Thursday, September 09, 2010

Wagenaar's art of presentation

In 2004 I heard a lecture by Prof. Dr. Albert Wagenaar on how ‘People don’t remember the weather forecast’. This was not the topic but the message. After all these years, every member of the audience that I still meet remembers it - how to achieve this effect was the real topic of Wagenaar’s lecture, which he gave again at the Orpheus Institute last year in front of an audience of doctoral students. 

At the beginning, Wagenaar explained it was not really a lecture, for he wouldn’t read anything. It was going to be more of a ‘causerie’, a ‘talk.’ And that was exactly what he did: for more than a half hour, without accessories such as paper, microphone, seat, blackboard, PC or beamer, he needed only his voice and his visual presence. He is a very sweet-looking man with the type of voice that makes for excellent radio. Like Garrison Keillor, Wagenaar can draw in your attention with his voice alone, never needing to raise it to be articulate, or searching for words, always at ease and in command. For Wagenaar, to be in command of the audience is the main technique to communicate a message. His work as a clinical psychologist (having been, amongst other, a member of the faculty of law at Leiden University and a renown juror-expert in legal trials) has given him ample opportunity to test this thesis, both as the one who talks and the one who studies those who talk. But it is not just a question of the voice. Wagenaar intended his talk to be of help to people who need to present their doctoral research to a live audience, and filled it with techniques that are necessary to make the difference between an aural and a written presentation. 

The entire talk was structured along a list of such techniques, which each one being demonstrated while being explaining. Form and content matched perfectly. Some of the techniques are very basic, e.g. being on time (excepting force majeure) shows you care as much as those in the audience that are on time. Talking directly to your audience allows them to engage with what you say. Other techniques are less self-evident, e.g. "Do not read from paper": it gives the impression you are not fully prepared and every time you need to look at the paper to know where you are, you lose contact with your audience. Do not hand out bunches of photocopies on which only small items are relevant: these will give the audience the chance to loose concentration and shift their focus. If you need PowerPoint, be aware of how much the frames distract audiences, who are looking at them instead of listening to you. Apart from the risk of technical problems, overhead projections of text (especially listings to follow the structure of the talk) are counterproductive. Some techniques are self-evident but not necessarily easy. If you really command your subject, you must be able to say what you have to say in 10 seconds. The rest is illustration to make that point or to keep the attention of the audience. (Wagenaar is a professional expert on the workings of the human memory.) Unlike reading a brief or a novel, an audience of a talk cannot go back to read something again in case it feels it missed or misunderstood something. The attention span does not last for a half hour, and an audience’s attention will most definitely wander and miss bits. Some of those bits can be crucial to the argument and for someone who misses such a point the whole talk may be wasted. It is therefore important to repeat the message and the crucial points. That’s why the message should be announced at the beginning of the talk rather then spending the first minutes (which are at the most profitable point of the attention span) on how you are happy to be here, and how you suppose the audience might appreciate what happened to you yesterday and how that connects to the subject at hand. Repeating the message and closing of with it can be literally impressive, as Wagenaar demonstrated in both of his talks that I witnessed. Wagenaar compared an aural presentation to an onion, with the core being the message, and the layers the illustrations and attention grabbers. A written account can be structured like the unwinding of a cotton-ball, spinning a long thread of logically connected but sequentially arranged arguments. In an aural presentation such a thread will easily and quickly brake apart. At such points, the structure must then be left for another one to repair the damage: going back to previous stages of the argument and explaining the matter again. This may in turn enlarge the disruption of the thread, and only the most experienced ‘talkers’ may pick up where they had been forced to stop. 

A few of the layers that he used to make these very points are worthwhile relaying here. Simulating a search for the right word can put the audience’s attention back on track: the listeners that feel the urge to complete the sentence will provide some relief in the monotonousness of the talk. If one of the members that you know (organiser, colleague, etc.) is drifting away, you may mention his name in some made-up reference. At least that person will be with it again immediately, and the rest will have occasion to turn their heads and see whom it is that the speaker is referring to. Small tricks like this, expertly timed by Wagenaar, revealed to be more effective than one might expect. 

After Wagenaar’s talk, the students were scheduled to give presentations themselves. Of course, not having prepared with any of his advice in mind, their presentations suffered heavily from the comparison. But a comparison between an experienced presenter like Wagenaar and fresh students (who are already accomplished performers but with sounds instead of words) is unfair. It was much more of a surprise to witness a seminar later that day by someone who was a professional researcher, without a doubt used to lecturing, teaching and presenting. It had certainly not been the intention of the organisers to follow up on Wagenaar’s talk with a demonstration of how it should not be done, but to witness a lecture that did not benefit from his experiences was the best way to learn the lesson that he had come to teach.

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