Whether you are presenting at a conference to educate the public, to share research findings with your peers, to influence government officials, or to inspire communities, these five simple tips will greatly enhance your impact.
1. Tailor content to your audience
Although this may seem obvious, the reality is most speakers do not take the time to investigate the characteristics of their audience and run the risk of presenting content that is not relevant, important, or meaningful to them. This lack of preparation shows. Audiences visibly disengage: people start looking at their smart phones, fidgeting in their chairs, reading their conference programs, closing their eyes and drifting off, or, even worse, exiting the room.
Request a list of the people who have registered for your presentation. If your point of contact is reluctant to provide this, then ask if it is possible to receive a list of attendees’ positions and organizations. Assure your contact that you will not use the list to contact or solicit them.
Review the list. What organizations are they from? What positions do they hold? What specializations do they bring? What geographic regions are they from?
Look for clusters: are most people from a certain organization? Profession? Specialty area?
What is important to those clusters? Why do you think they are attending? What matters to them about your topic?
Tailor and structure your presentation to address what matters to those clusters. You may be used to following a set structure for your content. For example, presenting research may follow the formula: literature search, method, findings, and conclusions.This may right for a clinician group, but not if you are speaking to the public, government officials, the media, donors, or business people. For those groups, step back and think about what they want to know and structure your content accordingly. Top
2. Use familiar language
The second pitfall for most presenters is using language that the audience does not understand or may be only vaguely familiar with. If you have gone to great lengths to tailor the content (see tip 1), don’t undermine that by using unfamiliar language.
Jargon (acronyms, abbreviations, and technical terms) that may be common among your peers may be unfamiliar to your audience. If they know them, then use them. If they don’t know them, either eliminate them or define them more than once as you go through your presentation. It is striking how often we are unaware of using jargon because it has become second nature to us as we go about our daily work. You can see whether this is an issue for you by tape recording your speech and then listening for the use of jargon. Awareness of it will usually break the habit.
Although less common than jargon, some speakers like to “impress” an audience by using “fancy” language: great for solving crossword puzzles,but not for expressing ideas and information clearly. Simple, everyday, common words are best because they express meaning immediately. Fancy words break attention and, once lost, it is hard to get it back.
Long words should be avoided when shorter words will do. Shorter words are easier for an audience to grasp quickly. For example, show versus demonstrate, after versus subsequently, about versus approximately, try versus endeavour. Complex sentences that are full of long words become tedious to listen to and hard to grasp.
Use specific and concrete words and avoid overly general, vague words. General words, by definition, allow for multiple interpretations whereas specific words are more precise in meaning. Top
3. Avoid too much detail
Generally, at conferences, people do not want to listen to a dissertation on your topic. They want the highlights — the big picture with a few well chosen details to back up important, sensitive, or controversial points. Your talk is one of many that your audience has to listen to in a day, and there is only so much they can take in and absorb.
Determine your central point.If I am your audience, what do you want me to do, believe or know? Do you want me to fund something? Do you want me to believe your research is ground breaking? Do you want me to change a certain behaviour? Do you want me to change my attitudeabout something? Do you want me to partner with you on an initiative? Once you are clear about the central point of your presentation, express it in one line — not a paragraph, just one line.
Then determine the two or three arguments, reasons, or circumstances that form the basis of your central point and provide the relevant details that validate them.
Time your presentation. It is important to stay within the period you are allotted. No one appreciates speakers who run over time. It may create negative feelings toward you, eliminate any goodwill you have built up, and end your presentation on a low note. Be sure to time your presentation and edit accordingly.
Allow time for questions. Always leave at least 10 minutes for questions. Top
4. Make your slides easy to read
Slides are often so “busy” it is hard for an audience to know what they are looking at, and that causes them to start reading and stop listening to you. Complicated slides often drain the energy out of the room and lead to audience fatigue from information overload. More information does not necessarily mean more communication.
Design your slides to read like billboards.They should be as quick and easy to read as a billboard as you drive past. If you are concerned that that may be too little information to make your points, remember that conferences are events. They are not internal meetings where a great level of detail is required to make important decisions. They are about amplifying the highlights, not conveying all the detail. Also, you can expand verbally on the content that is visible on the slide.
When appropriate, use pictures or diagrams rather than text. Figures help to convey information more quickly and easily in an event setting and are often the best way to illustrate a relationship, idea, or process.
Limit text to no more than five bullet points. Bullets should be a single line, and sub-bullets should generally be avoided.
Leave lots of white space. White space makes your graphics (e.g., text, diagrams, pictures, charts, etc.) stand out.
In a conference setting, dark slide backgrounds also make your graphics pop out, making it easier for your audience to grasp their meaning quickly.
Limit the number of graphics on a slide to one or two (e.g., a text box and a chart) for easier reading. Top
5. Engage with your audience
The final challenge for most presenters is engaging effectively with the audience. The audience needs to connect with you to connect with your message.
Smile. A smile does many things: it welcomes an audience, it makes you approachable, it makes you look confident, and it lifts the energy in the room. Imagine greeting your audience at the opening of your speech the way you would greet your friends at home.
Look at your audience. Avoid spending too much time looking down, reading your speaking notes, or looking at the screen Although you do not have to look at your audience all the time, you should try to do so most of the time. If the audience is small (fewer than 50 people), look at everyone at least once. For a larger audience, split the room in your mind into four quadrants. During your presentation, look at different people in the eye in each of the four quadrants.
Get out from behind the podium. The best and easiest way to engage with your audience is get as close to them as possible, even if this means standing fairly close to the edge of the stage. It builds rapport, displays confidence, and adds to a sense of dynamism. Watch a TED talk, and you will see that every speaker is out in front. Notice what a difference it makes in how the audience responds to them.
These are common sense tips, but the most important thing is to remember to use them. This requires taking the time to do things in a new way. Physician leaders are often so busy, it may just seem easier to take a presentation they have used in the past and try to make it work. However, that can be a waste of an opportunity. Investing some time and effort in using these tips will produce a significant return on that investment for you and your future audiences. Top
Mila Naimark is president of Clockwork Talk. She has over 25 years of experience in leadership communication and has worked with executives and professionals across a wide range of sectors including health care. In April 2015, she conducted a workshop on this topic at the Canadian Conference on Physician Leadership. Web site: http://www.clockworktalk.com/