How to make your event less dead and more TED!

I love going to conferences. Just as well since, as a keynote speaker, I spend vast chunks of my life inside auditoriums, banquet rooms or windowless, airless conference centres.

I’ve seen countless Olympians, celebrities, TV personalities, and professional inspirational speakers over the last 17 years as I wait for my slot and it’s always thrilling to be in their vicinity.

But no matter how exceptional your external speakers, it’s the speakers from the host organization– the CEO, the FD, the head of the major transformation project, the primary advocate for an upcoming change of strategic direction, the company lawyer who needs to communicate dry but critical information about a change in industry legislation — that make or break these events. This is the opportunity for them to talk about what really matters to everyone in the room — their own jobs, their own business, their own future. And it’s an opportunity, frankly, that’s often missed.

I’ve been delighted and inspired many times by superb, funny, insightful and beautifully constructed company presentations. But I’ve also felt small parts of me die (you know what I’m talking about!) during the inevitably powerpoint heavy, monotone, meandering sessions that not even the presenter is getting any pleasure from. You’re never getting that part of your life back.

If you’re speaking at an upcoming event it makes sense to invest in the perparation of that speech. You have one chance to land the message. Don’t mess it up.

Speaking isn’t that hard…

The truth is that being an effective and engaging speaker isn’t that hard. It’s just that it’s much, much easier to be an ineffective and disengaging one. And while there are many ways to make a presentation (and a presenter) better, it’s not necessary to re-think everything in order to get a vastly improved performance.

When I’m helping people prepare for a big speech we will work on everything from body and voice to the emotional journey of the presentation and how to handle the unexpected. But even if you can’t free up the time for such an intensive experience here are 4 tips that will help you think about your presentation differently, to great effect –

1. Know The Purpose: The best speeches have a clear purpose. The speaker has considered what they want the audience to take from the presentation and what they want the audience to do. Rather than the primary purpose being to inform the audience, they’ve gone a step further and thought about the response they want. Do they want the audience to take some action after? Do they want them to feel differently about the topic? Do they want them to share the key messages with people who aren’t present? Do they want them to get angry or feel reassured? Defining the purpose helps you write a better presentation and focus your message. It stops you meandering, giving too much information or boring your audience because you are clear in your mind what you want from them.

2. Think About Visuals: The best presentations don’t rely on any visual other than the presenter. Especially if you’re speaking to your own organization, you are the most powerful visual because you can connect in real time with the audience. Even an emotionally moving video (and there are some wonderful ones) can’t do what a live person in the room can do. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have slides, videos or imagery. But think about what they are there to do. They aren’t there to replace or duplicate you. They should only be there if they add another dimension.

3. Turns Of Phrase: When each key message has a soundbite associated with it it’s much easier for the audience to remember what you’ve said. But more than that, a nice turn of phrase helps you keep your message simple, and simple is good. Simple can be remembered. Simple can be repeated. And, after all, that’s what you want isn’t it? Think “If I had to summarize this point so my Grandma would be left in no doubt about what I mean, what would I say?”. Chances are you’ll come up with something pithy and clear. A quote, a punchy statement, a word you’ve invented, a simple question…any of these can help give your presentation a bit of drama, make it memorable and ensure people actually understand what you’re trying to say.

4. Connection with the Audience: Finally, the best speakers treat the audience like real human beings. Too often nerves or just lack of awareness cause a presenter to ignore the audience sitting right in front of them and speak almost to themselves. The best speakers think “What can I do to get the audience to participate more? How can I connect with them and keep them connected? What will I do if the energy feels a bit flat? How will I stay alert to the time and not run over?” If you build connection in to your presentation when you’re writing it you won’t have to worry when you’re on stage about how to regain their attention. You’ll have them in the palm of your hand.

Conferences are expensive. If key meesages don’t land, if people don’t know what to do with what they’ve heard, if they feel their time could have been better spent doing something else you’re likely to find the budget for next year’s event rapidly disappears.

But there’s a more compelling reason — the lost opportunity cost. A flat, predictable series of speakers has a hangover effect. People go away disappointed and tired. Their full inbox awaits them and the investment they made to come to the event is far outweighed by the work awaiting them when they return to the day job. Alternatively an event where the speakers really plant their messages in a memorable way has an exponential return. The stories about a great event, the repetition of key messages, the energy that was created in the room and the respect that is generated for the internal speakers who, on that memorable day, galvanized the organization ensures that the momentum of the event is easy to maintain…and that’s got to be good for business.

Blaire Palmer is an author, speaker and executive coach. She’s CEO of That People Thing, a consultancy that offers coaching and advice to leaders who want to re-think how they drive change in their organisations. For more information visit or listen to her Punks in Suits podcast on iTunes .