Presenting…A Better Presentation

In a recent blog post, Eric Stoller reflected on his experiences attending the 2013 NASPA and ACPA conferences. He wrote the following concerning educational sessions:

“In terms of regular sessions … we have to stop being so bad at this. Seriously. Powerpoint isn’t the problem. We need to be better storytellers and utilize high quality visual communications.”

He then cited an earlier blog he wrote, properly entitled Conference Sessions Do Not Have To Suck.

I feel your pain, Eric. Most of us feel your pain. In fact, I probably have contributed to the pain. And I agree: our presentations, particularly at professional conferences, have got to improve, if for no other reason than to set an example for our future leaders. And the improvement needs to start with me.

At my university, I am responsible for supervising four graduate assistants within the Campus Recreation Department. One of their responsibilities is to conduct staff training and development. Up until now, I have assumed that these graduate assistants were decent presenters. They had all made good grades in their undergraduate careers, which included giving class presentations, and they had all been leaders in their Campus Recreation Departments, which meant that they had participated in staff training. But time after time their staff training presentations at my facility ended up being boring Powerpoint slides that were visually unappealing, with the graduate assistant rushing through each slide, reading verbatim from their notes. There was no storytelling—only regurgitated information that could have been communicated via an email attachment.

This year, after talking with my students, I finally understood why these smart, talented graduate assistants gave such poor presentations. They had all been told in their undergraduate school that their presentations were good. And they commented that they had never seen presentations done any other way, even in their university classes.

At conferences, in university classes, watching their instructors and peers: they had never seen presentations done any other way. Whoa.

My university is undergoing a SACS review, and as part of this review, they have chosen to institute a Quality Enhancement Plan entitled “Presentation U.” It “represents new opportunities students will soon have to improve their presentation skills across various platforms.” I am encouraged, and look forward to seeing the initiatives that my university takes to improve our students’ presentation skills. However, our students continue to see poor presentations year after year from some professors who haven’t changed their class information and teaching style in years. For real change to occur, our faculty will need to set good examples. I hope they are up for the challenge.

Good examples also need to be set at our regional and national conferences. I’m not saying that every presentation is terrible; in fact, I attended more great presentations this year at the NIRSA conference than I’ve ever seen before. But it seems there are more bad presentations than good. Why? Is it because seasoned professionals never receive honest feedback? And could it be that younger presenters have never seen it done any other way?

In order to stop this cycle of poor presentations, we need to teach the next generation how to do it better. And that is my responsibility. Starting this fall I will provide my graduate assistants with intentional instruction on how to give a good presentation. And though it seems odd to me that I would need to teach presentation skills, I welcome the chance to be part of the change that we all desire. Because who wants to sit through another boring presentation? We can do better.

How do you train your student staff to give great presentations?


Just Say "Bugs"

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In the movie “Big”, Tom Hanks stars as Josh, a 13-year old boy who makes a wish that he was “big”, and overnight grows into an adult. The problem, of course, is that he is a regular 13-year old inside an adult body. He gets a job with a toy development company while he tries to figure out how to reverse his wish. Josh attends a toy development meeting, and Paul, a veteran team member, pitches the idea of creating a transformer toy: a building that turns into a robot. Josh challenges that idea, and instead suggests that they make a robot that turns into a bug. That suggestion ignites the imagination of the group, and Paul watches helplessly as his building idea fizzles, saying, “This doesn’t happen. You don’t just come to a meeting and say “bugs.”

Today we held our first Student Affairs Technology Committee meeting, of which I am the chair. My qualifications for holding this position are twofold:

1. I have an interest in expanding technology use within the division.
2. Nobody else would do it.

My technology skills are average at best. I don’t really know how to “talk tech.” I have tweeted a total of 134 times since 2008. Yet I was responsible for running a tech meeting, with people far more tech-savvy than myself.

I was stressing.

I arrived at the meeting and soon all committee members were there. I started by bringing up a recent tech survey that we had conducted, and said, “What do you think about [here you can insert any tech topic that is at the forefront of your division—personnel, social media use, tech support, etc.]”

The room exploded with energy. The discussion was lively, relevant, and productive. And the best part? All I had to do was start the discussion. Sometimes you don’t really need to be an expert. Sometimes all you need to say is “bugs.”

The Value of Second Impressions

My first trip to Vegas was a one-night stopover on my way to a backpacking trip in Zion NP. Walking through a hotel casino at 8am the next day, an older lady in front of me vomited on the floor and then passed out. That was my first impression of Vegas and I’ve hated the city ever since.


Needless to say, I wasn’t thrilled to hear that the NIRSA conference this year was in Vegas. I didn’t want to go. But since I’ve had the chance to spend a few days here, I have found that Vegas isn’t all “Sin City”; in fact, it’s pretty cool. The hotels are wonders to behold with their themes from around the world. My room on the 11th floor of the Paris Las Vegas has a view of the Eiffel Tower. And the water show at the Bellagio, choreographed to an operatic aria, was so beautiful it made me want to cry. 

Twitter reminds me of Vegas. 

When I joined Twitter back in 2008, I found I didn’t like it at all, thinking it was nothing more than mindless social media drivel that could at times include some pretty raunchy stuff. People I didn’t know we’re asking to “follow” me, and their profile photos showed provocatively dressed women who looked like they came straight off a Vegas street hustler’s card. But when I gave Twitter another chance in 2012, I found the good in it. I found a community of smart, thoughtful professionals who were willing to share their expertise in higher education and revel in successes of others. It is such a godsend to have found a community like this who I can turn to on a daily basis for professional development. Just thinking about it makes me want to cry. 

So I’ll come away from Vegas with kinder thoughts of the city. I see it differently now, and will look forward to visiting again sometime. And for my colleagues who cannot see the value in using Twitter, I will gently encourage them (and show them how) to give it a second look. Because sometimes that second look can make all the difference. 

The Devil’s in the Policies

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I am guilty of having an over-simplified view of right and wrong. I realize that this is who I am, so when a complicated issue arises that could lead to policy development or change, I know that my knee-jerk reaction should not be my final answer. I’ve come to this realization because policy decisions I’ve made in haste have come back to bite me in the…well, you know… 

After reading several posts this week on the NIRSA website that dealt with policy questions, I started thinking about the process that is involved with creating or changing policies. Here is what I try to do:

1. Explore your options.

Identify the problem, state the possible solutions, then list pros and cons for those solutions. Write it down! It’s important to try to see the issue from all viewpoints. Decisions shouldn’t be made on what is easiest for you, but what is best for all stakeholders. Look at your department’s mission and try to find solutions that would best fulfill that mission.

2. Talk to the devil.

My boss drives me up the wall with his constant “well, what about this…” and “what about that…” But he is the perfect person to help uncover potential problems with a policy. Colleagues and student workers are great resources to help you view problems from different angles. It’s helpful to find someone who can play a good devil’s advocate by drilling you with the tough questions you may get from patrons who could be negatively impacted by the policy. If you can’t answer the tough questions satisfactorily, then you need to change the policy.

3. Policy vs. Recommendation

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If you want to weigh in on an action or behavior that could potentially be detrimental, remember that policies must be enforceable. If you can’t consistently enforce a policy, then use “recommend” instead. For example, we received a call from a university health service doctor who said that he had treated two students within the period of a week who came in with eye injuries received while playing racquetball. We discussed creating a policy that would require eye protection to be worn at all times while playing racquetball. However, we knew that this policy would be impossible to enforce unless we posted an employee at the courts. Instead of making it a policy, we posted a sign on each racquetball court door stating “Protective eyewear strongly recommended and available at the front desk.” This communicated to our patrons that by playing racquetball, there could be a danger of eye injuries, and presented a solution to mitigate that danger. However, if we had a policy stating that eyewear was required, we could be held liable for injuries sustained if those injuries occurred because we were unable to enforce the policy. 

4. Re-evaluate on a regular basis.

Our facility is constantly changing. We add new equipment and take away old. We discover new technologies that allow us to do things we never could before. Industry standards are always evolving. Because change is the only constant thing, it is important to re-evaluate policies on a regular basis. For example, if a student forgot their school ID card, we used to require them to present a photo ID in order to access the facility. However, when we started using a new recreation software program to control access, we could type in their student number and their picture would come up on the computer screen. We had never had access to student photos before, so the policy that required students who forgot their ID to show a photo ID was unnecessary. We did away with the policy. However, it is important to be especially careful when considering making a policy more lenient. If you change a policy to allow patrons to do something that they haven’t been able to do in the past, and then find that the change was a mistake, the uproar that will occur when you again take away that privilege is far worse than if you’d never changed the policy at all. So be sure to talk to the devil before making the change!

What do you feel are important steps to take when creating policies?