Presenting to Win (a SxSW rant)

checkeredflagI’ve been, frankly, disappointed in the quality of many of the South by Southwest sessions. Here’s why: many of those leading these panels/discussions/sessions aren’t trying to win the attention of the audience.

There are many competing sessions, there’s the Twitter stream, there’s the Blogger’s Lounge, and there’s really good BBQ. If you don’t grab my attention and pull me into the session, I’m gone.

So, if you’re a presenter/teacher/whatever, here’s some simple advice on winning your audience.

  1. Start IMMEDIATELY with a WIIFM. If you don’t tell me why I need to be interested, why this matters – if you don’t give us a concrete What’s-In-It-For-Me (right away!) – you risk losing our attention. In your very first minute, give an arresting and practical statement as to why what you’re about to present matters. Your audience is looking at you, hopefully, asking themselves, “What’s the Point?” Answer that.
  2. Follow immediately with a striking metaphor or illustration. If your presentation is worth anything, you’re going to be telling us something that is new, mind-changing, challenging. This means you have to get through the filters and buffers that stand between you and our hard disk (long-term memory), and our hoped-for behavior change. The easiest way to pave the way is by using a practical, easily understood example that parallels the concepts you’re about to present, so that we can have a way to relate the new information to that which is already present in our minds.
  3. After gaining attention and the beginnings of agreement, then begin the linear progression of explanation, argumentation, and clarification that will take your information from your mind to ours. Be sure that you present a concept, then find a way to see how it is going down with the audience. Don’t just race through the material and assume it’s being absorbed. If you lose me on point 1, you’re not going to regain me at point three.
  4. For crying out loud, use a little humor. If you’re not a joke teller, weave in some funny video clips that help make the point. The progression of absorbing new information happens best when there’s an oscillation between serious thought and lighthearted fun.
  5. Be very careful about the assumption that coarse language is a great aid to learning. Believe it or not, some of your audience is offended by it. Are you there to strut your stuff by showing that you, too, can swear like a 12-year-old? Or do you want to reach your audience with your message? Grow a pair and seek the respect of your hearers, rather than resorting to schoolyard language to get a reaction.

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll leave it at those five, though feel free to add your thoughts in the comments. Your goal should not be simply to be up front. It should be to lead your audience to a worthy outcome. First, you have to win them so that they are ready to follow.

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About Steve Woodruff
Steve Woodruff is a blogger, a Connection Agent, and a consultant in the pharma/healthcare industry. He specializes in helping people and companies make mutually beneficial connections.

2 Responses to Presenting to Win (a SxSW rant)

  1. CASUDI says:

    Excellent advice. I might add: audience participation & constribution, early on in your presentation especially in a conference where everyone is on information overload.

  2. Alan Wolk says:

    Good advice Steve. I’d add:

    6. Involve your audience: The best panels I’ve seen are those where the speakers/panelists quickly involved the audience and made them a part of the conversation. It was the quickest way to get everyone out of their Twitter reveries and involved in what was going on in the room then and there.

    7. If you’re not a good public speaker, perhaps a panel is not a good idea for you. If public speaking is a real weakness, then it can easily turn the win of scoring a SXSW panel into a major fail. It also negatively impacts your fellow panelists.

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