In 2016 I was invited to present at the 40th annual Tomato Days conference in Southern Ontario. Winter is a very busy time for those of us working in agricultural extension and we’re more likely to be on the road speaking to growers than in the office. This was one of those talks where I knew what I wanted to say, but I didn’t have a decent slide deck and I’d have to pull one together.
I worked very hard on it. I drew from the presentations of others, from data sets kindly shared with me, and from my own experience trying to accomplish the impossible – namely encouraging a small, light droplet to navigate into the depths of a dense canopy and alight on the underside of a leaf.
I finished the talk late the night before, drove three hours to the conference, and handed my USB data key to the moderator. It was a bright, clear winter morning and the pavilion we were in had windows everywhere., So bright in fact that none of the 150 gathered could see the screen.
I watched the first speaker bravely describe graphs and weeds that the audience couldn’t see. I watched the second speaker attempt to pantomime the illustrations from her presentation. I decided I wouldn’t go down that road.
When the moderator brought up my talk, I asked her to turn it off. My first statement to the group:
Q. “What’s the most terrifying thing you can do to a academician?”
A. “Take their Power Point away.”
For the next 30 minutes we had a discussion about spray coverage. Everyone asked questions and everyone shared experiences and debated the answers. In the end, I was very pleased with the talk even though I missed a lot of my key points.
I learned something very valuable from the experience. I think speakers should learn to shut off the Power Point every now again. It’s not always ideal since we’re there to teach and visuals are often required. But, the next time you’re asked to speak, consider the possibility of using your 25-minutes-plus-5-for-questions to engage your audience, not just talk at them.
I now do this once a year. I never know when the mood will take me, but I give the audience a choice. They can hear the canned presentation, or I can shut it down and we can talk. To date, given the option, every audience has opted to go off script. It’s scary, fun and everyone (including me) learns something.