Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Better Conference Presentations

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of providing a two-hour "train-the-presenter" workshop´┐╝ for the 9th Annual Opportunities Conference for the Ontario Alliance of Career Development Practitioners (OACDP). The purpose of the workshop was to provide those who attended with insights they can use to develop and deliver effective presentations at the conference.

Participants received a handout that provided a format for taking notes. An outside supplier recorded the presentation, which has been divided into number of sections and made available as mp3 files on the website.

Please feel free to take advantage of this article, the handout, the post-workshop information and the recorded files to improve your next conference presentation.

The workshop was divided into a number of sections:

  • Introduction

  • Developing content

  • Using visual aids

  • Applying principles of face-to-face communication

  • Mastering the skill of answering questions

  • Conclusion

The introduction set the tone for the workshop. The stated goal was to help participants communicate more effectively in the medium of face-to-face communication, so they can present more effectively, and thereby add value to the conference program.

Principles of adult education were examined, and that standard was applied to the "average" conference presentation. When compared to best practices in adult education, the question becomes: how do most conference presentations fare?

Participants were encouraged to obtain additional resources from the website: a booklet entitled Presenting With Ease, which provides insights into developing strategy, content and delivery for effective presentations; a workbook to accompany the booklet; and other resources.

Listen to the introduction.

Developing Content
This segment turned traditional content development 180 degrees. Often, presenters gather large amounts of information and put that information into the centre of a (literal or figurative) table, or a software program (most often PowerPoint), divide the information into sections, and present that information to the audience.

The difficulty with this approach is that it becomes impossible to adhere to the important principle of "less is more."

Instead, the approach discussed during this section of the workshop advocates developing a framework of six sentences that represent the entire presentation, from start to finish. And, during the workshop, this framework was developed for one of the participants.

Listen to the content development section.

Using Visual Aids
This is the smallest section of the handout that workshop participants received, and for good reason. When it comes to visual aids, less is more.

There are two important principles related the use of visual aids:
  • People cannot read and listen at the same time.

  • If faced with a choice between taking information through their ears or their eyes, conference attendees (like all humans) will choose their eyes every time.

  • Using a program like PowerPoint to carry content, and then projecting that information onto a screen and providing handouts of the same information to each participant, increases the number of distractions. This creates barriers between the presenter and audience, reducing presentation effectiveness and overall conference value.

    If a presenter does use PowerPoint, he or she should develop slides as the very last step of the content development process, not the first. This section also makes the point that role playing, case studies, simulations and problem-solving are excellent tools to help people learn.

    Listen to the section on visual aids.

    Principles of Face-to-Face Communication
    Every presenter needs to achieve two goals every time he or she presents: convey a message; and convey his or her personality. If the medium truly is the message, the presenter's personality is the window through which the message must travel to be received, understood and acted upon by the audience.

    Each of us conveys our message and personality every day of our lives in relaxed conversation. The premise of this segment, therefore, is that relaxed conversation is your best possible presentation style. It draws on skills you've spent your life developing. And it feeds into the audience's ability to learn and retain information.

    This section discusses one-on-one conversation and relates it to the presentation process by highlighting a number of principles. You must be yourself. The presentation must be two-way and receiver driven. Less is more. And silence is critical to your success.

    Listen to the section on principles of face-to-face communication.

    Answering Questions
    This segment examines the skill of answering questions effectively, both from the perspectives of interpersonal communication and presentation effectiveness. It introduces P-A-S as a critical component of conference presentation success, and outlines how many questions could be asked, versus how many tend to be asked.

    Near the end of the segment, the group discusses strategies for handling conference attendees who seem to dominate the Q&A at the expense of participation from others.

    Listen to the section on answering questions effectively.

    The conclusion wraps up the workshop and provides insights into improving overall effectiveness.

    Listen to the conclusion.

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