Helping journalists, producers and conference planners find the female guests, speakers and expert sources they need.

Do you Engage Audiences (or Render Them Comatose)?

by Shari Graydon

Bored audienceHow often are you rendered comatose by a presenter at the front of the room who commits one or more of these completely avoidable offences:

1. Failing to have curated content that would fit into the time allotted?

2. Failing to have considered the interests of the audience in selecting material to present?

3. Failing to have created readable slides, packing them instead with 400 words in 11 point type?

My own tolerance for such crimes is extremely low, especially because I end every day with a list of tasks I wish I’d gotten to and will have to carry over to the next. So I deeply resent people who waste my time when they’re smart enough to know better.

I appreciate that conducting scholarly research, managing a department or running an organization draw on very different skill sets than delivering lively and accessible presentations. And precious few of us have the oratorical abilities of Stephen Lewis. But you don’t need to be an inspired speaker to avoid the three faults above.

You just need to do your homework, and draw on a few tried and true strategies and tools that provide a bridge between intellectual rigour and audience engagement, or between what you know and what others will most benefit from hearing.

Because although no one is actually going to put their heads down on the table in front of them, in an age of ubiquitous mobile phones, they do have a ready alternative to paying attention to you. I turn to mine more often than I like to admit when attending conferences.

But I also use the opportunity presented by bad speakers to add to my “what-not-to-do-list”. I recommend carrying a notebook at all times for many reasons, including this one. Venting your frustration by itemizing the good and bad practice you witness in others helps remind you to avoid committing similar offences yourself.

Recently, I teamed up with University Affairs Magazine to create a series of video blogs drawing on some of the insights I’ve gained over two decades of being inspired (or not) by presenters in government, academia and the private sector. The first one provides concrete suggestions for experts seeking to connect with a broader audience, and focuses on keeping things concise and accessible.

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Additional episodes on the value of visuals, storytelling and structure will be available in the coming weeks, and I’m drafting scripts for future pieces on the uses and abuses of Power Point, and the necessity of becoming clear about the audience, context and purpose of your remarks before you start crafting the message.

Dynamic and compelling TED talks that are now widely available have made us all much less willing to sit through mind-numbing presentations. As a result, Informed Opinions is receiving more requests for workshops that help smart people master the art of translating their knowledge into verbally delivered material capable of engaging, not enervating, an audience.

In the meantime, consider this: The world is full of folks who are never given a microphone, offered time at lectern, or invited to address a crowd. Those of us who do experience having our voices amplified, our work featured, our insights shared need to remember that. Doing the necessary preparation to ensure that the people assembled to listen to us are not only engaged, but get something of value is the obligation we take on when we say yes. It’s not difficult, and it doesn’t have to be time-consuming either; the right kind of investment goes a long way.

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