How to be a better presenter (and look better doing it)

0E7A2014.jpgI recently covered a seminar for medical professionals in an charming Old Montreal hotel. The conference brought together experienced practitioners and researchers with their younger associates for an exchange of ideas and learning but one particularly interesting segment to me was about how to present which inspired me to put together my own thoughts and observations on the subject, culled from my many years experience observing presenters in all kinds of different fora, from meet ups at bars, to large international congresses, shared below:

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  • You are the presenter, not your slides: if your slides are full of lots of text and your presentation comprises you staring down at your laptop reading out the points with very occasional asides or additional points, than your presentation will put people to sleep. Your objective in giving a presentation is to actually engage your audience, hold their attention, and have them learn something. To do that you need to be the one delivering the message, not your screen which is there to back you up and provide impact but not be a replacement for you.
  • When presenting, never stand in front of the projector: while this seems obvious, it still happens with some frequency, particularly in these smaller, single-room set-ups.  Although I sometimes enjoy the almost performance-art type images that can occur serendipitously, the intended audience may be more interested in actually being able to see the content of your screen. (I think it would be interesting if a presenter could wear some kind of device that would trigger a silent alarm if the presenter unwittingly stands in front of the projector, but I digress.)
  • Use simple, readable fonts: arial and calibri, though a little boring, are easy to see and read, which is important if you are actually using your slides to present information as would be the case for most researchers, scientists or medical professionals who get asked to present at a conference.
  • Don’t over-animate: excessive use (almost any use IMHO) of animations are distracting, and almost always look like you just discovered them and thought they were really cool. Restrain yourself and limit the use of them, if you must use them at all.
  • Mind your body language: In theatre it’s called “blocking” and it means you’re showing your back to the audience. You don’t ever want to do that, so pay attention to where the audience is and position yourself on the stage (or in the room) where you are not blocking anyone’s view of your screen nor showing anyone your back. And when you speak and need to refer to the screen, use the arm closest to the screen, regardless of whether you are right or left-handed. Stand straight, pay attention to your posture. If you happen to be presenting in a group and you are waiting for your turn, don’t forget that you are in front of the audience and on-stage. Try not to look excessively bored, or tuned out.
  • Be careful with using videos: videos can be great entertainment but I’ve seen them used too often as a supplement to giving a thoughtful discourse. They are also impossible to connect with so they end up bringing your audience’s attention away from you and into the screen where they get lost for the duration of your video. Ask yourself how the video is making your point better than you could without it. And if it’s really an integral part of your message, limit the use and maintain your presence and commentary so that you still “own” the room when the video ends.
  • Be yourself: it’s wonderful when a presenter has natural charisma, makes people smile and laugh through their sheer presence and can keep the audience chuckling with well-placed witticisms and seemingly off-the-cuff jokes. But that’s not everybody. That’s not even most people. Rather than try to be overly entertaining or extroverted if it is not in your nature, just be yourself.
  • Know your stuff: double down on learning your material and be so comfortable with it that you’re able to talk naturally to your audience without relying heavily on notes. Practice in front of a mirror, record yourself and improve on what you notice doesn’t work when you see yourself.
  • Speak calmly, clearly and be conscious of “filler” sounds: um, if you are, um, trying to make, uh, the, uh point, about the uh, graph over on the uh, left, uh, side of the screen, um there…You get the picture. Record yourself, practice and listen to your speech patterns. If you are prone to sounding like that, then rehearse more until you’re not.
  • Be on time: I’ve never seen a conference planner who wanted their speakers to go overtime. If you’ve been given a 20-minute slot, make sure you end on 20 minutes and no more. And if you get a 2-minute warning, but have 10 minutes left of material, don’t rush. Pick the key point and finish there. No one wants to see you fly through 20 slides in two minutes and no one will retain anything from it.
  • Use eye contact: look up from your notes/the screen often and for more than a flickering second. Look at the whole room, not just the few front rows that you can actually see well.
  • If there is a podium, don’t grip it and hold on for dear life: podiums are terrible for photographers. They crop your body in half and if you are not tall, they leave just a bit of space to capture a good shot of you. They also distance you from your audience. If you are at a podium feel free to stand beside it, or to step away from it now and then to break up the monotony of the lectern and to give your audience – and grateful photographer – a few opportunities to see more of you than what shows up behind the microphone.
  • Use hand gestures, but don’t gesticulate wildly: hand gestures add dynamism and can create some great mid-action shots. Just don’t over do it, especially if you are using gestures that don’t come naturally to you.
  • Laser pointers: Ugh…(1995 called and wants its laser pointer back…) If you must use them, be sparing. You don’t want your audience to feel like you’re playing that game with your cat where you make it jump around all over the place chasing after that dot of light because it’s just so funny.

  • Be flexible: technical issues arise far more often than you’d think warranted given how little audo-visual presentation technology has changed in the past 10 years. We’ve got devices in our pockets that can let us video chat with someone around the world, but getting a microphone to work in a small room can still be a challenge. Prepare a Plan B, just in case the slides don’t show, or the sound fails. Being familiar with your material means being able to talk it through even if you have to abandon your slides altogether.
  • Smile: smile often, and naturally. Particularly if there is a photographer in the room. When you pause, smile. It only takes a second for a pro to get that great shot of you. And your audience will instantly feel more connected to you.
  • Stick around after the gig: if you’ve been invited to a conference to speak, if possible, don’t just jet in, do your thing, and whisk your rolly bag offstage to your waiting UBER to the airport. Sometimes it can’t be helped, but if you’ve got a bit of time, it’s courteous to your hosts and beneficial to your audience members to make yourself accessible after your presentation to meet with people one-on-one and be available to answer their questions.
  • Taking questions: keep the conversation moving, repeat the question of the questioner (if there is no audience microphone) so that everyone understands and hears it. If you don’t know the answer, say so. There’s nothing wrong with saying you will find out and have them connect with you after ward so you can let them know. Don’t skate around the topic and try to fake an answer. And if you’ve got a bully in the room who’s trying to throw you off or asking deliberately obtuse or aggressive questions, take back control and simply say (with a smile) that rather than waste the audience’s time with too much inside baseball you’d be happy to meet and discuss this after your talk.

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It looks like a lot to think about, but the best advice is to remember that you are there to deliver a message. Keep the message simple, stay on point, and remember that communication is not just about the language you use, but how you use it, your tone of voice, and how you make your audience feel. Engage with them, connect with them and be approachable and friendly. Know your material and practice.

And don’t forget to smile a lot and often. Your audience, and photographer, will thank you for it.

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