Training As Performance
By Rebecca Engsberg, Quinnipiac University School of Law Library

The LLNE Fall Meeting held in Boston, MA in mid-November was entitled, "As You Learn It or The Librarians' Lesson in Two Acts." The second act consisted of a two-hour presentation, "Training as Performance," presented by Nancy Houfek, Head of Voice & Speech at Harvard's American Repertory Theatre.

Houfek began her presentation by asserting that content is important-but it is not everything, especially highly technical material-like the material librarians often present to patrons, from bibliographic instruction to advanced legal research.

Throughout Act II, Houfek talked about presentations using theatre-related analogies. She began her talk by asserting that many of us are connected in some way to the theatre or performing or making presentations. Houfek demonstrated this connection by asking the audience how many people had ever been in a play or a choir, had played a musical instrument, or had gone to a play.

Houfek likened the general context of making presentations to a theatre context. More specifically, she discussed the concept of stage/theatre space as it related to making presentations. Houfek also discussed how the theatre-related issues of critics, rehearsal, making a connection, choreography, and articulation related to making effective presentations.

In the theatre, an actor's relationship to the audience is like a conduit, where energy flows from one to the other and a good actor connects with the audience. An effective presentation is quite similar, where the presenter connects with the audience. Many factors can hinder that flow. For example, an actor's stage fright is similar to a presenter's fear of being observed. In addition, both an actor and a presenter can also be afraid of silence. However, well-placed silences can be very powerful. Actors and presenters alike can use silence(s) for emphasis, to increase dramatic tension, or to make a point. Houfek further explained that the message (an actor's dramatic line or a presenter's research point) is fundamentally connected to rhythm (or rate) and silences.


Houfek talked about the components of stage/theatre space-set, lighting, props, costume, and sound-from a presentation perspective. When a presenter has control over one or many of these factors, a presenter can manipulate them to increase overall effectiveness. For example, simply changing the set from proscenium (where the audience is arranged in horizontal lines facing the presenter) to thrust (where the audience is arranged in curved horizontal lines directed toward the presenter) often enhances the audience's comfort. Plus, audience members can more easily see each other. To illustrate, at this point in Houfek's presentation, the entire audience actually changed the set in this manner.

She likened critical reviews to student and patron evaluations, as well as self-critiques. When the text is often prescribed (whether a Shakespearean scene or how to use a particular database), the actual content may not change over time. But the presentation of that information can change. A critic might say that the goal is "a new interpretation of a role" with a set text.

Houfek explained that rehearsals and dress rehearsals are indispensable tools on the stage. Likewise, rehearsals and dress rehearsals can be very effective tools for enhancing presentations. Houfek pointed out that actors would not even consider going on stage without rehearsing first. Yet, as librarians who train others, we often make presentations without rehearsing.

She emphasized that the goal of a presentation is to get the information "to land." To demonstrate "landing your point," she carefully tossed an orange to several individuals in the audience (who tossed the orange back).

Houfek stressed that making a connection is vital to landing your point. She discussed several components to making a connection-eye contact, choreography, speech and articulation. She stated the importance of making eye contact with individuals in the audience, rather than merely casting your eyes over the masses. Establishing eye contact with individuals-randomly rather than in a set pattern-can create a sense of dynamic intimacy. Eye contact can help a presenter connect with a group.

Concerning choreography, deliberate movement can help emphasize a point. However, nervous pacing back and forth or continuous wandering can hinder the presentation and make the presenter seem unfocused or uncaring about the topic. Choreography also includes body language (the nonverbal messages conveyed by not standing up straight or keeping your head down). Houfek asked for audience volunteers to demonstrate how effective body language (standing up straight), individual eye contact, projecting one's voice to the back of the room, speaking slowly, and articulating clearly could make a remarkable difference in how the audience perceived presenters. Houfek's advice, condensed into a simple statement: when you begin a presentation, stay in one place, make eye contact, stand up straight and breathe.


Next: Across the Great Divide: III As The Bridge Between Technical and Public Services

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