Presenting is a Team Sport

What a busy conference session its been this time of year. I’ve attended two in the last month (USA and Denmark both excellent) and another this week at the wonderful UK Fest. I’ve watched a lot of presentations and I’ve given a fair few too. Even though these festivals (or are they conferences) are international I see the same issues cropping up that slip up otherwise good presentations.

As a speaker myself I have massive respect for anyone who can get on stage and share their thoughts that they have no doubt spent days preparing. They deserve for it to go as good as it can and we as the audience can help them with some of the bits that are hard to practise in advance. So I thought I’d highlight some of the issues that are really easy to fix, the good news is this is a team sport, we as a community can all help make most presentations better together.

I’ve noticed four common traits that crop up time and again that speakers do without knowing that we as the audience can help fix:

  • Speaking too quietly
  • Failing to zoom in on code
  • Speaking too fast
  • Microphone issues

We as the audience sadly all too often allow any of these issues to ruin a perfectly good talk for the want of speaking up. How many times have you heard “it sounded like it was a good talk but I could only hear about 50% of it” or “shame I couldn’t see their code” or “the mic issues were too annoying so I left”. These are soul destroying for a speaker to hear as we only hear them AFTER a talk when the time to raise them is during the talk when we can fix them and try to ensure that everyone gets the best presentation they can.

They are super easy to fix we just need a shared vocabulary to let the speaker know what the issue it. Given that we are all apparently introverts at these conferences and we don’t like bring attention to ourselves by shouting out there are also some hand signs we can use too so that hopefully you can sit at the back in silence while still correcting the speaker to help them get it as good as it can be.

Speaking too quietly

We've all had a speaker mumble into their mic (hello introverts again) or turn away from a podium mic to look at code over their shoulder or just slowly bit by bit get quieter and quieter as the nerves kick in. These can kill a talk. At the USA fest I was sat under an air conditioning unit and the gentle hum from that was slowly drowning out one of the speakers as they got quieter and quieter. So I took a deep breath and shouted out "LOUDER!" at a break in the speaker's delivery. That is all it took. Yes it breaks the speakers flow and snaps them out of their thoughts but afterwards they thanked me and after I shouted out others turned and nodded a quiet "thanks for having the nerve to do that, I was struggling too" look.

So, when a speaker is too quiet let's all agree that a shout of "LOUDER!" is all it should take. Lets amplify that then. If you hear a shout of "LOUDER!" from the back shout "LOUDER!" yourself so that the speaker actually hears it, the more voices the more chance they get it. The hand sign for this is I repeated finger point up to the ceiling. Again if you see someone do this join in, more hands pointing means more chance of the speaker seeing it and taking note. They don't need to acknowledge it with a "Is that better?" comment, just speak louder and stay in the flow. This goes for all the rules, amplify them if you see them and help everyone. If one person is struggling others are too. Simple.

Failing to zoom in

When the speaker wrote their presentation they did it on their computer on a big screen (or if like me on the plane on their laptop). They probably didn't know that Visual Studio on a projector looks really really rubbish and everything looks tiny. So when they "skip the boring stuff and get to the code..." for a live demo they can't see just how rubbish everything looks over their shoulder. Everyone gives them 30 seconds...and then the leaning into the person next to you and muttering begins…"I wish they would zoom...why don't they zoom...can you read that…"...why don't we shout up?" Introverts again or a sense of politeness thats miss placed in this setting.

Let us help the speaker by shouting "ZOOM!" as quickly as we can before they get into full flow. Every time I've seen this done the speaker has always say "Oh yes of course, sorry, there any better?" I've never seen them look hurt or unset and wish you would stop interrupting so shout out. Help them out!

Hand signal for this one is a simple pinch zoom or make a rectangle with the finger and thumb of both hands.

Speaking too fast

I'm the biggest culprit of this one. I like speaking fast, real fast. I try to limit it but sometimes I'm at my best when going quick, my brain likes it when I'm quick but at the expense that I know I can lose some folks as a result. That isn't always the case and certainly not for everyone. English as a second language folks can struggle when a speaker is going too quickly so a gentle reminder to slow it down a bit can do wonders especially when at a foreign conference (hello Danish festival!). The speaker doesn't have to always agree with this one but this one is more of a "take it easy, you are doing great, take it slower" bit of feedback that can really help nervous speakers. It doesn't mean slow down to the other extreme but just take it down a notch and pause a bit to get your thoughts.

This one only has a hand signal as I think it is quite subjective, flat hand raised up horizontal in front of your face and bounced up and down a few times. That should be all it takes. Again no need for the speaker to really acknowledge just take a drink or a pause and then start the next sentence a little slower, your in charge and everyone wants you to do well. We should only do this one once or twice in a presentation, if you are doing it every minute then something is not right for you and either sit it out or go find another talk.

Microphone issues

We've all witnessed this one especially with the wrap around mics that go over the ears. All too often they can end up rubbing against a beard or hanging off or are put on right under the speakers nose and you get every single exhale loud and clear! This can be just annoying but it can also be really off putting for the speaker and have them second guessing if everyone can hear them. Alternatively they might not know at all, it is hard to hear yourself up there most of the time so let's tell them.

Shout "MIC!" and that should tell the speaker that something is up. 99% of the time if its a around the ear mic they just need to move it away from their face a little and all is good. So speakers remember that! Back up is to just ditch the mic and increase the volume (sorry introverts), often we aren't talking to that many people, just use your voice.

Hand sign for this one is the same as you'd use for a telephone held to your ear. Thumb up and little finger down. Super easy. Event organisers can fix a lot of this by just ensuring that someone is around to set up the mics properly and test them, there is enough going on in a speaker's mind that worrying about sound engineering too.

Making this work in the real world

This article is out there now, none of us have an excuse to sit through another bad talk and hopefully we’ve taken control of the parts of a talk that we can control as an audience. Lets do the best for the speakers we can.

Event organisers can do their part here too. At the start of the event while talking about the fire escapes, toilet locations and sponsors they can also get everyone to practise some or all of the audience commands above, it might be a nice replacement for the level 5 good morning warm up and help make the whole day better.

Community for the win! See you at UK Fest this week and for the record... you owe me a beer.

Pete Duncanson

Founder and Managing Director at Offroadcode, Pete is a problem solving, project managing, new business winning developing machine who makes the company tick and ensures his team is always able to do their best work.

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