Five More Conference Gremlins (and How to Avoid Them)

In the three days of a recent conference I directed, there were a lot of examples of both what to do and what not to do. Here are five more really important things to watch for if you’re presenting at a conference.

6. Don’t Read Your Presentation!

When a say, “read,” I’m talking about with your head down, not looking a the audience, totally engrossed in the page. NOT a good idea! It’s boring, comes across as you not caring about the audience at all, and is really painful to listen to. It also takes a lot more concentration by the audience to “take in” and understand the message.

Now, I realize that sometimes we’re in a tough position – one in which we need to read from a script at a lectern. There are techniques you can use to make it a lot more palatable to the audience and enhance your performance tremendously.

    1. In the world of professional narrators lives the marked script. Narrators are people who make very lucrative livings off their ability to read a script in front of a microphone naturally. To do that, they mark up their scripts. A vertical line is a full pause. An underlined word is emphasized. It’s a trick the pros use and you can use it, too. Take some time before you deliver your talk to go through your script, read it aloud, and mark it up. Look for natural pauses and mark them up. Underline words you want to emphasize.
    2. Most corporate scripts (in my experience) are written to be read quietly at a desk with lots of time to mull over the works. These are not scripts that should ever see the light of day in a conference setting. But they do.

Take some time to read the script aloud. Think carefully about what you’re saying. Are these words you would normally use in a conversation in your office? If not, change them so that they are. Stilted scripts are not conversational scripts. You need to spend the time to put them into your own words … the spoken word … so that they sound like a normal conversation. If they’re not your words, you’ll trip over them as you read.

  1. Having a script that is designed for the spoken word will allow you to concentrate on your audience eye contact. Learn to read full sentences so that you can deliver the bulk of the sentence directly to your audience. Return to the page only to pick up the start of the next sentence. If I’m forced to read a script, I run my hand down the edge of the page as I move along it so that it’s even with the last sentence I’ve read. That way, I can quickly visually connect with where I left off.
  2. Make sure your script is double spaced, or at least one and a half spaced (the lines) and in 14 point type. That way it will be much easier to read. And insist on a light on the lectern!

The key is to work on phrasing and delivery that’s natural – and above all, have fun with it!

7. Introducing the Show File

OK, you’re getting ready to present to an audience  . . . with speaker support. And you’re nervous – the last thing you need to be doing is futzing around trying to find the show button on the bottom of the screen. Click on the wrong one and it can really throw you for a loop. Been there, done that.

Here’s a little known trick to avoid the problem altogether. If you’re using PowerPoint, save your file as a “show” file. When you open the file, it will open in full screen mode and you’re ready to go. But put a black slide in as the first slide. Then after it opens, advance it to your title screen when you’re ready.

For Keynote, same thing … but you set this up in the document inspector. Just click on “automatically play upon open.”

8. Using Full Sentences on Slides

I once did a full day seminar – I was scheduled in at the last minute. Now while I knew the material, I decided that to keep me on track, I’d use the training company’s slides.

I went through them quickly beforehand, and saw that they used full sentences, screen after screen. But I simply didn’t have the time to change them. I thought, “well, I’ll be OK – I’m a good presenter.”

Good presenter or not, as I put the slides up on the screen, I found myself reading each one of them out loud to the audience. I couldn’t help myself. There was just too much information up there and I couldn’t stay in sync with my points unless I  read each sentence on the screen aloud.

And that’s the number one thing that audience’s hate: speakers who read the slides. Number One!

So, take out unnecessary words. Get it down to a short phrase. Remember, you’re the one who’ll explain it. The phrase is there to make your point clearer, easier to understand or remember … and to reinforce the point as you say it.

9. Last Minute Changes

Large conferences and conventions are different animals than delivering a presentation to a small group. They take lots of preparation and typically involve an audio-visual crew to run the slides. I’ve directed and produced many of them over some 25 years, or so.

In these situations, a sure-fire way to ensure your presentation won’t run properly is to make last minute changes to a PowerPoint or Keynote file AFTER you’ve already provided it to the crew. I have lots of stories ….

These types of complicated shows usually require the tech crew to be running multiple computers. For the last show I did (a month ago), we were running six of them – a combination of PCs and Macs.

The reason for different platforms (PCs and Macs) is that presentations that were created on a PC should be played back on a PC – just in case. There are subtle differences in transitions, how audio is handled, and codecs used to run video.

Last minute changes during a show can be a nightmare, switching files around, figuring out which computer to switch to at the last minute, which ones have sound cables and which one don’t, etc.

Typically, I put copies of the same presentation file on multiple computers so that if there’s a last minute change or something “goes down,” there a quick alternative. However, there’s always a presenter that makes a last minute change to a file in that situation (and then due to a schedule change and having to switch computers during the program), that last minute change causes the wrong copy of the file to run on the wrong computer – one that hasn’t been updated. It’s caused presenters to stop in mid sentence, start apologizing, talk out loud across the huge conference room to the tech crew … well, you name it.

My word of caution: Don’t ever change files once they’ve been submitted to the tech crew unless it’s a dire emergency. Because in the end, nobody in the audience will ever know the difference – it’s not worth the confusion and in most cases, trauma.

10. Technical Rehearsal

Always do a technical rehearsal before “going on.” I don’t care if it’s a big convention, or you with a computer and projector in a small room of 25 people. There’s nothing worse than a presenter futzing around with a projector for ten minutes before they turn to the audience and bumble into the start of their presentation.

Be professional. Do a technical rehearsal beforehand to make sure all the equipment works the way you want it to. Get there good and early.

One other thing: Rehearse your presentation on the machine it’s going to run on. There are multiple reasons for this. Every computer is set up differently. If it doesn’t have some peripheral software required to run Flash, for example, or a particular audio codec, you’re in a lot of trouble. There are also differences in platforms (PCs vs. Macs), so make sure that if it’s not running on the same platform it was created on, to run it well beforehand slide for slide … right through to the end.

11. An extra gremlin to watch out for:  Losing links from video files in PowerPoint in Windows

Here’s a gremlin I met just this past year.

At this particular sales convention, I had not had time to run through a presentation in detail with a presenter during the regularly scheduled technical rehearsal. We agreed to meet late the evening before her live presentation to run through it. In the meantime, I moved it to the computer I planned to run it on (a PC) in anticipation of our meeting.

Well, there was a convention get-together that night and she didn’t show up. I quickly ran through the presentation to make sure it looked good and resigned myself to the fact that whatever I had was how it was going to run.

Live on stage the next day, she stopped in her tracks, called out to the tech table that the videos weren’t running and proceeded to apologize to the audience throughout the rest of the presentation.

Here’s what had happened …

The presentation had been created in PowerPoint 2003 on a PC, which is what we played it back on. However, that version of Powerpoint has a bug in it. It sometimes loses the link to the videos that are supposed to play in it. She had designed static screens that looked exactly the same as the first frame of each of the videos. When she clicked ahead, however, to the video, it didn’t run, because it had detached itself from the file.

I’d never seen the proper playback so I had no idea what she was referring to, of course. And later figured out what the problem was.

Need I say more?