Now that I know I’m headed back to Las Vegas for Autodesk University this year, it’s time to pass off some ideas about how to have a successful class. Whether you’re a first timer or an old dawg, you’ve got to understand that presenting at a conference isn’t the same as a regular training class, or presenting to your buddies in the office. So let’s start with a few things that help your classes get high marks.
1. Know Your Audience
If you’re a beginner, intermediate or advanced instructor, this is the most common mistake. Don’t teach symbiotic quantum physics to first year AutoCAD users…and it may sound silly, but keep it simple. You’re not there to impress them with your prowess or command of the English language. You’re there to communicate ideas, instill excitement and passion, and motivate the learner.
The AU crowd, for example is a little different. They’re a highly technical bunch, but they also are in Vegas…yes, Vegas has them now. And in most cases, they have a fairly good understanding of how the tools they’re using work, but are looking for the gems and tips they can’t find in the books or help file. When they signed up for classes, they were looking at your description and skill levels. So whatever you’re teaching, you need to stay in that general playground.
The key is to make sure your topic is something that is valuable to them. Cruise the discussion groups, talk to coworkers and check out the blogs to see what people are looking for. Since you’ve already submitted your class, make sure you tune it as needed so the information is relevant. Even if it’s advanced class, you’ll always get a few lost souls that probably didn’t mean to sign up for your class, but could really benefit from the topic.
If you’re presenting for a first time, it can be daunting. I was so nervous in my first AU class, I kept tripping over the screen stand legs, which unfortunately stuck out about 3 feet in front of the screen (appropriately the class was about interference conditions in AutoCAD MEP). Get out and literally get to know your audience. If all you do is stand in front of the podium, your first contact occurs when you begin to speak. I like to walk around the room, introduce myself, talk to the users, even meet some outside the door (I’ve also been known to take tickets and charge admission…oops, probably shouldn't have said that). Ever notice how it’s easier to talk to friends than a large crowd?
This requires that you make sure you get into your presentation earlier, so have everything setup and ready to go well before the presentation. Make sure the software is open to files you’re using, your presentation is loaded. If you’re speaking at an event where there’s dinner or lunch being served, don’t sit by yourself – or even with friends. Sit at a table with people you don’t know and at least introduce yourself. You’ll find it’s easier to connect with people before the presentation than during.
2. Preparation - Practice, Practice, Practice, Practice, etc.
There’s a big difference between knowing something and owning something. As much as I present, even the same things, it’s still a good idea to go through the presentation – night before, etc. I used a short script prompter, which contains the key points and sections. I leave it on the table where my laptop is, if I’m driving, since this helps me stay on course. But no script keeps you from flubbing if you haven’t gone through everything. I had updated my computer before AU, but didn’t run through the steps in the exercise – my path to the lookup tables for pipe fittings in Revit was wrong…boom – but we turned it into a teaching moment, and showed the class why it broke. That’s rare, but sometimes you have to make quick adjustments. Try standing in front of the mirror – watch your facial expressions, hand movement, body posture – but nothing exudes confidence like owning the material. And never, ever, ever rewrite material the night before. Make sure you deliver exactly what you say you’re going to deliver – set the right expectation for the class.
3. Relevant Topics – Stay on them.
As much as you may want to teach lisp programming that sets layers to an Architecture crowd at AU, that may not be what the crowd is really interested in. Find something that’s current and fresh – don’t dwell on how you did things in the past, unless you’re using it to define context. For example, a great expression is “I used to do this way, but then I learned a better way”. And always credit the person who taught you – it shows humility, and respect.
4. Presentation is everything!
At Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill, in the Bellagio hotel, it’s all about presentation – getting the fries to be fluffed up a specific way so they look enticing. A former co-worker of mine, David Garrigus, was a big inspiration – the ball and chain demo on ACAD 2000 was one of the best. You may have a style, but you can’t rest on it. You can keep the style, but change it up – do something different at every event. I may have fishing videos before the class, but every year I bring different props.
One of the things that drives me nuts is a presenter who hides behind a podium or desk, and doesn’t stop and step out. Engaging the audience is mission critical at an event like AU. You want them to share how you feel about what you’re teaching, but say it a little gently.
We even did the dating game once – but I won’t ever do it again. Judge the response – if it works, tweak it. If it doesn’t, run away from it. Don’t be afraid to ask people what they think – but also don’t be depressed if your presentation gets trashed by one or two people. There’s always a critic that thinks they can do better, or wants a specific presentation. Most important – be yourself.
5. What to do when Things Break Down – and They Will!
Beware – if some disagrees with you, and they will, never trash them or their idea. Say something like, “I hadn’t thought of that, but it sounds interesting.” Many times, and unfortunately, there will be someone in the group that wants to bring you down a notch. Don’t ever play into it – better yet, try to deal with it after the class, and stay on track, so you can finish what you need to cover.
If something crashes, don’t dwell on it – even in a lab, you can still step out, and talk about what you’re trying to accomplish. One of the things I do is keep presentation or lab files saved at critical points, so a user can pick up and keep moving if they get behind, or worse, if something breaks.
And I’m a little superstitious – I always bring two laptops with me, just in case. But Autodesk is great about providing powerful desktop systems that you can use. One of the reasons I get to AU on Sundays is so I can spend time in my labs on Monday, and make sure all of the datasets are current and correct. I don’t recommend trying to customize the AutoCAD or other software on these computers, as not everyone who teaches will share your ideas about how menus suck and keyboard shortcuts are the only way to go. That’s when the dual laptop method works best. All it takes is a little static – and you’re talking about your kids for the next 75 minutes… and getting a crappy score.
To wrap it up, understand that AU is not a traditional training event, so you can’t approach it with the chalk and talk method. Be creative – engage the audience – know your subject – but most of all, have a great time and enjoy the privilege. Not everyone is crazy…excuse me, qualified enough to teach at AU, so make the most of it!
Later - David B.