Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Presentation skills in librarianship

In the past several weeks I've done a handful of presentations or workshops for our faculty, staff and students. They all were at least moderately successful and I even got some compliments on my presentation style, including adjectives such as "verve," "passion," "commanding attention" and "impressive."  Let me be clear: I would not describe myself in those ways. I am a passable presenter on the few things (like my library!) I am knowledgeable about, but I'm far from a dynamic speaker.

I think what may be happening here, at least in part, is a lowering of standards. We have probably all had to sit through at least a few boring presentations filled with text-heavy power point slides and an uninspired or overly nervous delivery. Perhaps so much so that when someone does something a little different, it "commands attention." But the norms and best practices for presentations are slowly changing. Watch most any TED Talk to see what I mean.

I've been lucky enough to be at a point in my career where I've gained a bit of mastery over my chosen professional field (librarianship) and have, over the years, overcome my fear of public speaking. When you've gone through some of the massive life changes I have, you tend to stop worrying overly about what others think of you. In other words, it helped me build up some self-confidence. Being an effective presenter is something that comes with practice and necessity

As a result, I've been able to overcome my reliance on power point slides and, whenever possible, don't use them at all. If I do use them, I go with less words and more imagery as a re-reinforcement of what I'm saying (and I do intentionally try to project passion when I speak/present/teach), rather than a reminder to myself of what I'm "supposed to say."

via Flickr cc, by Elizabethdunn
The bottom line to me is that most audiences/students/listeners can tell when you're reading from your notes or a script (or from rote memory), or when you don't care about what you're speaking about. When they realize this? zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz...

Having said that, perhaps we as a profession need to focus more on teaching library students (and new librarians) "non-traditional" presentation skills (which also goes hand-in-hand with instruction skills and being "authentic").  These are the kinds of essential skills that can be brought to bear on almost any aspect of the profession; especially for getting the attention of your constituencies or getting your point of view/goal across to whatever audience you find yourself in front of at any time.

Librarianship, for the most part, is not for the shy or timid. It is a service profession that requires confidence and the ability to communicate effectively. This latter is boiler plate language on almost all library (and probably many non-library) job postings these days. Is it overlooked or downplayed during the interview process, or is it just one of those intangibles that is hard to screen for? I suspect a little of both, perhaps.

If you want to read up on some presentation skills, I recommend Presentation Zen as a blog to start with. Tons of practical, but well presented and contextualized tips there!