Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Audience Experience

There's a debate running around a few posts recently on the question of whether to reuse old presentations or offer new ones.

Martin Weller writes about it in The New or Reused keynote Dilemma. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, he says.

This is in response to a James Clay post on The Half Life of a Keynote. He writes,
I know of one individual who delivered forty eight virtually identical keynotes over a four year period across different events, I never even came close to that!
I think I might know who that is; I think I've seen some of them.

How do you decide whether or not to reuse a previous presentation? Clay writes,
Sometimes I feel that I have a back catalogue of keynotes and that though I may want to deliver the new album, people would rather hear the classic hits from the past!
This carries flavours of Kathy Sierra's attitude, which Alan Levine cites in a comment on Weller's post:
this presentation is a user experience. And if it's a user experience, then what am I? Ah... now we’re at the place where stage fright starts to dissolve. Because if the presentation is a user experience, than I am just a UI. That’s it. I am a UI. Nothing more... I am not important. What is important is the experience they have. My job is to provide a context in which something happens for them.
OK, there's a point to that, but if I am indeed nothing more than a UI, then they could bring in just anyone to deliver the same content, or they could just play one of my videos. But I don't thunk that's what people want.

I've done more than 350 presentations. As Jerry Seinfled would say, "that's a lot". And as you can see from my Presentation Page, I rarely if ever use the same presentation, and while I reuse slides, you can actually see them evolve over time.

In other words, I treat each presentation as a new creation, and strive as much as possible to give people a unique experience. It's harder, I think - a lot harder.

As Martin Weller says, it takes time. Now it takes a lot less time for me than for him, but for me a presentation, even if it's only an hour, can be a full day event. But I consider it time well spent.

And alsso, I think, it's what people have come to expect and want from me. Because I'm not just delivering content. Lt me explain.

I sometimes think in terms of the music metaphor the way James Clay does. But the presentation isn't the song or the album.

For me, my 'greatest hits' are my ideas. I've had a bunch of them over the years, some more popular than others. Like all greatest hits, they're derived from previous work done by others, but with a solid dose of my own creativity.

You're probably familiar with them (at least, I hope you are). Here's some of them:
- relevant similarity
- distributed online community
- hacking memes
- rules for good technology
- learning objects as tools for conversation
- knowing the future by reading the signs
- learning management as content syndication (gRSShopper)
- syndicated learning audio streams (Ed Radio)
- topic-based learning content feeds (Edu-RSS)
- resource profiles
- community-based sustainability for OERs
- distributed digital rights management
- syndication-based adaptive workflow (Synergic)
- learning networks qua networks that learn
- personal learning environments
- the semantic condition (autonomy, diversity, openness, interactivity)
- the Downes theory of learning
- personal prrofessional development (relevance, usability, interactivity)
- the massive open online course (MOOC)
- content as a McGuffin
- the critical literacies
- learning as recognition
- personal learning
And there's a lot more; I'm not exactly Prince but I have a pretty good catalogue. And together these ideas (along with a liberal borrowing of iddeas from other people) form a comprehensive theory of learning which has come to be known under the heading of 'connectivism'.

But the think with ideas, as opposed to content, is that you're not just an interface. You don't just deliver them. You have to use them (and hopefully in a way that prompts the audience to use them as well).

Like Prince, what I feel is that I am delivering an experience. The content per se is irrelevant (I could literally talk for an hour on any topic, without notes; I've learned how). My ideas are the tools I use to frame the talk, to give it a perspective.

Having said that, there are two major principles I use when giving a presentation; each of these constitute key reasons why each presentation must be unique, at least for me.

The first is the Mike Bullard approach to comedy:
- Find something you have in common with the audience
- Turn them around to make them see it from your perspective
- Make them laugh at themselves
Now I do like to make people laugh :) but my final point is:
- Make them learn something about themselves
And that's the basis of the experience. I come into a presentation not thinking that the audience is lacking something which I can provide, I come in thinking that the audience already has the essentual skills or abilities, which I can help them realize.

This means every presentation is different, because every audience is different. Even the same group from the same place (as I discovered delivering this talk three times in two days to the same conference). Every place is different. Every context is different.

To use the jargon of the discipline, my talks are localized. But for me, localization is a bit different; it's a process where I fuse my own understanding of the locale (which you see though my photos I take, the references I make to other talks in the same conference, and the stories I tell about my local experience, plus a je ne sais quoi). You can't repeat that one talk to the text.

And, of course, my talks are interactive. They're not interactive in a typcial sense (they're not, for example, 'question and answer' sessions). But like any experienced presenter, I read the audience. I adapt what I'm doing on the fly. I sometimes make use of backchannels (I built my own software to do this before Twitter became a thing).

The second principle, which is essential for removing the pre-presentation jitters (as Kathy Sierra says, they never disappear), is this:
- Love your audience
This piece of wisdom is attributed to Luciano Pavarotti. As an opera singer he has a unique challenge: he is rendering interpretations of songs that aren't even his. Anyone could sing them. Yet the audience is in place to hear Pavarotti sing them. It isn't the content, it's the experience.

Loving your audience isn't just a one-way relationship. It's not simply about serving your audience or meeting their needs, as Kathy Sierra suggests. It's more. It's a sharing of the experience, where I bring what I have, and the audience brings what it has, and we see what we can create.

People want to be heard, they want to contribute (before, after and during the talk) and I want to let them, because each piece of audience engagement leads to the next idea (and my unique skill, if I have one, is to be able to recognize them, pull them out of the conversation like a diamond in the rough, polish them, and share them for all of us to see, as something we created).

Finally, there's one other reason why keep each presentation unique: since 2004, when James Morrison suggested it to me, I have recorded nearly every talk, and so now the slides, audio and video for each of my talks is presented as its own presentation page. As I said, there are more than 350 of them. And just as I could not post 350 identical essays, so also I can't post 350 identical presentations.

Not everyone needs to do it this way. But this is what I do.

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