You’ve Been Invited to Speak. Now What? Part 3: Three things you need to know about the event’s format

Quick recap: In my last two posts, you’ve accepted the invitation to speak, you’ve done the research on your audience, you know the logistics about the room, and you’re finally ready to present. Just hold that thought one minute, though. What is the format of the speaking opportunity?

The term “format” is vague, but in this context I am referring to time factors and the overall agenda of the speaking event. Whether you are a solo presenter or part of a panel, all of these elements can make or break your success – and you want the odds stacked in your favor!

  1. Time allocation – It is critical to understand how much time has been allocated for you to speak. Typically, conferences schedule more time than is necessary for a memorable and engaging presentation, especially when the audience has already been sitting in other speaker workshops and presentations. Fifteen to twenty minutes is about as long as audience can remain attentive just listening to a single speaker in without having a lot of interactivity with the audience. For example, if the organizer gives you 45 minutes, tell her you will speak for 15-20 minutes then open the floor up to Q&A for 15 minutes, then suggest a 10 minute break. Or tell the organizer you only need 20 minutes to speak and let the organizer decide how to fill the additional 25 minutes. They can adjust their schedule by planning a break or bring the next speaker up earlier. Just don’t set yourself up for “wearing out your welcome” by speaking too long just to fill up time.
  2. Speaker/session schedule – If you are the solo speaker at an event, ask about what the audience will be doing just prior to coming to your presentation or what is on the agenda for right after you speak. If a pre-speaker networking reception is scheduled before you speak, get there early and mingle with the crowd. Ask questions: What do you hope to learn from my talk on XX today? What is the biggest question you have about XX? This gives you the opportunity to include some comments made to you by members of your audience, which always helps build “likability” between you and them.

When you are making a presentation of any kind, meals are you worst enemy. If you will be speaking during a meal, the challenges of holding any audience’s attention are quadrupled! Your energy level and content have to be at an extra high level from opening words to closing statement. Keep your presentation short. Ten minutes is as long as you can reasonably expect hungry people to remain attentive when their stomach is growling. When possible, ask that the serving of food and drinks be halted while you are speaking. Trying to talk over wait staff milling around with trays and coffee pots immediately diminishes the impact of your message.

If attendees just had lunch, you will be fighting the “post-lunch siesta” problem. You definitely want to keep your presentation short. But, if there is any way you can get the audience physically doing something, it will help keep their attention. Use your imagination and think of some activity that will tie in with your presentation: Ask everyone to write down something, stand and introduce themselves to a person near them, look under their chair for an envelope with a prize or something else in it, stand if they know the answer to a question you pose, etc. Incorporating physical movement always makes you stand out to an audience but it also helps combat “audience fatigue” when you have to speak right after a meal or at the end of long day.

  1. Panel discussions – This deserves a separate post (hint, hint!), but here are three quick questions to ask when being a part of a panel.

How many are on the panel? I advise my clients to avoid being on panels with four or more panelists. In my experience, three is the best size. A group of four can work if the moderator is a real professional and intervenes when someone goes over the allotted time for speaking (a topic for another post!). Otherwise, most panels with more than three speakers start causing problems: The panel discussion either goes overtime in an effort to accommodate every panelist, or the time for the discussion is too short for that many speakers and the moderator rushes everyone, giving some very little opportunity to speak. Either scenario is a recipe for the audience to quickly become disengaged and uninterested.

Who is the moderator and other panelist? Ask who the other panelists are and on what area of expertise they will be speaking. Ask for copies of their bios and Google their names and learn as much as you can about them. Ask who the moderator will be and get his contact information. To ensure a nice flow on event day, a good moderator will host a conference call with all of the speakers to review the format for the discussion. If one hasn’t been arranged, take the initiative to arrange one yourself. At this time you should discuss the general format of the panel discussion, agree on which speaker will address specific topics and the order of speakers, and review the rules on how long each person should speak when responding to questions.

May I speak first? If there is no obvious flow to who should speak first, prior to event day, ask the moderator to be the first to speak so you can set the tone and pace of the discussion. Even if Long-Winded Louie goes over his allotted speaking time and the discussion is running behind schedule, at least you have had the opportunity to connect with the audience before their attention drifted to picking up the kids from school or the cocktail reception awaiting them after the discussion!

Over the past three posts you learned what you need to know about your audience before you plan your presentation content, questions you should ask about the logistics of the room, and what you should know about the format of the event. Now, as long as you have followed my previous advice on developing and delivering fantastic content, you are ready to give a presentation worth of a TED Talk! See you on the stage!


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