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Academics May Be The Least Patriotic Presenters On The Face Of The Earth

John Hancock

John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence was written so big because he was the president of the Continental Congress. The fact is, his was the only signature necessary to make the document official. Everyone signed the Declaration in a sign of solidarity.”

These were the words from a tour guide last Saturday as my family and I wrapped up our vacation in New England by walking part of the Freedom Trail. This information about John Hancock was new to me, and the tour guide didn’t stop there. He went on to say: “John Hancock had bigger ambitions. In fact, he expected to be named general of the Continental Army. After all, his fortune helped bankroll the army’s expenses in the early days of the American Revolution. There was only one problem… he didn’t have any military experience.”

Can you imagine how world history may have been different if the Founding Fathers of the United States had acquiesced to John Hancock’s ego and named a passionate, rich man dedicated to the cause of the American Revolution (yet without any military training or experience) as the top commander?

The desire to be the commander was, in part, a result of John Hancock’s ego and sense of entitlement. Patriotism and the cause of the American Revolution were only secondary. Ironically, his ego-driven desire to lead the army for a cause he was willing to give his life for (even though he had no experience or expertise in the matter) was itself an act of un-patriotic delusion. Thankfully there were people who understood this and named George Washington as the leader of the Continental Army. The rest is history.

As I listened to this story, I of course thought about learning and development and presentations that people are forced to sit through – either at work or at a conference – on a daily basis. Some presentations are phenomenal. Many are not. 

One key driver behind presentations that are not very engaging or interesting is the motivation behind the presentation. Too many presenters think only of themselves, not of the greater good they can provide by engaging the audience. Technical experts, engineers, medical professionals and really, really smart people all are prone to this fault. This is particularly true among Academics who feel anything less than reading pages from their latest research would be beneath them. In this sense, they’re very much like today’s version of John Hancock – well-intentioned, but probably not the right people for the job of presenting. Melissa Marshall may have said it best: “Science not communicated is science not done.”

So what can you do to fix this? Here are 4 ideas, depending on your role:

  1. If you’re involved in meeting planning and speaker selection: Meeting planners need to be more invested in the audience experience. Simply suggesting (even repeatedly) to incorporate principles of adult learning into a presentation isn’t enough. Meeting planners owe it to both the people forking over $1,700 to attend the conference (plus travel expenses) to work with the presenters to ensure good presentation design.
  2. If you supervise someone who goes to a conference: Supervisors need to be more invested in their employee’s experience, setting goals prior to an employee attending the conference and then holding the employee accountable for bringing new knowledge or skills or abilities back into the workplace. If an employee is going to be held accountable, then perhaps he/she will be more likely to pick conferences with a reputation for better speakers.
  3. If you go to a conference: Meeting attendees need to speak up, and the easiest way to do that is through the post-session evaluation forms. If a session isn’t outstanding, then do not give it a 4 or 5 (or even a 3). You’ve paid good money for what’s been billed as a quality conference. If a presentation is amazing, then make sure the conference organizers know that, too, so that they can follow the bright spots as they prepare next year’s conference.
  4. If you present at conferences: Try something different. Try a session completely devoid of PowerPoint. Try PollEverywhere. Give your audience a challenge or an incomplete case study and challenge them to work in small groups to resolve it. The audience is there to learn, and they’re there to network with others, so why not give them an opportunity to do both in your session?

Think labeling poor presenters as un-patriotic goes too far? Sound off in the comment section below.

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