Harvest is mostly done and growers want to hear what we’ve learned and what’s coming next. Lecture season is upon us once again.
In 2021 we’re still finding our way through virtual conferences and hybrid models, but I like to think we’re slowly returning to the in-person format. Just last week I gave my first in-person talk in 20 months. It felt wonderful after having spoken into a dead-eyed camera for so long. Half-way through my lecture I remembered a lesson I learned a few years back and spontaneously decided to go off-script.
Let me explain.
In 2016 I was invited to present at the 40th annual Tomato Days conference in Southern Ontario. I knew what I wanted to say, but didn’t have a decent slide deck for that particular topic. I’d have to pull one together.
I work hard on my presentations. I employ lots of imagery (I create all my own illustrations). I get persnickety about fonts, white space and slide transitions. I try to tell a story that educates and hopefully, entertains. Prideful? Perhaps. But if you’re willing to sit on a hard chair for an hour, I’m going to do my best to make it worth your while.
I finished the slide deck, drove three hours to the conference, handed my USB data key to the organizers and sat down to wait my turn. It was a clear, bright winter morning and I saw that the pavilion we were in was more-or-less windows and a roof. It was so bright, in fact, that none of the 150 attendees could see the projector screen!
I watched sympathetically as the first speaker spent 30 minutes trying (and failing) to verbally describe his graphs. I cringed as the second speaker pantomimed her illustrations in some kind of brave, interpretive dance. Then it was my turn.
I decided I wasn’t going down that road.
When the moderator brought up my talk, I turned the useless projector off. I asked the squirming and disinterested audience:
Q. “What’s the most terrifying thing you can do to an academician?”
A. “Take their Power Point away.”
For the next 30 minutes we had a discussion about spray coverage. No props. No slides. The audience slowly warmed up to the new format. They shared experiences. They debated. They asked questions. I became more facilitator than speaker.
When our time was up I think everyone was pleased. Sure, I missed a lot of my key points and never really addressed the subjects I thought I would, but who cares? Everyone learned something.
For me, I learned that speakers should abandon the script every now and again. It’s not always ideal since we’re there to teach and structured visuals are often required. But, the next time you’re asked to speak, consider the possibility of using your time to engage your audience and establish a dialogue… not just talk at them until the moderator gives you the 5-minute warning.
I have a colleague who does this masterfully. Whenever he is the last speaker on the agenda, and the previous speakers have discourteously gone over-time and whittled his time in half, he jumps straight to his take-home slide. He leads a quick discussion with the audience and becomes a hero. The moderators are now back on schedule and no one is late for lunch.
Since “Tomato Days”, I now try to do this once a year. I never know when the mood will take me, but when it does I give the audience a choice: They can hear my canned presentation or I can shut it down and we can have a conversation. To date, given the option, every audience has opted to go off script. It’s scary, it’s fun and like I said earlier, everyone learns something.
I challenge you to try it the next time you’re lucky enough to be in front of an audience in person.