In addition to writing and editing, I do a lot of instructional design work, which means I create course and seminar materials for businesses. The two types of work have many things in common, not the least of which is concern that the information is understandable and interesting to the audience.
Hands up if you’ve ever sat through a business-related seminar that was dull. You know the kind I’m talking about: seminars on topics that are of interest to you, or at least that had the potential to be of interest to you, if only the speaker or instructor managed to engage the participants.
There are many reasons a seminar can end up so boring that all participants focus on is making it to the break and praying that the coffee is still hot and strong enough to keep them awake.
If you were to write a Top 10 list of reasons seminars are boring, I’ll bet high on the list would be “the subject is dull”. To that I say, NONSENSE! I’ll grant you that some topics might not be inherently interesting to you — and I realize there are seminars you might be forced to go to (we’ll leave philosophic questions of free will for some other posting) for work — even so, there’s no reason for the seminar to be boring.
Indeed, there would only be one item on my Top 10 list of reasons seminars and presentations are dull: the person creating it didn’t try hard enough to make it interesting. I know that sounds harsh, but it’s true.
Engaging the participants
Though it takes a lot of work to put together any kind of presentation, mere work isn’t enough. You have to put time and effort into making the presentation interesting — and I’m not talking about merely adding humour or modulating your voice. I’m talking about finding ways of engaging those attending so that they are transformed from mere audience members to participants. (After all, as the seminar creator, if all you care about is conveying information, why not write it down and send a report?)
There are a variety of techniques you can apply to make a session interactive. One of my favourite ways (and one that isn’t widely used yet, so it also benefits by seeming innovative) is using audio vignettes to pose a hypothetical that forms the basis for a discussion of the topic.
My introduction to audio vignettes was a seminar for a company’s high-level managers. The session began with a two minute voice mail message regarding an urgent problem that had supposedly just come up. When the vignette ended the seminar leader asked the audience what they’d do if they got a voice mail like that. Hands shot up around the room, with participants eager to share their experiences and offer their two cents. The seminar leader — who was the subject-matter expert on the underlying issue — then led the participants through the subject, directing them toward conclusions based on corporate policies and procedures they’d be expected to apply if they were faced with such a situation.
Crafting audio vignettes
Audio vignettes can be voice mails (a series of voice mails works especially well to introduce conflicting issues or to build the hypothetical), or short speeches (for example, presentations to a board of directors), or even conversations overhead in the coffee room!
Crafting audio vignettes requires creativity, both in terms of coming up with the hypothetical and in terms of scripting it so it sounds real. If you’ll be using the vignettes a number of times, it’s worthwhile hiring professional actors to record them. The key is that the vignettes must sound sufficiently real that the participants buy into it. (Caution: if the vignette sounds cheesy — or if the voice is recognized — participants will not concentrate on what’s being said.)
Audio vignettes help focus attention
Audio vignettes help bring the topic to life by giving participants a real-life situation to consider. I’ve found they’re a particularly effective way of beginning a session (or new topic) because they almost immediately focus the participants on the issue. They can also be effective after technical information has been presented, helping to re-engage the participants after they’ve passively absorbed the information presented.