Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The presenter's ego

Sometimes in my workshops, I'll ask for a member of the audience to join me up front so we can remake a draft message together, with the goal of helping everyone learn that process together. Most of these volunteers are cooperative and willing to get feedback. But recently, in a group of scientists learning how to reframe technical research topics into messages suitable for non-scientists, I ran into a volunteer whose ego got in the way--literally.

"What's your topic?" I asked in front of the crowd.

"Ego," he said.  The group included scientists from many disciplines, but I didn't think I had a research psychologist in the group. "Is that an acronym?"

"No--it's about me, my ego as a presenter," he said, and began to reel off message points about his ego, why he needed it to be strong to be a presenter and why he also needed to keep it in check.

At this point, we were way off topic, and I knew this was an attempt to get attention--he was a climate scientist, and this wasn't about his research.  So after a short acknowledgement that you need a good balance between confidence and humility, I asked him to stand down so that others who wanted to work on the workshop's stated goals could do so.  Later, during the lunch break, a handful of participants came up to me, one by one, to thank me for keeping him from dominating the proceedings--apparently, he's known for grabbing the spotlight in this way.

Here's the conundrum for speakers:  Some would-be speakers lack the confidence to speak at all, some have learned the skills and motivation they need to do so, and yet a third group puts ego front and center, dominating the proceedings.  You've seen this if you've ever heard a speaker use up all the time allotted, go overboard with negative statements, argue back with every questioner, or announce that he's very likely going to go over the time limit because he has so many important things to say.  I've seen big-ego speakers come to panel discussions with bios four times as long as the other participants, or insisting that they get to show three videos in addition to their five-minute talk, when the other speakers are stickinig to the limits.

I often say there are two kinds of clients--those who need to be pushed toward the microphone and those who need to be pulled away from it. There's not much a trainer can do with the latter, unless that speaker is willing to change. Often, speakers with big egos don't seek training, as they don't wish to be challenged.

The downside lies with the audience (which rarely likes to get taken off-topic in such a way) and with other speakers who lack confidence, who may be discouraged or even actually bullied into silence by such a dominant speaker. Those of us who chair, facilitate or moderate panels, meetings and presentations need to stay alert and manage situations before they get out of hand and affect the rest of the audience or the other speakers.  If you work with such a person, a good guide to setting boundaries is Why Is It Always About You? : The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism, a practical guide that will help you learn to spot the big-ego presenter early on.

What do you think about speakers whose egos are on display? Where do you strike the balance between confident and over-confident?

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