IT Career JumpStart

Oct 21 2009   2:39PM GMT

A New Age Guide to IT Presentation Skills?

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

About two months ago, I got a very nice letter from Adrienne Lang, a marketing associate at boutique publisher BenBella Books in Dallas, TX. She recommended one of her books to me for review in this blog, and described it as follows:

In The Broadband Connection, Alan Carroll offers his proven strategies in this fresh and innovative, step-by-step guidebook. I’m confident in saying that it’s the only book and one of the only sources anywhere on presenting and speaking written for IT professionals.

Broadband Connection

Front cover: Broadband Connection

As a long-time IT presenter myself (I made my living for 4 of the 7 years I worked at Novell as a “talking head” briefing high-level customers around the world, and have taught IT classes for Novell, Interop, the Internet Security Conference, and off and on at Austin Community College for the past 15 years) I was both curious and interested to learn more about what Mr. Carroll had to offer. But although Ms. Lang sent me the book more or less instantly (I think it came one week after she offered to send it to me), it’s taken me some time to get around to reading it from cover to cover.

Here, after some delay, is my review. Allen Carroll is obviously a gifted presenter himself, and understands very well how to teach others to develop their presentation skills. That said, I found this book to contain a sometimes baffling mixture of New Age philosophy and hard-boiled presentation skills, tips, and techniques. I’m guessing that Mr. Carroll gets his inspiration and insight from his New Age philosophers and sages (he quotes regularly from Werner Erhard, Eckhard Tolle, Ramakrishnan, and even Albert Einstein, throughout the book). And because it informs his world view and understanding of what it means to present to an audience, especially in terms of establishing rapport, making genuine communication occur, and checking in through a variety of means with attendees to make sure messages are received and understood, he also seeks to impart much of that information to his readers so that they, presumably, can put these same insights and philosophies to work in making IT presentations.

My biggest beef with the book is the way he uses technical concepts as metaphors for interpersonal communications and interaction. For example, he talks about IT presenters who focus only on dumping their knowledge bases in front of an audience without regard to their needs, reactions, or uptake as operating via a 56 Kbps connection. By contrast, a more enlightened presenter who can intersperse nuggets of useful, relevant information (communication packets that use voice, data, and video) between pauses and interpersonal interactions (space packets, which include outright pauses, body checks, agenda checks, audience observation and responses, and so forth) operates at a broadband connection level of interaction. He refers to making eye contact with audience members as establishing a VPN link to them, and talks about the personal and cultural preconceptions of reality and identity that prevent presenters from opening up fully to their audiences as a firewall from which bricks must be removed to facilitate freer, more open communication between a presenter and his audience.

I get what Mr. Carroll is saying, and I appreciate his enthusiastic and insightful attempts to move his readers from a dry, disconnected, monotone interaction with the audience to a more enagaging, active, and interactive presentation style (and philosophy). There’s a great deal of useful information in this book, especially when it comes to teaching presenters that what they themselves know is of relatively little value, but what they can impart to (and learn from) the audience is of great worth.

If you read this book you’ll find it full of useful tips and tricks for managing a presentation, working with an audience, learning how to read and react to an audience, working with resistance and difficult questions, and more. But you’ll have to plow through a lot of New Age rhetoric about overcoming fear, opening yourself up to the world, abandoning your needs and preconceptions, and so forth to find that information. If you like this kind of thing, or at least it doesn’t bother you very much, you’ll find this book both interesting and informative. On the other hand, if you prefer to steer clear of deep psychological insights and the occasional bit of mystical mumbo-jumbo, this book might just drive you up the wall.

As a former academic anthropologist with a minor in cognitive psychology, I found it fascinating myself, not least because Carroll turns subject matter related to perception and presentation of self in everyday life into an interesting and challenging toolset to remake oneself as a more fully engaged IT presenter (and hopefully also, a more well-rounded human being). It came as absolutely no suprise to me that Carroll is described in the promo copy for the book as a transpersonal psychologist — that’s clearly the tradition upon which he draws for this book, and the milieu that he inhabits. Here’s my final assessment: if you want some coaching from a man who obviously understands the interpersonal dynamics about making good, effective presentations, you can get some value from this book. But if you’re looking for a book for IT presenters by a practiced IT presenter himself, this probably isn’t what you’re after. But for a mere $10.47 (list price from the publisher, not including S&H) it may still be worth taking a flyer anyway (if you don’t like it, you can always give it one of your more touchy-feely comrades down the hall or a few cubes over).

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