Presenters and Participants: Keeping in Sync at the Mind Spa
by Ruthie Iida.
As an EFL teacher, I listen to, guide, correct, challenge, question, encourage, and console young learners on a daily basis. My mission is to both provide rich input and help equip and inspire my students to produce their own output. With all that in and out-putting, how do I recharge my batteries after a particularly intense class? Well, I don’t. Like many other teachers, I plow through stolidly until the door closes behind the very last student of the day. Then I check the bathroom for stray students before allowing myself to flop down on a chair and let out the tension I’ve been holding in.
And that is why I relish conferences. They provide mental refreshment and spiritual sustenance (as in, “Yippee! Like-minded people, and I don’t have to teach them! I can listen and learn, offer ideas, and collaborate! They will understand me! Sure, I’m nerdy, but they are, too!”). I think of an ELT conference as a spa for the mind: frustration drains out and inspiration soaks in. Accordingly, I always set off on the day of a conference with high expectations, anticipating an interesting speaker or an insight that could be the key to a problem I’m mulling over. And I go with the intent of relaxing my guard and relinquishing my authority. I expect participants to behave themselves so that I can sit back and focus on taking incisive notes with my dazzling array of color pens; I also expect presenters to be sensitive to their audience as well as properly prepared. When both participants and presenters are in sync, the room buzzes with positive energy and real learning takes place.
By “in sync”, I mean working together to create a dynamic atmosphere. Since many conference participants have also been presenters and all presenters have most probably been participants, they should have a mutual understanding that facilitates their interaction. When the presenter and his or her audience engage with each other, there’s a sense of forward momentum that ensures boredom will not set in. On the other hand, when one or both sides fails to notice and respond to the other, a presentation remains static. Assuming that a dynamic presentation is the ideal, here are two things to keep in mind.
Participants: Rivet your attention!
It’s hard to be standing in front of a room full of people. Audience participants can make things easier for the speaker in many ways; for instance, if the room isn’t full, move to the front. There’s nothing more demotivating than speaking to a handful of people who are far removed from the podium. Close proximity between speaker and listeners creates an intimacy that makes it more difficult for either side to disengage. If the room is full, behave as if it isn’t. In other words, don’t assume that checking your mail or texting a friend will go unnoticed in the crowd. Give the speaker your full attention. Good speakers are constantly scanning the room; they draw energy directly from their listeners, so make eye contact and respond naturally to what’s being said. The more participants backchannel by responding visibly or audibly, the more encouraged and enthusiastic speakers naturally become.
Presenters: Take your cue from the audience!
You know that feeling of trying to stifle a yawn that really wants to break loose? At a seminar two years ago, I was trying in vain to stay attentive after sitting for a full hour. The effort must have shown on my face, because the lecturer suddenly stopped short and said, “I think we all need a little break. Let’s stand up and move around – you all have been great listeners today and I really appreciate it.” What a sweetheart: rather than pushing through till the end of his lecture, he took his cue directly from the faces of the participants. We all stood up and after a good stretch and a drink of water, our wilted backbones perked up straight again. This lecturer knew his material well enough to be able to focus on his listeners as well as his notes. When it’s our turn to be speakers, we too need to be well-prepared and flexible enough to spontaneously adapt to situations that might arise. We may have a specific body of knowledge that we’re determined to convey, but determination alone won’t make that possible.
The bottom line is mutual awareness and mutual respect. Participants are responsible for respecting presenters not only because they are “experts” but because they are human beings who have invested time and effort to share their knowledge. Likewise, many participants are also experts in their field and have invested time and effort to get to the conference venue for the day in the interest of professional advancement and collaboration with fellow teachers and scholars. Both presenters and participants often have children they could have been playing with or tests that still need to be graded. In other words, everyone deserves to be treated well and everyone benefits from working together to make a conference successful. Stay in sync and enjoy your day at the mind spa that a conference can be!