Observation Journal: Lessons for presentations and conferences

One of the purposes and benefits of the observation journal, apart from tinkering with my ideas of story and image and coming up with schemes, is taking the opportunity to watch myself at work. This includes the process leading up to a project — working out which ideas strike a spark, and maybe why, so that I can aim for those in the future. And after I finish something, it’s been valuable to turn it inside out and see how it held together, and how I felt about it.

So here’s a little run of connected pages from June last year, when I was drafting and giving the keynote at the Australian Fairy Tale Society‘s convention. (Here’s my original post reporting on the conference.) I’ve indicated a couple of the main lessons about writing speeches and being on panels — with the note that they are lessons for me, but might be useful for others.

(Also, the AFTS fairytale anthology is launching a little over an hour after this post comes out.)

More below…

Engraved mirror in gold watch case, reading "Once upon a time" in reflection.
A magic mirror from Spike Deane — you can read more about it here

Preparing the Keynote

The first page is me using the observation journal to trap some thoughts on the talk, bringing together the various ideas I’d been thinking about, and highlighting the bits that I liked. (I’d previously learned the importance of moving fast to get things done. See: Moving Fast; Giving Ideas a Push; and Making Things Happen).

Two-page observation journal spread. On the left, five things seen, heard and done. On the right, spidery mind-map diagrams of thoughts for a conference keynote.
On the left: Sleeping magpies, beginning to accept border restrictions would not be lifting by November, and a squeaky spinning vent on a neighbour’s roof (I’d been trying to track down the source of the sound for a while)

Three important lessons:

  • Highlight the good bits! Put everything down, but find some way to indicate the ideas that rise to the surface. When I look back at these little collections of thoughts, they are not much use unless I’ve used a highlighter (or watercolour, here). When I have, suddenly it becomes a topographical map — the terrain of my thoughts is revealed.
  • Getting everything down feels like at least I’ve started, but in fact everything is now there, and I’m practically done! I can and have given a talk off this sort of a plan. It’s not ideal, but it is an existing thing.
  • There’s a note there that I “wish I had left time to do original art”. This was a terrible idea. I had, as you will see, far too much art already, and quite a few other things to do. The lesson I was beginning to learn was to limit the time available. This usually (but not always) stops me unilaterally tripling the workload.

The Trial of Slides

The second page is a reflection on the planning/writing process after I’d written the keynote.

Two-page observation journal spread. On the left, five things seen, heard and done. On the right, handwritten reflections on the pros and cons of different approaches to preparing a speech.
On the left: A tiara

The more material and experience I have, the easier it is to freewheel a talk. The difficulty is getting myself to stop. But this is no use if you need to have a slideshow of images to accompany it.

I’m learning that I need to prepare talks from two different angles:

  • If it’s word/idea/argument heavy: Do not even THINK about the art until the end. Get the headings down, with dotpoint topics, and dot-dot-point talking points (I like this because it lets me seamlessly cut out sections if necessary). Then go back and put in the ornamental slides only where strictly necessary.
  • If it’s image/process heavy: Do not even THINK about the words. Start stuffing art into slides. Then move the slides around until they are in rough related clumps. Then stick title slides in front of those clumps. Then print out the slides 9 to a page and very quickly jot down the main points I want to make/puns I don’t want to forget.

Online Conference — lessons learned

Finally, here’s a “lessons learned” page from after the conference.

Two-page observation journal spread. On the left, five things seen, heard and done. On the right, a mind-map of lessons learned from the conference.
On the left: Turned smoke alarm off with broom, saw a very large upside-down spider.

If I’d only been reviewing the talk, I’d have used a slightly more detailed structure. But for general “lessons learned”, I tend to put down some big topic headers (here: keynote, panel, and online conference generally) and use it to collect all my reflections in no particular order. I don’t tend to highlight these pages as much — perhaps I should. But they’re less about panning for gold than just trapping thoughts.

A few main lessons:

  • The talk:
    • For image-heavy slides, I export the slides to PDF and, if possible, use that instead of the Powerpoint. This lets me zoom in on details at will, and do a more off-the-cuff discussion, and answer questions.
    • Include practical application and activities more in talks. Even suggested thought experiments and even in the one-way atmosphere of an online presentation, these seemed to work. And it also gave me free frameworks to riff on/break down/demonstrate in the talk. These sorts of talks are peculiar beasts, neither class nor lecture, but I’m gradually coming to terms with them.
  • The panel:
    • Even (or especially!) when not moderating a panel, write questions to ask the other panellists in advance. I don’t mind if I don’t get to ask them — this isn’t about wresting the panel away from the moderator. But they are incredibly helpful if the audience is slow to start sending questions through at the end, and can be very useful for having an actual conversation. (Plus, these other people are right here, this is my chance to ask them anything I want…). This is also useful for readings — having questions to ask the other readers or the moderator has been handy.
      • Edit to add further thoughts: Even if I never need to ask them, having questions prepared also (a) takes my focus/anxiety off what I’ll say on the panel, and (b) often links my answers to things the other panellists are interested in. And it is also INCREDIBLY useful if the moderator’s connection drops out or they cannot be found.
    • Someone always asks “what’s your favourite…” or “can you give a list of recommended…”. I think there should be advance warning of this, but also it should no longer come as a surprise. I need to prepare a list of favourites/recommendations relevant to the topic. This also applies to podcasts etc.
  • Online conference generally:
    • I need to find some handwork to do so that I can just sit and listen. Hemming skirts, or something. Drawing works fine in physical conference rooms but is a distraction when it’s the only thing in the room with me.
    • Casual conversations are difficult but deliberate conversations are possible. For one thing, I don’t have to pursue the person across a convention complex, and for another — they are right there online, right now, I don’t have to worry about timezones. Even if there isn’t a conference Discord or similar, I can message them and say “HEY I SEE YOU ARE ON ZOOM can I talk to you about XYZ for 5 minutes after this panel.” This also works with other panellists.

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).

2 thoughts on “Observation Journal: Lessons for presentations and conferences

  1. Pingback: July 2021 — round-up of posts | Kathleen Jennings

  2. Pingback: Handouts as a structuring principle, mockups for getting things done | Kathleen Jennings

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