You stare at the blank first slide of your newly opened presentation file, the excitement about getting to present at the conference giving way to good old fashioned writer’s block. You got your topic confirmed a few weeks ago, but right now you’re wondering how anyone could ever talk about this topic for an extended period of time and on top of that make it interesting and engaging for a crowd.
You decide to refer to everyone’s favorite tool and type your topic into Google. After some more searches, you find a couple of judge articles and external sources that address your topic. Still unsure of what the heck you are doing, you hesitantly type the first letters of your title onto the slide.
Planning and facilitating a seminar can be hard. It involves taking a topic that can be very broad, reducing it to its most essential bits and then being able to translate that to an actual, live seminar. It’s understandable that it sounds daunting, but luckily this blog is here to help out with that.
This is the first of a two-part article on avoiding common mistakes when facilitating a seminar. Both of them are part of a larger array of articles meant to be a resource for anyone who is attending, organizing or holding a seminar at a judge conference. You can find the first article by George Gavrilita here. I recommend reading that first, before diving into this one. In this first part of two I’ll address the issues that usually come up when planning and preparing a seminar, while the second part deals with things that come up during the actual seminar.
These are the things that aren’t always obvious to someone who has only done a few presentations in their life and is preparing a seminar. When you are sitting there, trying to plan your seminar, these are a few points that you probably want to keep in mind. They won’t cover it all – what is hard and what comes easy is individual and only experience can perfect your technique (and even then you are never fully learned), but these are the common mistakes you might want to try to avoid.
Facilitate, don’t Lecture
This first point deals with how you approach your topic. While some topics might be well suited for a lecture, they are a lot fewer than most people would think. Think back to the classes you took in school. Think about what stayed with you the most. Odds are it wasn’t the teachers that held long lectures that taught you most, but the ones who had you discussing and engaging in the topic.To learn, engage in and process something, just listening is a vastly inefficient way to use one’s time. Even if your topic is something that strictly involves you telling a story, doing that for 40 minutes straight is almost always a bad idea.
By at least working some questions and pauses into your seminar, letting the participants think about and discuss the topic with their neighbors, you get an environment where everyone feels like contributors, like active parts of the seminar. This is the reason I use the word “facilitate” rather than “present” – you are facilitating their participation. Doing that gets people invested in your seminar, which leads to a much more constructive and engaging atmosphere. You don’t need to ask profound questions in any way, but the questions do need to be something that can engage and interest the participants. If you are holding a seminar about the combat phase, use examples or problems that they can solve. If you’re doing a review seminar, hand out some example reviews they can discuss. During the “judging your first competitive event” seminar, have them plan a fictional event to have them thinking about the topic. Doing community building, you can have them describe their local communities to each other. This kind of small things makes a large difference in how well your participants remember your seminar’s points.
Knowing Your Topic (not your speech)
A very common way of preparing for a seminar is to consider what the main points are, distribute them over slides in an order that makes sense and from that construct a seminar that goes through them in that order. This has been done multiple times by translating articles into seminars by copy-pasting content into slides. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t actually involve you preparing for the topic, but rather preparing for a scripted speech (spoiler: there will be an article on how to properly make a seminar out of an article in the not-so-distant future).
Generally, great speakers and teachers are the ones that know the subject, its quirks and how to teach it. They know it well enough that they can adapt to the group of people they are doing it for. The strength of being in a room with the ones that you are teaching or describing something for, is the fact that you can change things around. If you are not able to do that, they are probably better off reading about what you’re saying in an article or a book. Your job is to make the topic understandable for this specific audience and in that regard, you are vastly superior to a length of text.
Another difference between you as a facilitator and an article is that you don’t have to have exactly all the answers. Most likely, you are in a room filled with a lot of competent judges. Some of them will know your topic and a few might even know it really well. You are probably not the one in the room that has the most expertise about your topic – and that’s okay. The role of the facilitator is not to be the most knowledgeable. Don’t be afraid to use those willing to chip in with their experience to help comment or answer questions. Having others explain part of a rules interaction or the perfect way to prepare an event is perfectly fine, and even recommended – it adds to the dynamic nature that a seminar should strive for. You need to study and know your topic, but don’t worry about being the absolute best. Just make sure to know the subject well enough that you can lead the seminar in a constructive way and don’t be afraid to have others chip in.
Defining a Context
Some topics are easy to define. If your seminar is about missed triggers or how to write a review, the participants will mostly know what to expect from it. This gives everyone a context in which they can discuss and process new ideas. If the seminar topic is less well defined however, taking in and processing these new impressions is a lot more difficult. You’ve probably at some point in your life sat at a seminar, be it at school, at work, or at a conference, wondering what the heck the teacher or facilitator was talking about. If that happens, the participants in the room will be wasting time trying to figure out what the subject is and how to take in this new information.
Fact is, the brain has a hard time taking in new things if you don’t get something familiar to associate it with. To learn something new, your brain must be able to make a connection to something it already knows. It is your job at the seminar to help the participants make those connections, which means that you need to start by reminding them of the things they already know and then expand that understanding with the points you bring up during your seminar. It will make everyone more comfortable with the subject, get the participants active and engaged faster and help their learning quite a bit.
Practice, Practice, Practice
This is probably the most common mistake made when planning a seminar. After all that planning, revising and structuring, going through the entire thing out loud is essential, and don’t just do it once. Do it enough that you don’t need to look at the slides or notes to remember where you are or what’s coming next. Notes can be convenient to have at the actual seminar, mind you, but they should only be there to help in case you suddenly forget something or get derailed. They should not have to be a stack of papers that risks distracting both you and the audience.
Make sure you schedule time to rehearse. Doing it by yourself is fine, but be careful not to allow yourself to stumble or restart sections. If possible, have someone who is willing to listen to you. That forces you to do it “for real” and they are probably able to give you feedback on things you are not able to notice yourself.
I won’t be going in depth about slide design here (there is an upcoming article dedicated to that), but there are a few basics that are worth mentioning. If you are using slides, they should be to your presentation what pictures and illustrations are to the text in a textbook. In a text, pictures can be used to illustrate what the text is saying, helping out with making connections and making the content more clear. They never simply repeat what the text is saying. Similarly, your slides should not be something that reiterates what you are saying. If you want an example of that, look up Steve Jobs’ presentations on Youtube, for instance the one introducing the first iPhone.
A text can manage without pictures, even if that makes it a more cumbersome read. So too should your seminar be able to function without your slides. Don’t make the room read a large amount of text. You should be the center of attention during the portions of the seminar where you make a presentation. To make that happen, individual slides really shouldn’t contain much information at all. As an example, look at the amount of information each of Steve Jobs’ slides contains. It’s minimalistic, easily surveyable and doesn’t require the audience to shift focus from what he is saying. Images and words that add flavor to your words and emphasize them are great, but make sure that is what they actually do. Usually, conference organizers are open to giving feedback on your slides if you send them in in advance (and some might even require it). Use that opportunity to have a fresh set of eyes give a new perspective of what your slides convey.
The best resource you have when planning a seminar is time. Use that time in a clever way, so you don’t have to do everything at the last minute. Do a rough sketch, have others look through it and provide feedback and make sure you are happy with your seminar about a week before the conference. That way, you can process it a bit in the back of your head and probably think of a few tweaks to improve it. I’m sure there are several more tips others can contribute with – feel free to add from your own experience, for example through the forums!
See you next time, when I’ll tell you a bit about the mistakes to avoid during the actual seminar!