Lessons from 100 Conference Presentations

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Jeff Swystun
Jeff Swystun



100-conference-lessons“There are certain things in which mediocrity is not to be endured, such as poetry, music, painting, public speaking” — Jean de la Bruyere

Recently at a branding event in Riga, Latvia, I had the pleasure of delivering my 100th conference presentation. This milestone does not include client pitches and presentations, guest lectures at high schools and colleges or media appearances. There has also been a large number of webinars, seminars and panels.

Along the way, I have witnessed thousands of presentations — from the absolutely brilliant to the unbearably bad. Every business conference provides new lessons in public speaking or reinforces what works best. Whether these events are valuable, necessary evils, boondoggles, idea stimulators, fiascos, ego-fests, networking opportunities, money grabs or highly entertaining, you can always take away something to apply when your turn to present comes up.

Given the experiences accumulated, I have compiled some ideas and lessons. In doing so, I have avoided a few of the obvious and well-stated ones and have naturally not captured everything a speaker needs to be successful. Yet what follows should be extremely helpful when it’s your turn at the microphone.

Why Do It?

“The problem with speeches isn’t so much not knowing when to stop, as knowing when not to begin.” — Frances Rodman

Before even saying “yes” to an offer to present, you have to ask, “Why do it?” And I am not talking about the age-old question of comfort as a speaker but rather about motivation and value. I speak because I love to inform, entertain and educate. A huge benefit is self-improvement from feedback, not just in terms of my presenting style, but also in the content of the presentation. It makes me better in my profession. So here are additional considerations when contemplating a speaking opportunity:

Are you doing it because you feel you must or because you enjoy it? If you enjoy it, the audience should enjoy you. Either way, you can do it and perhaps do it well, but if you truly enjoy doing it, you will be more successful.

Is your content cutting edge and proprietary, or are you simply regurgitating common knowledge? Speaking means you are a thought leader. Expectations are set long before the day arrives, so make sure you can at least meet or, better yet, surpass them.

Can you commit to the entire event? From my experience, it is best to be there for the entire conference or event to demonstrate commitment, network and see the content before and following your presentation. Attendees are disappointed when a speaker appears for only their time slot.

How do you fit with the overall conference and the speaker lineup? Make sure the event is quality (organizer, location, fellow speakers, audience). Also ensure your time slot makes sense for the flow of content.

How sophisticated is the audience? Regardless, your content should err on the side of complexity. An attendee will appreciate being challenged versus being talked down to.

Be Prepared

“There are only two types of speakers in the world. 1. The nervous and 2. Liars.” — Mark Twain

Making things look easy is hard. Those presenters who exude a natural confidence are extremely well-rehearsed. The real percentage of speakers who are “naturals” is a lot lower than you would expect. More often we are subjected to speakers who read their slides, “umm” a lot and make us as uncomfortable as they are. Here are a few questions to help guide your preparation:

What do you want them to remember? This is the best question to ask yourself in preparing your material and envisioning its presentation. Think about how you want them to describe you after your presentation (e.g. authoritative, compelling, intelligent, humorous).

Is rehearsing really necessary? YES. And do it a few times in front of a few different people. Have them ask questions as additional preparation. It is amazing to discover that what you thought was coherent is actually messy and confusing.

How much is too much before content becomes overwhelming? “Less is more” definitely rings true here. Go deep on content, not long. It was Dianna Booher who said, “If you can’t write your message in a sentence, you can’t say it in an hour.”

Do I need a theme? A theme is the rallying point for your content. A theme should be clear, concise and entertaining. It is a great construct to engage with your audience and communicate your message.

What is the best way to organize my content? That depends on the subject matter, but once you arrive at what you think best, share it with the audience at the outset so they are prepared for length and for key areas within your presentation.

Wow Them

“Speech is power: speech is to persuade, to convert, to compel.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Presenting is theater, and your primary responsibility is to entertain. If your audience is entertained, they will leave the room remembering something of value and hopefully it is the one message you had intended. This means having a clear, compelling and differentiated point of view. So it is important to note:

Do you truly know your style? Do not stray too far from who you really are. If you try to over-impress, it will come through. If you are too humble, it becomes slightly condescending. Audiences are a smart collective, so stay real.

Should I be concerned with my first impression? It is important, and you have to be confident. Among the best ways to accomplish this is to engage your audience without any visual aid. Connect with them in a few simple, short words telling them how they will benefit from the presentation.

What will make me stand out? Try for that one unforgettable moment. Think of it as an unveiling of sorts. It could involve a physical item or a quote that you encourage people to tweet. I often stop before key content and joke, “Now if there is one thing you should tweet, this is it.” Create some drama and modulate your timing, as Mark Twain said, “The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”

Learn From It

“There are always three speeches for every one you actually gave. The one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.”— Dale Carnegie

If you are speaking for the first time, manage your expectations. Speaking is a skill that takes time to master. Your first time will bring challenges, but you will probably do much better than you think. If it does not go well, laugh it off and chock it up to experience.

Whether you are a frequent speaker or a first-timer, document what you learned from each presentation and apply it the next time. And remember: 99 percent of the population is challenged by public speaking. Do not take it too seriously, and take comfort from George Jessel who said, “The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public.”

Topics: Presentations

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