I write this the day after doing a presentation to 400 Moroccan teachers in Casablanca. I was received, I am pleased to say, with enthusiasm and considerable politeness and I guess things went OK. But I couldn’t help feeling dissatisfied with what I had brought to these fellow professionals, and the manner in which I had done it (relying as I do on ‘performance’ and nice images – an issue I will return to in a later post – perhaps too much).
Where does this dissatisfaction come from? Partly it is probably a facet of an insecure personality (a feature best left unexplored in this blog!), but it is also the nagging fear that what we do – and by ‘we’ I mean the many travelling authors, teachers, trainers and applied linguistics from many different countries who travel the world and give talks and training sessions- are somehow engaged in a fruitless and perhaps even a compromised activity. It is not, after all, surprising that many people have complained about speakers who are ‘parachuted’ into a local reality and offer their expertise almost regardless of the situation they visit, all too temporarily. It is easy, of course, to be seduced by a good reaction to a talk and the occasional admiration for a book you have written, but is that enough, really, to justify the expanding carbon footprint that many of us have created, and the prime position that many of us are offered at conferences where local expertise should probably be given far greater prominence? I am not sure. It all comes down to a central question that preoccupies me, and it is this: what are presentations (talks, workshops etc) actually for?
A few years ago I was a speaker at Thai TESOL in Con Can where I was invited to give a plenary talk. Shortly after I had delivered this I went to a session on teacher development given by Alan Mackenzie (I have quoted this experience many times in conversation, and in subsequent talks). I arrived late, and as I walked in the speaker was just saying that there was no real point in plenary sessions (he had the grace to look mildly discomforted when he caught sight of me!) because, he pointed out, no one ever remembers more than 5% of what they hear in a lecture. He went on to argue passionately and convincingly that the best development is experiential; people develop when they are actively engaged in their development he suggested, not when they are given maxims and directions in some transmission-type encounter. Now I instinctively believe all that and so I began to feel somewhat uncomfortable. I mean I had, of course, prepared the plenary talk I had given earlier with some care and genuine hope that it might be of some use. But, I reasoned as I listened to him, Alistair was right; people would probably forget most of what I had said because they weren’t actively involved in what was going on.
I had a sudden flash (can you have a flash?) of memory at that point – you see this was quite a crucial moment for me, so my recall is pretty good I think – a memory of an article – well more like one of his frequent and typical rants – that Mario Rinvolucri had written some years before for the Teacher Trainer. It was all about how people assume that lectures are a good way to transmit knowledge, but in Mario’s overheated rhetoric he spelled that word ASS-U-ME. Lectures don’t work, was his claim. And here, in a hot, packed hotel room, I was hearing the same thing. But then two things happened to make me change my mind. In the first place, Alistair showed us a slide with a diagram which represented the process of Teacher Development (at least I think that was it!). As I looked at it I started to engage in a fierce debate inside my own head about whether I thought the diagram had anything to offer or not, about whether I agreed with it, about whether I needed to say anything about it then and there – I didn’t I am pleased to say. The intensity of my reaction and my inner questioning pretty much took me by surprise, especially since Alistair was in full lecture mode at the time. But when I thought about it later it seemed to have given the lie to Mario’s point of view. Despite being lectured to I had experienced a genuine dialogue with the speaker – or rather with the speaker’s opinions – and that seemed to me, and seems to me still, to have been a genuinely communicative event. But it was from a throwaway remark towards the end of his session that I took the greatest comfort. All that plenaries are good for, Alistair suggested, was to talk about and moan about in the coffee break. It took a few seconds for that to sink in. But when it did, I had a little epiphany then. It’s not all they are good for, I thought, it’s what they are good for. Plenaries provide a shared experience, a shared moment, which anyone who was there can discuss, criticise, swoon over or argue about. Without them how would conference goers have anything to talk about at all? And not just plenaries; the most common question when conference-goers get together is ‘what have you been to? Was it/were they any good?’ and within seconds people are describing talks, workshops, commercial sessions and other performances, and frequently giving their own take on what they have experienced – a kind of instant ‘collaborative’ development.
Is that it, then? All of us speakers, lecturers, presenters, call us what you will, are ‘shared-experience’ givers! But what about the content? Only 5%? Pass me the arsenic now.
In a large sociable conference the ‘shared experience argument is, perhaps, a sustainable conceit. But what about my talk in Casablanca yesterday? There WAS a coffee break, it is true, but people were mostly engaged in greeting each other as far as I could make out!
Perhaps the KIND of talk or workshop we offer is the ‘punto clave’ (the key to it all). Many people would say that participatory sessions are better than non-participatory ones? Yet my inner discourse when listening to Alistair McKenzie suggested this was not necessarily the case.
What’s your take on this? What do YOU think presentations (talks, workshops etc) are for? It would be great to have your opinion.
In my next post I want to see if I can write about what makes a good presentation. If you have any ideas, please let me know. Perhaps it will shock my brain into action!!