Chantal Hébert and Social Media

Last night (April 15th, 2015 for those future people not paying attention to the blog date) I attended the Tansley lecture hosted by my school the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy with the guest presenter, Chantal Hébert‘s discussion the role of social media in changing politics.

I have to say that I’ve often considered Chantal to be the best no-shit political commentator in Canada today and to have her present at what is for me one of the most important policy-related meetings annually was very gratifying. She was definitely her very brightest with just enough aloofness to make sure you knew she was giving you the honest goods. A good amount of her talk relied on her experience as a political journalist and she openly admitted that she would not have everything tied up in a nice box for the audience. She couldn’t possibly.

She began by describing political campaign reporting in the past as high-jacked by political actors. Media relied on the telephone to find out information and ask important questions. To keep media in the dark, you just had to keep them away from a telephone. According to Hébert, you’d think that 24 hour access to information online would mean a more informed society that is more connected to the issues.

But not so. Instead, she argued, politicians have come to understand that in a world of constant information, the only time a journalist will call is when they have some controversy to get a reaction to. That means that the person who takes the call is no longer the person who actually knows what’s going on, but instead someone who is used to communicating in a crisis.

Hébert sees this as a serious problem (as do I). Social media to her mind means that the chattering classes and government are increasingly disconnected from the voters, who, more often than not, are too busy working their 3 jobs to get excited about the latest Gawker report on some offensive thing a comedian said on Facebook.

I will be presenting on something similar in Arizona in May for the Digital Government conference. Although a lot of it will be a bit too technical for a blog post, one thing I will note comes from the protests on Elsipogtog First Nations against some hydraulic fracturing tests occurring near their lands. The eventual government response went in their favor – a moratorium was called on all fracturing in the province. While the anti-fracturing protests were all over social media, there was almost no mention of support for the government’s decision. Not even an “it’s about time.”

This theme of public interest in drama, but disinterest in solutions is something that bears scrutiny in our society. Hébert cites the example of young Quebec anti-austerity protestors who could not name the Premier who called for those measures. Too much of the social movements we see are caught up in ideas about social problems and less involved in the institutions they expect to do something about those problems. I don’t know if this is too new, but it’s a lost opportunity that all this political action has little to no connection to the people with the legitimate authority to act on the citizens behalf.

My dissertation will be looking at this problem with the hopes that the research I provide can suggest some recommendations around what could be done to connect those engaged in social movements to the legitimate political power. Given big issues like climate change, economic disparity, depleting resources, lack of productivity, a growing yet marginalized First Nations population etc., it is essential that we get as many bodies interested in developing policy solutions as we can.

Six Ways to Do a Presentation

People get anxious about making presentations. There are ways to manage this anxiety, but part of the reason people have this anxiety is that they think there is a formula for a “good” presentation and that they have to somehow fit the mold of that formula. It’s kind of like trying to be a rock diva without the sequins or a tech guru without the black turtleneck and jeans.

Too bad for these people that they watch too much mainstream news.

The reality is that the “good” presentation format is only “good” because a whole bunch of people have packaged it into a brand of sorts. People who are not part of that club have to think of other ways to get their message across. If you are doing a presentation for the first time, chances are your audience is not everyone in the world. More likely, you have a smaller niche audience with more specific needs. That means you have to think about your presentations a little bit differently. While I can’t give you a strict idea about how to reach  your audience in the right way, I can offer ten ways you could do a presentation and see if this gives you an idea about how you might approach yours. Here they are:

Lecture with Script

When you have done a lot of research, it is easy to get nervous about the details. Do not try to explain a mathematical algorithm in the middle of a presentation. You will draw a blank. Instead look to a script. You do not need to follow it 100%, but scripting it can help you get through the details without making a mistake. Tanya Boza has some interesting things to say about being a good lecturer, but advises against using a script. Well, I say scripts have their place depending on the situation. Although Tanya is right – it is much better if you can use your script without looking as if that’s what you are doing.

ADVANTAGES: You can script the details. Will go off very well if you are a good writer. Tends to be formal, and usually rhetorical. Great if you are a politician or have to explain things in a very specific way so not to offend people.

DISADVANTAGES: Can be boring and/or un-engaging. You can lose personal contact with the audience if not rehearsed well. Can be over-prepared. Difficult to do ad hoc presenting within a script.

Lecture with Notes

If you are teaching a big picture concept without getting into the details, it may be better to go without a script. Instead, just quick notes will do you well. This is especially good if you have props to show, are teaching English, expect questions about the material. Johnathan Fields gives a great overview of how Martin Luther King used improvisation in his speech and changed the world.

ADVANTAGES: Great for an overview topic. People may feel more comfortable to ask questions. Good for abstract concepts that are hard to display visually. Excellent for people who like to perform and/or do improv. Can be especially good for a dramatic topic.

DISADVANTAGES: Tends to cover topics too generally. Information can be hard to retain if the lecture goes on too long. Can appear disorganized or unprepared, especially if people ask for details.

Power Point Presentation

Like it or not, the Power Point is a mainstay for presentations. I wish generally that we would not rely on it so much, but so be it. The key to remember is that power point should be a support and not a crutch. However, if you are so nervous about presenting that power point is your crutch, I have a few tips to offer you on the issue.

ADVANTAGES: Great for people with an eye for design. Visuals can really help support the topic if done properly. Easily shared on the Internet. Best option for sharing graphs and charts.

DISADVANTAGES: Waaaay over done. Gets tedious if the visuals are uninteresting; gets distracting if the visuals are overpowering. Appears “salesy” at times due to its prominence in the field of marketing. People ask you for your notes so they don’t have to watch the lecture.

Present Over Sound

It’s not often thought of, but it can be very effective to use sound to illustrate a point. This is the essence of podcasting, in fact, although sound does not have to be digital. If you have your own instrument, that can be even more fun. Take a look at Anna Russell explain Wagner’s Ring using music, for instance:

ADVANTAGES: It is not using powerpoint. Sound is a great way to describe emotions, tension etc. Obviously it is excellent for showing music. It’s an excellent way for musicians to show their talents while making an argument. Very effective with visuals, perhaps removing the need for a script or notes.

DISADVANTAGES: Requires a lot of preparation. Can be distracting to try and speak over a music set. Queues can be missed, causing awkward breaks in the performance.

Q&A

I once did a presentation by simply asking the same question in three different ways. This may seem lazy (and it is) but the reality is that the audience collectively often has much more information and knowledge than the person speaking.

ADVANTAGES: Almost no preparation required. You need an eye for facilitation to ensure as many voices as possible are heard. Crowd wisdom often brings amazing insights.

DISADVANTAGES: Need excellent questions. Always the threat of no one having any thoughts (although this is rare if you are patient). People looking for something unique will often be disappointed. Can come off as overly “new age” or maudlin. You need to be comfortable with a bit of awkward silence.

Structured Alternatives (AKA “Large Group Methods”)

There are a variety of presentation structures that can open the door to more audience participation. Fish Bowls, Talking Circles and World Cafe are some examples, although there can be many more.  These can range from very easy to facilitate (talking circle pretty much just needs a stick or other object to make happen) to very challenging (World Cafe is pretty complex to organize). Either way, they all represent different ways of providing something a little different from lecture-style.

ADVANTAGES: Can be very inspiring. Can open up some voices who otherwise would not want to speak out. Self-coordinating while happening.

DISADVANTAGES: The structures can be a little difficult to explain. Not everyone is free to be honest and open, so these styles can leave them vulnerable. There can be a “musical chairs” kind of effect, so you need to be comfortable with moments of chaos.

So here are six examples of alternative styles of presentations that you can offer your audience. Not everything has to be a power point! What kinds of presentations have you encountered that seemed just a little outside the box?