Do your speeches sink out of sight at conferences? They might, if you look and sound like every other presenter. Instead, here are 5 ways to be a hit speaker at your next conference!
Speak at a regional or national conference and you're facing some unpredictable weather. Sure, your presentation might make a splash that hundreds of people in your industry notice. Or you could sink out of sight without a trace.
How could it be otherwise, given the odds? I once gave two workshops on PowerPoint at a national dental conference. The event was five days long, and was held at one of those domed hotel-conference center motherships where it was easy not to see the outside world for that long. I arrived the night before my first talk and consulted the Big Board of keynotes, workshops, seminars, meetings, and other gatherings. There were 185 events in all.
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Do you know how to be the speaker who's remembered and cherished from that crowd? Here are five ways you can accomplish that feat.
Divorce Your Content and Marry Your Audience
The first order of business in terms of being a memorable speaker at a large conference like that is getting your head in the right place. And I'm afraid that might mean changing your partner in the middle of the dance.
For one thing, it may mean not leaving with the one who brung you. Many of us "arrive" at our presentation ready and willing to deliver our content whatever gets in our way. If the obstacle happens to be the audience, well, that's too bad for them.
What I mean is, we forget that motivating and inspiring your audience has to take precedence over delivering content. It's easy to fall into the trap of wanting to look good when presenting at your company—never mind when you're on the national stage. By all means, be solid on the material you're presenting. But think in terms of your listeners, from the conception of your talk all the way through the presentation itself. Anything that indicates the audience is listening and responding—even objections—is an opportunity for you to engage further, and to relish it.
Commit to Giving a Performance
Now let your body follow your head in getting you to the right place. Commit to giving a performance in front of others. Isn't that your job after all? You're not there simply to disseminate information—that can be done through an email or white paper. No, we need you, connecting with us in real time, to provide your content with blood flowing through its veins.
Like any high-profile event that can fire people up, that takes extraordinary energy. Is there anything deadlier than a speaker who reads a paper while standing statue-like behind a lectern? You'd think not, yet that's what conference audiences are subjected to every day.
You need to do better than that. Just understand that you'll run up against Actor's Paradox, which states that you can't give a good performance by trying to give a performance. Yes, you have to perform at your peak. But "being excellent" isn't the target you should be aiming at. Your target instead—just like the actor's, has to be truth. Be true to giving the audience what they need, not feeding your ego. Lend all your efforts to that goal, and you'll be terrific.
Discover the Shape and Drama in Your Speeches
If you're going to rock your audience, you have to keep them with you at every moment. You don't want to see smart phones lighting up everywhere, do you? Here's a secret in plain view that many speakers don't see, and understanding it will help you reach your goal: your talk is really a group of mini-speeches.
That is, each segment of your presentation has its own purpose, and should be complete in itself—a short story, if you will. It has its own information, rhythm . . . and drama. I often use the metaphor of a string of pearls to indicate this dichotomy of speech segments and overall talk. Each main point you discuss is beautiful and complete in itself, like a single pearl, and together they form the brilliant pearl necklace. Grasping this is important in terms of pacing your speech, for two reasons. First, it allows your audience to absorb what you're saying without it all sounding like one big data dump. Second, it provides listeners with a sense of hitting the "refresh" button in their brains, and to be alert and ready for the new point that's arriving.
Take the typical conference speech opening: The speaker: (1) Says how happy he is to be there; (2) Introduces himself and his credentials; and (3) Previews the topic. That's three distinct parts of the speech (even if they occur in rapid succession). Yet the speaker is apt to let them all meld together in her delivery, so not one of them stands out. The clearer you delineate the different parts of your speech, the easier it will be for listeners to follow and stay absorbed. Of course, this principle applies even more strongly as you move through each main point of your talk, since they are distinctly different, and the audience needs a mental break to re-engage.
What Makes You Unique? — You Should Know
Speaking on a conspicuous conference stage (with the prospect of a video clip of you available online forever) is enough to make you play it safe. But these highly competitive venues are precisely the wrong occasions to do so.
One reason most presentations in any industry are so boring, is because they're just like every other talk in that business sector. "It's always been done this way," is a self-protective and easy out, and a guarantee that your talk will be beneath the waves as soon as you finish. Think about the memorable speakers you've seen at conferences. What makes them stick in your mind?
Steve Jobs didn't deliver data-heavy PowerPoint slides like everybody else; and Hans Rosling used body language in a way I'd never seen before. But the best news for any conference audience is that you're not Steve Jobs or Hans Rosling. So consider the characteristics that you bring to the stage, both as a speaker and a human being. How can you maximize those assets in your own talk? And ask yourself, "Can I deliver this information in a way that hasn't been done before? Will it benefit from a different approach?" If you decide to play it along familiar lines, that's all right too. The time you spend thinking this way will still pay off.
Use the Power of Space and Time
The conference stage is like a small universe—yours to command for the duration of your talk—so it only makes sense that you grasp how to employ space and time. Command is the appropriate word if you're going to marshal hundreds of people's attention and provide an image of you that stays in their mind. To think like that, though, is to realize how few presenters do anything of the kind.
Once again, we're in the realm of effective performance. Now, however, beyond the mental commitment of doing so, we can discuss practical means by which you can succeed. Commanding a stage as a leader (who speaks) means giving the talk exactly the way you want to, and that means controlling your pace of delivery. If you're fully invested in what you're saying, the pace will change in different segments of your talk. The relaxed and confident speaker lets that happen, without setting the presentation's speed dial at an unvarying pace. A confident and confidence-inducing speech unfurls at a comfortable speed for all concerned.
Equally important is making the physical stage your own. Learn the art of stage directions so you can use them to your advantage. Actors and directors know where the most powerful positions are on stage, and you should too, so you can deliver your best ideas from the strongest position. Here, TED's red circle isn't anywhere in evidence, and thank goodness. Shakespeare has one of the assassins in Julius Caesar say that Caesar "bestrides the world like a Colossus." You don't have to go that far. But please, give us something beyond the ordinary.
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Gary Genard is an actor, author, and expert in theater-based public speaking training. His company, Boston-based The Genard Method uses performance techniques to help business executives, leadership teams, and professionals embody presence and confidence to achieve true influence. In 2018 for the fifth consecutive year, Gary has been ranked by Global Gurus as one of the World's Top 30 Communication Professionals. He is the author of the books How to Give a Speech and Fearless Speaking.