Evaluspheric Perceptions

Reflections of an everyday evaluator/learner/educator exploring the evalusphere

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Presentation Principles: Two simple strategies for audience engagement and all YOU have to do is ask questions!

Presentation Principle:

Keeping an audience engaged throughout the presentation is one key to success.

Do you want to read about two super easy strategies you can immediately incorporate into your presentation practice to keep audience members engaged? OK then, here we go!

I’ve written about audience engagement strategies many times (see here, here, and here)…but the two strategies I’ll share today are even easier than most and require no special equipment or materials. All you need to do is remember to use them.

Strategy 1: Before giving the audience a story, example, strategy or other bit of your content, ask them if they would like to hear it. It’s that simple. Instead of just telling – launching into the story – stop and ask. Don’t worry! You’re not likely to get “no” for an answer, especially if you have successfully kept them engaged up until this point.

Spice it up a bit and you’ll get some smiles and giggles if you you ask “Do you want to hear the good story or the bad story?” “Do you want the real story or the edited version?” “Do you want the easy example, or are you ready for the hard one?”

I saw an expert presenter use this one recently with an audience of 100+ and it worked like a charm!

Hands up to answer question

Image credit: Blondinrikard Fröberg via Flickr

Strategy 2: After you have delivered some content, ask the audience to identify and reflect on a few action steps they intend to take after the presentation. You can ask them to think on their own, or work within teams if that is appropriate. The real key to this strategy, though, is asking them to state their action steps out loud. With a small audience, ask each member to share one or two action steps aloud. With a larger audience, ask them to share at their tables, or for a final interactive strategy, get them up and moving into larger groups to share their action steps. Sharing aloud increases individual accountability and may increase the likelihood that audience members will put new learning into practice.


What Is Different about K-12 Public Education Evaluations? Guest post by Rakesh Mohan and Lance McCleve

I’m pleased to publish this guest post by my evaluator colleagues in the Idaho State Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations. Working in a governmental context gives them a unique perspective on education evaluation, as their work encompasses numerous fields and they experience evaluation in many different contexts. I’ve also long been a fan of their evaluation reports which exemplify a modern approach to reporting and dissemination: the report formats are visually appealing, and therefore easy to navigate, read, and comprehend, and they use well-designed visualizations to communicate key data points.

Rakesh Mohan, Idaho Legislature Office of Performance Evaluation

Rakesh Mohan

Rakesh Mohan is currently a candidate for the president of the American Evaluation Association. Since 2002, he has been the director of the Office of Performance Evaluations, an independent agency of the Idaho State Legislature. Under Rakesh’s leadership, the office received the 2011 Alva and Gunnar Myrdal Government Evaluation Award.

Lance McCleve, Idaho Legislature Office of Performance Evaluation

Lance McCLeve

Lance McCleve is a principal evaluator with the Office of Performance Evaluations. He was the lead evaluator on the three evaluation examples mentioned in this post.


At least in the USA, K-12 public education evaluations seem to be curried with a bit of extra politics, so much so that the politics is too spicy for many evaluators to handle.[i] Like a curry, the politics of education evaluations is regional/local, peopPicture of curryle centered, and contains one or two secret political ingredients that evaluators are last to know, if ever.

All evaluations are inherently political, but evaluators and the evaluation process are expected to be non-political.[ii] Usually the politics of evaluation is seen at two stages: (1) when the decision is made to ask for an evaluation and (2) how the results of an evaluation are used or not used.

Here we use three examples of recently conducted education evaluations that came with especially spicy political curry:

Teachers Front CoverWorkforce Issues Affecting Public School Teachers

ISEE Front CoverThe K-12 Longitudinal Data System (ISEE)

Schoolnet Front CoverIdaho’s Instructional Management System (Schoolnet) Offers Lessons for Future IT Projects


These three reports give the reader a clear sense of the politics that permeated the environment in which these three evaluations were assigned, conducted, and reported. For additional details reflecting the politics, see the related media stories:

Idaho teacher workforce OPE report: ‘Strong undercurrent of despair’

Goedde: Pay cuts beat teacher layoffs, focus on successes to build teacher morale

Lawmakers receive stinging report on student data system

After the $61 million Schoolnet fiasco, a scramble begins

The purpose of using these stories in this post is to illustrate the political nature of education evaluations. We do not intend to take a position on any of the political issues discussed in these stories.

Reasons for the Extra Politics

We think at least five factors contribute to the extra politics in education evaluations:

  1. Nearly everyone went to some school and has assumptions, beliefs, or reactions based on individual experiences. Unlike nuclear physics, nanotechnology, and neurosurgery, people from all walks of life act as though they are experts in education.
  2. Education policies affect most people either because they have children in school or they are taxpayers, or both.
  3. Providing adequate and equitable educational opportunities to all children is the responsibility of each individual state. Generally, one of the biggest parts of a state’s annual budget is for public education. For example, Idaho spends 48 percent of its general fund on public education.
  4. Among various stakeholders, teachers’ unions play a significant role in influencing education policies.
  5. Education policies have consequences for the future of our children and the nation.

So what should we evaluators do about the extra politics?

Suggestions for Managing the Extra Politics

The following four suggestions will apply to any type of evaluation, but they should be treated like edicts when it comes to conducting education evaluations.

Listen to all stakeholders with respect, regardless of how much you disagree with their views. This will help you fully understand the context of the evaluation, that is, who the key stakeholders are and what their competing, conflicting, and complementing interests are. Furthermore, this is the first step in establishing trust with all stakeholders. If you start on the right foot with stakeholders, your life as an evaluator will be pleasant and productive. The absence of trust with stakeholders could at best make the evaluation report useless from the get go and at worst, make conducting the evaluation a hellish experience. The methodology sections of our evaluation reports list the large number of stakeholders we needed to work with.

Don’t take sides, or you will get swallowed up in the politics. In all three evaluations, stakeholders were strongly polarized in their views about the condition of the programs we were evaluating and on who was to blame. We were able to avoid drawing conclusions based on stakeholders’ opinions, as persuasive or forceful as they might have been, by sticking to defensible methods. However, the bigger challenge was carefully conducting the evaluation and developing findings in a way that avoided the appearance of us having taken sides.

Stand up and own your evaluation approach and findings or you will get trampled. We were happy to see our report about workforce issues affecting teachers make headlines, but it came at a cost. Because of the intensely political nature of K-12 education issues, we immediately saw political backlash. Those who were not happy with our evaluation headed straight for our evaluation approach and methods to start criticizing. We easily could have stepped aside and let people do as they will with our evaluation but instead we took a stand and defended our approach and methods.

Idaho Statesman article: Survey Shows Teachers' Worries

The disagreement between our office and those who were unhappy with the evaluation was significant enough to become the subject of several additional news stories. Although the disagreement was uncomfortable to say the least, it only served to strengthen our credibility. 

Idaho Statesman article: Legislature's Auditor Defends Teacher Report

Go out of your way to show respect for those who you’ve had disagreements with. You never know when they might champion your evaluation message in the future. Over the years, every policymaker mentioned in the news stories has agreed more than disagreed with our findings and recommendations. Remember—those who you had disagreements with are also doing their job, likely with the same passion as you do, and addressing the needs and demands of their constituents and stakeholders. Most of the time, disagreements are not personal – and even if they may seem personal, you should treat the people involved with total respect. This goes a long way toward building relationships and establishing credibility as independent evaluators who do not have a dog in the fight.

Final Thoughts

Acting on political knowledge is complex and potentially dangerous to evaluators’ credibility. However, by acknowledging the fact that all evaluations are inherently political and adhering to the four suggestions mentioned above, you will be able to manage the extra politics that comes with almost every education evaluation.



[i] K-12 public education evaluations are henceforth referred to as education evaluations.

[ii] Evaluator Advocacy: It Is All in a Day’s Work. American Journal of Evaluation, September 2014, 397-403.


Designing Effective Surveys Begins with the Questions BEFORE the Questions! (cross post with Actionable Data Blog)

The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge.      – Thomas Berger

Hey readers, Sheila here, writing once again with the marvelous Kim Firth Leonard, of the Actionable Data blog.

It’s survey design season, so get ready to flex those question design muscles! Well, to be truthful, it’s always survey design season in our data-saturated evidence-hungry society. As surveys have become ubiquitous, it is incumbent upon survey researchers to to cut through all the noise by developing the most effective instruments we can. And what’s the best way to get ready for any endeavor that requires flexing? A warm-up! Just as failure to warm up for physical activity can invite injury, diving into survey question design without a preparation process can introduce the possibility of gathering bad data. Remember the principle of GIGO?

Kim and I have co-authored several posts on our shared passion for good survey design. You can find these posts here, here here, and here.

For this post, we’ve created your warm up routine: questions we ask before developing any survey. Thinking through these will help you design the most effective instrument for getting a rich and robust dataset that will help answer key evaluation questions.*

Image: Good question by velo_city via Flickr

Image credit: Good question by velo_city via Flickr

Before finalizing any survey (ideally, before you begin to draft it!), you should be able to answer each of these questions. Though some questions may seem closely related, they can illuminate subtle nuances about information needs, and inform how best to craft a question that will elicit that information. We’ve organized these into loose WHAT?, WHY?, SO WHAT?, NOW WHAT? categories, followed by special considerations that connect the question design process to the analysis plan.


  • What information do you need?
  • What are you attempting to measure?
  • What is MOST important to know about this?


  • Why is this important to know? (i.e. does it directly connect to an evaluation question?)
  • Is the information that will result from this question necessary to inform a potential decision or action?


  • What’s the ‘so what’ factor (i.e. so what if ‘x’ percent of respondents have engaged in ‘y’ behavior before; so what if ‘x’ number of respondents strongly agree to a statement)?
  • What will you do with this information? (not just how will you work with the information, but what action(s) may be taken, how might it be used to make decisions, improve programs, etc.)?

Special considerations once questions are drafted:

  • Are you prepared to analyze the results from this question (e.g. are you equipped to analyze a “check all that apply” question? A rank order question? A Likert (or Likert-like) question? An open-ended question)?
  • Can you anticipate how a respondent from your population or sample might answer?
  • Is this an easy question for respondents to answer? Will they be able to answer quickly or in a reasonable amount of time?
  • If they do answer quickly, is it likely they will be able to provide rich, accurate, and meaningful data by answering this question?
  • Are there some common answers that might make what might otherwise be an open-ended question a better multiple choice question with an “other” option?

Of course, strategies such as informally consulting colleagues, piloting the survey with potential respondents, or cognitive interviewing can help answer some of these questions too. Working through the questions in this post before engaging in these strategies, however, will elevate those efforts, make good use of people’s time, and even better ensure your survey will net the information you need.

Have we missed anything? What questions do you ask yourself (or others) during the survey planning and drafting process? Add yours in the comments!

*You have your evaluation questions, right? And, you must have determined that a survey is the best way to capture data from potential respondents to answer those questions, right? And, you’ve identified the purpose of the survey, right? If not, then take a BIG step back. You’ll thank us later….


Presentation Principles: A Secret Facilitation Move to Increase Audience Engagement

Presentation Principle:

Keeping an audience engaged throughout the presentation is one key to success.

I recently wrote about handling the Q&A portion of the presentation, but did not cover this important move.

Here’s the set-up:

As an audience member, I get frustrated when I’m attending a presentation and someone seated closer to the front asks or answers a question and I can’t hear it. Even more frustrating is when the presenter responds to that audience member without repeating the comment or question and since the audience member doesn’t have a microphone, I have no idea what’s going on. It’s as if presenter and audience member are suddenly having a private conversation. I consider this my invitation to tune out.

As a presenter, I want to pay attention to all of my audience members and will go to great lengths not to frustrate them. Seems rather obvious, wouldn’t you say?

What to do:

Image credit: Matt Cornock via Flickr

When YOU are the presenter and an audience member asks a question or makes a comment, the best case scenario is to have that person be heard by everyone in the room and NOT to have to repeat it yourself. Repeating the question or comment wastes precious time AND you must be able to repeat it verbatim, or be able to utter a reasonable approximation instantly. This is no easy task from the stage!

Best case: Have a co-facilicator or helper walk around with a hand held microphone so that each audience member’s questions or comments can be heard by all.

Acceptable: If the room is small enough so that a microphone isn’t necessary, ask the audience member to repeat the question or comment so that everyone can hear. “Would you mind repeating that? I’d like everyone to be able to hear your comment.”

Not preferred: Repeat or paraphrase the audience member’s question or comment.

Here’s the move:

When an audience member answers a question or shares a thought, he or she will invariably look at you and talk as if the conversation is only between the two of you. But, YOU are a presenter, and whether you have an audience of 17 or 75, you owe it to them to pay attention to all of them.

Regardless of whether that person has a microphone or is repeating his or her question/comment as you have asked them to do, listen intently, of course, but as that person is talking, slowly move away from him or her. That’s right, I said move away. (Now, of course if it is someone from the back of the room, this move will not be necessary.) Maintain eye contact but slowly distance yourself such that the person has to talk through as many other participants as possible. Don’t worry – the person speaking will turn and maintain eye contact with you as you are moving. And, while that person is speaking and turning toward more of the audience, more of them will be looking at the speaker because he or she is now facing many of them!

In this way, it will feel more as if the audience member is talking to everyone, and not just you, the presenter. If you’re on a stage, you may move to one side or the other if you’re unable to move out into the audience. The object is to put as many audience members between you and the person speaking as possible.

That’s it, and it’s that simple. In this day and age, when virtually every audience member will have on their person an electronic device that can readily steal away their attention the instant you lose it, every facilitation move counts.

One caveat:

Be safe! This move has you looking in one direction and walking in another. You may be walking sideways or backwards. Know the room! Know where the furniture is placed, and be familiar with where carpets start and end, and where wires and cables may be taped to the floor.

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The Future of Dataviz: What’s in Store for 2015?

Happy New Year!

Forbes claimed in early 2014, “data visualization is the future.” Microsoft called 2014 “the year of infographics.”

And a few weeks ago, my friend, fellow evaluator, blogger, and dataviz aficionado Ann K. Emery  proposed that a bunch of bloggers write out our predictions about data visualization in 2015. According to Ann’s invitation, The only rules: Nobody gets to discuss their predictions/wishes ahead of time. It’ll be fun to see how our predictions overlap (or don’t), and then we can have live discussions via the comments section of our posts.

With that, I invite you to read not only this post, but also Ann’s Blog to see what she has to say, and to check out a few others as well.

My first prediction?

Whether you find data visualization insightful or insipid, it is here to stay.

My (not so scientific) indicators:

Data visualization is huge in the evaluation field (as well as in many others). I learned about dataviz through contacts I’ve made at the American Evaluation Association and through my work as Lead Curator of their daily blog, aea365 Tip-A-Day By and For Evaluators. AEA is organized into Topical Interest Groups, and of the 50+ TIGs, the Data Visualization and Reporting TIG, started in 2011, grew fast and is among the largest TIGs in the organization. Of the 1800+ blog posts on aea365, more than 8% of them (158 to date) are tagged for Data Visualization and Reporting, the largest share of any TIG or topic. At AEA’s annual conference, sessions on dataviz were exceedingly popular and many rooms were overflowing with eager participants.

Every major news organization now has a data visualization, data journalism, or graphics department. Most (if not all) are easily found on Twitter, a fabulous source of good dataviz. I’m following 80+ Twitter handles in my dataviz list including some news outlets (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, The Guardian, etc.) as well as a multitude of individuals interested in the topic. You can check them out and subscribe to my list here.

There are countless websites dedicated to data visualization – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Two interesting ones to peruse are  WTF Visualizations, which began in 2013 for “visualizations that make no sense” followed soon after by Thumbs Up Viz, “a collection of elegant, efficient, and (above all) effective data visualization.” Pew Research Center is another favorite place for good viz. Check out their roundup of favorite data visualizations from 2014. Explore Information is Beautiful for more inspiration.

Given the growth and proliferation of dataviz, here is my second prediction:

People are becoming increasingly savvy dataviz consumers, producers, and rockstars every day. If we’re not learning and growing too, we’ll be left in the dust.

My (not so scientific) indicators:

More people are appreciating, understanding, and practicing the basics (dataviz is virtually ubiquitous on websites, in professional journals, and in the news; heck, people are even wearing dataviz!), and free tutorials and web-based tools make visualizations easier and easier to produce. If you need to learn the basics (and ya do!), look to Evergreen Data, Ann K. Emery, Flowing Data, and Juice Analytics for high quality tutorials. Just tackle one new, updated, modern chart at a time!

Other predictions:

New charts and new spins on existing chart types will continually be added to the mix. Here are a few interesting and useful ones to explore:  diverging stacked bar charts (also see here), dumbbell dot plotsslopegraphsspan charts, and Sankey diagrams. Don’t forget good dataviz principles, though. Add these to your repertoire, but use them only when appropriate for communicating your message!

There will be more focus on readability, interpretation, and impact of dataviz vs. emphasis on beauty, unnecessary complexity, and novelty. Tensions will continue to increase as data visualization tools and their users become ever more sophisticated, yet the standards for quality will remain user-focused on readability and interpretability. Think about the interplay between what is designed for the fashion runways of New York, Paris, and Milan, and what the rest of us are actually wearing day-to-day. Design plays a huge role, but practicality and usability trump all in the end.

A new career title will emerge – datapreneur. Now is the age of the entrepreneur. With entrepreneurship (or entrepreneurialism if you like) on the rise (see here, here, here, and here) soon we will have datapreneurs –  those who identify gaps, define problems, innovate with and capitalize on data for generating revenue.

Microsoft will catch up! I’m fairly certain that top dataviz experts are already working with Microsoft on new color schemes and new chart generators that accommodate some of the new chart types and variations, and allow the user to generate them with ease. Eventually, you won’t need to be an Excel Ninja to trick the software into doing what you want it to (but for now, do yourself a favor and learn more about it).

What have I missed? What do YOU see happening with dataviz in the next year (or in years to come)?

Image: High fashion by kris krug via Flickr

Image credit: High fashion by kris krug via Flickr

Image: Sheila B Robinson October 2010

Sheila B Robinson October 2010

Image credit: kris krug via Flickr


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It’s All in How You Ask: The Nuances of Survey Question Design (cross post with Actionable Data blog)

If you do not ask the right questions, you do not get the right answers.

– Edward Hodnett, 20th century poet and writer

At Evaluation 2014, the American Evaluation Association’s annual conference, the incredible Kim Firth Leonard (find her over at Actionable Data blog) and I facilitated a 90-minute skill building workshop on survey question design. Kim and I have co-authored several posts on our shared passion for survey design. You can find these posts here, here, and here. We were thrilled to geek out with such a great group ready to humor us by taking our pop quiz, listening intently as we shared the science behind answering questions about behavior, nodding as we reviewed fundamental principles of survey design, and genuinely engaging with us in exploring better ways to approach surveys.

As we shared during the workshop — we have both been in the business of collecting data long enough to be pretty annoyed by poorly written surveys, and see a real need for better, more specific advice for question design than we’ve been able to find to date. Our main goal has always been to learn together (and with anyone else interested in joining in the fun) to improve our own survey design, and to encourage others to take survey design more seriously. And we’re so grateful for the many attendees who were willing to learn with us in Denver in October – thank you! For those who did attend, or who didn’t but wish they were there (we wish you were there too), here are our slides:

Slides: It’s All in How You Ask: The Nuances of Survey Question Design – presentation at Evaluation 2014, Denver, CO

Favorite tips generated during the session:

Our participants offered a wealth of tips and advice for survey researchers. We don’t necessarily agree with all the tips that were shared, but think that most of them have something to offer in terms of food for thought and consideration.

  • We received quite a few tips related to planning surveys
    • Be sure to identify and clearly outline your needs as well as how you intend to use the results
    • Start with your data quality objectives — what you want to report out on. Then you know you have what you need without extras
    • Identify what you “need to know” and what would be “nice to know” in order to prioritize what questions to include, and limit burden on respondents.
    • Test survey instrument with the client (e.g donor), walk through each question and say – if the results of this question are positive, what will you do with that information? If negative – what then? What will be helpful?
  • Some tips related to how to proofread or even roughly validate your survey questions
    • Even if you’re using a mail/web survey, read it out loud – you may hear things you don’t notice when reading.
    • Work closely with subject matter experts to ensure language, etc. is correct.
    • Cognitive interviews/ think aloud strategies are especially helpful when surveying communities of which you are not a member (e.g. kids think about things in different ways, and your questions might not mean the same thing to them as to you).
    • In some situations it may make sense to start with open-ended questions with a small group of future respondents (or those in like positions) and use their responses to generate the response options, rather than starting from your own assumptions. 
  • And many were even more specific!
    • For questions with scalar response options, between 4 and 7 is usually appropriate total number of response options.
    • Remember that neutral is different than no opinion. Both options could even be used together in the same question.
    • Limit questions asking what the respondent thinks about OTHER’S motivations (e.g. why did they do x) for those situations where this is truly appropriate
    • Be mindful of the AGE of respondents. Seniors will interpret words/tone very differently from those in their 20s.
    • Beware of “yes/no” questions — won’t be as useful if you intended to look for change. And often too binary — life is often more complex than yes/no.

Next Steps:

questions by Marcus Ramberg via Flickr

Image credit: questions by Marcus Ramberg via Flickr

Judging by the session turn-out and follow-up emails we’ve received, the conversation we started is well worth continuing! One way we hope to do so is through continued crowdsourcing of survey design tips and challenges. To that end, we’ve started a GoogleDoc with some of our favorite tips and many of those gathered through our workshop. We’ve made this available to everyone and anyone to add to (and hopefully learn from).

Our intention is to continue to build on this, and to develop a checklist or similar tool to help support better survey design. We look forward to continuing to learn with you! Stay in touch if you’re interested in continuing to geek out with us about this.

Please add tips and include your name (and sources as appropriate). Use THIS LINK to add to the GoogleDoc (and see the live doc below)!


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Presentation Principles: The Audience Engagement Strategy Book

Presentation Principle:

Audience engagement through interactive strategies is key to a successful presentation.

discussion iconA presentation is a precious opportunity – Seth Godin

In summer 2014, I had the opportunity to write the Audience Engagement Strategy Book for the American Evaluation Association’s Potent Presentations (p2i) Initiative (available for free download on the p2i website). I’d written about audience engagement before (see here and here), but this time wanted to share specific interactive strategies that come with sets of directions and steps, and that can be customized to fit a presenter’s specific context.

This workbook describes more than 20 strategies for audience engagement drawn from literature on effective presentations, and on instructional strategies for engaging learners. It begins with some background – the WHAT, WHY and HOW of audience engagement. Each strategy is then rated on a number of dimensions, so you know what you’re getting into. Audience engagement can be as simple as using eye contact strategically, to preparing specific materials and actually teaching a lesson where participants engage in discussion, reading, writing, sharing, or creating.

Audience engagement strategy book

Being a career educator, I simply took student and participant engagement strategies I’ve learned from years of public school and university teaching along with facilitating professional development sessions, and applied them to conference and other types of presentations. In fact, most K-12 teachers would recognize a majority of the strategies.

However, for those who haven’t had the unique pleasure of teaching groups of active, energetic preadolescents/adolescents whose brains are not wired for dry-as-dust lectures, and having to creatively engage them in learning, these strategies may come as welcome additions to your toolbox of effective presentation skills.

As with any publication, the second it went out, I thought of more to add. And that brings me to the blog! Look for these additions in future posts.

Do you have favorite strategies for audience engagement or interaction? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!


Presentation Principles: Right-sizing the Room to Maximize Audience Engagement

Presentation Principle:

The right setting can impact how your audience experiences a presentation.

It’s the Goldilocks conundrum: You’re scheduled for a conference presentation (i.e. a non-ticketed event were people do not pre-register) and you get to the room, only to discover that it is either too small or too big for your anticipated audience size… definitely not just right!

I recently presented with a colleague at a multi-day conference with hundreds of concurrent sessions where they assigned our session to a room that seats about 100 people. Our topic was a popular one, and the time slot was a preferred one for that conference (i.e. not during a time that people would naturally take a break and choose not attend a session). Needless to say, the room filled up and people just kept coming in long after all chairs were taken.

At another conference, one of my presentations was assigned to a gigantic ballroom that seated over 1000 people! My co-presenters and I expected that our session, given the topic and time slot, would more likely draw an audience of perhaps 20- 50 people.

What do you do when the room isn’t the right size for your presentation?

First course of action: If time permits, ask to be reassigned to a different size room. Unfortunately, this is often impossible for the conference organizers to do, but hey, it never hurts to ask, right? If that doesn’t work, try some of these strategies:

If the room is too small:

1.) When the room starts looking full enough that people are scanning for a seat before they even get too far in, ask those seated to raise their hands to signal an empty seat next to them.

2.) Often the hosts will put one or two chairs by your presenter table. If you won’t be using these, offer them to audience members. If your conference organizers or hosts are nearby of course, you can ask for extra chairs, but often, this option won’t be available.

3.) When all seats are taken, invite people to sit on the floor in the front of the room. Whaaaaaat? Adults sitting on the floor? Yes! You may be surprised, but many people will choose this as an alternative to being locked out an enticing presentation.

4.) If the inevitable happens, and people are locked out, here’s a way to acknowledge their attempt to make it in, and give them a little something for their trouble. Put a sign on the outside door with something to the effect of, “If this room is full and you can’t get in, here’s the URL where you can download presentation materials.”*

If the room is too big:

1.) If you get to the room early enough, tape off or otherwise block off the seats near the back or on one side of the room. This is one of the many reasons you may want to carry a roll of painter’s tape (which generally won’t damage surfaces) with you to presentations.

2.) Greet people as they enter and ask them to choose seats in a particular section or near the front.

3.) Quickly create a PowerPoint slide that asks people to sit near the front and have this on the screen prior to starting.

4.) If people do end up scattering and spread out in a large room, be sure to walk around during your presentation using proximity to engage them. You can also offer them the opportunity to move closer during a break.

Any other ideas to share on right-sizing your presentation space? Please add them in the comments!

*Thanks to Chris Lysy for this strategy he used at a recent conference.

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Presentation Principles: Foundations of Effective Presentations

There are multiple pathways to great presentations.

Some presenters are fortunate enough to be naturally possessed of  stage presence, charisma, or a je ne sais quois that keeps their audience hanging on their every word. After all, Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t use PowerPoint slides.* Steve Jobs never asked his audience to turn and talk to an elbow partner. The rest of us, though, are just not there. We’re presenting to the board, our colleagues, university students, fellow conference-goers, or some other audience who may or may not know us or be familiar with our work. “Star quality” is not something we can rely on for a successful presentation.

What is an everyday presenter to do?

Leverage the power of principles. You can find hundreds of books, articles, websites, and even courses on effective presentations with any number of strategies, recipes, steps, tips, tricks, hacks, or rules devoted to helping you design and deliver effective presentations. How do you choose what’s right for you? Rely on your principles.

Why principles?

There are certainly any number of definitions for the word “principles,” but I’m framing them here as the synthesis of fundamental rules and values that guide our decisions and actions. As such, principles are descriptive, rather than prescriptive. Principles can be shared in common with others, but in practice, may look quite different from presenter to presenter when applied. You and I could each be guided by the principle that audience engagement is necessary for effective presentations, but we will likely go about applying this principle in very different ways.

Under principles we can certainly suggest strategies, models, formulas, or step-by-step plans for adhering to them, but these do not need to be applied assiduously in a “take as directed” sort of way. The broad principles we choose guide our work and our decisions about how to use suggested strategies.

What principles might guide presentation work?

The American Evaluation Association’s Potent Presentations (p2i) Initiative rests on the principle that the way in which you structure your message, design your presentation, and deliver it are key elements to success.

Here are others from presentation experts:

Every presentation worth doing has just one purpose: To make a change happen. – Seth Godin

Great content is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one.  – Garr Reynolds

Make it Understandable; Make it Logical; Make it Real…to be more persuasive.Andrew Dlugan

Conceptualizing and framing what you want to say is the most vital part of preparation.Chris Anderson

What key presentation principle guides my work?

I’m a career educator who has taught everything from algebra to piano lessons, and my number one guiding principle is this: All presentations are lessons and all presenters are teachers. This principle guides my thinking as I develop presentations with participants’ needs in mind: what do they need to know, understand, or be able to do as a result of attending my presentation?

Look for upcoming blog posts on presentation principles, along with ideas, strategies, and steps you can apply in your own ways as you are guided by your presentation principles.

good presentation by C Lysy

Image Credit: Original cartoon by Chris Lysy

*Thanks to Jon Schwabish for that gem!


Presentation Principles: A Q&A on the Q&A

You’re ready for the big day. You have your best content all set to go, well-designed visuals, and a plan for successful delivery including how to engage your audience. You’ve practiced in the mirror, on your family, and on your pets, and they have all given you the go-ahead for your presentation. The night before, however, you wake up at 3:17am in a cold sweat thinking, “How will I handle the Q&A?”

Navigating questions and answers during your presentation can be daunting if you’re not prepared for them. But how can you prepare for the unknown? Go back to sleep…you CAN be ready for this key component of your presentation.

Image credit: opensource.com via Flickr

Image credit: opensource.com via Flickr

Presentations come in all shapes and sizes, from a 5-6 minute Ignite or Pecha Kucha, to a 15-20 minute TED talk, an hour long keynote, a sales pitch, market report, research presentation, webinar, professional development workshop, or a college course. And there are certainly a lot more. WIth that in mind, you’ll have to tailor these answers to the specific context and characteristics of your presentation.

These may be some of YOUR questions to which I offer some answers:

How much time should I leave for Q&A?

You may not like this answer, but it depends. Here are some questions for consideration:

How much time are you comfortable leaving? Are you prepared with additional material should there be few or no questions? Are you prepared to cut off questions with a plan to answer them later (e.g. by offering to stay after the presentation, or be contacted via email) if time runs out?

Image credit: Rabih via Flickr

Image credit: Rabih via Flickr

What if too many people ask questions and time runs out?

If time runs out and there are more questions, that’s often a good thing! It can mean people are engaged and interested in your topic. The bad news is it can also mean that you didn’t explain something well, or that you didn’t cover the content they were looking for. Of course, if you’re an optimist, you may see this as an opportunity to hone your craft and refine your content for future iterations of your presentation.

What if no one asks a question?

Image credit: Oliver Tacke via Flickr

Image credit: Oliver Tacke via Flickr

You can use one of three strategies here:

1.) Say “thank you” and close your presentation early. For some audiences, this will be a welcome little gift of time. Be cautious, however, that you won’t disappoint your host or client or be in breach of contract by ending early. Best to check out this possibility ahead of time. If you do end early, offer to stay in the room at least until the end of the original time. This will allow individuals the opportunity to ask questions of you in a less threatening and more private environment.

2.) Be prepared with additional content to offer for the remaining time. This might include sharing and answering questions previous audiences have asked – Ex. “I’m often asked about…and this is what I have to say about that…”

3.) Pose one or more questions to the audience to stimulate discussion or even catalyze questions from them.

What if someone asks a question I can’t answer?

Be honest! Acknowledge that a question may be outside of your scope of work or specific area of expertise. Audiences appreciate humility and it while it may seem counterintuitive, it can actually boost credibility. Offer resources for the questioner  – books, websites, or people – to find out the answer, or better yet, offer to research the answer yourself and contact the questioner at a later time.

Image credit: cielleandlacey charron and… via Flickr

Image credit: cielleandlacey charron and… via Flickr

What if I don’t understand the question?

Again, be honest! Ask the questioner to explain, rephrase, or provide an example to clarify. If that doesn’t work, take responsibility for not understanding (i.e. “Maybe it’s me and I’m just not getting it…”) and ask if anyone in the audience can answer. Of course, this takes a great deal of confidence and poise. In many cases, even before you do this, another audience member may attempt to rephrase for the original questioner.

Should I ask people to save their questions for the end?

Image credit: Nadi0 via Flickr

Image credit: Nadi0 via Flickr

Unless you are giving a TED Talk, keynote, or timed presentation where it would be inappropriate to stop and answer questions, let people ask questions when they have them to the extent that you can. Often, and especially in a professional development or workshop environment, people will have questions about something you just said. They may not remember these questions at the end of the session, or, more likely, they need to know the answer to the question so that they can continue to learn with with you. If you don’t take the time to answer clarifying questions, you risk losing some audience members who may become frustrated and shut down if they are not understanding the content.

Do you have any other advice, Sheila?

OK, you probably didn’t wake up with this question, but it’s my blog and I’ll share if I want to.

Look at questions as a gift – an opportunity to improve future presentations. After all, it’s a free needs assessment of your audience! They’re telling you exactly what they need to learn from you, what wasn’t clear, or what wasn’t covered. For this reason, ask someone ahead of time (I usually seek out the person who is hosting me) to write down audience questions and give them to you at the end. I typically walk away from presentations not remembering all the questions I was asked. Use these written questions to refine your presentation for next time.

What other questions might a presenter have about the Q&A? Please add them in the comments.


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