Calling Presenter Audibles: Maximize Your Options

Note: I’m writing a book on how to present/facilitate with presence. Blog readers get an early preview of the book’s concepts as posts throughout the year will flesh out some of my thinking. This is the first of what will be many installments on the topic and builds on posts done in mid-2009.

In teaching presentation design and delivery to a variety of subject matter experts, one thing stands out for me: many take a very linear approach to their talks: A leads to B followed by C and don’t even thinking of skipping D before moving on to E.

So what’s the problem? You identify your outcomes, select the appropriate content, and then outline your talk in the most logical order. Then off you go, right?

Think of your talk as a road trip. If you have only one route to get to your planned destination, what will you do when caught in a massive traffic backup or when you encounter an unexpected detour? What about the need for rest stops at times other than your planned breaks? Or how would you respond to seeing a billboard for an interesting site, one requiring a detour from your path?

A presentation’s road trip with participants often doesn’t unfold as planned either. They know more (or less) than anticipated. They want to ask questions at a time we weren’t planning on taking them. They show up in numbers greater (or fewer) than envisioned. If you’ve only prepared for one path to get you from A to Z, it’s going to be a very long ride through the alphabet.

Professional and more frequent speakers tend to prepare for real-time adjustments, a tactic anyone who addresses groups of people should consider. A quarterback who sees the defense line up in an unexpected formation might call an audible to adjust the offensive play. So should speakers prepare to adjust their outline, format, and flow based on what the participants reveal to them as a session unfolds.

But wait, shouldn’t speakers just go in and deliver their talk as planned and let people take it as presented? In some settings or roles this indeed is appropriate. But in general, we must bridge our content with what participants want and need. If we only have one planned way to do so, we are unlikely to be successful.

For every teaching format I envision using, I’ve pre-planned other possibilities. My slide deck often includes additional content I can turn to if the participants' needs or knowledge levels differ from what I expected. I plan to manage the clock so I can allow for interesting detours from the planned path. Doing all this requires having content knowledge that is deep in your muscle memory: you can call on it reflexively. This allows your real-time attention to focus not on your notes, but on the participants' needs and interests.

So do outline your workshop and chart a preferred path, but also maximize the pre-planned options you can select from to appropriately deviate from it. Participants will appreciate your flexibility in addressing their needs, and you’ll bend almost effortlessly because of your extra work upfront.

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