This is the final of a three part series following my time at the 2011 PMI North American Congress. This part is dedicated to my experience as a first time conference presenter, both in presenting and observation of others.
I love public speaking. I’m not sure why, but it’s true. It’s not something that I enjoyed in school. Getting up and talking about something that I minimally searched was a fear instilling activity. However, somewhere in my professional life I discovered that I was good at presenting things that I knew well. I have a strong voice, sense of humor, and ease in talking about things that I understand. I had done public speaking a handful number of times, but the idea of speaking to an international audience was huge to me. On October 24, 2011 I presented Effective Project Sponsorship: A Collaborative Journey at the PMI North American Global Congress in Dallas, Texas.
I decided that while I knew my subject well, I needed homework on presenting. I started reading Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun a few weeks prior to the congress. This turned out to be the perfect study aid. Scott has a great writing style and sensibility that speaks well to me. The only drawback was it motivated me into wanting to speak more. Well, not so much a drawback.
I owe you some helpful ideas that I got from Scott.
People are there to hear you, learn from you, and they want you to succeed,
A bullet list of high level talking points on a 1 ½ inch sticky that fits in your palm will get you through your main points,
Get the audience grouped together if there are more seats that participants,
Practice, practice, practice,
Get to the room early to get comfortable and if you can at all, attend a session prior to yours to get a good feel for the room and the audience,
Burn off excess energy on presentation day to help relieve the jitters, and
If a presenter tells you that they do not get nervous, they are full of crap. It is natural to be nervous.
My breakout session was at the end of day two. This afforded me to opportunity to observe speakers as I prepared for my own event. The first speaker I saw at the congress was Rick Morris. Rick is a fabulous speaker. He has a great command of voice, a sense of humor, and speaks candidly. It was a large audience. While technically he was simply presenting, he had the audience engaged. It felt like a conversation with a trusted friend. I left that presentation knowing my number one goal was going to be to engage the audience when it came to my turn. I set a goal then to think at the end of each slide, “how did I engage the audience?”
The next presentation was the late in the afternoon on day 1 of the congress. What I remember most about that presentation was the sense of sleepiness. It had been a long day already and listening to a speaker who was not engaging proved to be very difficult. I then had the panicked thought, “oh my, this is the time slot that I have tomorrow. Everyone will have the afternoon sleepies!” Again, I realized that I was really going to have to engage the audience to, literally, not bore them to sleep.
One session I went too had a team of speakers. The material was spot on and PowerPoint well laid out. Technically, I could not put a finger on any one thing “wrong”. However, they did not engage the audience. The subjects and information may have been the best ever, but they were losing me.
Bill Fournet was another engaging speaker. He had a huge room full; in fact I almost got turned away even though I had pre-registered for this session. The title of his presentation was effective “Herding Cats”, and he started the session with a video of cowboys herding cats. While these were great bait, it would not have been enough to sustain an hour fifteen-minute presentation. The presentation itself was also engaging.
Okay, so I have used the word (or some variation of) “engage” 8 times now in less than 700 words. That warrants a slight explanation of what I mean. I would define this as something that connects the speaker to the audience in a way to triggers true listening and learning. One of the best ways to engage an audience is to ask questions and make them respond. However, this is not always possible in rooms full of 300 plus people. In the cases of Rick and Bill, what made their presentations engaging was how I could relate what they said to my own experience, how they made me understand the material they were providing and see what value it would bring to my own life and work experiences. Maybe they provided a scenario that I could relate too, or described something that I found new, exciting, and potentially beneficial to how I see my work. In short, they did or said something that made the words they said relevant to the work I do which provided a connection.
For my plan to ask myself “did I engage the audience?” for every slide, I needed to know that I asked an open ended question, described a scenario that most could relate too, or open myself up to my own mistakes and successes that would serve as a lessons learned in relation to their positions.
Session time was coming quick. I am an introvert by nature, meaning that I need downtime to energize or decompress. I decided I would skip attending the breakout prior to my own in order to take some downtime to energize and to make sure I would make it to the room early and begin those mental preparations.
I showed up to the room early, verified the PowerPoint was on target, got set up a with a lapel mic, brought my handouts, and stayed near the door so I could meet people as they came in. My friend Chandra had traveled to Dallas with me to support my first national speaking even, as well as to catch up on PDUs, and she was ready with pictures, video, and everything else I needed (thank you Chandra!). Eventually I relinquished my handouts to the PMI room volunteer and just chatted with those who had come in. I had some strategies in mind that I used; some worked well, others not as much.
Ask the audience to move forward in the room to make it easier for Chandra to gather their cards. Nobody moved. Maybe because the room was small, they didn’t see the need to move. In the end I positioned myself in the middle aisle near the front where I was closer to the audience and could interact freely and be closer to the group.
Encourage participation by taking business cards of those who contributed for a drawing for a book. It proved impossible for Chandra get to those who spoke to get a card as the presentation as happening and a few did not have cards available. In the end, everybody was encouraged to provide a card. What I did like about this strategy was that I was able to follow up with participants and connect with many on LinkedIn.
“Have you read the Sponsor Body of Knowledge?” This was a hook I had planned and it worked well. In a later conversation with Jeff Furman, who was in attendance, he indicated this was a shocking yet appropriate opening to the conversation ahead.
Lots and lots of questions. I asked the audience to fill in the blanks in most cases. Most of the concepts in my presentation are not new and original in and of themselves, but rather organized into this discussion of project sponsorship introduces new insights. I had my predefined answers ready and did review them, but letting them think through the concept ensured they were thinking about the topic at hand and helped demonstrate that they knew the answers. In most cases, they taught me concepts I had not yet thought of that will likely be included in future presentations.
I did have the advantage of a smaller audience that made these strategies relatively easy to implement. I thought long about how I would alter the format for a 300 person room. I would probably still ask the questions, but in some cases would give participants a few minutes to discuss the question at hand with their neighbors. I look forward to future challenges in keeping audiences engaged to learn from each other as much as from me.