Photo by Civilon

I’ve attended a lot of conferences this year. Attending talks and plenaries is a wonderful opportunity for my own professional development, and I often get to see excellent presenters in action.

During the past few months, I’ve been keeping notes on what makes some of these conference presentations so engaging (and others less so). Here’s a 1-minute guide to being a good conference presenter.

Good presenters…

…pitch their talk at the audience
If the presenter is talking about blogs, they first find out who in the audience already blogs. If their talk is pitched at teachers of young learners, they first check how many young learners teachers there are in the audience (and therefore how many are not). If they are talking about specific mobile devices, they check who has (and hasn’t) got these devices. Knowing who the audience is, is the first step.

…grab the audience’s attention from the start
An audience is most receptive during the first 5 minutes of a talk. Starting with an anecdote, story or joke can keep the audience with you, whereas starting with inconsequential rambling will simply alienate them.

…include a variety of focus
It’s extremely difficult to engage an audience in a 60-minute lecture, no matter how talented the speaker. We have short attention spans, and in the age of Twitter, our attention spans are getting shorter. Good presenters provide a variety of focus by including video or other media, or pair work, or a Q&A, or a story/anecdote part way through, so that attention is not continually focused on the presenter.

…include examples
Good presenters don’t assume that their audience automatically knows what they are talking about. They provide concrete examples. So if they are talking about class blogs, they show an example. If they are talking about PLNs (personal learning networks) they give examples from their own PLNs. If there are talking about literal videos, they show one.

…focus on student learning
I get to see a lot of talks with teachers showcasing (usually web 2.0) tools. Unless this is related to what students actually learn, it’s pointless. Good presenters highlight both how the technology enhances student learning, and possible challenges (with suggestions of how to overcome these).

…pay attention to body language
An obvious one. Good presenters use body language to communicate confidence, and also an appropriate degree of formality or informality. A presenter may think that sitting barefoot and cross-legged on stage during a plenary looks cool and confident, but it is usually inappropriate and off-putting for the audience. Unless, perhaps, you are in Southern California.

…take tech issues in their stride 
Things can go wrong. PowerPoint may crash, sound may not work, the projector bulb may blow… indeed, in some cases the electricity make go off. Good presenters have strategies for this e.g. they put the audience in pairs for a quick task while things are repaired (if possible). They are also able to continue their session acappella if necessary.

…present offline
No matter how wired up the venue, good presenters don’t rely on an Internet connection for their talks. At the very least, they have an off-line version of the talk in case the connection is unreliable, or non-existent. Instead of showing a site live, they have screenshots prepared. Instead of streaming video, they show it off-line (respecting copyright).

And finally, good presenters …

…watch out for cables!
The tangle of cables from the laptop, projector, sound and ADSL connection create a nasty birds nest for presenters to trip over. Believe me, I speak from personal experience. Good presenters ask the tech team to tape tables to the floor, and then keep well away from them. On the other hand, one can make a talk more memorable by taking a headlong dive caused by tripping over the cables.

What do you think? This list is by no means exhaustive (it’s to be read in 1 minute). If you present, or attend talks at conference, what do you think makes a good presenter? Please add any thoughts to the Comments box below!

Nicky Hockly
The Consultants-E
December 2012

Other 1-minute guides: