Some things are too scary to plan for. No, not life insurance, public speaking. Presenting at an event or a conferences is intimidating, even for a frequent speaker. Covering your eyes and hoping it will all be OK obviously isn’t the answer, so what to do? A little bit of preparation will save you going in blind and ensure that everything goes off smoothly. Most common disasters are easily avoidable, and some extra preparation will enable you to get the most out of the event. Assuming that your presentation is all under control, what else can you do to be ready for the event?
Even after a couple of decades of presenting, my list of things to remember is still growing, and as technology changes I find new tricks. The tips I used to have on ‘foils’, acetates and slide carousels are now a historic curiosity, but other things remain the same. Here is the latest iteration of my list of tips and checks:
1. Never be more dependent on technology than you have.
I love technology, you know that, but being a little too adventurous can get you into trouble. Over the years I have learnt not to be 100% dependent on it, unless I really have to be. Ellis’ law goes something like this: The more dependent you are on a technology, the more likely it is to go wrong. It is almost as if computers and printers have a stress sensor that triggers spectacular failures during critical moments.
Twice in the last few years I have watched someone reading notes from a laptop screen. The first time, the screen saver came on and the laptop powered off. The second time, the power lead got caught and dragged the laptop, screaming, to the ground. Both times the speaker was left without any notes.
A simple print out would have done the job just as well, and saved the day. They weren’t using slides and actually didn’t need the laptop at all. Don’t introduce more technology risk that you have to, be it sound, video or gadgets. I charge danger money for doing product demonstrations for these very reasons!
2. Carry a printout of your slides with you.
The six slides per page printout option in PowerPoint is wonderful; Minimum tree damage, maximum return. You now have a copy of the presentation that you can glance through while you are travelling, without even having to fire up the laptop. You can also use it as a guide when you present or as a script if your laptop fails you. The talk might not have all its multimedia glory, but at least you will still be able to give it.
3. Check logistics with the event organisers.
Find out if you will be presenting from your our laptop or from the organisers. If it is from theirs, check what software version they are using. Different versions of PowerPoint give different layouts and animation capabilities and the fonts vary between operating systems.
If your slides are dropped into another presentation, get sight of how they look in the final format, ideally before you present. If the last bullet point has dropped off of a slide, it can be an unwanted surprise. Of course, that is if you are still using bullets. I have seen even stranger things happen with graphics.
4. Have a copy of the presentation on a memory stick, with you.
This is another life saver if your laptop is stolen or breaks. Sadly, these things do happen. Sometimes a laptop simply won’t work with the venue’s projector. This was becoming less common, but with wide screen formats it is becoming more common again. For a little bit of cash, a memory stick provides a simple insurance policy. You can quickly and easily transfer your slides to another laptop.
It is also provides recovery from ‘organiser failure’ – where the wrong file, or no file at all, ended up on the organiser’s laptop. This is also one of the benefits of emailing the slides ahead of time, it provides another form of back up.
Even if the organisers don’t ask you to email over your presentation, still email a copy to someone who will be there, or who can email it to you in a hurry on the day. Even if you loose all of your bags, or aliens abduct you and steal your memory stick or wipe your hard drive, you will still be able to get your presentation back.
5. Remember your gadgets.
In the heat of preparation, it is all to easy to forget the obvious things. Did you pack your laptop power supply? Do you need a mouse, a pointer or a remote control or W.H.Y. (what have you!)? Are the power sockets at the event the same as they are at home, or will you need an adaptor. The UK, US, Northern and Southern Europe, Australia and South Africa all have different power sockets. It is just one of those little barriers to globalisation.
Most modern power supplies cope with the different voltages automatically, but that doesn’t help you if the plug won’t fit into the socket. In case of emergency, it is worth noting that many hotel receptions have adaptor plugs that they will lend to a guest in distress. Just don’t count on it!
6. Check the audience and their expectations.
Who are they? Don’t assume that you know. Check with the organisers or someone who has been before, if it is a regular event. How many people will there be? I once presented at a conference with over 1,000 people. It would have been nice, had I not been expecting an informal session with 12! The organisers had moved my session from a side room, to being part of the keynote. I have had the experiences the other way around, which was disappointing, but significantly less stressful.
The lesson is to check and then check again nearer the time of the event. It is not unknown of organisers to be a little overly optimistic on numbers, but it still gives an idea of what to expect.
Find out about the audience’s expectations. They want to hear what they came to hear. If what you came to say is different, it will reflect badly on you, even if what you said was brilliant. If you have been pitched as the leading expert on high power amphibious computing, you better be the leading expert on high power amphibious computing. If you just told a one line joke about a frog with a calculator once upon a time, you might want to manage some expectations down a little. Make sure the representation of the presentation is accurate and well communicated.
7. Check out the venue.
Double check the location. If there are addresses for organisers, companies and hotels, make sure you turn up at the right one, at the right time. Ideally have a printed map and directions that include finding the actual room. Arrive early and check it out. At one event last year I had travel problems and only arrived just in time to go on stage. The event organisers were very happy and relaxed about it, but it is no way to get the best out of an event.
By arriving early, there is time to sort out issues like misplaced equipment and chairs in the past. Plan to stay around after the talk as well. Just-in-time arrival and drive-by presenting will not endear you to either the audience or the organisers. You also miss the full benefit of the speaking opportunity.
8. Avoid eating or drinking prior to presenting.
At least, not just before your presentation. Wine is common place in Europe with lunch. My sociological observation is that, for the uninitiated, free alcohol and nerves are not a good combination. Water is fine, but anything stronger will affect your voice, your judgement and your delivery. A stomach full of food will slow your brain too. If you suffer from nerves, a full and churning stomach is the last thing you want before you climb on stage. This isn’t the time to try eating hampster for the first time, or to discover that you are allergic to shellfish. Of course, don’t starve or dehydrate yourself either. Plenty of water and a little food will set you up well.
9. Be sociable.
Arriving early gives you a chance to meet and great. This is a good final opportunity to check what people are expecting from you, and to get maximum value out of the event by learning something from the other attendees. It may also provide some one line examples for use during your presentation. Get to know the organisers and, if there is one, the AV staff as well. Even just having a name is a big help if your microphone goes wrong.
10. Be Thankful.
Do thank the audience and the organisers. You have put in a lot of work, but so have they, whatever the results.
This list isn’t exhaustive, but I use it as my safety net. Jeff Pulver, a very experienced conference speaker, who also runs his own events, has posted his thoughts on getting more out of your speaking opportunities, which has some suggestions for making the most of your time at an event as a speaker.
What has worked well for you?