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Presenting Your Presentation: A Few Words

by Richard Barbieri
June 2015 Richard Barbieri

Like many former writing teachers, I mourned the passing in mid-May of the great William Zinsser, whom even Al Jazeera lauded as “the man who taught a nation to write well.”  (Zinsser’s On Writing Well is still Amazon’s #1 writing reference almost forty years after its publication.)  This leads me to offer some suggestions on writing well in a specific context: applying to present at a professional conference, or seeking to attract participants to a workshop, based on over forty years of both writing and reviewing proposals.

First, an actual conference proposal (with privacy alterations):

Title:  Opportunities for Mediators: Identifying those which Exist and Exploring the Potential for New Ones
Description: Some of us enrolled in our very first basic mediation training with the goal of discovering a new hobby. Others thought that mediation could become their next career, or potentially a practice that would mesh well with their current careers. The reality is that, regardless of intentions for becoming a mediator, acquiring case experience is an obstacle faced by all of us. ABC mediators Abe Lincoln and Woody Wilson have been there. In this workshop, you’ll have a chance to hear their own stories; what in their experiences has been most challenging about becoming a mediator, ways in which they would recommend inserting oneself into the field, opportunities available for all of us to take advantage of, as well as the process of identifying realistic goals and creating an action plan to reach them. Join Abe and Woody to hear how they found their place in the field and what you can do to find yours.

A topic of great interest to students and other new mediators who may be attending a conference – but will this description tempt them?

Since a good title, like a good headline, often comes after seeing what the story is actually about, let’s start by editing the description:

Some of us enrolled in our very first basic conflict resolution training with the goal of discovering a new hobby. Others thought that this could become their next career, or potentially a practice that would mesh well with their current careers. The reality is that, regardless of intentions for becoming a conflict specialist, acquiring case experience is an obstacle faced by all of us.  ABC mediators Abe Lincoln and Woody Wilson have been there. In this workshop, you’ll have a chance to hear their own stories; what in their experiences has been most challenging about becoming a conflict specialist, ways they would recommend inserting oneself into the field, opportunities available for all of us to take advantage of, as well as the process of identifying realistic goals and creating an action plan to reach them. Join Abe and Woody to hear how they found their place in the field and what you can do to find yours

What are some problems we can resolve without changing the authors’ intent?

Redundancy:
our very first basic is triply redundant: the first must be the basic one, and very adds nothing to first, nor does our to some of us. So let’s say “Some people take,” eliminating six words.

Wordiness:
with the goal of discovering  means  “to discover”

Empty words:
The reality is that : Does anything change if we cut these words?  No

Repeated information:
ABC mediators Abe Lincoln and Woody Wilson:  we already know this from the speaker list

Stating the obvious:
about becoming a mediator: we already know the challenges are about becoming a mediator
for all of us to take advantage of: what else do you do with opportunities?
plan to reach them: action plans are precisely plans to reach goals

So here’s a new version, with two or three slightly punchier words, and 60 fewer of them (97 rather than 157):

“Some people take conflict resolution training to find a new avocation. Others seek a career, or a practice that meshes with their current work. Regardless of your goals, acquiring case experience is an obstacle for everyone. We have both been there. In this session, you’ll hear what has been most challenging for us, ways of inserting yourself into the field, opportunities available, and how to identify realistic goals and create an action plan to reach them. Join us to hear how we found our place in the field and tell us what you’re doing to find yours.”  

I’ve also included an invitation in the last sentence for the participants to share, rather than merely be told, which may also draw more attendees.

Now for a new title: “Opportunities for Mediators: Identifying those which Exist and Exploring the Potential for New Ones” might work for a study, but not for a live audience.  Nor is it likely that such broad goals will really be achieved in an hour or so.   Let’s frame it in a different way. What question do new mediators ask to which this session offers an answer?  Perhaps, “I’m a Trained Mediator: Now What Do I Do?” 

Since the theme here is distilling, can we distill this advice itself? Yes:

Rule One: A picture may be worth a thousand words, but one word is usually better than many.

Rule Two:  Think of what your audience wants to hear, rather than what you want to tell them.

Finally, a piece of advice borrowed from teacher Paul  Graham: “learn to recognize the approach of an ending, and when one appears, grab it.”

Biography


Dr. Richard Barbieri is President of the Martha's Vineyard Mediation Program, and a member of the boards of ACR and New England ACR.  He is also founder and principal of Singular Resolutions, LLC, which focuses on training, mediation, and facilitation for independent schools and other mission-driven organizations. 



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