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What to Watch out for

Here are the main concerns any speaker needs to address:

Seating and Room Size

Given the purpose of your presentation, what is the best seating arrangement for your audience? Don't be afraid to change the way the chairs were arranged by the person ahead of you; you can call a break to do the reshuffling. If you are specifying seating in advance, be quite clear about what you need.

Seating arrangements also depend on the degree of audience participation. If you are speaking before a large group and limiting participation to a question-and-answer period, auditorium style, with its rows facing the speaker, does nicely. Classroom style puts three to six people at a long table. U-shaped arrangements that let the audience fan out around the speaker are useful for speakers with small audiences who want to encourage participation. Audiences in U-shaped seating can see both the speaker and each other; the speaker doesn't seem too removed and can walk into the audience.

Find out the size of the room in advance. If you have to choose between one that is slightly too small and one that is slightly too large, choose the small room. Try to get people to sit toward the front, and have someone remove empty chairs from the back, keeping a few free for latecomers.

Speaking Order

Speaking order plays an important role. If you are one of several speakers on a program, find out when you're slotted to appear. If you can, try to get the opening spot. You'll be remembered more if you appear first or last, and first is probably best. If you're last you can sometimes suffer if other speakers run over their times and the audience becomes restless.

If you are speaking last, and you see the program is running behind schedule, start looking for ways to cut your speech. It is always better to give a speech that is a little short than one that is too long. (And your audience will certainly appreciate you for it.)

Speakers scheduled in the middle of a meeting should try to get a slot after a break, so they can use the time to set up. If you can't and have to appear with virtually no time to set up, try to keep your presentation simple; audiences that have to wait for 10 minutes or longer, while you fiddle, will lack in goodwill.

If you are the only speaker, you have the most flexibility and control possible. Arrive as early as you need to make sure everything is in place. An hour before is usually sufficient, especially in a hotel where the staff is used to last minute changes.

The Stage

Many speakers assume they must speak from an elevated area. Even though I'm barely more than 5 feet tall, I try not to use podiums or lecterns; the height of the former and the barrier created by the latter put distance between the speaker and the audience. Remember, power comes from being close to your audience, not removed from it. But if you are on a podium or behind a lectern, find out the height of the podium, whether the lectern has a light, and, if it does, what size bulb is needed (so you can bring a spare). Again, if you do have a choice, state your preference. I once arrived to give a presentation and found a huge raised platform—exactly what I did not want—simply because I had not specified that I wanted to speak from the floor.

Light and Sound

Although the lighting is often handled by someone else, you still need to think about what kind of lighting your presentation will demand and then to make sure the room can accommodate it. Try to have the brightest light available; avoid fluorescent lighting, which can be depressing.

If you are using slides, locate the controls for the room lights. Does the room have many large windows? Will the daylight make your slides too hard to see? Are shades available?

The microphone is another technical detail you confront as you prepare to speak. You should use a microphone whenever possible, unless you're speaking in a small room where amplified sound would be overwhelming. The microphone allows you to use all the nuances of your voice.

There are many varieties of microphones, and you either need to find out what type of microphone is available to you, or bring your own. Here are some options you may find:

  • The stationary microphone, which is often attached to a lecturn or podium. This is the most limiting of all microphones, because it means you can't walk around the stage.

  • The Standing Microphone: This is a the kind of microphone that is atop an adjustable pole; it is usually situated center stage. Make sure you adjust it to the right height for you; the previous speaker may have adjusted it to match his or her height, and that could leave you stretching or crouching. The best position for most speakers is at chin height, about 6 inches away, which allows for a comfortable, conversational style. You can usually take the microphone off the stand and walk around with it, but you must be careful of the cord. It's easy to get it tangled around your feet or caught on furniture around the stage.

  • The lavaliere or clip-on microphone: This is the best choice for speakers today. Some older models still have cords attached; avoid this if at all possible. A wireless clip on microphone is your best choice because it gives you freedom to move around the stage and even into the audience, should you so desire. But be vigilant about remembering to turn the microphone off when you go to the bathroom or when you're having a private conversation. Many professional speakers travel with their own cordless mike. It's a good choice, but women need to wear a business suit with strong pockets, because part of the apparatus has to be carried on you.

Once you begin to speak, don't touch the microphone. If it squeals you may be accidentally touching it; take your hand away and it should stop. If you get a loud popping sound from the mike, adjust it so that you are speaking into it at an angle instead of straight on.

Whatever mike you choose, practice with it first. If you plan on having mikes in the audiences, work with the person who will be circulating, and check out those mikes, too. Always try to get to the room ahead of time, so you can check the lighting, try out all the microphones, and test the sound levels.

Keeping Track of Time

It's important for you, and for your audience, that you keep track of how long you've been speaking. If you have half an hour for your speech, don't assume it's okay if you run over by 10 or 15 minutes, especially if you're speaking at a seminar or conference where there are many speakers, and sessions have been carefully planned and scheduled.

Bring a timer with you if possible, and place it somewhere you can see it but the audience can't. This is a much better option than a watch. You need to check your timing throughout your presentation; if you check your watch every few minutes, the audience will get the impression that you can't wait to get to the end. Some speakers like to take off the watch and use it as a timer, but because I have a colleague who left a brand new Rolex at his last speaking engagement, I don't recommend removing the watch from your wrist. You can always ask someone to signal when you have five minutes, and then one minute, left. Be sure that person is not forgetful.

Check Those Audiovisuals

Every piece of equipment comes with a series of things to be checked:

Overall condition.

Threading of film.

Switch locations.

Spare bulbs.

Spare cords and cord length.

Order of slides or transparencies.

Condition and location of screen.

Pens and spare sheets for overhead transparencies.

Props

Other visual aids have their own vital parts: chalk and erasers for the blackboard, the right number of handouts, and easel for the flip chart. Go through your presentation step by step ahead of time; note everything you need to have. A trash basket? This is usually missing from meeting rooms. Tape for putting a visual aid on the wall? Who will set up and remove props if you don't? Mentally pack the suitcase you need for a successful speech days in advance. Of course, your needs will vary depending on the type of presentation. Always be flexible and always have an alternate plan.

Spare Parts

The less you leave to chance, the better. Some speakers bring an extra set of their note cards in addition to the obligatory spare bulbs, extensions cords, markers, and so on. The ultimate spare part—one every speaker needs—is a backup plan, in case, after all your advance preparation, the slide projector still decides to die as you approach it.

Comfort

A comfortable audience is a receptive one. Professional speakers also attend to the following details, which make for a contented crowd:

  • Setting water pitchers and glasses on tables.

  • Knowing where the thermostat is and keeping the room at a comfortable temperature. A room will heat up as people fill it; keep the temperature a little on the cool side. Nothing encourages mass sleeping like an overheated room after lunch.

  • Telling people where restrooms and phones are located. If yours is a more formal presentation, hopefully the introducer or the emcee will have shared all these important details.

Assistance

In many cases, hotel personnel will be assisting with your presentation. Carry at least three phone numbers of people to call in an emergency: your main hotel contact, a backup person, and a third person or office in case the first two aren't around when you suddenly need them.

Distractions

Few speakers walk into a room that is perfectly designed for their presentation; more often they encounter distractions that are a function of the room's frequent use. Things to watch out for include:

  • Dirty ashtrays and glasses. Make sure items used by the group before you have been cleared away. This is true for meetings as well.

  • Visual aids left up on the walls. I once arrived to give a presentation in a room where the previous speaker had covered the walls with vivid examples of direct mail campaigns. The schedule was tight, and I didn't have time to remove everything. Now I always find out who is speaking before me and whether they are using visual aids. With the permission of the person running the meeting, I try to schedule a short break to remove materials.

  • Loud neighbors. If you are renting a room in a hotel, try to find out who will be in the rooms adjacent to yours. One corporate training session I gave was held in half of a room; a group telling jokes and laughing met in the other half, with only a room divider separating the two groups. It was very distracting. Of course, it's not always possible to control who meets where, but you can at least ask and make your preferences and needs known early on.


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