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My Lessons from Conference Presentations

It is inherently ridiculous for me to offer advice on delivering presentations at conferences after having done it a whopping TWO times. But on the other hand, (1) I’ve attended probably hundreds of conference presentations, and (2) my first conference presentation led to a gig as the keynote presenter at my second conference.

Here are my five lessons from my experiences:

Stop saying “Uh” and “Um.” This is probably the most annoying habit public speakers have. I find it so utterly annoying. The part that really vexes me is that it takes effort to emit that extra syllable. You’re doing work saying an extra word.

Here are my tricks for eliminating uhh’s and umm’s from your voice – all the time:

  • As the old joke goes, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse! The more you practice your talk, the more comfortable you will be. I am still at the point where I write out my entire talk, word for word, with punctuation and indications for pauses, asides, inflection, audience interaction, and so forth. My goal is to rehearse my talk every day, start to finish, for a month prior to Go Live. It usually ends up being every other day, with every other rehearsal being a full-dress rehearsal, but the more you practice, (1) the better the speech will get, and (2) the more ingrained it will be in your brain.

  • Allow yourself a pause. You don’t have to fill the air. It’s okay to take a few seconds. Practice the art of looking like you’re formulating a thought.

  • When I first started teaching technical content, I was told to deliver my content from beginning to end, lectures and demonstration, over and over again. I had a neighborhood cat who heard my lectures twenty to thirty times. To break the habit of uhh’s and umm’s, every time I said one, I forced myself to do 10 push-ups. I was in the Army. I hate push-ups. Very quickly I broke the habit.

Practice as you deliver. Let’s bring up the Army again. One of their core doctrines is “Train as you fight.” In other words, when you rehearse:

  • Use a stopwatch. Know how long your presentation will be.

  • Go through your slides as you speak. This will help you understand when you’re talking too long to the same slide. Also you’ll be able to figure out your water sip breaks. (Crucial!)

  • If you are delivering a team presentation, practice together. You’ll get more feedback. Also, I’ve seen group presentations where the first person went on and on, and the others had to cut back their talks on the fly to finish on time.

Don’t be boring! This is another lesson from my days as a technical trainer. Days, weeks, months from your delivery, people will forget what you talked about. But they will remember how you made them feel. The greatest cardinal sin of any presenter is boring the audience. Don’t deliver a presentation that you wouldn’t care to listen to.

Realize that there are multiple directions that you could take your talk. How do you choose the right one? Start with the audience. It’s not about what you want to say. It’s about the experience the audience wants to have. They want to love your talk. They want to be educated, enlightened, and even challenged. They want to be engaged in the thoughts and ideas you want to offer.

In screenwriting, there is a saying to “Kill your darlings.” People get caught up in a witty piece of dialog, or a scene, or a character trait that they love. Be willing to strike those parts from your speech if they are for you and not the audience. Personally, most of my darlings are slaughtered in the last week before the delivery.

Be available before and after the presentation. Don’t waltz in a couple minutes before your talk and take the stage. Be there beforehand. Say hello to people as they enter. If you have a handout / take-away (which is always a great idea), tell them. Offer a business card. Let them know you care – which you should. Also, this will help you be less nervous. If you have already engaged with the audience, you have started becoming friends, or at least colleagues, with them, and they are no longer the mysterious unknown arbiter of your talk’s success.

If you had good ideas, people will want to engage you about those ideas. You just took up X number of minutes of their lives that they will never get back. The least you can do is respect their time, accept their feedback, and communicate with them.

Bonus Lesson

When people engage with you after your talk, a great response is “Thank you very much. What’s your name?”

As humans, we are naturally inclined to be polite and humble. Being polite, most people will compliment you on the talk you just delivered (unless you completely and utterly bombed, and even then, they will probably still compliment you). Being humble, the natural inclination of many people is to minimize the compliment. “I wasn’t that good.” “I totally screwed up the opening.” By doing this, you have just taken away from their experience. Don’t do that. Be gracious and humble – in a good way. “Thank you very much.” Acknowledge their kind words.

Asking their name recognizes their humanity and individuality and that you care about them as a person – which you should, especially if they care enough to talk with you after your speech. When you talk with them, talk with them honestly about their thoughts, opinions, and experiences. And make theirs more important than your own; practice active listening.

In my life, I strive to be more charming like people I see on tv and in movies. Like a Cary Grant or William Powell. (I like old movies.) I also think about the charming celebrities I have met in real life – Dan Ackroyd, Tony Danza, and Rocky Carroll come to mind. (I watched a couple boxing matches at Mr. Carroll’s house in the early 2000s when my best friend was a lowly production assistant on the television show he was on. And holy cow, he always made me feel like I was the most important guest at his party and that the most important thing to me was that I was having a good time.) We all enjoy being around charming people, so why not try to be more charming yourself?

In the end, though, it’s about respecting them and more importantly, doing the right thing as a public speaker and person.

Anyhow, those are my thoughts. If you have presented, I would love to hear your thoughts. If you have been an audience member at presentations, I would also like to hear what you think makes a successful and not-so-successful delivery.

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