You would think that being a communication trainer I would be switched on to listening techniques – awake and alert and listening with might and main. Er … not always.

Sometimes the external factors are so overwhelming that even someone conscious of the importance of concentration in listening slips into an involuntary coma!

As part of my family duties I was recently invited to attend a presentation night to honour a number of people who had done great things in a voluntary organisation. I was delighted to attend as a member of my family was to be honoured – and you would have thought that I would have been able to stay awake, wouldn’t you. Alas… it was not so.

The problems started as soon as I arrived; we were welcomed and given our copy of the programme and the room was indicated with a wave of the hand. Here was the first hurdle. It was laid out in theatre style, not in itself a real problem; however the room was small and the attendance was obviously expected to be large. So the chairs were placed close together with little leg room between the rows. I have back problems so an end chair would be beneficial to enable me to stretch my legs – but we were to be seated where our names were and I was in the middle of the row in the middle of the room.

I approached one of the organisers to see if I could have my seat moved, and I tactfully explained my difficulty – and I can be very tactful when required – however I was quickly made to realise that my sense of self-importance was clearly out of place and I was to remain where I had been put. Sensing difficult times ahead I took a pain killer and settled in to survive.

One thing I have learned over all my years of training and presenting is that the room you use sets the ambience for the session. If the audience is uncomfortable, as the presenter I would really have to work hard to maintain interest, and if they were really uncomfortable I would probably not succeed. It is essential to arrange for a venue which will accommodate the expected attendance in comfort; so in this case the organisers should have either had a larger room or cut down on the numbers attending. As it was when the audience filed in and the room began to fill up it became obvious that I was not the only one going to have trouble.

I glanced at the programme and noticed that the whole ceremony was going to take about two hours. Now that is very long time to keep people sitting in cramped seating and I was seriously expecting that we would have trouble getting in and out during the anticipated break. But I needn’t have worried, there wasn’t a scheduled break allowed. The presentation began and I took a deep breath and tried to concentrate.

I soon became aware that the air conditioners were doing a fantastic job as I felt a shiver overcome me. I had brought a warm shawl with me, and I struggled to remove it from my bag, but unfortunately we were so closely packed that my physical struggle was becoming dangerous to my neighbours so I desisted. Looking around I noticed that others were becoming aware of the arctic draught; there is some satisfaction in mutual discomfort, an unworthy attitude by understandable.

The presentation led off with a slide show that highlighted the work of the organisation and the bits I was able to see was quite interesting. The lights had been dimmed and the show was colourful and fast. In fact so fast that I was not really able to take in exactly what was being highlighted. The other problem was that the screen was too low, and being in the middle of the room I was peering around the people in front to try and see the screen; I failed on a number of occasions.

After the introduction, we had a speech by the leader of the organisation who knew his subject inside out, but presented his knowledge to us outside in I think. The room lights had not been brought up since the slide show and we were seated in semi-darkness listening to a rambling speech with no clear organisation and little direction. The effect was soporific and I found myself nodding off. It took a strong determination to remain clear and focused and unfortunately I woke to the sound of clapping, miserably aware that I had failed the first requirement of clear communication – simple listening.

But now I was aware that I was not going to have any more problems with staying awake, I was in pain, with cramps in my legs that were screaming out to be stretched and eased; which was of course impossible. The rest of the evening passed in a blur of pain and resentment.

Theatre style seating is almost always an inducement to lecturing – I think it harks back to our school days, but it is not conducive to comfort over long periods. It is also difficult for the audience members to get into and out of their seats without disturbing other people. If such a seating arrangement is absolutely necessary then there are a couple of essential requirements. The width between the rows must allow adequate leg room and be such that people can move in and out without having to climb over legs As well, about 20 minutes is all anyone can take of non stop lecturing without a break or a change of pace. Interactive activities are an absolute essential although difficult to set up in such a style of seating.

The temperature within the venue is also important, neither too cold nor too hot; and the presenter should be aware of the audience. If his audience is trying to disappear under a mound of outdoor clothing or turning a delicate shade of blue they may have to adjust the temperature up! On the other hand if they are shedding clothing at an embarrassing rate and programmes are being waved around like demented court ladies of the eighteenth century then a quick down turn is indicated.

And finally if the lights are turned down to accommodate a visual presentation, for heaven’s sake, don’t forget to turn them up afterwards. The combination of soporific speech and dim lighting is a terrific cure for insomnia.

After the presentation as I hobbled out in great pain my relative rushed over and asked if I had managed to get the photograph of his presentation as promised. I was mortified and had to confess that I had not been able to see the actual moment of presentation. He looked at the room and said he understood and I took an excellent photo there and then of him holding his award. I simply could not admit that I had missed the precious moment because I had succumbed to narcosis.

As I left I presented the only member of the organising committee I could see with my business card – I have no intention of spending another evening like that again. If even I could forget my duty to the speakers to pay them attention and focus and really listen to what they have to say – I pitied the rest of the audience.

Michele @ Trischel

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