Make a better conference presentation

It’s nearly conference season, so here we go… I have to confess I’ve been driven to write this so that I can sleep better and let my frustrations somewhere to go. Last year I attended some conferences where I wanted to scream at the presenter “I’m sure what you’re saying would be helpful but I don’t understand any of it!“.

At other conferences I’ve sat their going “There is no content here. Why are you wasting my time?“. This post isn’t about conferences and presenters like that. I would say about that group “You know who you are.” but you probably don’t.

Presenters Andrew & PeteAlso, as I’ve just been to the first ever Atomicon conference in Newcastle, I’m going to be pulling a lot of examples from that – but that that’s all they are – examples. The principles I’m going to talk about apply to almost all conferences.

Background: Atomicon is a cool, new conference, concentrating on digital marketing and related issues. It’s marketing described as “the best (and most fun)”, so you pretty much know what to expect of the presenters and presentations before you get there, right?

Presentation Genius lanyardYou know this isn’t going to be a serious, academic conference, full of worthy-but-dull presentations. I mean, just look at the design of the name-tags and lanyards!


Presenter tip one – stay on topic and other presentation basics

That shouldn’t need to be said, right?

And while we’re at it, I’m going to slip in as to this tip all the other stuff on this website about things like:

  • have decent slides
  • know your tech
  • warm up
  • check your timing

Let’s take all those basics as read for the purpose of this post. Okay?

Presenter tip two – stay within the ‘feel’ of the conference (just)

Conference marketing and other pre-info sets up the feel of the conference from the point of view of audiences. And that, in turn, sets up a range of ‘easily acceptable’ styles that presenters can get away with. For example, at the Atomicon conference my default presentation style would need to be changed to be more zappy-and-happy-clappy. (I can do that, of course, I’m a pro, but I have to remember to do it.)

That said, if all the presentation in a conference are exactly the same style, things start to blur into one. For example, I’ve sat through some TEDx sessions where every presentation was reasonably competent, but because every speaker felt the need to speak like they thought presenters at ‘real TED’ did, the overall effect was – frankly – ultimately boring. (TED jumped the shark?)

Buzztastic presentation slideSo the message here is to vary the style of the presentation within the range the audience is expecting – or at least is prepared to accept. Let me give you an example here. Scroll back up to the top of this post to remind yourself of the feel of the Atomicon. Then add in that

  • a one day conference had both a pre-party and a post-party and
  • when you arrived you were greeted with stilt-walkers.

That gives you a range of “expected” or “acceptable” presentation styles, right? Once you’ve got the expected style in your head, then look at this slide design from Victoria Fleming, who runs Buzztastic, as sales consultancy.

It’s pretty close to a perfect slide from the point of view of being in-the-zone-of-what-the-audience-expects.

Trust me when I tell you that it wasn’t as bonkers as the host’s opening slides, so while it was ‘in the zone’ it wasn’t a full-on copy. That’s more important than it sounds, because no matter how good the presentations are for any given conference, if they all feel the same to the audience, each presentation’s impact falls away pretty quickly. (Remember my boring TEDx!)

Presenter tip three – remember it’s not about the room

This is a big one.

At any conference, particularly those with ‘hype’, it’s easy to concentrate on delivering a knock-out presentation. Great… but it’s only part of the story. From an audience member’s point of view, I don’t really care if you presentation involves you walking on water with dancing elephants – what I want is content that I can use.

The presentation on the day is the delivery medium, not the end-game.

The presentation on the day is the start of something, not the end, from the audience’s perspective.

As a presenter myself, I know it can feel like the giving a conference presentation is the climax/finale/whatever of all the

  • research
  • design
  • delivery

I’ve done for my presentation – but the audience don’t care about that. Audiences care about understanding, trusting, remembering and applying your content.

Here’s a specific example for presenters with lots to say. If you deliver stuff faster than people can absorb it, it’s wasted. In fact it’s worse than wasted because it burns up your audience’s capacity to learn things but it doesn’t actually allow them to learn anything from your presentation.

And to add insult to injury it stops them learning from later presentations too, because their brain power is gone for the day. It takes longer to recharge lost brain-power than is possible in a packed conference’s timetable. The “trick” is to give people ways of remembering the content of your presentation – there are lots of technical ways of doing this (just ask any good teacher!) but a near thing to a “presenter’s silver bullet” is to provide hardcopy backup of your content.

ian presentingAt Atomicon, for example, Ian Anderson Grey tackled this whole issue head on by being blatant right at the start of his presentation. You’ll not remember the details of the presentation, he said, so just enjoy the ride and then download it from… As a presentation tactic, it’s under-rated genius, because it means your audience doesn’t have to worry about recording things, so they can concentrate on listening to things and learning things.

Something that works as an aide-memoire at the end of your presentation is a fantastic tool for your audience – but not handouts of your slides, please. Anything that works as a slide doesn’t contain enough information to work as an aide memoir and anything that has enough information to work as an aide memoir makes an awful slide in your presentation! (See a cool trick I use for this here.)

Presenter tip four – get on with it

As an audience, no one cares how thrilled the presenters are to be there. No one cares that having walk-on music is on the presenter’s Bucket List. No one cares how long it took to get there. Just get the hell on with justifying your audience’s attention and time. Wasting those crucial, opening  seconds by talking about yourself is stupid. (C’mon Simon, get off the fence and tell us what you really think! 😉 )  I can’t stress this enough. The start of your talk is when your audience is settling in and deciding if you’re worth listening to or not. Don’t waste it.

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Chris Ducker is a master at this. Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I didn’t stay for all of Chris’s talk (I had tickets for the Yamato Drummers that I had to use!) but even in the first few minutes there was content. Despite being the last speaker of a very long day, Chris held the room, partially because of hype, partially ‘cos of charisma (aka stage presence) but mainly because he just got on with delivering “value bombs”.  Going back over Chris’s presentation in my head, I think the first note I made on Chris’s content was about 45 seconds in!

Chris Ducker presentation slideFor the record, this is the slide that provoked my pen into action. It’s not rocket science, I know, but it stuck a chord in me!

Now there’s a lot of tosh talked about starting with a fact or starting with a question or whatever, because the people who say that don’t understand why those things work (or don’t) but whatever the science behind that (see my other posts all over the damned place!) the point is that your presentation isn’t about you. Frankly it’s borderline that your presentation is even about the audience… it’s about the message – so if your presentation’s opening words are about your theme music, at the time when the audience is paying most attention to you, what does that say to them?

Presenter tip five – use the right interactivity

Active audience’s learn more than passive audiences. Over-active audiences don’t. Got that? Good.

The trick then, is to have the right level of active engagement for your conference presentation. As soon as I say it, it’s obvious right?

  • Getting your audience to join in with an exposing activity 30 seconds in when they don’t trust you? Bad.  But a similarly exposing activity 20 minutes in, when your audience trusts you and has learned from you? Fine.
  • Using the occasional name to prove to your audience that you’ve learned about them and know where they come from? Fine. But using too many names, making anyone not included feel actively excluded? Very bad.
  • Saying “here’s a carefully defined and structured exercise”? Great! But saying “just do it”? Worse than bad from an audience’s learning perspective.

Common sense isn’t common amongst presenters, I know, but Common Sense is the rule here. Judge things from the presentation audience’s perspective.

People at the Atomicon conferenceUnfortunately, to make things more complicated, it’s not just about how much the audience trusts you – it’s also about how much they trust the event. Anyone who’s remotely private, shy or introverted is going to have a problem with an instruction from the stage “Tell the person next to you your big plan for world domination”. That’s particularly true if you have them standing up and it’s at the start of your presentation… but Chris Ducker pulls it off well because of things like:

  • being at the end of the event, when people are more trusting because they’ve been with the same people all day
  • being patently trustworthy himself by dint of his reputation (or to put it another way “what people say about him when he’s not there” 🙂 )
  • being accessible during the whole event so that he’s not a stranger when he steps on stage.

As a personal example of the last point, Chris and I spoke very(!) briefly at a party the day before Atomicon, when he mentioned that he’d seen a facebook post I’d made, joking having to leave early and we chatted about it. By doing that, he made it much easier for both me and everyone in the group of people around me at the time, to participate in what could otherwise have been inappropriate/counter-productive audience participation. Why? Because he’d already warmed us up. That’s presenter experience!

Wrapping up

I don’t think much of this is rocket science… but it’s the kind of thing that changes an “okay” conference presentation into an “effective” conference presentation… it’s the difference between the audience thinking you were okay, and the audience acting on what you tell ’em!

3 Replies to “Make a better conference presentation”

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a conference with such polished presentations that flowed easily, were individual enough to be memorable in their own right and that also gave so much as well as staying engaging and entertaining. The expertise and experience of each speaker shone through for me.

    I’ve come away with masses of content to use in my business. And lots of takeaways to apply to ‘how’ I run my business, as well as a roadmap and a plan for ‘following the fear’. These are great tips that for me can apply to video too, that’s where following my fear is going to take me.

  2. Hi Allison – I fear you’re right… and I say “fear” because it’s sad that we’re remarking on the fact that this conference had good speakers when that should be the default. I live for the day when I’ve got *everyone*’s presenting skill to this point and we’re commenting on the occasional bad on, rather than being pleasantly surprised by the good ones!

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