Having been a keynote speaker, chair or panelist at more conferences than I care to count over the past 30 years, as a public service I’d like to offer what I hope are some helpful suggestions on how to prepare and give a great presentation.
If I were king, I’d require all future speakers to sign a pledge to faithfully follow these principles or face a severe public flogging immediately upon leaving the podium (administered by those of us in the audience who gave up valuable time we’ll never get back).
At a minimum, this would make for much better presentations since the audience would either a.) begin to enjoy better presentations or b.) get in on the on-going betting frantically taking place at the conference regarding which speaker is going to be flogged next.
On second thought, we've got the modern equivalent of this right now with Twitter. If you've been at a conference where they've got a full screen panel of the TweetDeck posting for a lousy presenter who's still on stage, it's not pretty.
Anyway, here’s my “Top 10” list. They're only 3 words each so you can write them on the palm of your hand (just like Sarah Palin) to remember them when you get on stage:
1.) Know Your Audience - Simply put, what’s in it for them? How are they going to be better off having given you their time and attention? Why the heck should they even be listening to you? What are their hopes, fears, dreams and ambitions? Always remember it’s not about you….your presentation should be all about them and what they care about.
2.) Make It Actionable – What can you leave your audience with that they can put to immediate good use? This might include key principles, best practices, case studies, online resources, tips and tricks….anything that’s actionable and practical. If you’ve got a website or a Twitter account, let them know how to get more info on your topic if they want it. This not only helps them but also helps drive traffic to your website and enhances your own credibility.
3.) Respect Their Time – This is my number one complaint about a lousy speaker at a conference….they seem to enter a different universe when they get on the stage along with losing their watch. They have been given 30 minutes and they’ll stay on for 35, 40, 45 minutes …sometimes even longer! This is not only unfair to the other speakers; it’s totally unfair to the audience. I was on a debate team in high school and college: if you went even one second over your allotted time, you were instantly disqualified. Same should be true at conferences (how about a $1,000 fine for every minute over?).
4.) Keep It Simple - At P&G, they always taught us the “Rule of 3”, which means you should never give more than 3 reasons to support an idea or recommendation. The same is true of your presentation. Twenty four hours after your presentation, your audience is going to be lucky to remember your name, much less what you had to say, so make it easy on them and keep it simple in terms of your overall message and supporting points.
5.) Tell A Story – The greatest speakers of all time (I’m thinking of Jesus, Buddha, Lincoln, Churchill, etc) were all great storytellers. It’s been that way ever since early tribes gathered around the campfire at night. I’d hypothesize those who told the best stories became the tribal leaders. Conferences are no different (except most don’t use firewood anymore). Tell engaging stories that reinforce your message and your odds of success go way up.
6.) Maintain Eye Contact – I was at a recent conference and the speaker was an absolute disaster. If I knew I only had an hour to live, I’d want to hear him speak again because it would feel like an eternity. The most amazing bit was he was totally disconnected from his audience – everyone had checked out 5 minutes into his talk but he droned on without ever looking up from his notes for the next 40 minutes. If he’d bothered to look is audience in the eye, he’d know he was done. If you’re ever dying on stage and not connecting, it’s much better to wrap it up quickly rather than insist on going the distance. Unlike long-distance running, marathon speakers who leave their audience behind are total losers.
7.) Use Verbal Signposts – If you haven’t had the pleasure of hearing Guy Kawasaki speak, you should check him out on YouTube (here's one to get you started: http://tiny.cc/2yx35). One thing Guy always does is tell people know where he is on his speech at all times using verbal signpost (such as "I'd like to make 3 main points: first...). He’s told me he does this for two reasons: a.) it makes it easier for his audience to follow him and take notes and b.) if they think he sucks (which I doubt ever happens), at least they’ll know when it’s going to be over! Tell what you’re going to tell them, tell them and tell them what you told them. Works every time.
8.) Use Powerful Slides – Your audience has a choice: they can either look at you or read your slide. One or the other. Not both. The worst combination is when the speaker a.) crams as much on a slide as possible using 8 point font and b.) then proceeds to read the slide to the audience. This is when I wish there was a trap door on the dais. Believe it or not, there were great speeches before PowerPoint. Many would argue PowerPoint just gets in the way. I once had my computer crash right before a presentation and gave it without slides or notes….it was one of the highest rated speeches I’ve ever given. Keep your slides simple, easy to understand and as a visual reinforcement to what you’re saying. Just following this tip alone is going to put you in the top 10% of conference speakers who grievously violate this principle all the time.
9.) It's Always Showtime - I’m not suggesting you do a Steve Ballmer and go jumping around the stage (if you haven’t seen this on video on YouTube, I’d like to apologize to the world on behalf of all Americans for it: http://tiny.cc/i1er2). What I'm suggesting is you’ve got to project a lot of positive energy to your audience during your entire presentation if you want to them to engage with your message. If you know your material and have practiced, any nervous energy you’ve got is going to help because it will help get you ready for an enthusiastic presentation.
10) Raise The Bar - No matter how many times you present, always take the time to get feedback on how you did. If there are written evaluations, make sure to review them and reflect on what you could have done better (and no matter how well you did, you can always do better). If you’ve got friends or colleagues that were in the audience, get their candid feedback as well (and “good job” is not helpful feedback). Just like a great athlete or actor, learning how to improve for the next time should be a lifelong habit.
So that’s my Top 10 list on how to give a great presentation at a conference. I’d love to have you challenge any of these or offer your own suggestions in the comment section since this is a topic we should all be interested in (both as presenters and members of an audience). Here's to your next great presentation...for the sake of all of us!