The Setting: Part 1 - What You Need to Know about Where You Will Present
Knowing as much as you can about the physical space you will be presenting in is great information to have as you prepare your presentation. It may not always be possible to visit the venue in person before you present but going there virtually or asking organizers about the space in which you will present is always time well invested.
If you can’t physically visit the space in advance, you should plan to arrive early the day you present to get comfortable in the space before you go on. Some of the things of interest to you include how much control you have over the environment, and what you will need in order to present successfully in the space. Remember, it’s your reputation we are talking about here. You want to control as many factors as you can that could impact your ability to make a good impression on your audience.
Things to Consider about the Venue
Type and size of the room
One of the first things you want to know is what kind of space you are presenting in. What kind of room is it? It could be an auditorium, a conference room, a classroom, or you could be outside on a stage in an amphi-theatre. You also want to know if you will be on a stage or a raised platform, or if you will be at the same level as the audience. Is the audience in tiered seating? Are there any awkward shapes to the room? Is it L-shaped, for example? Are there large columns or posts that support the roof? How comfortable is the seating?
All these details mean something to you as the speaker. Any negative aspect of the environment makes your job of keeping the audience’s attention more difficult. You often cannot control the room you are given, but if you know the size, and what it is like in advance, you can prepare yourself and possibly create some work arounds to overcome the negative aspects of the space. I have presented in all kinds of spaces, from cramped classrooms to large auditoriums. In each space, I had to adjust and adapt in order to present successfully.
The type of room usually indicates the size of the room, an auditorium usually being large, a conference room, or classroom being smaller. Ideally, you want a room that is the perfect size for the number of people who attend your presentation, but unless you are planning your own event, that is not always what you get. If you are given a room at a conference, for example, that is too large for your audience, they may feel lost in the space, it might be cold or droughty, and there could be an echo. On the other hand, if the room is too small for your audience, people may feel cramped, some people may have to stand, people may leave or not enter in the first place, and it may be hot and/or stuffy.
The size and shape of the room also impacts how far away you are from the audience. You might be quite far away up on a stage, or you could be quite close at the front of a conference room, with barely space to turn around. Your distance from the audience affects things like the size of the font on your word slides, whether or not it makes sense to write things on a flip chart or white board, the degree to which you can make eye contact with your audience, how much you are able to move during your presentation, and your proximity to your slides.
If there is a strange shape to the room or large posts or pillars, everyone may not be able to see you or your slides, and you may not be able to see them. This can impact how well you are able to connect with the audience and hold their attention. Depending how long you plan to speak, the comfort of the seating (or lack thereof) can be important. You might need to give the audience a stretch break or several.
The size of the room can even affect what you choose to wear on the day of your presentation. You don’t want to be either too hot or too cold, so dress appropriately for the temperature of the space. Layers are often a good idea.
What’s in the room and how it is arranged?
One of the most important things you need to know about the room you will present in is what kind of technical equipment will be there. Are they providing a computer, or do you need to bring yours? Using theirs means the projector will likely work, but it may mean the video clips you have embedded in your presentation won’t. If they prefer that you use theirs, do you send your presentation ahead by email, or do you bring it on a thumb drive? It’s a good idea to have it on a thumb drive in any case.
Will there be a projector? Is it mounted on the ceiling or will it sit on a table? Will it work with your computer? Do you need to bring an adapter? (If you use a MAC, be sure to travel with all possible adapters.) Will there be speakers for audio and a way to connect to them? This makes a huge difference if you are planning to include audio or video in your presentation.
What kind of screen do they have? The TVs that are very popular now mean you can’t use a laser pointer. Will you need a microphone? If yes, will it be hand-held or lavaliere? This determines what you will be able to do with your hands. Will there be a technician present to help you set up or will you have to do it yourself? It’s optimal if there is someone to help you and you can test to make sure that everything works. You need time for this, so another reason to arrive early!
What about the lighting? Are you able to control it? In some rooms you don’t have a choice other than “On” or “Off”. If a room is too dark, your audience may be likely to nod off. If the lighting is too bright, they may not be able to see your slides. Again, knowing the situation can help you prepare.
As mentioned above if you are speaking in an auditorium, you may be on a stage. This means the audience can see you, but you may not be able to see them. You could have lights from the projector in your eyes. I once attended an event where the speakers were standing on a large theatre stage with a huge screen behind them. The screen dwarfed the speaker, so the slides grabbed all the attention. What the speaker said was secondary to the images on the screen.
If you are making a presentation in which you will draw on a flip chart or white board, it can be helpful to have a table at the front or side of the room to put things like pens or notecards, or handouts. It’s optimal to have your computer or a monitor in front of you so that you can see your slides as they come up. This should keep you from turning to look back at your slides.
In some situations, you may be able to request a certain room arrangement. You should check to see if that request has been met and if the audience will be seated in a way that is conducive to listening to and participating in your presentation.
I’m sure this seems like a lot to have to think about, and it is, but the more of this information you can get your hands on, the more likely you are to be successful. As I mentioned at the beginning, your reputation is on the line. Your ability to learn about and prepare for as many factors as you can will ensure you make the best possible impression on your audience.
Another important aspect of setting is the context of a presentation. There is so much to say about the context that I created a separate blog post on it. Don’t forget to view the infographic on this topic for a quick guide to what to think about to present successfully in any setting.