Many years ago I interned with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, when they were installing computers in public libraries across the US. The job of the interns was to visit all the libraries in our area which had already received installations, and provide maintenance for the computers and supplemental training to the library staff. Since this was back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the internet, the training we offered was really basic, along the lines of Beginning Microsoft Word. I was really inexperienced as a presenter much less as a trainer, so audience management was a little beyond me at that point. I was about to give a presentation on Intermediate Excel at one library when a librarian approached me and explained that she knew next to nothing about computers but wanted to sit in. She said she would keep her questions to herself since she knew she was in over her head, so I agreed to let her participate.
She did not keep her questions to herself. She monopolized my time for the whole presentation, constantly asking me basic questions on subjects that the rest of the audience was already well versed in. It made the presentation really painful for them, and it wasted their time. It was a nice little lesson in managing your audience, as I started to learn how to politely defer her questions as the session progressed. Encountering people like her makes me wonder about the etiquette of participating in something you know nothing about.
This issue reared its head again recently when I attended the annual California Small Farm Conference. Although I’m not a farmer I am fascinated by the agriculture industry and enjoy learning everything I can about it. This is the third year I’ve attended this conference, and I find the programming to be really valuable. I learn a lot about the industry, and I always come away with some little tidbits I can apply on a very small scale on my farmlet.
The audience at the farm conference varies depending on where it’s held. It seems that anytime it’s held within driving distance of a major metropolis it attracts a zillion wanna-bes both young and old. That’s fine, and everyone needs to start somewhere, but it makes the issue of participation etiquette or lack thereof really noticeable. Some of the questions asked during the farm tours and during the workshop sessions were so far below basic they were almost offensive. Offensive because it wastes everyone’s time, and takes time away from other questions from people who are already at the same level as the presenter and want to move on. In some cases it was pretty clear that the people asking those very basic questions did not do any preliminary research or reading, but expect to absorb all the information they need to start a successful, profitable farm from scratch simply by attending a few workshops and networking with each other. As a librarian I completely understand not knowing where to start in your information-gathering process, but then the questions at that point should be a little different. “What resources should I consult to find the information I need?” is very different than asking the presenter to explain their topic plus everything that precedes it. It’s a little bit like that question every librarian has been asked, from people dubious that we need to know anything more than how to use a barcode scanner and date stamp, about what we learned in library school. And we all say sure, I’ll condense my 2 year Master’s degree and internships for you in 15 minutes, no problem, right?
A session I attended on grafting vegetables was one of the best examples of how the wanna-bes hijack the presentations at this particular conference. The presentation and presenter were amazing. Just two years ago I was at a presentation at the Heirloom Exposition on grafted tomatoes, and the presenter told the audience that we would NEVER be able to graft our own vegetables because unlike the relatively simple, easy, and standard practice used on woody plants like fruit trees, the technique for vegetables was far too complicated for the home gardener to master. In this presentation, the presenter walked us through it step-by-step, and then let us go at it with a flat of Green Zebra scion and Ace rootstock. The presenter allowed questions during her presentation, and about halfway through it all went off the rails, when a newbie asked what rootstock is. Then another newbie asked why the industry throws away the top of the rootstock and couldn’t they just plant it out? Then another newbie asked what verticillium wilt is and another newbie asked what roostock the presenter recommended, for nothing in particular. And yeah I know this might not mean anything to you if you know nothing about agriculture, but we were at a farm conference for goodness sakes. In a session on grafting vegetables. Which you really don’t need to attend if you don’t know what verticillium wilt is. The presenter handled it masterfully, but came away with a very skewed perception of the audience and the conference. She kept repeating over and over “oh wow, I really made a lot of assumptions about your level of knowledge, and I’m sorry about that, let me back up…” while half of us are sitting there wishing she’d go faster. We didn’t attend a session on grafting vegetables to find out what rootstock is.
I’m fascinated in a way, by the people who hijack presentations in this manner. It happens in any industry I’m sure, anytime you bring a group of people together to learn something at an intermediate or advanced level. Watching it from the audience makes me very mindful of controlling it as a presenter, although I don’t often get the opportunity to teach to an intermediate crowd. And it makes me appreciative of presenters and teachers who can handle this situation masterfully, as so many of the presenters and moderators at this conference did. I think they’re getting used to that wanna-be crowd.
All gripes aside, the conference was wonderful. Inspiring and fascinating as usual, and I brought home practical knowledge for my farmlet on native habitat for beetles and lizards, grafted tomatoes, leased land, and food processing. I hardly took any pictures since the farm tour day was cold and gloomy, but I did manage to capture the important things: baby lambs, farm cats, a farm studio, fascinating warning labels, interesting interplantings, and purty flowers.