Talking about IA at conferences – Most of what we do is invisible

9 May, 2016    

Most of what we do is invisible.

A lot of the time I’m manipulating ideas, concepts, data and information, rather than pixels. A lot of the time I’m adjusting and reframing constraints, nudging at assumptions to rearrange them to play more nicely with my ambitions. A lot of the time I’m staring at a spreadsheet. My work is a mixture of the immaterial and the unglamorous. It makes presenting it hard.

What makes an excellent conference presentation about IA?

I’m sat in the Omni Hotel in Atlanta after a brilliant few days at IA Summit 2016. I learnt lots. I was warmly received both as a delegate and a speaker. I’ve come away inspired to keep doing what I do and to try out a few new things as well. But I’m pondering what makes an excellent conference presentation about IA.

For the last year I’ve been trying to refine and improve the way I speak externally about what I do. I’ve tried to cultivate a ‘message architecture’ which is more focused. I used to rely on throwing out lots of ideas. I hoped that in the variety there would be something useful for everyone. I love ideas. I found it hard to edit out the multitude. It’s still a challenge to embrace a single ‘selfish aim’ that doesn’t leave room for the extra rumination and diversions. But I’m now more committed to communicating one idea and finding multiple ways to convince everyone that this single thing is useful.

But three days of experiencing talks, plus the anxiety of the ‘presenting’ part of my own has reinforced my commitment to think about the medium as well as the message. During my talk I joked that 45 minutes is a very long time to listen to me. But it’s a long time to listen to anyone. I broke my talk up into section. Jesse James Garret went one further and delivered 7 talks in one. Other speakers artfully balanced and managed the attention of the audience.

Presentation is the act of giving something to someone. Conferences gives attendees content and experiences. Presentations are performances. Maybe I’m biased because of my background, but I think that talks at conferences are really just a type of theatre. As art, theatre can be made for its own sake. It can be entertainment, drama, a reach for the sublime. But theatre can also be made for a reason, not for its own sake but for some other social good. And I’m pondering what kind of theatre should I aspire to make?

Entertainment?

What’s the right balance of entertainment? As a speaker, how much should we acknowledge the privilege an audience gives us when they hand over their attention? How aware and reactive should we be to the fact that this attention is merely on loan, sometimes for a very short period?

Just like some types of finance, that loan of attention needs to be paid for – there’s ‘interest payments’ to be made to retain that attention. What are the strategies that great speakers apply to retain it? I design my talks in a user-centred way. 45 minutes is a long time to sit in a room being on the receiving end of a one-way conversation with a stranger. I don’t shy away from the idea of entertainment. But what’s the right balance? What are the strategies for capturing and retaining attention for that long? Rhetorical questions, rhetorical devices, compelling visuals, tricks of theatre. And let’s not forget the content – content comes first…

Applied work, theory, themes and models?

I’m an IA geek. I love process. I love to hear an artful solution to reconciling synonyms. I’m fascinated processes we create to enable enrichment of content with structured data. I like to learn about the challenges of governance. How do others ensure the predictable and intentional growth of information spaces? I want details. I know IAs want details too. We love details. But details aren’t glamorous. They’re difficult to look at. They’re often difficult to describe. Do they make good theatre?

When I speak about IA I try to mix the theoretical with the practical. But because the practical often deals with the abstract and immaterial too, it’s a challenge to get concrete. It’s a challenge to have the confidence to dwell on the minutiae. It’s a challenge to find a way to convey months of staring at spreadsheets in a way that makes a great story, great theatre and does justice to the actual facts of the work.

A T-shirt with the slogan "it depends... and I'm not just being awkward."

Talking about practical IA is hard because so much of the actual practice of IA is dependent on context. If IAs were to get onto the T-Shirt printing business I suspect a shirt with ‘It depends’ written on it would be a top seller. Much of our work is intrinsically connected to deep and tangled contexts – organisational structures, technical constraints, personal dynamics. Some of those things make good theatre. Some do not. Sometimes there isn’t a way to ‘show’ this context, you need to tell people about it. And great theatre tends to rely on showing, not telling. How do you give all the necessary detail of a multi-month or multi-year project in 20 or 45 minute talk?

Perhaps too often we withdraw from the literal and try to give our audience value by abstracting a project or tool to the level of themes, models and paradigms. Perhaps sometimes we lack the confidence and commitment to do justice to telling the story of the real, practical applied work. Would a talk about a single specific project that didn’t aspire to synthesise the lessons into a broader theme or model be valuable? I suspect it might. But it would be a challenge.

Communication

I don’t think being right is always the most important part of the job of being an IA. As designers, I’m not sure we’re always in the business of being right. We experiment. We should embrace the fact that most design is an experiment based on a hypothesis. To paraphrase Jared Spool, we intentionally arrange elements to meet some agreed objective – we render intent. The ‘arrangement’ requires a set of skills. But I think there’s also a whole heap of soft skills that we require to explore, communicate and build consensus around the ‘intent’. A large part of an IA’s job is communication.

Presenting at conferences is a tiny part of that communication challenge for some. But it’s a part that I enjoy. I want to get better at it – both from a selfish perspective and for the community I’ve just spent a few days with, in a room, staring at stages which hosted presentations.

I sometimes hear a criticism of IA conferences that there wasn’t enough ‘IA’. I don’t always agree. But I do think presenting about IA is hard. IA just doesn’t always make good theatre. I enjoyed presenting my ideas at IA Summit. I tried to create a performance that balanced theory, practice and entertainment. I know it wasn’t perfect… but there’s always next year.

So I’m gong to continue to think about content and style. I’m also going to be more honest with myself and conference organisers about the type of talk I want to give. I’m OK with the idea that some might just be entertaining. I also do want to talk about the theory and paradigms that enable us to define and measure what IA is and does. And I’m becoming more desperate to spend a talk looking at something specific and concrete, even if that means it’s down to the audience rather than me to find the broader relevance.

I think these are probably different talks… so if you’re organising an event and want 20 minutes of IA themed magic, 45 minutes of theory or an unspecified amount of time staring at a spreadsheet and considering the challenges of naming and disambiguating immaterial objects – please get in touch.

Thanks IA Summit 2016… Maybe I’ll see you in Vancouver where I’ll try to have answers to some of these questions and maybe even one of these talks – you are a lovely audience.

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