I somehow survived presenting for the first time at an academic conference, discussing Oswego’s transformation from the ’40s through ’60s as part of SUNY’s 60th anniversary conference. I heard our group had the biggest audience (including several college presidents and SUNY’s new Chancellor) of any breakout session, and quite a few folks even said they enjoyed it (very polite of them). The compliment I received most often was entertaining, not smart or anything, but I found it all thrilling.
Given that I’m certainly no gifted speaker, here’s what I’ve gleaned — from watching other presentations and kind words about my talk — about what seems to best engage audiences in these sessions.
1. Personalization. Listeners said they particularly liked when I talked about people, not just dates and data. It’s always good to put a face to the story; at the start I talked about college founder Edward Austin Sheldon the unlikely educational revolutionary (he hated classes as a child and dropped out of Hamilton College). As any reader of Made to Stick knows, stories help make abstract ideas concrete.
2. Go strategically off-script. Some presenters almost never looked up from their papers, not utilizing the benefits of making eye contact. I chose a few moments to step out and speak off-script, almost extemporaneously. Those parts had structures within which to improvise, like a jazz tune. Pulling back to address the audience, whether with anecdotes or bits of context, both shows you know the material and alters the rhythm to catch even sagging listeners’ attention.
3. Enjoy! Even if presenting isn’t your favorite thing, look like you’re having the time of your life. You wouldn’t believe how many people present with a frown, a scowl or dispassionately. If you don’t act as if you like the subject, how can you expect the audience to? The presenters who seemed to enjoy themselves were always my favorites. For my part, I tried to inject levity by making fun of academic jargon, dull architecture, current students’ instant gratification, campus rivalries and old-fashioned salary structures.
>> But don’t these tips work in business too? Isn’t it better to personalize your services, treating customers as individuals and telling interesting stories? Going-off script — being spontaneous and improvising — is key when things don’t always go as expected. And enjoying what you do, making it fun, benefits everyone; don’t we all prefer to deal with people who enjoy what they’re doing?