How to Make Your Presentations Pop

Classroom settings create training challenges and opportunities.  Reminding ourselves about the experiential dynamics of the classroom can increase content retention while positively impacting participant perception about and satisfaction with your organizational culture of learning. After reading this blog, soon your trainings will be able to POP . . .

A primary experiential classroom dynamic is that of distractions, interruptions in the planned flow and rhythm of a presentation that detract from learning.  Interruptions always will be present to one degree or another—a participant coughs several times while another adjusts her/his chair; such interruptions are momentary by nature. Still interruptions can monopolize attention—a noise is heard; a coffee fell…did it splash…who’s reacting…should I help? Interruptions, however, can lead some to disengage or even become cynical—a computer is not working; restarting doesn’t help…a murmur envelopes the room…some check e-mail…“this always happens”…“it’s a stupid training”… et cetera.

With thoughtful preparation, a skillful trainer can prevent many of these interruptions from becoming distractions or to avoid them from even happening. The dynamics of distractions can be termed POP: Personal, Operational, and Professional.  This week’s blog will deal with personal distractions.

Personal Distractions

In theory, personal dynamics of distraction can be discounted: we are adults who can focus; we are professionals getting paid to work. While being adult and professional, participants are also human.  That is, while everybody has universal needs, everybody is unique with lives outside of work. Likewise, while nobody per se is exempt from training, nobody is taking the training is perfect. With this realization, trainers can appreciate several personal elements.

A. Trainer Identity. The tone set at the beginning of a session frequently conditions how participants will receive the information delivered. The trainer needs to be professional, positive, and welcoming. Also, trainers are “experts,” who need to be sensitive to the natural vulnerability of students in the learning environment. All of this is key, because initial opinions about the trainer directly impact whether and how the participants engage during the session.

  1. Clothing: If the trainer is from outside the organization, then one could simply wear traditional business attire, or even call the organizer to obtain a sense of the style of the audience. Alternatively, if the trainer is from the organization, he or she should wear clothing consistent with the organizational culture. For example, if ALL staff members wear casual clothing, then wearing a suit and tie could to alienate participants. Clothing may seem to be superficial—and, in many ways it is—but something as simple as clothing should not create a distraction that prevents participants from focusing or taking the trainer seriously.
  2. Approachable: While ostensibly an “expert,” the trainer truly needs to be approachable.  Smiling, as is often quipped, uses fewer muscles than a grimace.  If he or she is not positive, then participants are apt to feel a sense anxiety or to be negatively disposed, which ultimately distracts from the learning process. Also, when interacting, be sure to affirm questions and be non-judgmental; an audience can turn away from a trainer if the session is imbued with her or his sense superiority as opposed to excitement and personal warmth.
  3. Preparation: Organizations use trainers for their talent in presentation and ability to convey chosen information. The trainer needs to be prepared and, regardless of familiarity, still organize and prepare. Something may have changed meriting a revision in your presentation. If participants point out the error, then one’s authority can be diminished. Yet even this can be a positive learning experience: instead of being defensive, one should thank the speaker for the information while affirming that others should feel comfortable in sharing. Training is not simply a transmission of dry facts but a reciprocal learning environment. This helps participants to engage mentally and increases trust for in-class exercises.

B. Courtesies. Remember to go over the basics surrounding the classroom site at the onset. Unless this is an in-house training, most will not be familiar with the location of various things: exits, elevators, restrooms, building cafeteria, food establishments in the area, et cetera; much less a courtesy, many jurisdictions require trainers at remote sites to provide disaster/safety information.  A good trainer will outline the training, define its goals, and share the anticipated break and completion times. All of this provides participants with focus regarding training value as well as a means to envision how the session fits into the rest of their day while eliminating associated distractions.

C. Physiological Matters. Especially for sessions lasting several hours if not the entire day, trainers must be cognizant of a certain type of interruptions.

  1. Sleep: In the context of morning or longer sessions, participants may present as sleepy and/or distracted.  This distraction frequently is created physiologically (and, ideally, not from the trainer).  In the morning, participants may not have gotten enough sleep and/or are exhausted; if possible, having refreshments always is a winning strategy—especially coffee. Alternatively, after returning from lunch, many experience the “postprandial dip,” that is, the diversion of energy from cognitive attention toward digestion. Hosts and trainers frequently provide an array of bite-sized, wrapped candies, which serve to “jolt” takers into a grateful attention. Other trainers ask the class to stand up, take a group stretch, and shake out their hands; another trainer, buttressed by studies, lowers room temperature a few degrees arguing it makes people less drowsy and more attentive.
  2. Hunger/Thirst: Having small snacks and a variety of drinks can be useful to create focus. Especially for morning sessions, participants may not have had time to eat that morning; having snacks and juices demonstrates consideration on the part of the host, while assuring the trainer that the audience will not be restless due to hunger.  Similarly, having bottled water available eliminates the need for participants to exit the room for the water fountain. Some budgets (and conditions) may afford for the provision of lunch—especially important when the session is located at a site not close to any food establishment.

D. Emotional Matters.  The dynamic of emotional matters is at once the easiest to identify while being the most difficult to resolve. When participants are anxious, depressed, or annoyed, then their attention span and ability to engage and learn is dramatically reduced. Emotions can be read through body language and expressions, but it is challenging to divine its origin. What are the results of their last performance evaluation?  Will the bank refinance their mortgage?   Can they afford to send a daughter to her college of choice? Unless the source is somehow clearly related to session and/or the trainer, not much can or should be done to address such matters.  

The trainer should effectively teach the subject matter, not serve as a therapist.  Still, trainers should be intuitively sensitive to and understanding about participant needs while creating a welcoming, non-threatening atmosphere that also is interesting. Engaging sessions mentally transport participants, granting them license to explore ideas unrelated to personal challenges and problems. You not only serve as an expert but as an entertainer providing a respite—all toward the end of helping members of the audience to learn.

E. Competing Technology.  Yes, welcome to the twenty-first century! Participants vary in technological competence: some multi-task several projects on different technologies while others get locked out of their organizational portal. Yet virtually everyone has an organizational or personal cell phone, tablet, and/or laptop; indeed, many use them while arriving at the session: checking texts, emailing, or making a quick on-line purchase (here, time is less money!).  Consumer technology is omnipresent, distracting the user and irritating others. If not careful, competing technology can steal the focus. Different strategies can be used to minimize distractions generated from competing technology.

  1. Participant Courtesy: At the onset, cheerfully, respectfully, though clearly remind everyone how competing technology creates serious distractions.  Ask participants to turn their technology off or to the vibrate setting. Also, provide a protocol for those who expect to receive urgent communication during the session; encourage them to sit at the rear of the classroom, ideally close to the door to momentarily leaving the room to afford them privacy and avoid distracting others. When interrupted by an errant cell phone ring—and it will happen—avoid irritation and simply ignore the interruption unless the receiver actually is orally responding to the caller. In such scenarios, trainers should politely request the cell phone user to finish the call in the hallway. (Most are embarrassed and will hastily comply.)
  2. Session Agreement: Again, discuss how competing technology creates serious distractions. Now, and this is a bit bold, ask everyone to hold up their cell phone, and after they do, then warmly and softly implore them to turn off their cell phone at that moment or—at the very least—to switch the setting to vibrate. Relay a humorous anecdote to ease any tension. This can create a humorous aside and a bonding moment of levity should a cell phone ring.

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Craig Lee Keller, Ph.D., Learning Strategist

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