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When I spoke in Chicago, I suggested a reflective exercise – before you do anything, make a list of what you think/expect/hope to get out of it. Afterwards, make another list of what you did get out of it. Did you get what you wanted? If your after list was your before list – if you’d have known that you’d get these things – would you still have done it? And what was your unexpected learning?

Unexpected learning can be one of professional involvement’s great gifts. Here are some of the things I didn’t expect to learn in Chicago.

Success is what you make it

During conference, I did a book signing (of the New Professional’s Toolkit). Three people came.

How did you read that sentence? What tone of voice did you hear me using? Resigned, depressed, self-deprecating? I mean, three people? That’s not very many, is it?

Let’s try again:

During conference, I did a book signing (of the New Professional’s Toolkit). THREE PEOPLE CAME!!!!! #zomg #awesome #iloveyouguys

That’s what I hear in my head when I say it. I mean, three people! Three people not only bought my book – TO READ – but cared enough to come and get it signed! One of them said she’d been looking forward to the book coming out since she’d heard me mention it in a talk at the 2011 SLA Conference.

After she’d gone, I may have had a little cry.

Would it have been ace to have queues of eager fans stretching right around the hall? Well, maybe (or not – the store only had 10 copies). But I really couldn’t have felt better about it than I do. The triumph was just doing a book signing. ‘Be an author’ has been one of my ambitions for as long as I can remember, and it finally, really came home to me there, sat behind that table, that I’d done it (with a lot of help from my friends). I was published, and I didn’t give a damn how many people came to get their book signed – I’d already achieved more than I’d ever thought possible just by being there. I could have happily sat there for hours.

So, umm, yeah. That.

I hate being on panels

There. I’ve said it. I hate being on panels. I hate not being able to prepare what I’m going to say (oh, you can in a general way, but you can’t script – it’s hard to script in a way that fits the more informal discursive nature of a panel, and a pre-prepared script can’t take into account the ebb and flow of the discussion – oh, and you can guarantee someone else will nick your best points). I hate feeling like the dead weight, surrounded by supremely talented and eloquent people. I hate having to try to be intelligent, profound, and quotable off-the-cuff. I hate microphones.

But I’ll keep doing them if asked (and reassure myself that I can’t be that bad, if people keep asking me). Why? Because they’re fabulous preparation for job interviews. If you can get through a panel without facially betraying how much you’re mentally berating yourself for being a blazing idiot who has no idea when to shut up, then you’re standing yourself in good stead for facing an interview panel. If you can face 50 people and manage to come up with something (vaguely) coherent when asked about problem-solving, you can definitely do it with 5.

Admittedly, I’m not sure where ‘not accidentally strangling fellow panel members with a microphone cord’ fits into the interview scenario, but I’m sure it’s a valuable life skill.

Back yourself up

You know how you’ll be talking to someone while trying to sneak a look at their name badge, only to find out the lanyard’s twisted, and you can just see the blank back? And then you lose all chance of pretending you remembered their name from 2 years ago, and either have to admit defeat and ask or keep the conversation as non-commital as possible?

Well, take some of that burden off your fellow networkees:

back of my SLA Chicago badge

Ok, full disclosure:  I didn’t actually think of this until the last day of the conference, but I’ll definitely be doing it at conferences from now on!

Immersion is key

Simon Barron‘s third blog post about SLA Chicago deals well with the feeling of total immersion you get from SLA conferences – exacerbated for the non-US contingent by literally being in a foreign country. I’ve felt like that at every previous conference, but not this time. As my hotel room was the same price whether one or two of us were sleeping in it, my husband came out with me, in preparation for a post-conference holiday.

And… it didn’t really work. I’d warned him that he wouldn’t see much of me while conference was on, and I’d mentally blocked out ‘conference’ and ‘holiday’ – but still, that one outside attachment kept me from being completely enfolded in the SLA bubble. I felt like a bit of an outsider – sure,  I’ll come along to the open house, but only till 9 because I want to dash off for dinner…

It meant I found it hard to be entirely ‘professional Bethan’ – ‘holidaying Beth’ kept trying to creep in, and remind me that there was a world outside SLA. This might seem to be a good thing (for balance and whatnot), but it actually just made it harder to feel involved and to really feel in the conference vibe. I was disconnected from the tribe.

I don’t think I’d realised how much I relied on conference to catch up with my SLA posse until this year. Not only did I have the clash of interests, I also missed some good friends and colleagues who couldn’t be there, and I think my conference experience was definitely the poorer for it. (Not that I didn’t have a fab time with the people who *were* there, but you know…) So that’s made me more determined to get along to some more SLA Europe events in person. I really believe that one of the rewards for involvement in a professional association is contact with the brilliant people you meet and work with, and that you owe it to yourself to make the most of that – so that obviously means I’ve earned more drinks with the SLA Europe folks, and deserve to put some effort into cashing (gin-ing?) that in.

So would I still have gone to Chicago if these (along with realising I need to think more about learning outcomes and learning how to edit down a presentation on the fly) had been my projected learning outcomes? For personal development, definitely! But my ‘want to learn new skills’ nerve is still twitching, and I wish I’d put a bit more effort into making sure I scratched that itch, too.

Chicago! SLA Conference! How to encapsulate them? Well, I’ve been struggling to write this blog post, and my report for the John Campbell Trust (who kindly part-funded my trip). I thought I just wasn’t in writing mojo mode at the moment – then sat down and rattled off a post for the Archives Hub on XML and Excel. So what was the difference?  I had something concrete to share about how to actually do something. So I threw away my half-written reflectivey-rambles, and decided to concentrate on Things I Have Learned.


The first? That my focus at the moment is very much on learning and teaching. I like them. I came away from conference feeling a bit dissatisfied with the sessions I’d attended, and thinking that I hadn’t really learned anything. On reflection, this was untrue – I learned a lot, but rather than new skills or techniques, I learned things to tweak or enhance my existing skills and techniques. Still very valuable, but didn’t have as much as an impact on me as learning something totally new. I wanted to be able to walk away saying ‘hey, now I know how to…!’.

So that’s a good guide for me to choosing my future conferences, events, and conference sessions. If I’m craving concrete learning, then I’m not going to be satisfied with a speculative discussion panel, no matter how awesome it is. It sounds like SLA2013 is going to be more focussed on learning, too, which I think bodes well. One thing which was mentioned by fellow SLA Europe attendees Geraldine Clement-Stoneham and Sara Batts was the need for better session abstracts, telling you more about what kind of level the session would be at – is it a general introduction, or full of jargon for advanced practitioners? I do agree – I’d like to see learning outcomes mentioned in the abstract or description for each session.

This desire for learning is shaping what I want to teach, too. I want to share practical tips on how to actually do things. This might be why the blog’s been a bit sparse recently – I haven’t felt like I have any to share! But I need to remember that actually I do know how to do quite a lot of stuff, so maybe expect a few more ‘how-to’ style blog posts in the future. (or not – it could just be inherent laziness!)

This applies to my presenting, too. I’m not sure I want to talk any more about ‘the future of the profession’ – at least, not in generic and abstract terms. I want people to feel motivated and inspired, sure, but I also want them to go away with action points. One of the best pieces of feedback I got from my presentation in Chicago was someone telling me that they could actually go away and do the things I’d suggested – they were practical and implementable.

So if I’m going to demand learning outcomes from other people, I’m going to need to start using them myself. Not just for presentations, but for articles, blog posts, and maybe even tweets. I probably won’t be explicit about them, but it will be good for me to think about what people will get out of the work I’m doing. This should help make me more focussed and generally Do Better Stuff. [EDIT It occurs to me, slightly belatedly, that this exactly fits with the marketing principle of ‘benefits, not features’.]

You can’t prepare for the unexpected

As mentioned in my last post, I recently presented – on purpose – without a script. One of my reflections was:

Knowing I can deliver a presentation without a script and slides is a pretty good feeling – and who knows when I might have to do it again?

Well, I had to do it again! Sort-of, anyway. I’d been asked to deliver a 30 minute presentation on ‘How to parlay your SLA experience into a new job, a promotion – even your LinkedIn profile’, about how to make the most of your SLA experience, and demonstrate what you’ve got out of it. So I dutifully prepared a set of slides and a 25 minute script – only to discover (while sitting in the audience) that there had been a misunderstanding about timings, and the first speaker was speaking for 45 minutes, not 30.

As everyone knows, finishing a session late is one of the most heinous of conference sins. No matter how interesting or engaging you might be, you need to finish that session on time – one session running over can throw off people’s timetables for the while day. Time, at a conference, is a very valuable commodity!

So I found myself having to condense a 25 minute presentation into about 17 minutes – doesn’t sound like much of a drop, but it meant I had to lose about a third. And I had to lose it while still delivering the learning, the message and – importantly – the experience. How did I do it? (apart from ‘by being fuelled with panic’?)

1) Speed up – but don’t gabble. Good delivery is important to a presentation, and when you start learning to present you’re usually told to sloooooow it right down. Speak too fast, and people won’t take in what you’re saying – and they won’t enjoy the presentation experience, either. Building a rapport with your audience takes a bit of time. It takes pauses where you make eye contact and gauge people’s reactions. If you’re short on time, this is one of the things you can strip down. Speed up your talking a bit (if you’re tripping over words, you’ve speeded up too much), and reduce some of the pauses. Make eye contact while speaking – don’t wait for pauses. Don’t leave as much impact room. This will reduce the overall experience and impact of your presentation, but means you can cut off a couple of minutes without losing any content.

2) Measure once, cut twice. Think about topic and audience. Is there a whole section you can cut? Or do you need to cut little bits from each section? Thinking about what’s on your slides can be a good guide – if you thought it important enough to put on a slide, then it’s probably important enough to keep in. But if it’s on a slide then the audience can read it – so you don’t have to! I never agree with reading out slides, but I do quite often direct people to information on the slides. This experience made me realise that that’s a waste of time, too. If you put something on a slide, people will read it.* They don’t need to be told to read it. They probably don’t need to be told how it relates to your presentation (unless you’ve put up something totally obscure, like a slide that just says ‘48%’ – and even then, your audience will be able to make the leap between the question you’ve posed that requires a percentage for an answer and the figure on your slide. If they don’t they can ask you afterwards – once the clock has stopped ticking.)

I cut most of my material from the start of my presentation, mainly because I was panicking that I wouldn’t get to the end! This meant that by the time I was about two-thirds of the way through my content, I’d made up most of the time I needed, so I could ease back a bit and enjoy delivering the final section. But all through, I cut down on verbosity (it’s just possible that you may have noticed this as a tiny failing of mine). No-one was there for my deathless prose, and hopefully I’ll take that learning forward to future presentations.

This advice really comes down to: decide what your audience is there for. Are they there for the experience of hearing you speak? If so, cut down on your content, and give them the show they came for. If they’re there for your content, cut down on the show, and deliver as much of the learning as you can.

And remember – this post is panic recollected in tranquillity. I’m retro-advising based on what I think I did; or this post would have been a series of ‘Oh crap, 12 minutes. Well, I think I can cut that next example. And that paragraph can probably be condensed into a sentence. Oh crap, 11 minutes…’

Blog posts that go on too long can be just as rude as running-over at a conference session, so I’m going to follow the cool kids, and split my reflections into sections. Expect one or maybe two more blog posts on learning from the Chicago experience.

*Yes, I know this potentially creates problems for people with accessibility issues. I’d suggest that any information that is absolutely vital to your presentation be included in what you say – and if some of it needs to go on your slides too, then that’s ok. You could even consider making 2 slide decks: a more minimal one for accompanying the presentation, and a more explicit one for posting online afterwards.

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