Your clear seminar presentation

Storytelling graphicThis is a bit off my usual track of written material, but it’s still info presentation, and I’ve been at an exhibition event recently so it’s something I’ve been mulling over.

Some presentations – seminars at events, evening talks, etc – leave you feeling satisfied and that the time is well spent, but I’ve been to many in the last few months that didn’t leave me feeling like that at all. So here’s what I think: perhaps you’ll find it helpful.

There are two types of talk. Entertaining ones are particularly suited to celebrities and well-known yarn-spinners, who can attract an audience just to hear them talk about their life and experiences in their special style. Most talks, however, aim at being useful: giving the audience new facts, insights and skills that they can add to their pool to solve problems and make progress in some aspect of their life.

Here comes the completely made up science part

You can think of your interaction with your seminar audience as a push and pull between two factors: satisfaction and annoyance.

Satisfaction is what happens when someone gets something they can take away and use to help them in their life. It might be a practical tip they hadn’t come across before, or a new insight or way of looking at things. If you get lots of this in your talk people will see you as a good source of help and may want further contact with you.

Annoyance is what happens when something gets in the way of what the person came to your talk for. It could be a stretch of waffle that doesn’t tell them anything useful, or it could be something that’s not so good in your delivery, like a distracting physical or verbal habit. If you get lots of this in your talk people will feel they had to work hard for not very much benefit, and will see you as someone to avoid in future.

So annoyance is like the cost of entry for the satisfaction, and you want to keep it low. That doesn’t mean every single thing you say has to be a brilliant action point. In fact, too many might be too rich a diet. If you present a few of those in a way that causes minimum mental friction, your audience will remember your talk as one of the good ones.

It also doesn’t mean that you can’t take a bit of time to introduce yourself. You should, because as humans we want to know who we’re meeting. Just remember that your life history or grand theoretical framework probably isn’t what they came to hear!

Plan learning points and deliver them clearly

This is really the core. What are the key points of satisfaction that you want your audience to get? What are the key steps in the narrative or argument you want to lead them through? Plan your talk around these.

  • Don’t have too many for people to fit in their heads.
  • When they come up, make sure they’re clear of surrounding fluff so that they’re crystal clear to the audience. Don’t zoom through a load of stuff and have people not realise the crucial point that was in the middle of it. Put your best stuff on a pedestal.
  • Use repetition and recapping.
  • Use wording, imagery and examples to make them memorable.

I’m not sure which is worse: a talk that was bad to sit through, or one where you leave unable to say what it was about. Be about something! (And not just yourself. Be about something that relates to the audience.)

Your title is a promise

When people decide whether to come to your particular talk, they’ll have scanned the list of titles competing for their time, picked the one that looks most relevant to them, and used the blurb to check their decision. So for goodness’ sake make sure your title matches up with the content of your talk. If it doesn’t, change one or the other. If your audience doesn’t get what it came for, that’s a major source of annoyance.

The title is also an important bit of screening. It tells some browsers that this is not for them, preventing them from sitting in your audience generating big clouds of annoyance. So again, make sure that message matches your content.

For instance, don’t advertise that you’ll talk about upcoming changes in social media, and then spend your slot talking about your company’s forum software. The title says big picture strategy and will attract people interested in that. If you want to talk about your software, the title should be about benefits your target clients will be interested in getting: a tactical solution to particular problems. Then you’ll get the people who are keen to hear about your stuff.

Engage with the audience

This relates to the traditional advice about eye contact, body language, voice projection and so on. Those are all about making the audience feel recognised, respected and engaged by the speaker. It’s just human social programming. If we feel that, we’re more likely to listen and respond to what you say. If you spend the whole presentation talking in a monotone and staring fixedly at your notes, we’ll switch off.

Public speaking makes people nervous. Sometimes very nervous indeed. And most people know that. Being nervous is OK. But if you are, and that leads to disengagement behaviours, that generates annoyance as the audience feels that your delivery is getting in the way of the content they wanted. So any improvements you can make are helpful.

If your body language and speech says, “I’m nervous and I don’t want to be here”, we’ll feel social embarrassment watching you. If your body language and speech says, “I’m nervous but I’m damn well doing it anyway”, most people in the audience will want to support you – especially if you can get some great content and humanising touches in near the beginning, so they can see you’re worth listening to.

Keep slides simple, stupid

If you’re using Powerpoint or similar to make a slide presentation to go on behind you, remember to make them for the audience’s benefit.

Use large text in a clear font. Make one or few points per slide. Use graphics sparingly. Choose colours for high contrast.

Anything other than that, like small print or low-contrast colours, serves just one function: to generate annoyance from the audience members who can’t make it out. Not everyone sits near the front, and many of us have imperfect eyesight. You may not have control over the lighting at the venue, and that can easily make slides washed out so that only the highest contrast survives.

And always ask yourself whether you need slides at all. Let’s coin the term “sheeppoint” for the trend of using them just because that’s what people do. Their usefulness is in adding to your talk by letting you show the audience things as you go. A slideshow that makes you redundant is an e-learning product.


I hope that was useful. Public speaking is a continuous process of learning and improvement, and something of a heroic endeavour. Go forth and conquer!


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