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Great Conference Presentations

What’s the best way to structure a conference presentation? I champion facilitated workshops that engage people with different learning styles.

Introduction

I previously wrote about how to make the Animal Rights National Conference more effective. In that blog post, I tried to include every suggestion I thought the Animal Rights National Conference could improve! Some suggestions were more important than others, and I have had several conversations about one — ‘have facilitators that lead workshops’ — and I’ll explain what I mean in more detail.

Since I wrote that piece, I helped plan the 2019 conference! I served on the Program Advisory Committee and I was also the Moderator Manager. For the former role, I provided input on speakers and content. For the latter, I recruited and oriented the people that moderated the sessions. I also presented the Grassroots Animal Activist Award. I also facilitated a presentation about fundraising. I’m invested in the conference, I enjoy it immensely, learn a lot, and I think it is important for the growth of the animal protection movement

Back to my previous blog post…I want to elaborate on one particular item: “Instead of most sessions being led by speakers, have facilitators that lead workshops.” 

Why have facilitated workshops?:

  • If you want to hear somebody give a lecture or present facts, an online video, social media post, or article can easily provide that information.
  • Gathering in person is rare and precious. We have a unique opportunity to be present with and share with other animal activists. In addition, people get a chance to meet each other and develop meaningful relationships
  • Have people practice — or actually do — the work of creating their own vision and work of animal advocacy at a conference will result in many people being empowered change makers.

What is a facilitated workshop?

Facilitated workshops usually start with an introduction, an explanation of the activity, and time for questions and answers at the end. Facilitated workshops usually need at least 90 minutes. Workshops may or may not include all of these elements:

  • One person leads it. The facilitator can control the time and the room to maximize interactivity. Of course sometimes people want to facilitate together, and this can be done at their own choosing.
  • Small group or pairs interacting. This gives participants the opportunity to provide their own ideas, vision, and input; learn from other people; and develop meaningful relationships. We can hope that interactions like this can lead two people talking together to envision something new and powerful that can help the animal protection movement grow, and they can follow up after the conference and run with it!
  • Limited lecturing from the front. Facilitators may introduce the session, set ground rules, explain context, direct the facilitation, and answer questions. Beyond that, facilitators bring wisdom from the room, help attendees develop relationships with each other, and to spark ideas, imagination, and fun.  
  • Use more senses and learning modes. Include movement, dance, song, art, creativity, consensual touch, play, singing, and full body exercises. When we meet in person, we have so many faculties that we can employ! Many people have different ways they learn, whether through movement, listening, talking, or creating.  
  • Create something! We can do some of the work right then and there! See the examples below.
  • Vulnerability and safety. An important aspect of learning and growing is being able to look at our personal struggles and where we can grow. Make space for intimacy and gentleness for each participant so they can face challenging things about themselves. Then their learning will be held deeply.
  • Meet people! My favorite part of almost every conference I have ever been to is meeting new people and connecting with old people. At the Animal Rights National Conferences, this has happened outside of the sessions. Facilitated sessions can provide opportunities to find people who share your values, perspectives, and goals and share experiences with them in a small group or one-to-one portion of the session. These can be the beginning or the continuation of relationships that can provide powerful collaboration for the movement! 

Side-by-side comparison

Here’s how some elements that may be present in conferences and how they play out in lectures vs. facilitated sessions:

ElementLectureFacilitated sessions
WisdomPrimarily or entirely from the speakerPrimarily from the audience
ParticipationPrimarily from the speakerPrimarily from the audience
Modes of learningSight and HearingSight, hearing, movement, touch, and more
Interpersonal connectionLittle or noneIntimate conversations and engagement
VulnerabilityLittle, the audience is passiveModerate (ideally), participants are challenged to open up
What the participant doesSit and listen, perhaps ask questionsTalk, share openly, listen, move, create, engage with peers

Note: In both the examples below, we created something/did something productive. I don’t think this is necessary for a great conference presentation.

Example 1: Irresistable Podcast at the Allied Media Conference.

In 2018, I attended the Allied Media Conference. My favorite workshop there was hosted by the Irresistible Podcast (then known as the Healing Justice Podcast). The workshop was simple: they introduced the podcast and its mission, they gave us guidelines and had us sign consent forms if we wanted, and then they had us answer questions and have them recorded. They ask three questions, all variants of: “how do you practice healing and justice?” For each question, they had us talk to one or two other people and talk about our own experience in front of one of six recording stations. Then they produced a podcast using our conversations. (see if you can find my words in this podcast episode!)

This session facilitated participants to think about their own experiences and how they connect healing and justice. We met people one-on-one and had intimate conversations about how we do healing and justice. Most of the time was spent participating. The wisdom from the session came from the participants. I found the session to be interesting, engaging, educational, and connecting!

Example 2: Thanking donors at the Money for Our Movements conference.

In 2018, I attended Money for Our Movements, a social justice fundraising conference.

During the session, we brainstormed and discussed creative and effective ways to thank donors. We used what we learned and thanked donors on the spot! We broke into small groups, took photos or ourselves with hand-made thank you signs and texted them to donors, and we told our stories about why their donations mattered to us. What we were doing was real and helping the conference — these were actual conference donors that we were thanking. Talking in the small groups gave us an opportunity to bond.

Challenges

There are two key challenges for doing facilitated workshops. 1. It can take more creativity from the facilitator to think of ways that engage audiences, work for the room, and fit in the time allotted. It’s a lot more to think about. 2. The facilitator has less control! You don’t know what people are going to say, imagine, or create; how long it will take; and if it’s going to move in the direction that you want.

Conclusion

Attending conferences — and indeed many political, nonprofit, and even social events — can lead to inspiration, deeper connections, and ideas. Additionally, conferences can be fun, productive (i.e. creating the ‘products’ we want at the conference), engaging, and fulfilling. Facilitated workshops can be a key part of powerful and compelling conferences. Please consider seeking out such conferences and see how they feel to you.

2 replies
  1. Dave Rolsky
    Dave Rolsky says:

    I think the sort of sessions you describe can be really great, and would be a big improvement over most of what I’ve seen at the AR conference. But I disagree with you that “standard” presentations aren’t worthwhile and should be relegated to YouTube and blog posts.

    To me, the biggest problem I’ve had with the sessions at the AR Conference has simply been that most of them were bad. The speakers weren’t very good at public speaking, their presentation materials were poor or nonexistent, and their presentation’s structure and content wasn’t that interesting. To be fair, there are huge structural problems with the AR Conference that make low quality presentations the norm. You and I have discussed those at length, and both of us have written about them too, so no need to go over them again.

    (As an aside to anyone reading this who may have spoken at an AR Conference I’ve been to, I _have_ seen good presentations there as well, so don’t assume you’re the target of my criticism here.)

    In contrast, I’ve been to sessions at programming conferences that have been downright fantastic. Great speakers presenting on something really interesting (and often funny) with very high quality presentation materials. Here’s one that I attended last year – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mz3JeYfBTcY. Most of the content is not technical so I think anyone could watch it. She’s a good presenter speaking on a really interesting topic, and she even does some fun live demos. Everyone who went to her talk was buzzing about it for the rest of the conference.

    Yes, these sorts of session could just be recorded and posted on YouTube, but I think there are reasons to do this at a conference. First, a lot of speakers are better with an audience. I’ve done presentations for work over video chat and it’s a very different experience. You don’t get the same level of immediate feedback (laughter, shifts in body language, the occasional shouted comment) and it just feels more sterile, which makes it harder to give a good presentation.

    Second, Q&A and audience interaction can be a big part of a presentation. If the speaker has something really interesting to say, the questions from the audience can be really interesting too. Second, if the conference has allotted sufficient time and space for a good hallway track (meaning unstructured time and space to talk to other attendees), then a good presentation can spawn great follow-up conversations with the speaker or just with other people who were at the talk.

    That’s not to say that every presenter has to be the greatest of all time. It’s important to give new speakers a chance to develop their skills. Otherwise you just see the same few people speaking over and over. But at the AR Conference I’d see the same _terrible_ speakers on the program every year, giving the same terrible presentation they’d been doing for years.

    Another way to take things to the next level, which I haven’t seen tried before, would be to find ways for speakers to connect with each other before the conference to share their presentation and get some critical feedback. This would be great for speakers both new and experienced. Nowadays this is trivially easy with the technologies available to us.

    In general, I think we should just have higher expectations for conference presentations in general, whatever structure the presentation might take. But for the AR Conference that would require big structural changes that for whatever reason (inertia?) seem very difficult to make.

    Reply
    • unny
      unny says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Dave. I’ve appreciated the numerous conversations we’ve had about conferences over the years. Other folks may be interested in Dave’s blog posts from the first Animal Rights National Conference that we attended. Here’s the good: https://blog.urth.org/2007/07/24/ar2007-thoughts-the-good/ and there’s the bad: https://blog.urth.org/2007/07/24/ar2007-thoughts-the-bad/. A lot of the critiques are still relevant. This prompted us at Compassionate Action for Animals (Dave and I were involved at the time) to organize our own conference, Their Lives, Our Voices for a few years. When we organized those conferences, we still had lecture-type presentations. I didn’t feel as strongly about having more interaction then as I do now.

      I probably wouldn’t mind if a conference had some lecture-type presentations, as long as I could avoid them. 🙂

      Dave, have you been to a conference that had facilitated sessions like the ones I describe?

      Reply

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