Confident Conference Presentations

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I want presenters to be successful, and I actually feel pains of embarrassment in my stomach when a presenter flounders or ends up losing an audience part-way through their hour-long session.

Many times when a presentation ends, I ask myself "ahhh… yes… so what?”

Presenters need to be customer-oriented when they design their presentations, and the greatest opportunity for improvement is to focus a presentation around learning objectives and a call to action. After you filter away all of the other distractions and boil it down to "what should audience members learn" and "what are the benefits to doing it differently" - the presentation is much more likely to maintain an alert audience.

I am in the midst of helping plan and run another large state-wide conference, and I have decided to jot down some notes of advice for presenters. Effective presentations will:

Develop an Elevator Pitch: “Why should we care?” and "How will what you are going to tell me make me better off (richer, safer, happier, smarter)?" How can you convince YOUR intended audience in 30-seconds or less to listen to the rest of your presentation? How can you convince them that what you are about to say will be original, beneficial, and useful? What is the main point of your presentation, and how can you summarize it to start off your presentation? Being able to package your presentation into this short set of statements will help you funnel in just the core ideas and information your presentation needs and filter out everything else. If most of the audience members already have expertise, don’t waste their time with the basics. If most of your audience members are novices – don’t make them feel stupid by using unfamiliar language or concepts.

Use Learning Objectives to direct a Call to Action: A great presentation normally has both a set of specific learning objectives (what should the audience have learned during the presentation) and also a specific call to action (a challenge to do one or two new things based upon what they have learned). These are the beneficial “take-aways” participants get for spending their time in your presentation. When you are building your presentation, use these along with your Elevator Pitch to help focus and filter the content you choose to present.

Utilize an Attention Getter: what humorous image, video clip, anecdote, or story will help demonstrate the point that there is a problem and that it is the audience’s responsibility to fix the problem?

Appear Organized: Tell the audience what you are about to tell them (introduction), then tell them, then tell them what you told them (summary). This helps audience members understand the outline and structure you will be using in your presentation – and it helps them know where you are heading and why.

Engage the Audience: Normally the people in front of you are smart, experienced, and have much to share on the topic. Make the audience part of the experience. Ask them challenging questions. Ask them to share their own observations and experiences.

Anticipate the Objections: If you are asking people to change process, procedure, or habit, you need to anticipate and refute alternatives. If you don’t anticipate and handle common objections or concerns right up front – you’ll lose a large share of your audience as they mentally try to come up with arguments against what you are proposing.

Be Well Rehearsed: There is nothing more embarrassing to a presenter that to look shocked or confused during their own presentation. Rehearse your presentation many times from start to finish, and memorize the structure and key points you want to make (don’t verbatim memorize you’re your audience members will throw you off when they ask questions).

Not be Read: Reading your PowerPoint slides is highly annoying and serves no purpose. Use “blank” or black slides when you want the audience to concentrate on you and not the screen. Mix it up! Maybe change the pace of your presentation with just one word or phrase on the screen – to rapidly change through slides, and then slow things down by adding more words and phrases. The PowerPoint is there for your AUDIENCE to know the structure of what you are say – NOT a reminder to you of what to say (you should have figured that out in your rehearsals).

Consider the Sight-lines: Standing in front of the projector screen is an obvious mistake, but not so obvious is blocking the view of a portion of your audience. When you have something important to show, stand off to the side of the screen and gesture with your hand or a laser-pointer to call attention to specific parts of the slide.

Be Heard: In the theatre, you’re asked to “speak to the cheap seats” (way, way, way in back). You don’t need to shout, but you do need to speak much more loudly than you normally would, and you need to enunciate much more clearly than normal conversation. When one is available, use a microphone. Microphone etiquette: if you are wearing a lapel microphone – be sure that you are not touching your chest or holding papers against the microphone. When you are using a handheld microphone – hold it off to the side of your mouth (by your cheek – pointing toward your mouth) – so that you don’t “slam” the microphone with your breath sounds or your “popping P’s.”

Show Confidence: Great eye contact, loose shoulders, big smiles all communicate to strangers that you are confident about what you are going to say, and that wins you some credibility. Also – if you are well-rehearsed, you should be confident about what you are about to say.

Pace the Handouts: Don’t load up your audience with a bunch of reading materials at the start of the presentation. Audience members will be so busy reading that they may just ignore what you are saying. A few sparse handouts which give the main ideas are best – and then more detailed information can be provided at the time for questions and answers (or after the presentation concludes).

Request Feedback: No matter what, you should have your audience give you some critique and feedback. Maybe your “super-great” presentation left most people confused or bored. Isn’t that a very useful thing to know? Also – the critique helps give you insight into how others interpreted your presentation’s points. Always ask open-ended questions such as “what was the best part of the presentation?” and also “what needs to be improved in this presentation?”
James Falkofske -