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10 Tactical Tips to Give a Great Conference Presentation

This is a guest post from Earn Save Live

Ryan Guina Speaking at FinCon11

Ryan Guina Speaking at FinCon11

I glanced nervously at my watch.

Two minutes.

Taking a deep breath, I looked at my notes. The words seemed to blur, and I couldn’t focus. As the room filled up, I tried to do a quick head count. “One, two, three… thirty… seventy… a hundred… ” I silently calculated.

One minute.

I sipped some water and looked around the room. I saw a friend and she waved. I smiled, momentarily distracted from the situation at hand. I was about to give my first conference presentation and the room was near capacity.

“If presentations had theme songs,” I thought to myself. “Then this one should be Eye of the Tiger. Or maybe I Will Survive.”

Before I could decide on an appropriate song, I heard someone tapping the microphone. I listened as someone reminded the audience to silence their cell phones, pointed out the appropriate exits in case of an emergency, and then introduced me. Smiling bravely, I stood up.

Showtime.

___________________

Since that day, I’ve given a number of public talks, to audiences big and small. Not only have I gained confidence in my skills as a speaker, I’ve also come to enjoy the process of creating my presentation.

While I’m by no means an expert, I thought I’d share some tips that have really helped me over the years. If you’re giving a talk at FinCon12, you have an incredible opportunity to actively engage with others in the financial blogging community.

Here’s how to make the most of it through your presentation.

1. Tell your story. More than anything, a conference presentation is a story. Because it is your story, it will be different from any others at the conference, although they may have similar themes or topics.

Ask yourself, “What is my story? What do I want to convey to the audience?” Like all stories, yours should have an introduction, a compelling narrative, complicating factors, and a powerful conclusion.

2. Practice in front of a live audience. In the months leading up to your presentation, you need to practice. Your instinct here may be to script your entire talk and practice in front of a mirror. Do not do this. You can script the first minute, but that’s it.

After that, you’ll settle into your talk and you will want to have a conversational tone with your audience. For that reason, you need to practice in front of real people – whether they’re your partner, your kids, your neighbors, your friends, or random strangers.

Set a date, get out the drinks and appetizers, and pass around paper and pens. Before you start your talk, ask your audience to write down anything that they find compelling, confusing, or distracting about you, your talk, or your PowerPoint. This feedback will be invaluable to you, even if it means that you overhaul your presentation afterward.

3. Record yourself. If you’re like me, every time you set my voicemail greeting, it takes four or five tries. “I sound like that? Really?” For that reason, you should record yourself during one of your practice talks. This helped me realize that I tend to speak too quickly.

If there’s a podium, I also tend to grip it for dear life. After seeing myself live and in color, I worked to slow down, add dramatic pauses, and step away from the podium.

4. Watch TED Talks for inspiration. If you’re struggling to find your voice as a writer, you need to find writers whose content, style, and tone you admire. If you’re working to develop your skills as a public speaker, you need to seek out compelling and creative presentations.

For that, you need TED Talks. Search through the presentations by their topic, date, or rating to find ones that really speak to you. What catches your attention? Is it the speaker’s voice, movement, or narrative? How does the speaker’s use of visual tools or props add to the presentation?

Check out FinCon11 speaker Adam Baker at his TEDTalk.

5. Check your tech. Always arrive early to check the technology in the presentation room. At one conference, I arrived to find a projector but no screen. I found someone from the conference venue, and he said I was supposed to bring my own screen or request it ahead of time. (Really!) At another conference, the audio from my room somehow played in the adjoining room instead.

Preferably, I check out the room the previous day to get a sense of the layout and tech set up. If at all possible, use your own laptop and bring your own presentation remote. (If you’re a Mac user, you also need an adapter). I’ve found that my PowerPoints can sometimes lose formatting on different computers – or colors may look garish on certain projectors.

6. Keep time. If you go over your allotted time, your audience will start to hate you. If you have other presenters in your session and you run into their allotted time, they will definitely hate you.

As an audience member, I love engaging, thoughtful, and provocative presentations. But I find it really distracting when a speaker suddenly begins rushing through PowerPoint slides and exclaims, “Wow, my time’s almost up!”

For that reason, I suggest that you have a dedicated timekeeper that alerts you when you have 10, 5, 1, and 0 minutes remaining. This can be done with sheets of paper or, if you’re fancy, an iPad timer. Remember: it’s better to end five minutes early than five minutes late.

7. Find a friendly face. Once your presentation is under way, take a moment and look around the room. Find people who make eye contact with you and give you positive reinforcement, such as a nod or a smile. Give your talk to these people, since their engagement will build your confidence and perceived rapport with the audience.

On the flip side, don’t assume that everyone who is not giving you positive non-verbal cues is unengaged. If you see someone checking their smart phone, for instance, they may be Tweeting about your brilliant FinCon talk instead of checking Yelp for the location of the nearest bar.

8. Ignore the Big Names. Every conference has its Big Names. They’re often keynotes, but not always. The first time I meet a Big Name, I’m a bit star struck. After getting to know them, I realize how kind, smart, and down-to-earth they are.

But it can still trip me up when I see a Big Name in my audience. How do I deal with it? I pointedly ignore them and treat them as if they’re another face in the crowd. For me, this is a conscious decision.

Once, I was giving a presentation with a colleague. He was supposed to talk for 30 minutes and then I was supposed to talk for 30 minutes. But as soon as he saw a Big Name in our audience, he began grandstanding. Even though I was in the front row, acting as timekeeper, he ignored my gestures and my time signals.

At one point, I stood up, but he wouldn’t hand me the mic or the remote. He talked for the full hour. Why? He wanted to impress the Big Name. Between you and me? It didn’t work, and he looked like a jerk.

9. Cultivate dialogue. The entire point of conferences is to engage in critical, thoughtful, and sustained dialogue. I really think it’s important that we think about how we can do this before, during, and after our own conference presentation.

For instance, the Financial Blogger Conference will use the Twitter hashtag #FinCon12. You can Tweet about your presentation ahead of time, and even ask thought-provoking questions related to your topic.

During your presentation, you may solicit audience questions at the beginning or even use a second projector, screen, and hashtag to capture the Twitter backchannel specific to your topic. At the end, allow some time for a Q&A and stick around afterward to talk with individual people. Have business cards or handouts ready too!

10. Use visual images, words, and design elements to tell your story. Whatever you do, do not have a text-heavy PowerPoint with a variety of transitions. During your practice presentation, if you notice your audience squinting, frowning, or rolling their eyes, it’s probably a that your PowerPoint is ineffective.

Think of the screen as a huge stimulus: If you put a ton of text up there and read it aloud to your audience, they are going to keep looking at it even when you’ve moved on to a different part of your presentation.

In my next guest post, I’m going to share how you can use PowerPoint, Keynote, and Prezi to give compelling visual presentations. Until then, I’d love to hear your experiences about public speaking. What are your tips for FinCon12 presenters?

EarnSaveLive.com is a personal finance blog about saving money, eliminating debt, raising a family, and living abroad. The author appreciates conference presentations that ask good questions, use cool fonts, and tell a compelling story.

Photo by RedPhoenixGroup

Posted February 15, 2012 in: Blog by Guest

  1. Great post- I cannot wait to see the line up for FINCON12! I loved the point about allotted time- I know I start silently seething when people go over especially when others are waiting their turn to speak or there is a definite need for a bathroom break! Thanks for the great post.

    FrugalBeautiful, February 15, 2012 at 7:13 pm
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