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  • Writer's pictureLinda Conroy

Elements of an Engaging Presentation: For Herbalists, Naturalists, Permaculturists, and more!

Presentations and workshops are not always simple experiences. Here are some tips.

Presentations and workshops are not always simple experiences. We bring our own anxiety to the experience and participants often bring their agenda and experiences as well.

I have made (inadvertently I might add), my living teaching workshops and classes for two decades. I teach often and in many diverse places. Some examples would be gardening events, herbal conferences, women’s groups, kids camps, local food events, permaculture programs, sustainability events & fairs and many other events. I have learned a lot over the years. I am also one of the organizers for a women’s herbal conference. I have had the unique opportunity of developing the programs. I have also had the opportunity to consolidate feedback from participants as well as evaluate recordings of the presentations. What I have discovered is that not everyone is comfortable presenting, nor have they developed the skills to offer an engaging presentation.

I have written this article in hopes that it will contribute to the growing population of herbalists who are interested in sharing the wisdom they have and/or are discovering. And really this information can be useful for anyone who wants to present to the public on issues of natural health, permaculture and/or personal growth.

Here is exactly what I want to hear following a presentation:

“I was in one of your classes (cheese-making weekend class), and I did learn a lot about making cheese. The most engaging thing, though, was your knowledge and how you presented it….there was never a dull moment….it takes a special teacher to pass on so much information in such an enthusiastic, interesting way!”

This testimonial gives me the feedback that the 20 years I have spent developing teaching skills has rendered results. It does not always follow that because we know about a subject, we can run a program or effective class setting. In order to be effective imparting information and/or sharing wisdom, there are specific skills that need to be developed in order to teach and/or run a training.

I have spent as much time learning about herbs, food and health, as I have taking singing classes and learning about communication. I also have taught at least several times a month, sometimes several times a week. As they say, practice makes perfect. While I am not trying to be perfect I am attempting to be effective and to help people remember the information that is being imparted. I have also chosen to study with people who are experienced instructors, both herbalists and those in other disciplines.

I have been teaching successful herbal, wild food, traditional food, women’s health and communication workshops across the continental United States for 20 years. Prior to that time, I worked as a social worker, working with individuals and facilitating groups. I have attended a wide array of workshops during that time as well. I have found there are elements that can create the most conducive learning environment. I also am committed to offering my audience, not only a presentation, but an experience.

The following are some of the guidelines I use to facilitate workshops that create an enjoyable and engaging experience for both the participant and myself as the instructor.

The first thing, before you teach or create your outline, ask yourself:

  • Do I care about the subject matter?

  • Do I have personal experience to share on this topic?

  • Do I feel confident in my knowledge to offer the type/length of presentation I am proposing?

If you do not care much about the subject and/or you don’t know a lot about it, you may want to reconsider and find someone else to present the material. An example, I attended an edible landscaping workshop recently. The person was not engaged and really did not know very much about the edible aspect of what he was suggesting gardeners plant and grow in their yards/gardens. This was discouraging and, to be blunt, extremely boring. I suggested that my partner who is passionate about this topic teach it at the same event the following year. He did and received rave reviews. When he teaches this topic, he brings passion and experience in both growing the plants as well as preparing them for food.

The following are some suggestions that can help you develop skills and to create a strong container for the classes and programs that you offer.

Ahead of time:

  • Prepare notes and an outline. When I first began teaching I would create a very thorough outline, with time frames. I would indicate for myself how much time I would spend on each topic. This is helpful, even if you don’t stick to it 100%, it helps you choose which topics you may need to shorten as you move through your presentation. For any new program I am offering I create an outline, and keep it on file. I review it before each presentation and make changes as needed. *It is more advisable to have a plan and be willing to discard the plan if needed, than to not have a plan at all.

  • Practice makes perfect…practice, practice, practice. Practice in front of a mirror, in front of friends and/or strangers if you can gather them and get them to pay attention. Practicing offers insights and helps you iron out any rough spots in your presentation. Practicing and asking for input from those listening, about what they enjoyed and what they might like to see done differently. Remember that these people are your teachers, don’t be offended or take it personally. Use feedback to continually shift and change your presentation, until it feels strong and fluid.

  • If you don’t have anyone to practice with in your immediate circle, join a group ie toastmasters or other group, that has the intention of helping people to improve their public speaking skills. Public speaking is a skill that needs to be developed. Just because you are passionate about a topic does not mean you will automatically be an engaging, effective presenter.

  • Prepare oatstraw and drink throughout the class. This herb is incredibly grounding and helps to ease any anxiety or stress that you might be feeling. For anxiety, it is helpful to have motherwort or your favorite nevine on hand. I prefer oastraw and am amazed at how effective it is in providing a strong sense of calm and focus. Motherwort is my second choice, if I am not able to make an infusion. Of course you can find an herbal nervine that works for you. If ingesting a strong nervine or one that you have not taken before try very small amounts before you plan to present to be sure it provides the effect that you are looking for.

  • If I am offering a program to a smaller group, I might even share an oatstraw infusion with the participants. This can bring us all into focus and contribute to a bond and connection from the beginning of the program.

A. The Beginning

  1. Introduce yourself. Describe your experience and background as relevant to the material you will be presenting. If you have a personal experience with the material share it succinctly. Acknowledge your teachers and lineage, as herbalism is an oral tradition and it is important to speak to your teachers and lineage as a way to keep herbal traditions and heritages alive. Share a little bit about your personality and style. This helps to prepare participants for the experience. This is often the first impression participants have of you. This is also the place where you begin to establish rapport. Establishing rapport with a small or large group can be similar as well as different, either way you want to look a few people in the eye and smile, in a genuine way. Try to be professional, but friendly and engaging at the same time. This can be brief, but is worth putting some effort into. Practicing what you will say ahead of time and how you will say it, will make this go very smoothly.

  2. Participant Introductions and/or Input. Choose which of these is appropriate for the setting and the size of the group. Small groups can be invited to introduce themselves. I have found the best way to facilitate this is to offer a script for the information that you are wanting. For example: Tell us your name and 2 things you would like to take away from this class. Or what brought you here and what would you like to leave here with. Be up front asking participants not to take up more than the time you would like to allow. Remind them if they take a lot of time, that you will not be able to cover the material that you intend. For larger groups, you can ask for more general information from the participants. For example: How many nurses are in the group? How many of you are new to this topic or to overall subject matter? Ask them to call out a couple of things they would like covered during the presentation. These two strategies are a great way to assess the group. You can gain information about participants level of understanding of the topic and to involve them in co-creating the experience. While it is good to have a plan for yourself and an agenda, it is also helpful to be flexible enough to include information that the group requests, if this is information that you did not plan on sharing. And If you aren’t able to address their requests, they will feel most satisfied, if you can direct them to resources where they can gather the information.

  3. Set the Stage. In order for a class to go well it is important to “set the stage”. To set the stage it is important to convey to participants what will be happening during your time together. This is basically a verbal outline of the class. This can be brief, but needs to communicate to participants what role they can play in the workshop process and what they can expect from you. Ie should they ask questions, should they wait until the end or will their not be time for questions etc.

  4. Create the container. The container is the energetic space that will be held during your time together. Every workshop, whether it is 1 hour long or several days to weeks, needs to have a beginning, middle and end. The beginning is what is listed above, introductions and setting the stage. These two elements, when done well create a solid container. When they are missing the workshop or event often feels disorganized to participants and can make or break a presentation, no matter how useful the material is.

B. The Middle

The middle is where the meat of the workshop/event happens. You will be sharing specific information about the topic here and engaging with the group. Depending on the topic and your style, you may or may not want to take questions during this time. When you set the stage, this is a good piece of information to share with the group. If you plan to leave time for questions at the end, let them know that. During this phase you may need to remind them that you will take questions at the end. If you are comfortable taking questions during your presentation, be sure that you have a strategy for bringing the discussion back to the main points you are trying to make. Allowing questions to derail a presentation is very frustrating to other participants who are interested in what you have to say.

Having an outline for yourself can be helpful here, so that you don’t loose your train of thought. Be careful not to spend a lot of time looking at your outline, but do have it in viewing distance so you can access it as needed. Along these lines, if you are using a powerpoint for your presentation, be sure not to read the powerpoint word for word. This should just be a que for you to speak on your chosen topic. A powerpoint should be a launching point.

C. End.

The end contains several elements.

  1. Leave time for questions and/or comments, if appropriate. This is the time for participants to ask questions and/or express a thought about the material. How much time you leave, will depend on how many questions and/or comments you would anticipate. 15 minutes in an hour-1 1/2 hour workshop should be plenty of time.

  2. Offer resources. This can alleviate the need for some questions. If the program is short, you may find that encouraging continued study and offering resources encourages participants the impetus to explore the topic on their own. You can offer a handout, or a couple of verbal resources as well. If you are doing a powerpoint presentation, offer a page with a few resources. *it is wise to offer presentations that are not power point based, even if occasionally. Relying on a powerpoint, takes away from creativity in the style of the presentation and if you ever arrive at a location and are not able to do your presentation via powerpoint, you want to be prepared. I offered presentations for many years without the support of a powerpoint program. As a result I am able to do any of my presentations with or without this technology.

  3. Offer a summary. Provide a short verbal synopsis of what you have covered. This will reinforce what you have shared and it will give an opportunity for participants to see the overall picture. It also offers closure and indicates that you are finished. If you are finished, and are in a location where other presenters are waiting to set up, be mindful and move to another location if you are going to continue taking questions. It is important that you do this, as those asking the questions will not take the initiative and you would want the same courtesy extended from other instructors. I often have a vendor booth at fairs where I present and will direct participants to my booth, where I am happy to have a continued dialogue.

Additional notes:

  • I often sing in the beginning of my workshops. This engages the audience, is playful and makes an energetic connection. I am comfortable doing this and perhaps not everyone will be. But doing something unusual and engaging, captures the attention of participants and creates a rapport right away. Other things you can do are to read poetry that reflects your topic, tell a joke and/or right away throw out an intriguing concept.

  • Be sure you are dressed comfortably, so that you are not distracted by your clothing. This seems obvious, but if you are too hot/too cold, itchy or uncomfortable in any other way your presentation can be affected.

  • Study different forms of communication. I like the nonviolent communication model developed by Marshall Rosenberg. His book is titled Nonviolent Communication. This information can support you in finding ways through difficult interactions. If you present long and often enough, you will find yourself in some interesting exchanges with people. It really helps to have some tools and skills in order to respond in a direct, but compassionate way. This itself takes continual practice. Learning to redirect people as well as set boundaries is an art. Seeking facilitation training is very helpful. Do not leave this to chance, as people have their own agenda and will highjack and/or sabotage your programs, even if unintentionally. Many people who attend talks on herbs and health are seeking information for their own issues and/or family members. They can loose sight of the fact that there are other people in the room and that you have information that you are planning to share. It is your role to help them remember this, in the most compassionate way possible. Sometimes, we may be seen as the heavy when we do this, but most people involved will be grateful. It is important to continually do your own personal growth work however you choose, so that you know yourself well and find the best approach for you.

  • Most of all, have fun! Presenting is much like performing and the more fun you are having the more enjoyable it will be for your audience. If appropriate tell stories, find a joke that will be well received, share a piece of information that you found fascinating and/or other strategies for creating fun and keeping your audience engaged.

I do hope that this is helpful and contributes to your journey.

Green Blessings,

Linda Conroy

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