A case study in team presenting

Ellen and I are beginning to really enjoy presenting together. We’re consistently well-received, and we get a lot of comments about how seamlessly we transition and how entertaining we are. Our most recent endeavor was a 20-minute talk about the Awesome Foundation at Creative Mornings Seattle. I thought it would be interesting to talk a bit about how we put these kinds of talks together, given how few role models there are for this kind of talk.

Communication

We started talking as soon as we confirmed that we were going to present together. Long before we made any slides, we mulled over the general content of our talk together. What did we want our take-home message to be? What stories did we want to tell? Working together to narrow down what we were trying to say helped keep us on the same page and led to better ideas than either of us would have come up with alone.

Figuring out the flow

Once we had a general idea for the theme of our talk, we moved on to figuring out the flow of our talk. We started a shared Google Docs slideshow and put together a “prep deck”. We treated the slides from this as an outline for what we were going to talk about, not the first edition of our slides. As we added slides, we also chatted continuously with one another, bouncing ideas back and forth until they worked. Since we already agreed about where we trying to go with the talk, and had gone over key discussion points, it was pretty painless to figure out a path from A to B.

rough_deck

When I say we didn’t treat this as a first version of our slides, I mean it! This prep deck is all about pacing the talk.

Making the slides

Since I had slightly more time than Ellen, and a working copy of PowerPoint, I took responsibility for making our slide deck. I spent about 5 hours (across several editing sessions) putting a first draft of our deck together, using our prep deck as a reference. A significant portion of this time was spent tracking down good images and ironing out animations.

Once I had a first draft put together I sent it to Ellen and we scheduled a Skype meeting to walk through it. We spent this time double-checking the flow of our presentation and making sure that our slides made sense. Having a higher fidelity deck helped us focus on the details of our presentation. We moved a few slides, but we didn’t dramatically restructure the talk. This is when we started to focus on who was going to say what, and how we would hand off lines.

draft_deck

The actual first draft of our slide deck. Most of these slides got rearranged later in the process as we practiced out loud and revised our flow.

Practice, practice, practice

Ellen flew to Seattle the day before our talk, and we managed to get a marathon 4-hour practice session in (we took a much-needed break in the middle to walk to a coffee shop). We spent at least an hour of this time workshopping what we were going to say on each slide, and we changed our script multiple times. We also refined our slide deck as we practiced, tweaking details until everything was just right. We kept polishing things up until the end; we only did 2 (maybe 3) runthroughs of the final script before calling it a day. Of course, at this point we knew our content better than the backs of our hands, so forgetting things wasn’t a big concern. If that hadn’t been the case, we definitely would have kept practicing.

One of the things that we focus on when presenting together is making sure we have a natural, conversational interaction between presenters. We have almost no slides where only one of us speaks, and we only stop trading off when one or the other of us is telling an involved story. Following the flow of an actual conversation makes the presentation less artificial and is easy for audiences to follow. It also gives us a good way to inject humor, show multiple perspectives on an issue, and provide meta-commentary without being confusing or cliché. This is a lot of work to put together, but it also has a clear payoff.

Go time

After a good night’s rest and final, slightly rushed, runthrough we were ready to hit the stage. This is where team presenting really shines. With another person on stage, both of us were more relaxed – we knew that if anything went wrong and we forgot what we were supposed to be talking about the other person could step in. It gave us the confidence to ad lib a bit and add to the stories we rehearsed, adjusting to how our audience was reacting to the content. We also built off of one another and were able to ramp up into a more energetic presentation more quickly. I can’t speak for Ellen, but I definitely got in flow while we were talking. Besides helping us, it’s also more interesting for audiences.

Check out the results here:

The Awesome Foundation – February 2013 from CreativeMornings/Seattle on Vimeo.

Snapshot: college, being a transitioner, and doing things that matter

I originally wrote this in November of 2010, about 6 months after I graduated from college. This is probably the most clearly I’ve ever been able to articulate what college meant to me. It’s also interesting to me to see how much I cared about doing “things that matter” at the time. I forget all too easily that my desire to make a difference didn’t start when I joined the Global Shapers or the Awesome Foundation. Although I haven’t found a singular driving passion that compares to Olin, I like to think that I’m doing pretty well so far.

Ellen and I talked about personal changes that she’s noticed post-Olin. The biggest one that stood out to both of us was that even though she likes her job, she’s not excited. It isn’t that she’s not jazzed about what she’s working on (most of the time, anyway), but that she isn’t passionate about it in quite the right way. After all, there is a whole grown up world concept of liking your job and finding your passion and such, but it’s still very different from what we experienced in college.

So we talked about how we feel now, and how we felt in college. Namely, we were obsessed with Olin. I don’t think it was in a bad way at all, because I believe that what we did at Olin was both meaningful and life changing. However, the fact of the matter is that we really were obsessed. We may not have talked about it constantly, but it came up very frequently. We thought about it all the time. And more importantly, we prioritized it above other things. I was a little more balanced, in that I never really had to think about whether or not I would prioritize Olin above classes. I went through school with a “everything gets done” mentality, and I actually was able to get everything done. However, for people like Jeff and Ellen there was no question about it at all: Olin was their priority. If it came down to doing something for class or doing something for Olin they would choose Olin. That’s just the way it was for them.

We were all extremely dedicated. And it wasn’t because we felt some external obligation, like we owed the school for our free tuition (at least not directly). We genuinely cared. No matter how tired, stressed out, frustrated, happy, or anything else we felt, we could be engaged in a discussion about Olin. We could switch from “I’m exhausted and going to bed right now” mode to “it’s 3:00am already and we’ve barely gotten started on this” mode in the space of a few minutes. For us it was a powerful emotional reaction, because we cared deeply about the issues we were discussing. Most of all we felt frustrated about the (many) parts of Olin that weren’t working the way we felt they should and excited whenever any of the parts did work the way we felt they should.

The thing is, since graduating neither of us (Ellen and myself, that is) has found something like that. Not even close. And Ellen came to grips with this today while trying to figure out exactly why she was feeling frustrated. She realized that what she’s working on, while cool, isn’t going to Change The World. This is a big demotivator because we’re the kind of people who want to have real impact. We don’t act very alike, but we share the same desire to matter. Working on issues at Olin made us feel like we mattered, because we could directly affect how things ran and what happened and who heard about our school and what their impressions of us were. Even better, we felt deeply connected to a mission that we thought was important and meaningful. To be able to say that we have done something to affect engineering education in the US, let alone the world, is a big deal. It feels like we’ve been able to contribute something of value to humanity, even if our part in it was comparably small (give us time; we’re only 22).

The problem is, once you leave Olin you have to let it belong to the people who are still there. It isn’t ours anymore because we’ve graduated, and we have to take our hands off it and let the new freshmen fill that space. It’s only what’s fair and right, since we’re not on campus any longer and don’t have a good handle on what’s happening there. But it does leave us with a gaping hole to fill, and a sort of cliche search for meaning.

To address this problem, we’ve decided to find our own meaning. We’re moving on to something else, because the choice is to find a new passion or to stop having one altogether. And while being part of Olin felt like having an impact, it’s pretty small compared to what we will be capable of. So we’re going to figure out exactly what we want to focus on, and we’re going to do something about it. We’ll pick a big ticket issue, something that really matters in the world, and we’ll educate ourselves on it, and then we’ll devise a plan for being part of the solution. It will take a long time. It will be hard. But if our experience transitioning from the always-on culture at Olin to the so-called real world is any indication, it will be entirely worth it.