Preparing Audience-Sensitive Presentations and Workshops

When we teach a class, we have a semester to get to know our students and adapt our teaching to their interests and needs. But when you are invited to present a keynote or facilitate a workshop to people you know little or nothing about, how do you ensure you are sufficiently sensitive to your audience?

This kind of thing drives me nuts. I can be giving a workshop on the same topic and I would do it completely differently to faculty at my institution vs other universities in Egypt. It would be different if my audience were mainly people who are in the US who read my blog vs scholars from the region (and it’s a different region if it’s Africa vs MENA). You get my drift.

Here are some tips I have learned to help, and scattered throughout these are tips I got from colleagues by observing them and asking directly while I was working on this article:

  1. Before the event: ask organizers for information about the audience, and if you know some of them personally, ask them for specific advice. E.g. Before DigPedCairo the facilitators asked specifically about dress codes that would be culturally appropriate both in terms of e.g. showing/hiding tattoos, and in terms of degree of formality. As Bonnie Stewart says “it’s one thing to provoke with ideas, it’s another to provoke with your own obliviousness”. For Jim Groom’s keynote at AMICAL, several organizers and I had a meeting with him explaining context and brainstorming direction. I think someone could go one step further and actually brainstorm or share their presentation with someone local for feedback if there is time. If that’s not possible, maybe get feedback from family and friends, a tip I got from Laurie Allen, who also recently did some background research on her audience’s institutions and followed some of them on Twitter to help her prepare.

  2. Question yourself. If something sounds like it might be culturally inappropriate or problematic, listen to your intuition and try to do something about it. I recently co-facilitated a workshop for African participants. I did not want to assume they had infrastructure issues. Nor did I want to assume they didn’t. I did some research. And I asked them to share their biggest challenges.

  3. Get a participant list: if it’s a workshop with signups, get a participant list with some useful info like institutions, disciplines, roles etc. For DigPedCairo we were interested in whether participants were faculty, librarians or faculty developers and whether they were active on social media. For a recent workshop at Learning Africa we needed to know institution/location and past experiences with Learning. Bonnie Stewart reminded me how much more challenging it is when you know that your audience themselves are diverse.

  4. Balance confidence with humility. Laurie Allen mentioned how it is important to trust that your audience are “smart people who are perfectly capable of taking the advice that is useful and discarding that which isn’t”. With this, we can confidently offer what we DO know we are experts in while humbly admitting what we don’t know (which relates to audience context). Jim Groom’s approach is based on the belief that “people respond to people who are excited about what they do and provide authentic, grounded examples of that work”.

  5. Anticipate similarity and difference. Try to consider what you and the audience have in common and what may be different. For example in a workshop I gave to teachers of Arabic language, I share the language teaching experience, but I was teaching a different language. It helps to clarify to the audience that you have something in common but recognize the differences too. Jim Groom recently made an interesting connection between librarians and ed tech people and used that focus in his AMICAL presentation.

  6. Immediately before you start, any opportunities to socialize can give you insights you can use in your upcoming presentation/workshop. Jim Groom in his AMICAL workshop referred to comments made immediately before him by the president of AUR. In a recent workshop I gave to language teachers, I referred to comments said to me by a couple of participants immediately before we started. Jim Groom, Amy Collier and Jesse Stommel all emphasize the importance of spending time with the community throughout an event and how it can inspire them to modify their talk completely if they get that opportunity for a day or two before their talk.

  7. At the beginning: Admit to your audience that you may make mistakes, that you don’t know enough about their context.

  8. Ask: Ask your audience some questions at the beginning to get to know them a little and help them know each other and dimensions of themselves that your presentation will address. This can be done by a show of hands in a large room, using personal response systems when appropriate, or even by walking around with a wireless mic if possible. Jesse Stommel also suggests explicitly asking the audience to interrupt.

  9. Flexibility: Leave room for possibilities and different directions. E.g. If I find my audience are mainly teachers or mainly non-teachers, I allow my presentation to shift direction. Having less text on slides gives us more room to make those shifts. I have seen Jesse Stommel explicitly say he would abandon slides and focus on an area the audience seem more interested in. I also sometimes have slides that link to different slides on my PowerPoint – this literally gives me choices of paths to take.

  10. Peer learning: create room for people in the room to learn from each other even if they don’t learn from you. At DigPedCairo even though participants said they learned a lot from facilitators many also highlighted the value of learning from their peers. That facilitators created an environment that encouraged this kind of learning is in itself valuable.

  11. Afterwards and/or during breaks: have conversations with people in smaller groups. This can help clarify any misunderstandings and can give you insights that may help you prepare for similar events in future

  12. Reflect on your own or aloud with others after the event is over and get feedback from organizers if it is available. This helped a lot with DigPedCairo as we had a survey that participants answered a few days after the event ended.

Do you have tips for sensitively preparing for unknown audiences? Share in comments!

flickr photo by US department of Agriculture shared under CC-BY license–72157630979663148/

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