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ITWeb's top ten tips for event speakers
ITWeb has hosted hundreds of events, and our content team has attended thousands more. These are the top ten key points we've picked up, and the most common mistakes we'd like to help you avoid, to ensure you make the best impression possible as a speaker.
  1. Partner with ITWeb
  2. Less words. More pictures
  3. Avoid animation
  4. Skip the scene-setting
  5. Remove urban myths
  6. Time yourself
  7. Trust not the internet
  8. Avoid last minute changes
  9. Be social
  10. Style and substance

1) Partner with ITWeb

You are the subject matter expert. We aren't here to tell you what to say. But we can help with how ​you say it: we're content experts and we're here to help. Feel free to make use of our resources, and please bear in mind that if we suggest edits, we're doing it with the best intentions: we want you and your presentation to be awesome​. As you'll see in the other points here, there are many other ways in which we can help - don't hesitate to ask.

The earlier you work with us, the better. We ask speakers for drafts of their presentations so we can help them sharpen style, spot glitches, and squash gremlins. The earlier we have your drafts, the more help we can offer.

If you're going with a heavily visual style (which we heartily recommend!) then including speaker notes is a huge help too.

2) Less words. More pictures

Fact: many slides have far too many words. The audience is there to hear you speak, not read your essay! It is far more effective to include only a handful of keywords or stats which highlight the points you are making.  

Remember that an audience mentally reading slides will reach the end of the text faster than you will speaking it aloud. At that point, they're bored and waiting for you to finish, which is a condition you want to avoid at all costs!

Quotes are a common example. Don't put the whole paragraph on screen - put up a full-screen picture of the person, or something associated with them, and just say what you want to say.

As a litmus test, check your slides for complete, grammatically correct sentences. If you find any, they are probably points you're going to make verbally anyway. Consider removing them. Use a key phrase instead, especially if it has a number. Look at magazine covers on shelves - every single one of them will have coverlines with numbers in them. Numbers GRAB attention.

As a final test, put your presentation on screen and practice your delivery to a pretend audience. How closely does what you are saying match what is on screen? If the answer is anything more than "a little", that slide needs work.

One caution about images: pictures you download from the Internet (or anywhere, for that matter) are subject to copyright. Please be respectful of the original creator's rights and wishes. If you aren't sure, ITWeb can help you check on usage rights, and if necessary we can help you source alternative images: we have access to vast professional image libraries.  

3) Avoid animation

It's best to avoid slide animations and transitions entirely. They often cause problems and they aren't nearly as sexy as people think they are.

Slide transitions (animations that happen between slides) are like speedbumps. You and the audience will be waiting for the distracting visual event to finish so you can get back to the subject matter. If you really, really must have a slide transition, make it as fast and subtle as possible. If you're using Prezi, that still applies - the point of those big swooping transitions is to follow the story, showing how that slide fits into a bigger picture.

In-slide animations, like point-by-point reveals, are nearly as bad. When you create a slide, you probably have an inner monologue of what you will be saying, and which parts will be emphasised. Remember that your audience doesn't share that monologue, and you may find yourself slowing the pace down rather than making a point.  

Animations do have some good uses. If you are showing an evolution of an idea, then a slide which builds out graphically is very effective. Use this judiciously, and aim for QUICK transitions. PowerPoint's default transitions are way ​too slow - change them to half or a quarter.

Also remember that it is unfortunately all too common for a presenter to misclick too fast through their slides and need to backtrack. When they have multiple animations, that can be a nightmare: you may find yourself madly clicking backwards and forward to find the right starting point, while the audience fidgets and plays with their phones.

4) Skip the scene-setting

Don't spend too long on historical buildup, context, and background material. The audience is there because this is their field - they probably know the background, and the chances are earlier sessions have gone over the same ground anyway.  

It's very common for speakers to waste half their allotted time repeating material from earlier sessions. And it's unfortunately it's also common for them to then run out of time for their real message. So, keep the background material to a minimum.

However, it's also dangerous to assume too much prior knowledge on the part of the audience. A good compromise is to put one or two slides with background points. Also, familiarise yourself with the conference agenda, and if possible attend earlier sessions. You can skim through your background slides quickly if you realise it will be redundant, or talk through the pertinent points if necessary. But avoid clicking rapidly through a dozen slides. "I'll skip these because Joe Bloggs said it all earlier…" loses the audience before you've even got to your content.

5) Remove urban myths

The Russians did not use a pencil while NASA wasted millions inventing space pens.The size of the space shuttle does not trace back to Roman horses. Daddy longlegs are not the most venomous spiders. JFK did not call himself a German doughnut. And almost anything you hear about Albert Einstein is fake.  

Amusing anecdotes are great ways to make a point, but fact check them first. Snopes.com is your friend. If in doubt, leave it out. While you're at it, check other facts too - often the conventional wisdom or commonly accepted stats can be traced back to highly questionable origins.

Unfortunately, some of your audience know this, or will take a moment to Google the details. In repeating falsehood, you've not only undermined your credibility in your presentation, chances are that's doing the rounds on Twitter too instead of the pithy point you were trying to make.  

Almost as bad is the "I don't know if this story is true or not, but…" In other words, "I'm too lazy to look this up, but…" Don't be that guy.

  

If you are really attached to a cute story and you discover it's fake, all is not lost. Just be honest: "this story is actually fake, but I think the moral of the story is still valid..."

The same applies to genuine but overused quotations. Anyone on the conference circuit has heard Darwin, Sun Tzu and Machiavelli quoted before. You'll get better engagement by using a quote from a surprising or lesser-known source.

6) Time yourself

Rehearse your presentation. But when you do, don't do it in your head, flipping through the edit view in PowerPoint.  Do it in presenter mode, aloud - get a feel for how long your slide transitions are taking, where you will have to pause, whether there are any delays caused by slow animations, parts where you might have to adjust the material depending on the amount of background required, and how much time you expect to leave for Q&A.  

It can be useful to record yourself, then play it back without the slides on screen - does it still make sense? Does the pacing still work if the listener can't see the slides? Remember that some people will only have access to audio of the sessions, not video.  

Ask a colleague to listen, or a member of the ITWeb team - we're happy to take part in a webex dry run of your presentation. What makes perfect sense to you may lose something in translation. An outside perspective can be very useful.

7) Trust not the internet

Be very careful about anything which requires internet connectivity - one flaky connection can ruin your day. YouTube videos should be downloaded and embedded. Live demos are great, but it's worth having a pre-recorded version handy in case the demo fails. Similarly, screenshots of browser sessions provide a backup for unreachable websites. If you're using Prezi, make sure you have the offline version available. As always, we are here to help: if you aren't sure how to source an offline version of an important piece of content, we'll make a plan.

8) Avoid last minute changes

We ask speakers for presentation drafts well ahead of the actual event, so that we have time to help make the finished article as good as possible. Before the event we preload the presentations into our AV equipment to make sure it displays correctly: videos work, all the text is legible, and so on.

Last minute changes undo a lot of that. Rushed changes often introduce typos or spacing errors, which detract from the impact of your content. And if you've added new multimedia content which we haven't had the chance to test, there's a decent chance something will fail. Embedded videos are the number one culprit here. Sometimes last minute changes are inevitable, and we will do everything possible to accommodate you. But please keep them to a minimum, and remember the risks.

Not sending through a draft at all, or promising to bring your presentation on the day, is very rarely an option except for our high-profile keynote speakers. It is far too risky for us - and you! - to allow unvetted material on stage at our events.

9) Be social

This is actually two separate points. One about social media, and one about socialising in general.

Social media: put your links in your slides. Remember that people are likely to hit you up on Twitter while ​you're speaking, so your Twitter handle really needs to be in your first slide. LinkedIn and Facebook and company websites can wait until the end - that's distracting up front. But do include it - we circulate the slides to delegates after the event, so those links are really useful.

Networking: please do try to make time to mingle with delegates. We dissuade speakers from putting marketing in their presentations, but you are very welcome to point out that anyone interested in specific solutions should sit with you during a break to find out more. At that point, go right ahead: talk business. Give demos. Dish out brochures. Networking is hugely valuable for delegates and speakers both.

10) Style and substance

Your presentation style is your own, but there are some pointers we like to share which may help sharpen your slides up a little. These aren't gospel, but suggestions which may help.

  • a. Most importantly: be consistent. Whatever style you use, stick to it.
  • b. Avoid Unnecessary Capitalisation. It actually slows down reading. Capitals are for brand names - if you need to emphasise a word or two, consider using boldface text, a different colour, or just pull the word out to stand on its own.
  • c. South Africa uses British English, rather than American English: colour not color, virtualise not virtualize, and so on. If you can, use British English for your slides, but whatever you use, use it consistently throughout.
  • d. Be careful with colours. What looks bright and vibrant on your desk monitor may look washed-out and hard to read in an auditorium.
  • e. Make your text larger. You're reading this a few inches from a big screen - 20m away on a projected screen will be something else. If there isn't room to make the text larger, there's probably too much text.
  • f. Avoid agendas, content slides, and progress lists. They don't really add anything, and just eat up your time going through them.
  • g. Spacing - between words, between bullet points, between text and images - is usually the difference between a slide which looks sloppy and one which looks sharp and professional.
  • h. Make images full screen if you can. It's so much more impactful than a small pic with a big white border.
  • i. Invite audience participation and encourage interaction - build it into your presentation wherever possible.
  • j. RELAX. Breathe. Slow down. The audience is on your side, and so is ITWeb.  


 

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