NOTE: This post isn’t just for conference organizers! The tips that it outlines will also help presenters, or teams working on group presentations and pitches!
I recently had the delightful experience of coaching presenters for GEER 2017 — and learned a lot about how to engage your conference audience!
“GEER” is the Greater Everglades Ecosystem Restoration Conference, a semi-annual event that’s hosted by the University of Florida and features a who’s who of scientists, policy-makers, local leaders, and others who care about preserving this precious resource.
Here are the steps we followed to create acclaimed presentations:
1. Educate Your Conference Speakers about TED Talks
Because TED-style talks differ — significantly! — from standard business presentations, you can’t just tell your conference presenters to develop a TED talk, and expect them to do it without support.
(OK, you can do that, but you won’t like the results!)
Instead, offer your speakers as much support as you possibly can, including (at the minimum) an explanation of what a TED talk is, and how to go about constructing one.
My blog post on how to craft a fantastic TED talk in just 8 steps is a great place to start.
It’s also helpful to put together a list of examples, such as TED talks on topics that relate to your conference, are similar in length and style, or are particularly effective.
2. Create a Speechmaking Calendar, with Check Points
One reason that most business and academic presentations are so unbearably dull and dry is that (a) they’re written at the last minute, and (b) speakers deliver them without practicing.
To avoid this common pitfall, divide the remaining time until your conference in half, using the first half to create presentations and the second half to practice them.
This is the best way to approach any public speaking scenario, but it’s absolutely crucial for TED-style talks because TED talks,
- Are usually delivered from memory (and memorization takes time!), and
- Require a relaxed, conversational style that you just can’t get without mastering your material (and getting comfortable with your content takes time!)
So let your conference speakers know that this won’t be a “business as usual” process, and share your pre-conference schedule with them.
Then either check in often to make sure they’re on track, or hire an experienced public speaking coach to guide them through the preparation process.
3. Keep Your Presenters Informed About Each Other’s Talks
As your speakers’ talks develop, it can be helpful and fun to share what each one is doing with the other.
I had a great time doing this with my GEER presenters, who enjoyed hearing that Dr. Jennifer Rehage was going to show a local TV interview with one of her citizen scientist/fishermen and that Dr. Fred Sklar was talking about a character named Captain Everglades.
But don’t just share information because it’s fun. Do it because:
- Having the big picture will give everyone a common sense of purpose;
- Knowing each other’s content let’s people refer to each other, and reinforce common messages; and
- If anyone is struggling (and, inevitably, some will find this process hard), they’ll take heart from knowing that their colleagues are going through the same steps and getting good results.
4. Encourage Presenters to Use Strong Visuals
If you’re truly going for a TED-style presentation, boring visuals are the kiss of death — and there’s absolutely no need for them.
TED talks are organized around central, passionately-held ideas, and big ideas don’t get bigger or better when you add slides that are packed with incomprehensible graphs and over-stuffed bullet points. (Actually, nothing benefits from those kinds of slides, because your audience can’t possibly take them in.)
Slides don’t have to be elegant to be effective; they just need to support a single idea in an interesting and easily-grasped way, as this slide does:
And don’t forget: Actual, physical props — anything from a decorative cane to a replica of the human brain — are a welcome addition to any talk, and can make a powerful visual statement.
To Engage Your Conference Audience, Get Engaged Yourself!
As you can see, creating a TED-style conference is more complicated than just lining up the usual subjects and letting them do their usual thing.
And even if you bring in a professional public speaking coach — which, of course, would be a very wise move! — you’ll need to invest your own time, thought, and passion to make this conference the best that it can be.
So challenge your speakers… engage your conference audience… and watch the kudos and standing ovations roll in!