Part one of “The Setting” (link to previous blog post) blog posts focuses on what you need to know about the space in which you are presenting. Now, let’s turn to the context of the presentation.
Type of Event
Knowing the context of a presentation allows you to prepare effectively. What type of event are you speaking for? There are many possibilities. You could be speaking at a professional conference, making a presentation to colleagues at an internal meeting, speaking to a group of clients at a client site, or guest lecturing in an academic setting.
Speaking at a conference is generally the most complex situation, so we will concentrate our attention there. First, you want to know your position in the program and what time of day you are speaking. It is important to know this for a couple of reasons. Time of day indicates the state of mind of your audience. First speaker of the day? The audience should be fresh! Right before lunch? The audience is hungry, so don’t run over! Right after lunch? The audience is sleepy! Last speaker of the day? The audience wants to go home, so again, watch your timing! The best slot is the first of the day. The worst is undoubtedly after lunch.
Another reason you want to know your place in the speaking order is to see who is speaking before you. What is their reputation as a speaker? It is easier to speak after someone who is not a great speaker than after someone who is an excellent speaker. If possible, try to listen to at least part of the presentation right before you. It will help you understand how high the bar is. You can also listen for something they say that you can connect to. Audiences will appreciate the continuity and be impressed that you were listening too.
What kind of a presentation have you been asked to give? Are you speaking to all the attendees, sometimes called a keynote speaker, or is your session a “breakout session”? If your session is a breakout where people have several sessions to choose from, you need to think about the title of your presentation. Is it sexy? Will it attract people? And who is speaking the same time as you are? They are effectively your “competition”. You want to know their skills as a speaker, if you can possibly find out.
When presenting internally, there are a couple of things to consider. First, what size room has been assigned and is it adequate for the number of attendees? Are people allowed to come and go, or will they stay once they are in the room? This is often a matter of company culture. Are you presenting alone or are their other speakers on the agenda? As above, you want to know your position on the roster and who is speaking before you.
You want to know if you will be introduced and by whom. Do they need a script from you? Even if they don’t ask for one, it’s a good idea to provide them with one. I have witnessed and been the victim of some horrible introductions and there is nothing worse. Often, people involved in hosting conferences are well-meaning, but overwhelmed. Things like speaker introductions may get overlooked. Help them out by preparing your own introduction and handing it to them enough in advance for them to read through it. They will usually thank you for it.
Also, find out if there will be someone moderating the Q&A after your presentation and if a microphone will be passed around. This will help you understand if you will need to manage your own Q&A and if you will have to repeat questions so that all members of the audience can hear them.
How Formal or Informal?
The last thing to know about the event is the level of formality. How dressed up should you be? You can ask the organizers or someone who has attended the conference before for their opinion. I recommend never being more casually dressed than the most formally dressed attendees. If there is a chance that someone in the audience may be wearing a suit, wear a suit or a nice dress. In my view it is better to be overdressed than underdressed, although being extremely overdressed can work against you as well. There can be exceptions to this rule, but at a minimum you need to be wearing something akin to “business casual”.
I’m sure this seems like a lot to remember, but the more of this information you ask and get answers to, the more likely you are to be successful in your presentation. Your ability to prepare for the context of a presentation will ensure you make the best possible impression on your audience. Don’t forget to view the infographic (View PDF) on this topic for a quick guide to what to think about to present successfully in any setting.