My worst policy presentations

Okay, so this should really be filed under “how not to”.

In class this week, we’re tackling the challenge of effectively communicating our fantastic policy ideas to elected officials, potential coalition allies, opinion leaders, agency bureaucrats.

To a large extent, it’s easy to overstate the importance of the policy presentation, as a finite act. Really, influencing how people think and talk about a particular social problem is an organizing challenge; people are much more likely to change their approach to a given issue based on their relationships with others than even the most cogent presentation of facts. So, I guess, that’s kind of lesson #1–what you do in all of the time outside of the presentation is way more important than what you do with that time. For many of the people to whom you are to present, who you are and who you know are still much more persuasive than what you say.

But, still, I’ve certainly seen minds changed based on legislative testimony or even a really compelling written presentation of facts, and it’s also certainly true that there is a lot of ambivalence among the general public and even our more targeted audiences about the issues with which we grapple as a society, and you have an opportunity with every policy presentation to elevate your perspective and move someone off the fence and firmly into your camp.

But, since my students and I will spend time this week looking at examples of policy presentations and talking about what makes different types succeed, and since there is so much anxiety about any kind of policy presentation that involves ‘oral arguments’ (why is it that putting our writing forward isn’t as scary? In some ways, I think it should be more so, because it’s there, staring at us, in near-perpetuity!), I have dedicated this particular post to:

My Five Biggest, Most Disastrous, Missed Opportunity, Worst-All-Time Policy Presentations

I’ve tried to pull out some lessons from each of these debacles, and it is my hope that readers will not only gain some insights from my failures but also be emboldened and encouraged to hear about the spectacular ways in which I have, well, flamed out. AND, I’d especially love it (and be very grateful!) if anyone would be willing to share a lesson learned from a presentation gone bad of their own, too. It’s all for my students’ learning, here, people!

Here they are, yes, in reverse order of awfulness. I’ve saved the best/worst for last:

5. Stunted Expectations
One of my biggest failures may have looked like a success. I gave a public presentation in Garden City, Kansas on the need for comprehensive immigration reform. My presentation was well-attended and well-received, and almost everyone there signed the postcards to Congress calling for progressive immigration legislation. So, what was the problem? Well, several, actually. Most significantly, I totally failed to tailor the presentation to the audience; I had been on a circuit around the state for a week, giving essentially the same speech, and so I failed to account for Garden City’s unique history and political tradition regarding immigrant inclusion. I should have asked much more–organize events in the city, do delegations to their elected officials, perhaps become part of the New Sanctuary Movement. It was also a perfect (missed) opportunity to try out some of my harsher critiques of the status quo; instead, what was nearly revolutionary in some communities sounded tepid in Garden City.
My diagnosis? Laziness, timidity, and forgotten context watered down my message for this audience and, as a result, I missed the chance to turn supporters into activists, passive believers into active campaigners, and the committed into a powerful leadership. We can’t be guilty of expecting too little from those to whom we present.

4. The Wrong Messenger
This failure felt wrong from the moment I agreed to do it, and it just kept feeling wrong. I was invited by a high school in Topeka to talk to a large group of immigrant students about higher educational opportunities, Kansas’ new instate tuition law, and leadership/advocacy. And I totally should have said, “no.” See, this is exactly the kind of thing that the immigrant young people who led the effort to pass the instate tuition law should have done themselves; who better to inspire other high school students than high school students? And, yet, maybe because it was during the school day, or maybe because I knew I’d already be in Topeka, or maybe because, after so many days of talking to hostile audiences, it sounded kind of fun to go to be thanked for the work…I said, “yes.”
And, it was okay; I mean, they were awesome students and excited about the new law, and they had some great ideas for how to advance organizing in their own community. But all of that just reinforced to me how it could have been wonderful, and, instead, wasn’t, because I took the easy way out and put my own considerations ahead of the cause’s. Would it have been more work to manage the logistics of getting permission for one of the student leaders to miss school and blah, blah, blah? Sure. But it would have lived my values of empowerment, and helping people speak for themselves. And it would have worked a lot better, too.

3. Round Peg/Square Hole
I’m including this one to demonstrate that I have even spectacularly failed in policy presentation in multiple languages and in more than one country! I had been asked to be on a panel at the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras conference. I was to speak for 20 minutes about the prospects for immigration reform and workers’ rights in the United States, in Spanish, with simultaneous translation into English. I prepared my remarks, but, when the day of the panel arrived, the organizers told me that I’d actually only have 10 minutes, because the conference was running late. And that’s where the problems started. To try to fit in everything, I raced through, barely noticing the reaction of the translators in the back of the room. Soon, one actually left the booth, waving her arms frantically over her head. I was speaking so quickly that they couldn’t keep up; some of the attendees had absolutely no idea what I was saying, and I was probably losing many of the others with my rapid pace.
And, while I admit that I still speak quickly, far too quickly at times, this experience (and its humiliation) stayed with me; when presenting, especially orally, we have to know exactly what the parameters are, and never assume that we’re above the rules. The most profound of our remarks won’t have any impact if people aren’t around anymore to hear them, or if they’re said unintelligibly, or if the dominant message is that we’re inconsiderately disregarding the needs of those around us. And pay attention to body language and feedback cues from your audience. Nodding heads are good. People flagging you down is usually a very, very bad sign.

2. Totally Blindsided
So I actually did quite well on this one. My testimony fit exactly within the time limit and covered all of the key points, and I had great delivery, and…it really didn’t matter at all. Because I forgot that, sometimes, it’s what everyone else says that counts a lot more. This was a hearing on our bill that would restore undocumented immigrants’ access to driver’s licenses, a right that was stripped in 2000, nearly restored in 2001, and then definitively halted after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, out of national security concerns. I thought that I had done everything right for this hearing, in January 2004. Our bill had cleared the House the year before and was now in the Senate. The Judiciary Committee Chairman supported it, as did several of the members, with whom I had already spoken. I had lined up a strong list of supporters: faith groups, law enforcement officers, two eloquent immigrant leaders, an insurance agent…it looked very solid. It snowed more than 6 inches the night before, but we still had about 1000 people in Topeka to show their support. As proponents, our testimony went well. And, then.
Things first went bad when the final person to speak as a proponent was the one person on our side with whom I hadn’t spoken in advance. His argument still rings in my ears: part of it was, verbatim, that “Hispanics are having more babies than white people so, watch out, we’re going to take over.” Um, can you say “opposite of what we wanted to say?” Lesson that, sometimes, even your ‘friends’ can hurt you, if you haven’t done the work in advance. But, still, if it had just been that, we probably could have rebounded.
There was just one opposing testimony. From a father…whose son was killed in the Twin Towers. Now, I’m sorry for his loss. Obviously. As was everyone else in the room, which went silent when he began to speak. But I so wish I knew then what I found out about 5 minutes after leaving the hearing, which is that he was actually a representative of a group affiliated with the anti-immigrant Federation for American Immigration Reform. We had, in fact, already done a lot of work discrediting FAIR within the Kansas Legislature, but I was totally unprepared for this conferee, and, so, even later, my efforts to clarify and explain to our media contacts and friendly legislators were the classic “too little, too late.” Even the Chair whispered to me on the way out the door, “I don’t think we can save this.”
We have to acknowledge that we don’t set the agenda and often can’t control the conversation. That means that any successful policy presentation must include intelligence-gathering on those who oppose our understanding of the social problem and our strategy to solve it. Our message should not simply react to this opposition, but it must account for it, diffuse it, and effectively counter it. Otherwise, you’ll be like me, listening in shock as everything I said was completely wiped from the minds of my audience, and even my friends shook their heads in disbelief.

1. You Can’t Convince Everyone, and Sometimes You Shouldn’t Try
So I promised a real nightmare for this last one. One year, I agreed to do a call-in show on a conservative talk radio program about immigrants’ rights. It was on a Saturday morning–my birthday!–at 8AM. So that sets the stage. Now, I’d done my research, and I knew that this host and his listeners were quite hostile to my position, but I had a lot of faith in my persuasive abilities, or something. Anyway, I dutifully called in.
I was, of course, defeated from the beginning; the host was deliberately rude to me, refused to let me finish a sentence, distorted the few words I managed to get in, and, then, after about 15 minutes, directed his listeners to “call in and tell me if this is the stupidest person we’ve ever had on this radio show or not.” Seriously.
Either my Protestant guilt or sheer shock kept me on the phone, long past when I should have just hung up. The only redeeming moment was when one woman called in to say, “no, I think there was someone stupider on once,” but then the host talked her into conceding that I was, in fact, “actually way stupider than that guy.”
Easy lesson from this one, of course: there are many people who may be receptive to at least parts of our messages of social justice, especially when we couch them in the language of shared values and common aspirations. And we shouldn’t shy away from controversy or be afraid to debate.
We should also not allow ourselves to be exploited by those who have no interest in truth or dialogue, especially when we’ll be so baited that we may, actually, do something that could turn off potential allies. Or, when there are much better things we could be doing with our time: organizing our “choirs”, so that they’ll actually “sing”; honing our messages; researching our policy alternatives; reaching out to those undecided middles; or, even, celebrating our birthdays.

Your turn–please share lessons learned from your own policy presentations gone bad. Really. It will make me feel better.

41 responses to “My worst policy presentations

  1. I do not have any policy presentations yet to have gone badly, but I will definitely think of this post when I do. I especially loved this paragraph:

    “Either my Protestant guilt or sheer shock kept me on the phone, long past when I should have just hung up. The only redeeming moment was when one woman called in to say, ‘no, I think there was someone stupider on once,’ but then the host talked her into conceding that I was, in fact, ‘actually way stupider than that guy.'”

    I thought these would all be similar to #1, presentations that I think one typically thinks of as “bad.” But I like how even seemingly positive presentations should be considered, maybe not “bad,” but less than good. The Garden City experience especially struck me, as I think if I had only heard about the actual presentation and the facts (such as people signing postcards etc.) I would have considered it a success. But it is very true that we should strive to not only help people understand the issue, but to take the issue on themselves. I am slowly learning how difficult it truly is to break down all the barriers people have set up for themselves to not take part in the policy conversation. Just today I was talking to my field instructor about how hard it was to even convince some directors of the Area Agency on Agings to take part in the conversation. Only recently have they started to educate themselves on advocacy and the need to help their clients advocate for themselves on a state and national level. I think the need has been stepped up with the cuts to the budget and services.

    • I have not had the opportunity to give very many presentations in my educational career. It was more common in high school but then became rare in undergrad and graduate. This has never made sense to me because in my professional experience it is often presentations and public speaking as a way to share an idea or demonstrate something to other staff members. You would thing professors would be aware of this and encourage opportunities to strengthen student’s presentation and oral speaking skills.

      Thank you for sharing your challenging moments. I found your ‘failures’ or challenging presentations to be comforting because many of the experiences you had were issues I get anxious over. In the past when I have given presentations I tend to speak very quickly and am hard to understand. I will plan to work on this skill throughout my lifetime.

      I wonder during these examples how quickly were you able to reflect and realize that things felt wrong? Was it instantaneous for most of the examples you shared? No matter the time of the reflection, I think it is wonderful that you are able to take time to reflect so you can improve things for the future.

      • That’s a great question, Darcy. I would say that, in most cases, I knew pretty much right away that things hadn’t gone well, from feedback from the audience, or from my own sense of how I had missed my expectations for how I wanted it to go. That doesn’t mean that I had clarity about exactly what I needed to do differently, necessarily, but at least a sense that improvement was needed, yes. We can’t hit the right notes all the time, but we owe it to ourselves and, most importantly, those we serve, to continually assess how we are working to improve the policy structures that affect their lives, and how we could be more effective in those efforts.

      • Trinity Carpenter

        I appreciate your post. This made me sit in how fortunate I was to participate in the many programs that afforded me opportunities to present, educate and facilitate all while attending conferences as an undergraduate and graduate. The experiences provided were essential and has provided me so much growth in my oral speaking abilities. Most people do not know this, but I once was terrified of public speaking. I had dropped the course three times during my academic career due to every time the course got to the presenting portion I would balk. I was again fortunate to get an amazing professor for public speaking that explained state anxiety and gave me tools to cope with my anxiety specific to presenting to strangers. He then challenged me to participate in the Linkugel speech competition, this is the first time I saw the subject of my speech move people in the audience. He would always tell me “:Trinity what you have to say is too important for you not to cultivate your speaking abilities…don’t you want to be impactful?” I am grateful for the investment and mentor-ship but still struggle to be the advocate I envision.

  2. My worst presentation was my very first speech. I was in college, and a required course was communication. I had no self confidence going into college, and it showed with that first speech. I had to write a speech on someone very important to me and why. Sounds simple enough. I wrote down notes and practiced in front of mirrors. When it was my day to go, I got up there, lost my nerve, read everything from the cards, kept my head down, and took a seat.
    Although it was terrible, it taught me a great deal. It taught me that I wanted to get better at speeches, and that I wanted to get over my fear of speaking out in class. I made little goals for myself, and I feel that I do much better today.
    I really liked the blog. It really teaches you that it isn’t all about the delivery and presentation. There are always ways in which we can do better. I really liked that you included so many suggestions on how you can make a speech better for a particular audience, because I think those are things we could all improve from.

    • Yes Emily, I agree it is very important to set goals for presentations. They might include (as Melinda proved) a need to change the speed of your presentation, or your tone, if you are not being well received. Practice makes perfect, and through Melinda’s transparency (I never would have guessed she failed at anything) we are able to realize that no one is perfect and that through our failures we learn.

  3. Well this made my Sunday afternoon! My worst presentation ever happened in my first policy class as an undergrad. I do not remember what the topic was, but I will never forget my team members. We were a assigned group of five in which only four members actually participated. The fifth member of the group never replied to group emails and was rarely in class. She in fact was missing for half the semester and upon her return claimed that she had been in the hospital and suffered memory lost. Great. Instead of being kind and considerate social work students, we wrote her off. First we attempted to have the professor remove her from our group, but he would not due to an unknown reason. So we completely ignored her lack of participation. Then on presentation day she asked me if there was anything we needed her to say, I said no. After the presentation was complete, we fielded questions and wrapped up. During the discussion portion she began answering questions with the phrase “our research has shown,” turned out she was a research assistant to our professor. The rest of the group, myself included, looked like complete fools for not using her in our presentation. She was by far the most infurarating person I have ever worked with, however we should have taken the time to understand her issues and worked with them. Instead we looked completely ignorant and I doubt that anyone even remembered our presentation. Heck, I don’t even remember it now, but I do remember how stupid we appeared. That is not the type of impression you want to leave on anyone, especially in policy. Lesson learned: Know and utilize your team members.

    • Wow, Leah. Thank you so much for sharing that story! It is another great lesson! It’s hard when you’re trying to manage people and personalities, in addition to information, especially on a tight timeline. But that story is a perfect reminder of why it’s important. I hope that the rest of your group members took the same things to heart. I wish that your instructor had provided some more support to you, in terms of how to overcome those obstacles and coalesce as a group. It’s a reminder, too, of why our clinical skills are always important, as ‘macro’ as our practice may be!

  4. Policy gone bad???? Well, I don’t think I have a story about a stereotypical policy. I do have a story which may or may not make you feel better. I am ashamed because I went against what I might call my own policy.
    My wife and I just got done stuffing our faces at the Denny’s in Manhattan, KS. I was in line waiting to pay the bill. There was an old WWII veteran in front of me who asked if there was a military discount. The lady behind the register said, “sorry only active duty military.” The old vet proceeded to say he had served over 20 years in the military…..but the lady was kinda rude and before he was finished she waved him off. I’m not sure if I was just stuffed so much that I wasn’t thinking right but I did not step in to advocate for this guy. Looking back I should have. I have yet to experience that situation again, but if I do, I will do things differently.

    • It’s an important point, Josh, that sometimes the most important ‘policy presentations’ we make are those that happen on the fly, so to speak…not rehearsed efforts to convince someone of our opinion, but, instead, standing up for someone or against an injustice. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  5. Kelsey Pfannenstiel

    It is hard to think that you have given a bad presentation as I am always amazed at your knowledge and flow in class! I haven’t given many presentations but a few months back I was giving a 20-30 minute presentation about one of our programs in a small, rural senior center and had given the presentation a time or two before and felt fairly comfortable… However, I wasn’t prepared for the questions after just about every sentence! They caught me off guard and the it was just downhill from there! I left out several important points of a program I know like the back of my hand! Reminded me I can’t take for granted the information I know… It is always good to prepare and have a way to either delay the questions until the end or be comfortable going on the fly! Thank you for sharing your flubs to help us all learn and know we aren’t alone!

    • Yes, Kelsey–and the structure of the presentation matters, and we need to feel comfortable ‘taking control’ of the format, so that our information can get through (which, after all, is what most people want–it’s relatively rare for us to be attacked by those who truly want to sabotage!). It’s my goal to make everyone feel better about your presentation attempts–glad it worked!

  6. Although I have not done a policy presentation, I automatically knew of a time when I was presenting at training and several of these things plagued me. As part of our multi-disciplinary team, we felt that it would be beneficial to hold a training regarding how all disciplines who are first responders to child abuse could work together more efficiently together. Members of the training were presenting were our advocacy center, detectives from various jurisdictions, medical providers, the county attorney and us. This was a one day training that was over two days, and my supervisor was going to assist me the first day then I was on my own the second. Well it happened that she was sick the first day, so I was on my own and under prepared for this. It was also the first training I had done with the other disciplines. I remember as it started wondering if I would even be able to speak with the room full of law enforcement, school counselors and nurses who were eager to debate how this process would not work. I scrambled to go over the information that I was handing out in more detail to feel more prepared. I felt that as the day went on it became better but the initial anxiety of not being prepared, comfortable and sure I could answer the questions left me feeling like I was in over my head. I now will not commit to a project without feeling comfortable enough to talk about the topic on my own and being able to fully prepare before presenting. It was a great learning experience and actually went well despite how I felt.

    • Preparation is key in presenting, Bryn, as in so many things! Sometimes it can help to diffuse a fraught environment, when we are honest about some circumstance out of our control that is conspiring to make us less prepared than we would like to be, but, still, there is no way to get around people’s feelings that their time is being wasted if we’re not 100% ready to go. It sounds like your experience could have been a lot worse, considering!

  7. From the sounds of the last presentation, I can only assume you were on the Michael Savage or some other shock jock radio show! Though I can almost feel the disappointment you had over the show, I’d have a hard time imaging that there weren’t some people out there that critically thought about what you said. From what little I understand of radio (one of my past teachers was a radio personality), many producers intentionally hold back or introduce certain callers so that, ultimately, it is the host that wins out – its their radio program after all, they can’t be wrong!

    As for me, I remember doing a policy presentation on diffusing ageism and increasing the desire for new social workers to go into the field of aging. Looking back now, I believe we simply chose the wrong audience. Or, at the very least, should have tailored the presentation somewhat differently It was a two semester long, group project that took a considerable amount of work. We thought of everything; from introducing facts in an entertaining way to keeping people engaged through interesting activities and discussions which involved candy! We had input from a very influential professor on the field of aging. We even thought to change our group format for the comfort of the audience. Our group was originally four, but seeing as we would be speaking to classes of 20ish, we decided to only have two speakers giving each presentation so as to lower the amount of people up front. We also designed some surveys so that we could measure feedback after everything was said and done. Long story short, the presentation went okay enough, but we were no where near prepared enough for their questions on the specifics of finding jobs as it was not our intention. Try as we may, us not having the answers (other then some helpful advice on where they might start looking) seemed to sour the mood and it showed heavily on our feedback forms with multiple people stating that the presentation felt lacking because of us not directly addressing jobs, I guess it just goes to show that, even when we’re as prepared as we can be, there may just be a curve ball thrown your way.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience, Kevin. Yes, it’s impossible to predict everything that your audience will want, and, when it’s a really core expectation that is unmet, it can really color people’s reception to your information. It sounds like you did a lot ‘right’, and I’m sure that some of the information did get through, but, certainly, when your audience is listening through a veil of a lot of anxiety about finding a job, that’s going to interfere with what they can really ‘hear’. Addressing that emotional context is difficult, but it can be important.

  8. I once again find the irony in this blog due to my recent insights from another blog regarding advocacy and tailoring to your audience. Honestly, it appears that most of the situations where we seem to have presentation “failures” center around our audience and how the material is delivered.

    My personal experience with public speaking has been one of ups and downs. After reflecting on Melinda’s hardships, along with my own public speaking triumphs and woes, I note some key components. In reality not only is it your ability to understand and tailor to your audience, it is also the ability to accurately make those observations. I think Melinda put it best when she said her accidental mistake was putting her own considerations “ahead of the cause” (example #4, the “wrong messenger”). More often than not our own thoughts and feelings can our biggest limitations, simply because they cloud judgement and can weaken reason.

    At it’s core, public speaking can be an empowering tool, but also one that leaves you feeling vulnerable and even “stupid.” When I reflect on my worst presentation failures, I am reminded of the day I panicked and gave my 10 minute well-prepared speech in less than 3 minutes, or the first time I presented to a group at a psychiatric hospital and did not account for the diverse types of special needs within the group dynamic. Both situations rendered me feeling totally defeated and completely out of control both situations. It’s hard to re-group and bounce back after you’ve lost your audience (as Melinda can attest too). This can be particularly true when they are peers and/or clients that you continue to work with post-presentation failure.

    The unfortunate ramifications of failed presentations, particularly within policy work, can resonate and cause harm for years. However, it can be a negative perspective such as that, that can limit yourself and future work. Sometimes the best you can do is hold your head high and try something different in the future. Although I still struggle at times, I now know not to take myself too seriously.

    • I love that distinction, Ariel–that just knowing that we have to gauge our audience isn’t enough; we also need to get over ourselves enough that we are accurate in our discernment. And, yes, it’s true that our presentation failures can echo for years, although, of course, it’s also true that remaining silent when we need to be out and part of the debate can leave just as deep a mark. Thank you for your comment!

  9. My worst policy presentation was at the Governors Public Health Conference. I was scheduled to co-present with a Ph.D. from the Center for Community Support and Research who is highly respected in the community and throughout the state of Kansas. Unfortunate events took place and she was unable to attend the conference and thought that I could handle the event on my own or, if desired, with the security of my supervisor. We were to present on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and its connection to chronic illness in adulthood to public health professionals. We dedicated months to preparation and alone I “studied” and rehearsed my portion of the material that I would present at the conference until the morning of. This was my downfall. There were soooo many things that went wrong that afternoon, but the things that stood out to me forced me to confront issues related to confidence in my professional knowledge, skill and ability; acknowledging that I cannot nor will I always “reach” everyone; and that it is important to be able to survey and know your audience and how to prepare in advance to learn who they are and what they care about so that you can tailor your introduction and discussion to who they are.
    Confidence: The first thing I think I did wrong was introduce myself as a MSW student and I believe this lessened my credibility as an “expert” in ACEs and Trauma-Informed Care (TIC). It didn’t help that the Ph.D. couldn’t make it, and I believe that this might have contributed to the loss of our audience as well. What do two social workers know about public health and implementing TIC into it (even the seasoned LMSW, but especially the mere student that co-presented with her)? I knew the material and had been told on more than one occasion that I know it better than the staff and superiors that trained me, but in my nervousness and eagerness to give a perfect presentation, I relied too heavily on my notes by reading from them and spoke way too fast. In this, I failed to connect with the audience and from there we lost them.
    Reach: It’s a hard lesson to learn; I’m still trying to accept it…but I at least understand intellectually that you cannot reach everyone no matter how powerful your presentation may be; regardless of the content or your charisma; even if the message is very much needed…people have their own interests, expectations and other things may impact their choice to buy-in to what we’re advocating or not. I was so upset about this failure that I wanted to do a public rebuke of all conference attendees and let them know how stupid and uncaring they were to disregard our message about the importance of making the connection between ACEs and chronic illness so they could adapt their policies and procedures to begin addressing patients’ issues from the root. When catalysts can acknowledge and accept that you can’t win ‘em all and become able to appreciate the people who are “won,” then change is sure to come and you will be able to realize the true meaning and power behind your advocacy practices.
    Connection: We must learn how to prepare in advance to learn who our audience is and what they care about so that we may tailor our introduction and discussion to their interests. I truly believe I lost them at introduction. Had I been presenting to other MSW or other students, it might have been appropriate and/or acceptable to introduce myself as a student. This room, however, was full of professionals that function at many levels in their public health organizations, mostly higher levels, and I should have presented myself based on my passion on the subject or according to my time and role at the organization I served. Additionally, my body language, tone, reading from the page, speaking too fast and avoiding eye contact with my crowd overshadowed the material by demonstrating lack of confidence and possibly competence to some; it bored the audience and generated an upset in me because my audience didn’t seem to care about what I was saying. Trust yourself; do your best; and recognize that if you reach one that you’ve done your job in the moment.

    • Thank you, Jessica, for so candidly sharing this reflection on your experience. I wish it had gone better, yet it’s obvious that you have learned SO much from the experience, that I can’t help but feel that you will benefit more, in the long run, from this disappointment, than from a smooth presentation. One thing that I have also learned, though, is that the presentations that we think are the most abysmal often have some redeeming elements, so you may be surprised, in fact, by what some people were able to take away from what you shared. I’m not trying to gloss up what I can tell was a real letdown for you, but I have also had that experience in my own professional life, of thinking something was a wash, only to have someone salvage a bit of value that surprised me. Thank you again for sharing!

  10. I recently attended an interim committee meeting with my practicum. One of the presenters was a Deputy Secretary and pretty knowledgeable about what he was supposed to be talking about. However, it wasn’t long before the committee members hijacked his presentation and started asking him questions he wasn’t prepared for. Over half of his answers were some form of “I don’t have the answer with me but I can get it to you later.” He looked completely unprepared and like a bad representative of his program. I felt terrible for him because he did have the data for the topic that he was supposed to be talking about but that was not the focus of the meeting. It made me very nervous for ever having to present testimony to the legislature. If I am prepared with one topic and they switch focus to something I do not have as much experience in, I will lose credibility and risk whatever goal I was trying to achieve. I would be very anxious in such a situation any as I am not very comfortable speaking in groups of more than 2 or 3. I get very tongue-tied and speak quietly and quickly–not helpful for being heard or understood.

    • Don’t let this scare you off, Emily! First, because he was the representative of a state agency, he received a very different reception than what you would likely experience. Those are very different communications–more ‘accountability sessions’ than legislative testimony, often, so don’t think that your experience would be the same. Second, since you’ve identified some of your attributes that might compromise your effectiveness, how can you work on those now? Would it be helpful to roleplay giving testimony, for example, or recording yourself and watching it, or having someone coach you? Third, as you observed even that particular–and difficult–encounter, what lessons can you identify that might be good to learn from? For example, could he have talked with some committee members in advance in order to find out what their questions were and what they would like to spend the time talking about? Could he have enlisted someone in advance to ask a ‘redirection’ question, so that he could get back to what he came to present on? Your own testimony can be different–you’ll have the advantage of having witnessed this one!

  11. My senior year of my BSW, I decided I wanted to take a class that was just for enjoyment. I decided to take a Model Congress class. We were a small congress, about nine or 10 of us and the professor, who admittedly is one of my favorites, decided to have a less formal session. Each of us picked a law or piece of legislation we wanted to change or enact. I chose a bill that is very near to my heart, which is the Death with Dignity Act. During my presentation, one person, who opposed the bill made a statement. I don’t remember what the statement was, but I do remember that it struck a cord with me. A very personal cord. It had only been four month since my cousin had passed from a brain tumor and three months since my grandpa had passed from refusing treatment and nourishment, so as I responded to the individual’s statement, I felt the emotions rising up in me. I soon was crying and still trying to make my point between the tears. The entire class (again it was about 9 other people and mostly people I know) sat and stared at me as I suffered through emotions continuing with my point. I learned that day that it is absolutely okay to be passionate about something and it is completely okay to have the raw emotions with it. I should have paused, allowed myself to calm down and only then continued. I lost the focus of the people and I am sure made everyone very uncomfortable.

  12. Thank you so much for sharing this, Kristi. Yes, I think people respect the authentic emotion and will absolutely give you space to live it…but they can’t follow your point while giving you room to grieve. I also think there’s a lesson about timing; there are messages I know are hard for me right now (gun violence directed at children just isn’t something I can take on, for example), and maybe it was too soon for you to champion that particular cause.

  13. I do not a bunch of experience with presentation but the ones that I have had remind of the importance of un-spoken messages. I have two wardrobe items since 1965 and 2015, Pants and T-shirt. that has been my whole gig. So, I feel that when I do wear a lice shirt and slacks, I feel so uncomfortable that I fear it may be conveyed, fidgeting, sweating, etc. Totally a fish out of water.

    Second, I have found that there it no shame in bringing notes, cards or some sort of aide to keep my speech on track. IO have been known to stray off topic and forget what my original point was supposed to be.

    • Good points, Jon–your self-awareness will help you to get your message through, I think, and your point about not being afraid to use the tools you need in order to succeed is a really important one. There’s little worse than someone trying to prove a point by going from memory…and then not being able to.

  14. Melinda,

    First, kudos to you for revealing these might I dare say ‘epic’ failures. Very courageous! Secondly, these lessons are valuable. As I was once told, “There are 3 types of people; stupid, smart, and wise. Stupid people never learn, smart people learn from their mistakes, and wise people learn from others’ mistakes”. May I be wise. In my future policy presentations (I have one tomorrow), albeit with w small non-profit for which I plan to provide pro-bono grant-writing services, I plan to tailor my suggestions in a palatable manner. My argument for why the organization needs to correct the grammar of its mission statement, provide outcome measures (or at least satisfaction surveys for the 16 or so clients it has served includes an assessment of the founder’s arguments for leaving the mission statement as is, possible push-back relative to time-constraints and legal/IRB issues when screening youth. However I will be prepared, after all, the organization, if it seeks survival must satisfy these requirements. Will I be seen as a demanding know-it-all? I have yet to learn but after reading this I know to be prepared for not only this encounter but each subsequent meeting with someone whose mind I seek to change. Enthoven’s (1974) advice on the value of recommendations will serve me well in coming weeks as I seek to serve as many non-profits as I can before the start of the next school semester. I plan to carefully observe the responses of my receivers and take notes on areas of weakness and strengths before I take on the ‘big fish’ in legislature in the future.

    • I think it’s really critical, Christine, to establish a base of common values, if you can, as you start to present. Your suggestions for change may still provoke discomfort, but if there is an authentic belief that you are ‘on their side’ in terms of your aspirations and intent, I think that helps a lot to make what you need to tell them actually heard. I’d love to hear how it goes!

  15. Wow! I can’t say that I’ve had nearly as bad of experiences. However, no matter how many presentations I give, I almost always get stopped because I am talking too quickly. In fact, my college speech teacher once stopped me within the first 3 sentences of my speech because I had already lost her in communication. I think she was a social worker at heart, because she outlined my strengths and noted that I was well prepared, but I may as well have been speaking a different language altogether. This has shown me that no matter how prepared I am, I can’t let my anxiety take over and need to channel my energy into clearly communicating my point.

  16. It takes practice to have as many epic failures as I have, Cali! Great lesson, though, from your earlier experience. Yes, we can sabotage ourselves when our delivery inhibits others from really ‘hearing’ our message. But you didn’t do that yesterday, so celebrate that victory!

  17. Thank you for sharing these stories and helping us learn from challenges.
    When I think back on my public speaking experiences, I am happy for my many years in competitive drama and debate that allowed me to “act” like I knew what I was talking about! However, when I spent a year as a teacher’s assistant for an eighth-grade class, I learned that you need more than just good acting skills to get your message across, especially with youth. They will grill you and ask any question that pops into their mind! That was when I learned the lesson of necessary preparedness, shared here several times. If I was presenting to the class, I knew to study the material front and back and to brainstorm ahead of time for any possible questions they might have. As you mentioned, it’s also definitely important to tailor your audience. Many of the students I worked with spoke English as their first language and had trouble with some of the words used in our texts. It took me awhile to understand the best way to reach them, using examples from their culture or asking them to brainstorm with me for us to find an answer together. I know that I learned just as much from the students as they did from me!

    -Aly Gideon

    • I LOVE this reflection, Aly–thank you for sharing both examples. Yes, effective communication is more than just ‘style’…at the same time, the best message in the world may not come across well if we’re not attending to how people experience information, and communicating accordingly. Thank you for sharing this!

  18. Jenny D'Achiardi

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post and was inspired by your obvious commitment to the ethical responsibility of expanding your professional competence. Although it can be painful to admit our shortcomings and self-assess, as social workers, it is imperative that we do so. Taking an honest inventory of how we are performing our various roles is not only our duty to our clients but a pledge we implicitly make to the integrity of our profession. Reading about some of the lessons you gleaned from the self-assessments you have done on your policy presentations helped me feel less anxious about the presentation we have coming up next week. I have never done a policy presentation before and was apprehensive about it because of some perfectionistic expectations I have about not “messing up”. I know some people say that you learn so much more from your failures than you do your successes and I can see how there may be truth in that opinion. I am both grateful that you shared your stories so that we may grow from them, and relieved to hear that even someone with a lot of experience makes mistakes. A couple of the points that really spoke to me seemed to reflect the common theme of knowing your audience and putting their needs above your own. In presentations that I have done in the past I know I have been inconsiderate of my audience via my selfish desire to present as much information as humanly possible in a completely unreasonable amount of time. I speak fast and am excited to share all of the little details about the topic that I have researched because I took the time to do it and, as details are important to me, my listeners must feel the same. The reality is that most people want to hear about the big picture and main points, not the minutia. In addition, the example you gave about intelligence gathering on opponents was fantastic because I think we get so enmeshed in sharing why our issue deserves attention, we are reluctant to devote time to the other side. However, not only do our listeners deserve to have a full picture of all the arguments, we are in a better position when we come from the offensive versus the defensive.

    • Thanks, Jenny–that’s a really powerful insight, that sometimes when we present, we’re speaking to ourselves, more than to our audience. And that never goes well. I think that happens in many types of communication, no? We are so busy trying to ‘get our point across’ that we ignore the cues we need to attend to, about how we’re failing at that, with the inevitable result that we don’t, after all, get our point across. Thank you for commenting.

  19. Thank you for sharing these stories. In some weird way it is comforting to know that even you have missed the mark before. But on the other hand it has exacerbated the anxiety that I already had about policy presentations (both the upcoming one that is looming and future possibilities that run through my head). My perfectionist tendencies and desire for everyone to agree with and like me create way too much self-doubt, something I will surely get over as my career develops (I hope).

    I got two major takeaways from what you’ve shared here. First, be prepared. It is as important to know the counter-argument as it is to know your argument. Second, not every opportunity is the right opportunity. Sometimes the best thing to do is to turn down a request. Like one of your examples, sometimes it is better to not give your opponent the opportunity/platform if they have no intention of letting you present your case.

    My greatest concerns when it comes to policy presentations (and presentations in general) is that I won’t be able to answer everyone’s questions or will be unprepared, also that I am very awkward and that will be apparent to the audience. I think my strengths will be presenting the facts, hopefully in a persuasive way. For our class presentation, I also think I will be able to effectively connect the policy to our social work values.

    • This is a really powerful insight, Lucy–“Second, not every opportunity is the right opportunity.” It can be hard to walk away from something that we hope could bring us closer to our goals–raising money, maybe, or convincing a potential ally to support our policy priorities–but, if we are going to be successful over the long term, we have to focus not only on winning the battles we’re in, but also figuring out when our best strategy is to not engage.

  20. For me, the most potentially most difficult part of presenting on policy is connecting the convoluted, confusing mechanisms of policy to people. Even helping people advocate on behalf of a policy – there isn’t always a short and sweet, 140 character limit or Facebook status way to connect why calling your legislator to help support recommendations for creating a procedure to disarm domestic violence offenders helps to keep your community safe, for example. Or maybe there is, but how to communicate that while staying clear on the issue, and also the really inaccessible way to make change – that’s really hard for me. The momentum gained when encountering a difficult policy isn’t really maintained by calling a legislator’s staffer or answering machine. It is maintained through direct action, marching in the street. But, for instance, how do you keep your audience on stand by in December, before the legislative session starts and you really need them. A few can emails may not really do the trick. My struggle is engaging people to feel how I feel about the issues, and maybe it’s unfair for me to have this expectation.

  21. Trinity Carpenter

    What can you learn from my failures? What assets do you bring to policy presentation, and what are your greatest concerns? What is the most effective policy presentation you have seen/heard? What is the least?

    I appreciate your willingness to provide insights through anecdotal experience. I can pull lots of valuable lessons from the experiences shared. One, is to center who you are advocating for and do not forget to practice the value of empowerment when given the opportunity. Another, is to know your audience and tailor your content if there is a need. Most importantly, the ability for those that you are speaking to absorbs the content, education or illustration to further the cause or what you are trying to accomplish is paramount. The assets I bring that I can identify and have been given feedback about from others is the ability to influence a room, bring a group back to relevant facts and what the agenda is, to take risk, be innovative and creative, negotiate well, can follow budgets, hold people accountable, and uphold the integrity of rooms when I am often the most vulnerable present. Most importantly I am not a bigot. Despite being steadfast in many of my convictions I am always open towards conversations that produce progress. Even if I leave a table in anger I am humble enough to come back. However, I bring other things to the table that is not as productive. I do not have a poker face. How I am feeling is always going to be apparent to everyone in the room. I lead with passion not strategy. I refuse to participate in respectability politics even to the detriment of support and resources. I know how to differentiate between extending respect and keeping up appearances for the sake of others. And probably the most off putting my passion is often read as anger and sometimes is. I believe in justified anger, but not to the detriment to hindering what we are trying to accomplish. I also have huge critiques of professionalism and find it as an restraint as a Black women.I try to be intentional enough that I leave space for feedback. The most effective policy presentation I have heard was at the MKN Chapter Conference in Kansas City, MO where other McNair Scholars present. A woman had done research on suicide prevention in schools and analyzed the effectiveness of models currently implemented. Only one model had significant impact and was the least utilized due to being the most extensive. She had done the work to identify why there was even federal attention on the suicide epidemic plaguing youth. she articulated her research so well I felt I learned something and her presentation was also though provoking enough to generate more work and advocacy. The least was Antonia Okafor coming and talking about pro-campus carry. She was not well versed and definitely did not have a passionate position. I would definitely identify her as an opportunist.

    • Thank you so much for this, Trinity. I really admire your candor and insight in sharing your assessment of your own strengths and challenges in persuasive communication. I am especially struck by this statement: “Despite being steadfast in many of my convictions I am always open towards conversations that produce progress. Even if I leave a table in anger I am humble enough to come back.” That is a real testament to who and how you want to be in this work, and a tremendous asset moving forward.

  22. I really appreciate you sharing these stories. It can be really challenging and often embarrassing to think (and tell other people) about our past mistakes and analyze what we could have done differently. However, I think these situations often offer the best learning moments because they are often what shapes our behavior in the future. If everything went perfectly all the time, there would be no room to grow. I have done lots and lots of presentations over the years, but never a policy presentation. I went to high school at a project based learning school, so starting as a timid, 13 year old freshman I was thrown way outside my comfort zone when I had to present every project I did in front of my peers, teachers, and outside community evaluators. I am a naturally shy person, and public speaking still makes me nervous, but in the past 10 years, I have become a much better presenter and a lot of that is because of my high school experience. I’m pretty sure my teachers would purposely ask us questions we wouldn’t know the answer to in order to make us think on our feet. Though extremely uncomfortable at the time, I am really grateful now for those experiences and I feel like I was able to gain a lot of skills in an area that doesn’t come naturally or easily to me.

    That being said, a policy presentation does make me nervous because it is presenting on a topic that many people will likely disagree with and will possibly be angry about. It feels a lot scarier than presenting previous research I have done. One of my biggest fears is not having a good answer to every question and have someone tell I’m the stupidest person they’ve ever talked to (your story about your experience on the radio show perfectly articulated this). I feel like the only way to prepare for this is to think about your opponents counter point and be able to speak to it. However, in many cases, especially when it comes to the topic of reproductive rights, there will be people who just NEVER agree with you and nothing you say will change their mind. Because of this, I appreciate your last piece of advice “You can’t convince everyone and sometimes you shouldn’t try”. It’s hard to step back sometimes because it feels like defeat, but we shouldn’t participate in something that is a waste of time or could do more harm than good.

  23. What if you focused more on figuring out what issues people are really animated about, and then helping them connect those concerns to the policymaking mechanisms? I just wonder if–while it is still challenging to figure out how to support people in taking that first step–that might not be a more satisfying way to go about the process of engagement?

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