Contemplating Presentation: Part I, Technology

This past Monday we hosted two great talks, here at CU, as part of our “Circulations: The Futures of Romanticism” series.  Michael Macovski spoke about the history of the Book, with a special attention on the role that redaction plays in Romantic reading practice, and Michael Gamer spoke about the persistent pressures of fame and personal economic stability that accompanied Robert Southey’s establishment as poet laureate in 1813.  I feel privileged to have been able to attend these talks, both for the valuable insights they offered relative to book history and economic literary analysis (two compelling avenues of study that clearly have much to offer the field), and for the important presentation strategies they demonstrated.

Since the talks, I’ve been thinking about these and other presentations I’ve enjoyed, mulling over what it is, in particular, that makes for a good academic talk.  So much of our classroom experience, both as teachers and as students, is oriented around discussion, where we can riff, where an inchoate idea satisfies to propel a discussion towards completeness, where continuity is not always necessary nor even desirable; as such, the prospect of giving a talk, of owning the floor for fifteen to twenty minutes, uninterrupted, to present ideas for which we are solely responsible, can be daunting.  Certainly, it must help to watch the presentations of others with an eye for the specific stratagems they employ, not only in constructing an argument, but in effectively engaging an audience. 

In a series of posts, I thought I might offer observations about what kinds of techniques seem to make for an engaging talk.  By no means do I consider myself an expert; indeed, I’m only just beginning to develop my own presentation style.  Most of the strategies I mention will likely have been culled from presentations I’ve seen, and which I’d like to adapt for my own purposes.  But I believe there is something to be gained from careful observation and thorough consideration.  This first post will put forward some of my thoughts on the use of technology in presentation.

Using Presentation Technology Effectively

As it does in the classroom, digital technology offers a number of presentational advantages, not only in imparting information to an audience (especially where such visual productions as painting, sculpture and film are concerned), but also in matters of pacing and the spatial orientation of an audience.  Clearly, the ability to display works of visual culture, and to draw cognitive links between the art and sculpture of a period and its textual productions, makes for a much more nuanced understanding of a given culture, and for a more variously inflected reading of its literature.  But a presentation that employs technology can gain in ways less directly related to the content of the argument, and more to its form.  For instance, the incorporation of video can insert a pause into the midst of a talk, a kind of mental breathing space wherein the audience may recollect and process information.  It can drastically and momentarily shift the tone of a presentation, generating interest in relative novelty.  Projected images (still or moving) can establish the presentation space as a multidimensional one.  They serve as secondary focus points, and an effective speaker will place him or herself far enough away from the image to split audience focus, directing the audience’s attention to image or speaker as necessary.  So the audience members are forced into activity, more aware of the presentations itself as they follow the speaker, shifting their focus around the room.  The greatest temptation of any audience is surely the tendency to lapse into complacency or half-focus; technology can serve as a preventative to such lapsing.

Furthermore, presentation technology demands collective focus.  This is opposed to a handout which, while generally helpful, and sometimes necessary, always effects the fragmentation of an audience.  When a speaker directs my attention to the pieces of paper in my hands, he or she is not only directing me to the handout, but to my handout.  I am suddenly not part of an audience, but one among a crowd.  Perhaps, as I consider the lines of poetry printed on the sheet, my mind begins to wander; I think about what, in these lines, strikes me as interesting, or about how I might like to read them myself.  Maybe I get so caught up that I start to reread those lines later in the presentation, diverting my attention at times when I am not supposed to, when the distraction will detract from my understanding of the presentation itself.  Soon a cacophony of rustling fills my ears, and I drift alone amidst the dull whispers of fidgeting.  Surely, this cognitive isolation may be seen in a more positive light.  Perhaps, a handout opens an audience to the individual preoccupations and distractions of its members, leading to question-and-answer sessions made more full and complex by the interaction of individually-oriented thought processes.  But from the standpoint of speaker, such distraction takes skill to corral.  I must fight against my own handout, and if I am to best it, I must be a master of other techniques.  I must be able to command the audience to return its attention (reformed as collective now) to me.  By contrast, technology directs all eyes in the room to a common mobile point, and away from restless hands.

But technology should not be considered easy to use.  It must be very deliberately implemented.  It can be painfully obvious when technology is being used as a crutch, or as a replacement for full and proper practice.  As I noted above, the projected image, quotations, or video should serve as a second point of focus.  Gestures toward the image, text, or video should be deliberate, purposeful, and limited.  When the technology gains control of the presentation, when it is the only point of focus, it very quickly eclipses the speaker, and soon enough distracts from the argument itself.  A speaker who follows presentation slides too fastidiously eventually fades away, becoming an incorporeal echo of the text on the screen.  Image clicks.  Voice repeats.  The contours of the argument are laid out in advance and the voice follows up by repeating what everyone in the audience already knows.  The audience rebels from the argument because, rather than cogently moving through its evidence towards a conclusion, this presentation makes every single point it has to make twice.

I’d like to suggest a couple of examples of what I perceive to be the effective use of technology in a presentation.  The first example comes from Michael Macovski’s talk on book history Monday night.  Though his presentation was focused on laying out the ways in which a material history of the book was to be conducted, and though it was primarily interested in the circulation of texts, his presentation demonstrated the ways in which that circulation would necessarily partake of multiple mediums.  For example, he directed our attention to an image from the period that depicted a circulating library.  He led us in reading the image, inviting us to surmise about the social function of the library as both restricting gateway and distribution center for knowledge.  Later he displayed a passage from Don Juan and pointed out the ways in which texts by Pope, Creech and Horace were circulating within Byron’s poem.  On the one hand, this variability of mediums—image against text against speaker—created interest through variety, all the while demonstrating Macovski’s central point, that circulation figures prominently in Romantic period texts, even as it must, by necessity, inform the praxis of the modern book historian.

Another example of effective technology use comes from a presentation I saw Paul Youngquist give at ICR in 2009.  He opened the presentation, a discussion of the use of Bloodhounds to put down Maroon uprisings in eighteenth-century Jamaica, with a clip from the movie Cujo.  There is, of course, a significant disjunction here, between eighteenth-century Jamaica and the 1983 adaptation of a Stephen King novel, but this discrepancy only served to intensify the novelty effect that the incorporation of multiple mediums (aural, visual, textual) generally produces.  At once Cujo alienated the audience from the primary context of the argument, and invited speculation as to how the St. Bernard was to be reconciled to the Bloodhound.  Eventually, Cujo came to serve a larger point about the bloody ways in which the animal (in this case military dogs) came to police the boundaries of humanity in service of the state.  But the film clip also offered to the presentation other productive advantages.  Professor Youngquist repeated one particular line from the film several times throughout his presentation, and it began to take on an incantatory quality, at once drawing attention back to the opening video clip, and punctuating the historical analysis of the Maroon Wars, embedding in the past a vision of the present and reminding the audience of the continued relevance and resonances of pastness itself.

In both of these instances, technology was used with purpose.  It was the specialized tool of a craftsman or an artist, made to work to very particular ends.  Of course, technology is one tool among many.  Both of the talks I’ve mentioned above, in addition to Michael Gamer’s talk, and many other talks I have been fortunate enough to attend, have had to draw upon additional strategies in order to be as effective and compelling as they were.  In my next several posts I’d like to continue to look at the strategies of presentation.  In particular I anticipate contemplating the following topics: The Uses of Reading, Forming Effective Arguments for Presentation, Persona, and Energy, among others.  Please feel free to comment on and react to my thoughts as you see fit.  I will reiterate, I have watched these presentations with a careful, but a jealous eye and am by no means yet practiced enough to replicate their most impressive successes.  As much as these posts will be meant to offer helpful suggestions to others, I intend to learn from them myself.

Thank you so much for your attention.