Those of us in public relations spend a lot of time helping clients speak effectively in front of strangers, but what about our own speaking skills? Last week some of us addressed a client conference on best practices in PR and social media, which was an opportunity to put those skills to use. The crowd was engaged, and post-event evaluations were positive. But not every success is intuitive.
The best presentations are both informative and entertaining. For smaller crowds, a conversation is ideal. Here are some tips to make your next presentation stand out.
Tweak your topic to meet and beat audience expectations
Odds are, a conference crowd will hear from several speakers in a given day, so your aim is to be the memorable one. For a broad topic like social media in business today, personalize it. We pulled examples from attendees’ own social pages and offered praise and productive recommendations. We also showed some “fail” examples as cautionary lessons.
Ever been to a conference where a standup comic roasts members of the audience with inside jokes? We don’t advocate going that far, but a little research goes a long way. It pays to study recent industry developments, learn the average audience member’s level of sophistication, and know what happened the very morning of your speech so it can feel fresh and relevant. It also helps to mingle with audience members for a few moments in advance of your speech if possible, because it gives you some small talk to work into the presentation and helps you hold the attention of the crowd.
The most engaging talks encourage – or even demand – audience participation. This can be as simple as throwing out a challenge to facilitate discussion among participants. At a recent gathering of human resource managers, a speaker began by grouping participants together to “Find 10 Things in Common,” which is simple and non-threatening for even the shyest conference-goer. And the results are fun. In the selfie era, we sometimes encourage photo-taking. All you have to do is ask people to pose for a picture and you‘ve instantly formed a group that have a shared experience. Other icebreakers include simple verbal or written games or something that just stops the show the way 2016 World Champion of Public Speaking, Darren Tay, shown here famously did. But try to avoid the deadly “go around the room and introduce yourself,” a guaranteed social anxiety-inducer and potential snoozefest.
Connect with one person at a time
A large crowd is intimidating and it doesn’t lend itself to icebreakers, so take this tip from top TED speaker Simon Sinek. Don’t scan the crowd; it can make you nervous, and your attention could be caught by those who are frowning or distracted. Instead, focus on connecting with one person at a time. Choose the most engaged and receptive audience members and speak directly to them. It will boost your confidence and help you channel any anxiety into positive energy.
Show, don’t tell
Do you want to hear a hundred statistics and data points, or would you rather listen to stories and examples that offer insight? We’re betting on the latter. Some experts advise breaking each component of a talk with an anecdote, image, video or question. This keeps things conversational and memorable. In our recent presentation, we naturally used anecdotes and images of great tweets and other social posts, as well as examples of hashtag hijacks that backfired, for example.
Whatever you do, make sure your slides or other visuals don’t contain more than a few words of text, and make it easy on the audience. People cannot read and listen to you at the same time, so don’t step on your own headlines.
Periodically poll the audience
This will this snap any phone-checkers back to attention, and it’s a good way to read the room. In our recent experience, we described what a positive media exchange looked like, then polled the group for their own media experiences. This exercise elicited some cringeworthy stories as well as helpful advice for the entire crowd. One participant was due to speak to a reporter the following day and took some of the group advice to heart, resulting in good information being shared with a local outlet. For larger groups, rhetorical questions can help capture flagging attention after a few minutes into a talk. And a quick, show-of-hands poll helps take the group’s temperature on an issue, or whether a topic has been covered enough for the speaker to pivot to something else.
Go off-script, but carefully
About that pivot… it can be tricky. Sometimes simple audience polling will warrant a change in your presentation, or maybe breaking news or last-minute insight from a conference moderator will prompt a switch. Either way, think hard before abandoning your planned presentation. The goal is to read the crowd and the environment. Make a smart shift that acknowledges change but stays relevant to the topic at hand.
Going off-script can work, but only if the speaker is adept and knows the subject matter well. This is not the venue to try out new material. Yesterday’s comments by John Mackey, Whole Foods CEO, on its acquisition by Amazon, are an odd take on going “off-script. “It’s been a whirlwind courtship.” Mackey said. “Because a little over six weeks after we met on this blind date, we’re officially engaged, as of today. But like an old traditional marriage, where there are all kinds of rules and chaperones, we can’t consummate the marriage until we’re actually officially hooked up. This is not a Tinder relationship.” Oops! He then added, “I got a feeling I’m off script.”
Inject appropriate humor
The best speakers know when to inject the right kind of humor into the speech. Unless you know your crowd very well, stay away from politics or anything like a true “roast” mocking your hosts or attendees. On the other hand, it’s acceptable to poke fun at yourself in a relevant way, or to use industry humor. If you work in a business that abuses insider jargon or acronyms, all attendees can relate. Experts advise using humor as a unifier, where the speaker and the crowd are all in on the joke. And it’s best to avoid anything that is narrowly niched to a particular topic, too highbrow or too lowbrow. Avoid anything rude, sexual, racial or politically incorrect in any way. Last week’s offhand remark by Uber board member David Bonderman resulted in his swift resignation because it was perceived as sexist.
Bask in the afterglow
Once a presentation is complete, mingle with your attendees as long as you can, to take questions and prompt further conversation. These interactions are great for networking and future opportunities. Arrange for anonymous speaker evaluations through handouts or an online form. If possible, plan to send the presentation to each participant and do so with a thank you note and photos to demonstrate your appreciation.
Finally, start planning your next talk! Speaking at industry conferences or client gatherings of any kind is always a worthwhile investment and time well spent.