New ALA Learning Post: Reflections on Co-presenting

Courtesy Flickr user  elisa greco.  CC BY-NC 2.0)

Courtesy Flickr user
elisa greco. CC BY-NC 2.0)

I recently had the pleasure of co-presenting a full day preconference with my wife Suzanne. (The workshop, entitled, “What’s Your Style? 9 Paths to Personal and Professional Development” was based on the Enneagram personality System)  I’ve co-presented with others many times over the past 15 years and strongly believe that, for a number of reasons, co-presenting can be very beneficial and raise the overall quality of the workshop and the experience of the participants.

For starters, if you are co-developing a workshop as well as co-presenting it (which is common), the quality and organization of the material greatly benefits from a joint perspective. With two brains reviewing the content, errors are reduced and points are clarified.  Likewise, the logical sequencing of the content will also be improved.  We all know (probably from some amount of bitter experience) that what is crystal clear and logical to us as presenters, is not always so clear to those we present to.  The benefits of co-developing a workshop are magnified when presenters have different styles, and if you have a choice I encourage you to find someone most unlike yourself to present with.  Be warned that presenting with someone very different can create friction.  But you can choose to reframe that friction by reminding yourself often that the differences which cause friction are the same differences which will improve the quality of your presentation.

Based on my very recent experience in co-preparing and co-presenting with someone who had a VERY different style than me, here are nine reflections on co-preparing and co-presenting a full day workshop.

On Preparing

  1. Play to your strengths: Inevitably, you and your co-presenter will have different strengths. If you don’t know each other well and/or haven’t presented together before, spend some time discussing what each of you does best, and then make an initial plan to divide the duties and tasks based on your strengths.

  2. Set benchmarks.  Assess progress. Reset benchmarks. Working with someone else will generally take more time than working alone.  Also, it’s not uncommon for two people to have very different senses about when certain things need to be done.  For example, I can be cool as a cucumber even when I haven’t finished writing a talk a day before it’s going to be given.  My wife is stressed when she doesn’t have a talk written and practiced two weeks prior.  Setting benchmarks for progress and frequently checking in on progress is a useful way to keep everyone’s stress level down, while moving forward on deliverables at an even pace.

  3. Work separately and together. Schedule Business Meetings. I found great value in coming together with my co-presenter to set goals and deliverables, moving apart to work separately, and then coming back together to review, refine, and integrate each other’s work.  Setting regular business meetings, on a calendar, with an agenda of what you would like to accomplish, goes a long way towards creating a high quality, well-sequenced presentation in a way that is manageable, and not overwhelming.

  4. Have a Full Dress Rehearsal. No matter how good your lesson plan is, you WILL find problems and areas for improvement during a full dress rehearsal.  Better to find them during rehearsal then during the actual presentation.  ‘Nuff said.

  5. Mind your version control and coordinate backups. My wife and I used a shared dropbox folder to share all materials.  She could see and revise what I was working on and vice-versa.  On the off-chance that dropbox disappeared overnight, I also had our home computer backing up to an external hard-drive.   When all documents and powerpoints were finalized, I put one complete set of everything on three laptops (two were mine, one was my wife’s) and also put a complete set on two flash drives, one for me and one for her.  When we made the inevitable last minute changes, I made sure to update in dropbox and refresh all backup copies accordingly.  Being the least detail-oriented person in the world, I’m also the one to overcompensate the most when necessary!

On Presenting

  1. Set Ground rules with each other. It is possible that you and your co-presenter have different ideas about what is appropriate behavior when one is presenting and the other isn’t.  One of the biggest areas of possible conflict involves whether or not it is ok to interject, correct, or otherwise interrupt your partner while they are presenting.  One of the great values of co-presenting is that your partner is well-positioned to read the facial expressions and body language of participants and is likely to be more cued in to times when participants are confused, and in need of clarification.  For that reason, I encourage everyone that co-presents to open themselves to the interjections of their presenting partners, and allow for a free back-and-forth regardless of who has the floor.  Additionally it is good for each presenter to….

  2. Have complete copies and understanding of each other’s script and materials. Having complete copies of each other’s scripts (and/or outlines, and/or key points) can greatly increase the quality of the presentation for two reasons:  1) It ensures that no highly relevant points are forgotten or glossed over (if they are, your co-presenter can either alert you or interject.) and 2) It frees each presenter up from having to memorize or read excessively directly from notes.  It frees us up to make more eye contact, speak more naturally and conversationally, and connect more deeply with the audience, because we know we have a safety net of sorts; our co-presenter won’t let anything important get missed.

  3. Leave specific timing off of the participant agenda and modify timing/content on the fly. I suppose this could go under “Preparing” too…  I highly recommend having a few versions of how the actual presentation can play out–a few different agendas that you share with your co-presenter but not with participants.  Additionally, it is good to have additional modules (activities) and content that you don’t necessarily plan to use, but could slot in depending on timing (if you’re running short) or the interest of the participants.  When my wife and I recently co-presented, we noted on our private agenda where certain portions could be expanded or moved, and where other modules that we had “in the can” could be inserted.  Throughout the day we adjusted our presentation.  The participant agenda was worded broadly, and only noted beginning, ending, and lunch times, which allowed us to keep to their agenda while making significant adjustments to ours along the way.

  4. Restrain yourselves from talking too much.  My growth as a presenter over the past few years has been to present less, and facilitate more.  When I present, especially when I present on a topic that I’m passionate and knowledgeable about, I want to cram 20 hours of material into 8 hours of workshop.   A few years ago Dr. Marie Radford shared some invaluable feedback with me after I guest lectured for her.  In a nutshell, she said, “Less is more.”  She advised me to cut, cut, cut the material, and spend more time talking with the students and less time talking at them.  She suggested I give them the concepts and then invite them to reflect and discuss, and in that way the learning would be grounded in their own experience.   So I pass along Marie’s helpful advice, as it becomes doubly tempting with two presenters to, well, present!  Be extra mindful to structure your presentation in such a way as to present the key concepts, and then allow the participants to speak, question, reflect, challenge, and discuss — even if that means you don’t cover everything.  (That’s what handouts are for!  And websites.)

I firmly believe that a co-presented workshop — especially a full-day workshop — has the potential to be better organized, more complete and nuanced, and more engaging than a workshop presented solo.  Yes, it’s likely going to be more work for you (if you’re counting the hours and minutes of prep time), but it is also an opportunity for you to learn from someone with a different style, a different knowledge base, and a different viewpoint.  Ultimately, preparing and presenting a workshop with another person can be an engaging and rewarding experience for all involved, and I encourage everyone to give it a try!