a backup plan.

  1. If your session requires an Internet connection, bring a mobile hot spot. Connect to it before your session. If there is not a dedicated wireless network for presenters, use your hot spot and leave the conference wi-fi to your attendees.
  2. If you have presentation slides, have an available copy in the cloud, and back-up copies on a jump drive. Copy the slide deck to the desktop of your computer.
  3. Bring a Bluetooth speaker to provide ambient music during work times. Music is also a welcoming, disarming technique during entrances and exits. Arrive early enough to test your audio and video. 
  4. Bring a wireless presentation remote so you can move around the room. Use proximity to enhance engagement and interaction.
  5. Very few of us like to use microphones, but your audience doesn't want to be shouted at. Request a lapel microphone for a hands-free, untethered presentation model. The microphone, particularly in a large venue, will help keep your session conversational.
  6. If you have interactive elements (which I highly recommend), such as; polls, discussion boards, surveys, and virtual whiteboards, create short URLs or QR codes to make it easy for your participants to access your interactive activities. Make sure your links are organized and easy to find within your session materials.
Third, let's talk more about slides. Once again, they are not required but should be considered enhancements to your story. (Best Practices for Designing Presentation Slides)
  1. Your title slide is essential; it should contain these elements: a bright, catchy title, your full name, a picture of you or of something related to your theme, and links to your website or social media sites. Most importantly, you want attendees to continue the conversation beyond your fifty minutes of face-to-face time. Save or publish your slide deck to the cloud, create a short URL, and post this URL on your title slide and in the footer of the rest of your slides. Model modern transparency and accessibility.
  2. More pictures, fewer words. Choose photographs that enhance your message. If the images aren't original, make sure they are royalty-free and provide attribution. Model appropriate use!
  3. The biggest mistake I see is presenters loading their slides with text. Single words, short phrases, bullet points - keep it simple, and let your attendees use their ears, leave the message open to their interpretation. Also, please don't read your slides to me. If for some reason I couldn't read, I wouldn't be seated at your session.
  4. Use basic fonts (Arial, Helvetica, Gill Sans) and primary colors for text boxes. Black text over a white background, with a minimum font size of 30, is most natural for people to see and read. Don't turn your slides into an Ishihara Test by posting colored text over the top of colorful graphics - distracting.
Fourth, your conference room stands a good chance of being arranged with rows of chairs and narrow tables. Boo! I contend sessions would be much more interactive and engaging without furniture. My favorite sessions have included hands-on activities and movement, maybe because this is how I learn best. I'm not alone. I prefer round tables over rows of chairs. Request a more open seating arrangement if you are able. Move furniture, get your attendees on their feet, mingling with other learners. 

Recently at IETC-2019, Joy Kirr and Bob Dillon led outstanding sessions using simple manipulatives and movement. Their meetings were conversational, interactive, and, most importantly, memorable. Based on design thinking, these EDU leaders showed how to be intentional with their use of learning spaces. 

Sit-n-git classrooms are boring, sit-n-git professional development is tedious. When planning for my conference presentations, I deliberately look to break the patterns of the look and feel of what many call the traditional classroom. If we want our classes to look and feel differently, to be more interactive and engaging, then our professional learning sessions must model the attributes we desire for our learners.
Other techniques that I have grown to appreciate over the years: 

  • Have a new message with each session. I seek confident presenters because I like their style. Some have become stale because they share the same material year after year.
  • Greet attendees at the door, try to learn as many first names as possible. 
  • Solicit feedback with an exit survey. 
  • Present from the back of the room. Conference rooms typically fill from back to front, don't give your attendees a place to hide.
  • Blend your delivery. If you know your attendees in advance of your session, send them a welcome message and include a link to your materials. 
  • Provide a mechanism for your attendees to stay connected - a sheet to collect social media handles, for instance.
Impactful conference session techniques will transfer to school PD sessions and classrooms. With proper planning and execution, people will remember your message and share their experiences. 

  • How have you won the conference session experience? 
  • What conference session strategies have you experienced that have been successful?
  • Who has impressed you as a conference presenter, why?

As Tom Whitby frequently reminds us, If we are to better educate our kids, we need first to better educate their educators.

Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section.


Joy Kirr said…
Thanks for sharing these, Bob! I always love to learn from YOU at a session, or at a lunch...
I'll need to incorporate more of these ideas in my next presentation... whenever that may be. I'm taking a break, as I feel much of my ideas are becoming stale... ;)
I love the photo of your lanyards the BEST!
Thank you, Joy. I thoroughly enjoyed your session at IETC-19! We needed a semester or a year to hash out the classroom "shifts" we were discussing. I'm with you on the need for a break. Your ideas are terrific - it can be exhausting trying to move mountains. Happy New Year!
Aaron Davis said…
Robert, I really appreciate your thoughts on presentations. So much to stop and think about.

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