Mastering the Art of Bad Presentation Part III: Surviving Conferences
"Welcome back! Thank you for joining me once again!" Actually, in my experience, those are two of the most skipped phrases during presentations. If you're hosting a meeting or giving a presentation, you may find that the speaker forgot the most basic rule of hospitality: a greeting. If you are the first to go, never forget to obtain your buy-in. Remember, just because the audience may be required to be here, does not mean they want to be.
Now, let us take a moment to talk about conferences and seminars. You remember those, right? The long meetings you most likely had to travel quite a way to attend? They usually start early, offer coffee and something to eat before you go in, continue for a few hours, break for lunch, continue for several more hours, and finish later than they said they would. These events can vary from place to place, but they usually operate on the same agenda.
If you're a presenter, please get there early; preferably before your guests arrive. Be the first boots on the ground. It offers you the chance to meet and chat with your team and audience over coffee, before they go to work. In addition, it gives them the opportunity to see that you are human, and not some monster who is going to bark at them for the next several hours. You may scoff at the very mention of this, but you would be surprised how many hosts arrive after their attendees and leave before them. ...Not the message you want to portray as a leader.
After your greeting, create the day's expectations. Go over your agenda as directly as possible, and be concise with what you are attempting to cover during each timeframe. If you are able to manage this, then you have demonstrated a commitment to the value of their time. This provides buy in from your audience, and assures them that you have a stake in today's "suffering" as well. Also, for all intents and purposes, this is one of the only times you are allowed to read directly from the slide.
Now that the formalities are out of the way, it is time to hit the ground running. You have two and a half to three hours of time on the clock to speak to your group. The bad news is that they will not hear everything you say, and you will begin to lose them after ten minutes. Congratulations! You have a new job to go along with the one you already have. You are now the attention holder. Don't fret! Even the most energetic presenter loses their audience now and again. What separates success from failure is their ability to switch topics with continued momentum. Humor works wonderfully if the situation calls for it. Going off topic to tell a story does, too. In sales, they teach you how to sell with reason and relation. You can list the facts, or you can tell a story. The more relatable the story, the easier it is to capture their rapture. It is risky, but a loud noise, such as "accidentally" kicking the podium, or momentarily sitting down in a chair while sighing, can work as well. If all else fails, walk over to get some water and take a sip. People notice the pause and focus their attention upon you. These will break the monotony and reset the clock to their attention span.
Here is a tip should you have the resources and opportunity: use a room barometer. These are people specifically planted within the audience to help you measure their active attention span. They monitor body language and offer you passive signals to keep your momentum going. If your audience is into what you are saying, then your barometers will remain leaning forward, or nodding. If they notice your audience is waning, then they will sit back in their chairs and shake their heads to give notice for you to switch topics or change things up. It's a trick I learned while studying under a professor whom used to work for the IMF; where he learned it. You can even do this in the board room. (Just make sure you choose someone whom has a good ability to pay attention themselves.)
Eye contact is another element which will help keep your audience in tune. It is not usually a problem for the more experienced speaker, but if you're new to this, then it may be an issue. Take two or three brightly colored post it notes, and label them "A", "B", and "C". Place them on the far sides of your room; one left, one right, one in the middle. They should be within the scope of your audience, and visible to you when you are giving your presentation. This will help draw your eyes outwards and into the crowd. For larger venues, create more post it notes and stack them accordingly. In packed lecture halls, where there are no place to hang them, pick out two or three people (preferably those whom you have met before the meeting started) and switch your gaze between them. Sometimes you can get creative and put them on the speaker and spot light stands. If your eyes are outward, then your voice is, too.
Once you have tackled your morning, it is time for the hard work to begin. As you near the lunch break it grows increasingly difficult to hold your audience's attention span, and you inevitably lose them. Every time, no matter what you do, your audience's attention shifts towards getting something to eat and leaving their seats. The two things you need to remember about the lunch gap (the half hour before, and two hours after lunch) are: 1.) any points you make during this time will need to be reinforced later on, and 2.) energy levels drop for everyone in the room, including you. The cold hard truth about eating lunch is that it creates a group wide lethargy. This leaves you with two choices: continue speaking or plan 'B'. A good seminar has break-away groups with some form of physical activity to help push through the tiredness. Exercise and movement generates energy and can add fun to the day's monotony. Another option is to toss in a video or short film relative to your conference, but this can be dangerous. If the subject matter is boring or too soft spoken, then you risk your audience falling asleep.
So far so good? Now, you're in the final stretch. Take a close look at your agenda and measure it against the time remaining. Most likely, you do not have enough to cover all that you want. Good; don't worry. Quickly review your previous points from the lunch gap, and choose the most important parts you still want to present. Everything else can go into the next meeting, or into an email to be distributed to your teams. If nothing can wait, then ask your audience for their buy-in to stay a bit later. Have a reasonable estimate of how much longer (no more than 30 mins), and stick to it. Make the presentation deck available (if possible) to everyone in attendance. A simple slide with a web link on it can be photographed via smartphone, and works perfectly.
Next time maybe we can talk about how you can survive days like these if you're a spectator.
Thanks again for your time!
--Scott S. Rosen