From presentations to conversations

| presentation, speaking

I had a fantastic hour-long conversation about demographic-related challenges and opportunities with 12 directors from the Terry Fox Foundation. I’d been invited by Brett Kohli, their CFO, who had attended a similar presentation that I gave at the My Charity Connects conference (video available). I had originally referred him to other people because I was going on vacation, but as we decided to make it a staycation, I figured: why pass up the chance to learn from an interesting cause?

I gave a 15-minute, 10-slide presentation where I talked about the different demographic shapes of organizations, the challenges they face, and some ways to address those challenges. Then I asked them which groups of people in their ecosystem they were particularly interested in, and which segments they wanted to focus on. We had a great time talking about the challenge of engaging and retaining Generation Y as they grew out of the school-centered events. I learned a lot from the conversation, and other people did too!

The previous session had been interesting, but had hardly any time for questions because it had run over. I wrapped up our session at 3:00, getting the schedule back on track. One of the directors complimented me on my energy. Brett told them how he attended my talk at My Charity Connects and saw me step away from the podium and talk to a large number of people in a long, rectangular room, without using a microphone. (I had checked with people at the back before the talk started, to make sure I’d still be audible.) Hooray for the drama classes my grade school principal incorporated into our curriculum! It’s great to be able to project my voice without yelling.

On the subway back, I thought about presentations, energy, and how my sessions feel different from most sessions I’ve attended. Given an hour for a presentation, most speakers seem to plan a 65-minute presentation, with a few hurried minutes for Q&A. I tend to plan a 7-10 minute presentation, and open the rest up for questions. At the Social Recruiting Summit, for example, I simply told my story of the awesomest job search ever, and then asked people how I could help them help other people have stories like that.

Whenever possible, I have conversations instead of lectures. Sometimes the situation calls for a one-way presentation, like the keynote address my team and I gave to 700 IBM consultants and IT specialists in a ballroom. Most of the time, though, the interaction lets me learn–and communicate–so much more.

I don’t know why people don’t take more advantage of the Q&A period.
At most presentations people give, questions feel like an afterthought,
something to be rushed through, like the mint a server gives you after a meal. In the sessions I’m happiest with, Q&A’s the main course.

I learn a lot about subjects when preparing or revising a presentation. I learn a lot about delivery when I give a presentation. I learn the most when people ask questions and share their own experiences. Questions tell me about what’s important to people. Comments give me more material for future presentations. And in the process of answering questions and responding to comments, I find myself drawing on things I hadn’t realized I learned along the way, connections I hadn’t thought of making, questions and ideas that I hadn’t verbalized before. A great session can even change the way I think, the way I see things.

Good Q&A drives energy. When people show their interest by asking questions, I get even more excited, and they get more excited, and we all figure things out together. I learn a lot, others learn a lot, and I walk away with ideas for future presentations. It’s amazing!

Cultural differences play a big role, too. I find that the North American audiences I talk to are much more comfortable with asking questions than the Asian audiences I’ve talked to, but I’m looking forward to experimenting with different structures to see if I can encourage participation, and I’ve had highly participative talks in the Philippines too. I’ll write about how I stumbled across this style in another blog post. First:

How can you and other people explore the joys of this style of public speaking? =) It’s not something you’d use for all situations, but it’s something I hope you’ll add to your toolbox. Here’s what I think can help:

1. Let go.
It’s scary to open things up for 50 minutes of conversation. You don’t know if people will ask questions. You don’t know where the conversation will go. You’re worried that you might not have the answers. You’re worried that you might say the wrong thing.

Let go. Don’t worry. If no one asks a question within the first few seconds, wait some more. Silence is excruciating if you’re a speaker, but people need time to gather their thoughts and think of questions. If no one asks a question after a while, there are a number of possibilities:

  • You’ve made your point! Hooray!
  • People don’t know what kinds of questions to ask. Share typical questions.
  • People have tuned out. They could be busy, distracted, uninterested, and so on. Clarify your message and why it matters. If that still doesn’t work, wrap up and get out of the way. =) Work on your presentation so that the next time you give it, you can make that connection.

Don’t worry about not being able to answer a question. No one expects you to know the exact statistics if you do. If you don’t know something, you can say you don’t know something. You might even invite people in the crowd to share what they think. Maybe someone will have the answer, and then you’ll learn too!

2. Prepare a lot.
If you’re making Q&A the central part of your session, you need to be able to answer questions well. Collect stories (they’re easy to remember), interesting bits of trivia, results, examples, and anything else that might come in handy. Make backup slides if you need visual support for particularly important parts. This style of presentation might actually mean less preparation time than the slide- and lecture-heavy kind of session. It’s not a good fit for people who are giving a session on something they don’t know, but if you know what you’re talking about, you can make more use of your background knowledge and spend less time preparing and rehearsing a long presentation.

3. Focus on your key message. You need to be clear on what you want to say and why it matters to people in your audience. What do you want them to walk away with? How do you want them to feel? What do you want them to do? Work on that until you can get it across in the first few minutes. Pick a few well-chosen details to support your point, then wrap up the first part of your session with an invitation to ask questions. Better yet, ask them questions. Instead of ending with “Any questions?”, say something like, “I’d love to hear what you’re thinking about. Which groups of people do you want to focus on? What challenges do you face in reaching them?” Keep your presentation short, then get out of the way and let the conversation happen.

4. Enjoy!
Your first few interactive sessions may be nerve-wracking (I can tell you stories about my attempts!), but over time, you’ll probably find this kind of interaction to be effective, enjoyable, energetic, entertaining, and enlightening. You’ll rock, and you’ll have lots of fun doing so. Go for it!

What else can help you turn your next presentation into a conversation?

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