Heather Gold’s “Unpresenting”

Right before we left for an idyllic last-gasp-of-summer week on the north coast, I took a day-long Unpresenting workshop with Heather Gold, and I want to recommend it highly and enthusiastically to anyone interested in making their public appearances more engaging, lively, and memorable.

Photo by Carlo de Marchis

Gold is a standup comic, solo performer, Web person and, more recently, promoter of the idea of “tummeling” — the art (descended to us from the dim Borscht Belt past) of breaking the ice for a crowd, warming people up to one another so that a comfortable conversation can flow. “Unpresenting” is her name for a style of public speaking that’s less about imparting information (“I am the expert and am here to tell you X, Y and Z”) and more about opening conversation (“Let’s talk about this stuff — I think X and Y — what do you think?”).

You know the old saying about conferences that what happens in the room is a lot less interesting than what happens in the hall outside? Gold’s workshop provides a roadmap for transforming the room into something more like that hallway.

Some of Gold’s advice is practical, veteran-performers’ tips (like scanning your crowd, particularly at its edges, to keep people feeling included). Some of it is more of a simple challenge to understand what it is that people want to get out of a public event. If it’s just your information they’re after, why not just give them a book or a blog post? If it’s more of your in-person gestalt — a sense of who you are, what you’re like, how you move, and what you sound like, not just what you think — then a looser, more conversational mode will provide that a lot more efficiently than a podium-bound recital or (even worse) PowerPoint bullet lists.

As a former theater critic I’ve always been extra conscious of the preciousness of public time. When anyone gives me ten minutes or an hour in front of a crowd I want to make sure I use it well. And so I’ve always spent a ton of time preparing talks, often writing them out (I am, after all, a writer — that’s where I’m comfortable and confident!), so I can feel I’ve done my best to provide listeners with something of value.

Gold got me thinking about different kinds of value I might have been neglecting. I don’t think my presentations are going to change completely, but I’m definitely planning on playing around with more loosely structured and open-ended formats: less lecture, more conversation. And if you get a chance to learn about unpresenting with Heather, grab it!

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  1. Thanks for this. As a writer I fall into the same pattern of writing out talks for the reason you mention. I’ve been searching for something like this. Thanks for writing about it.

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