Public Speaking Disaster Averted

It could have been a speechmaker’s disaster. I first got a sense of this when asked to lead a presentation skills workshop for four panelists—scientific researchers slated to share findings and opinions with an audience of their peers.

When preparing to lead such projects, I always ask for copies of the presentations well ahead of time. All of the speakers opted to use slides in this case. It took several polite yet insistent requests, but the slides were eventually forthcoming (this is not a rare occurrence; if we ever have the opportunity to work together, please do not let this be you). The reason for the delay, as you may have surmised, is that the talks were being drafted at the last minute.

The Uh-oh Moment

The real problem became apparent when the slides arrived. Two of the speakers planned to display more than 20 slides during a 15-minute talk, with another attempting to cram the same number of slides into just 10 minutes. What’s more, many of the slides were quite dense, both in terms of appearance and substance.

Learning training

To complicate matters, the training was due to take place immediately before they were to speak, leaving little time for overhauling their presentations. Also, there was no opportunity to conference with the speakers prior to the workshop. We had to hash out everything during the last minute workshop.

It became clear that one of the very first items on the agenda was to impress upon the panelists the need to be brief and to cut any slides that were not vital to their presentations. Fortunately, each of the individuals was an accomplished speaker, so they had a reasonable shot at improving at such a late hour. After the first one completed his dress rehearsal, he was able to see what needed to be trimmed and made the necessary adjustments in his remarks and his slide package while his colleagues conducted their practice runs. The others did likewise after their run-throughs.

Don’t Wear Out Your Welcome

Why is this streamlining important? You show disrespect to your host if you speak too long and overstay your welcome. If you have 20 minutes to speak, organize your remarks to last no longer than 15. Trust me, almost all speakers tend to overestimate the amount of words that can be crammed into their agreed-upon time. It is far easier to expand upon a point if time allows than to edit on the fly. You do not want to place yourself in a stressful situation in which you force yourself to make changes as you go. In addition, you do not want audience members checking their wristwatches, sending a signal that says, “I hope this windbag wraps things up soon.”

There are other lessons with respect to preparation. For instance, our speakers in this case study had the ability to effect changes more readily due to their high level of familiarity with both the art of public speaking and the tools used when doing so. Experience is the best teacher. If you are still early in your learning curve, accept invitations to speak whenever you can. Non-profit groups, civic organizations, and community service clubs are constantly on the lookout for interesting speakers. You can help fill their needs while gaining an edge in your own talents by speaking before such groups.

A Happy Ending

You’re probably wondering how our speakers performed during the live presentation. They did themselves proud. Thanks to their skills and, I trust, the organization we brought to matters during their training workshop, each offered a seamless talk (to a packed house, no less). And, yes, they did adhere to the agreed upon time limits.

Have you encountered similar last minute situations? How have you, your resident experts, and your consultants dealt with them?



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