Every time I go to a business function I try to compile a "lessons learned" list: how well the event was organized, what could be done better, how good the agenda was and - most of all - how were the public speakers. I do this with the purpose of improving my own event organizing and public speaking skills as well as to help others. The recent sales conference I attended resulted in a two-part summary.
Part I. Being a part of the agenda
If you were invited to speak at an event, approach the task professionally, no matter how good a presenter you are.
- Find out what your topic is and when you go on, who is before you and who is after you. Consider taking notes after or even getting together with the speaker that precedes you in advance to see if you can refer to what he or she says in your own speech to make the flow of information smoother.
- Remember: if your slot on the agenda is just before a meal, people are going to be impatient. If you go on right after a meal, people are going to be sleepy and will need to be re-energized.
- Practice. Time yourself and have someone listen to you, even if that person doesn't know anything about the subject. Throwing something together at the last moment is not advisable even for the best speakers: you may have all your points down, but you still don't know how much time it would take to cover them all. Not practicing means you might either end up with some "dead air", because you don't have enough material, or having to scramble and crumple the last portion of your speech, because you have too much.
- We know you have a story to tell, we know it is interesting and we want to hear it - that is why you were invited to speak. However, if your story does not pertain to the topic you were asked to cover and you have only ten minutes to cover the entire subject, you story should take up no more than two minutes. You will be viewed as an amazing speaker if you can cover your story in two minutes and make an effective presentation of your topic in the remaining time. Wouldn't you like to have a reputation of someone who can change an audience member's life in ten minutes?
- Stay on time. A good talk that is on time from a first-time speaker is great. The same from a well-known speaker is even better - it shows respect toward the audience and other less-known speakers, which implies an admirable degree of courtesy and humility.
Part II. Being a host
So, your set is amazing, your lights are incredible, your sound system is the latest and greatest, and you have an amazing lineup of speakers and subjects. Does that mean you can just sit back and rest on your laurels? Not yet.
- Respect your audience - start and end on time.
- Talk to your speakers in advance, get an idea of their ability. Remember, someone may be a great writer or an amazing conversationalist, but a mediocre public speaker.
- If a speaker is just plain bad, say so. You are not doing anyone any favors by enabling someone who can't stay on topic, on time and on the audience's mind.
- If a speaker was bad in the past, was given feedback to that effect and still made no improvements, don't put him/her on stage anymore. Period. Find someone else to cover that topic.
- Employ someone to keep your speakers on time - a person in the front row with a stop watch and a set of large, bold placards, "10 min.", "5 min.", "1 min.", "Time is up!" If you want to be high-tech, have two flat computer screens set stage right and stage left facing the speaker and showing the time countdown.
- Specify a dress code for both your speakers and attendees. "Specify" is a key word here. "Business casual" doesn't cut it anymore, because in the modern environment it can mean anything from shorts and t-shirts to khakis and golf shirts. Give them an example. If you want to see button-down oxfords and khakis, put it down in writing. If you want to see suits and ties, say it in the invitation and/or announcement for your meeting.
- Schedule your breaks. I understand not wanting to interrupt the flow of the presentation, however, it has been scientifically proven that people can only stay focused and actively absorb information for about an hour at a time. People with full bladders tend to listen even less. Ensure that there are plenty of bathrooms near the conference room, provide that information in your agenda packets and let your audience run out at least every couple of hours.
- Be a gracious host for both your audience and your speakers. Have water coolers set up around the perimeter of your conference room - people tend to get dehydrated really fast in the modern super-air-conditioned spaces. Set up a coffee and tea station with a few large coffee and hot water urns for your speakers backstage, especially if you have a long agenda that runs late into the evening. People will remember that you took good care of them at your event, and will want to come back and bring others with them. Wouldn't you like that?