The Small Business Expo—a business networking event, trade show, and conference for business professionals—was held in mid-October in Boston, Massachusetts. Among the many offerings at the SBE were numerous workshops designed to provide valuable business skills. The workshop I attended was being held on the main stage, so I figured that the presentation would blow me away. It did, but not in the way the presenter intended. I’d like to go over with you some of the errors she made and compare them with best practices so that if you find yourself in a similar situation you’ll know what to do.
The problem: Small audience
The presenter I saw was on the main stage so there were a lot of seats available—around 384 by my count. Unfortunately, there were only about 40 people in the audience and they were scattered all over the place. I had arrived late and the usher told me to sit toward the back of the room. So she was as much a part of the problem as the lack of attendees.
Think about any performances you might have seen or sporting events you may have attended that had tiny audiences. What’s running through your mind?
“If nobody’s here, these guys must stink!”
The same thing is true for business presentations. When there aren’t enough audience members to fill the seats, people get uncomfortable. They start to wonder if the presenter’s really worth listening to if there are so few people there. They might start to feel sorry for her and focus on that rather than what she’s talking about. And the space between audience members makes it easy for them to slip away without feeling bad about it.
The solution: Better seating arrangement
Before her presentation, the speaker should’ve asked the audience to move front and center in the room and the ushers should’ve been instructed to seat latecomers in the same group. Bringing people together as a group would have allowed the speaker to focus her attention on one part of the room instead of constantly scanning all over the place. And the proximity of the audience members would have imitated the more intimate setting of a smaller classroom and encouraged greater audience participation.
Marcus Sheridan, a well-known content marketing expert, writes about this subject in a recent blog post, “5 Powerful and Memorable Speaking Techniques Almost No One Is Doing.” He calls it “The Law of Spatial Intimacy” and he encourages speakers to group their audience members close together in order to create a better experience for everybody.
The problem: Questions from the audience can’t be heard
The main stage was set up in a sectioned-off area on the trade show floor. The ceilings were about 20′ high, there was ambient noise from the Expo, and there were no microphones available for the audience. As a result, during the Q&A portion of the presentation I couldn’t hear any of the questions that audience members asked. When the presenter answered the questions, it was like hearing just one side of a phone conversation.
The solution: Repetition
The presenter should’ve repeated the question, then answered it. This is especially important when the presentation is being recorded to ensure that the questions are captured even if the audience isn’t miked.
The problem: Presenter tied to podium
This presenter didn’t use a clicker. Instead, she had her laptop on the podium and advanced her slides by typing on the keyboard. This meant that she had to walk across the stage every time she wanted to change slides, interrupting her speaking and creating an unnecessary distraction. Plus, it gave the impression that she had her laptop open because she wasn’t familiar with her presentation and needed visual cues.
The solution: Buy a darn clicker!
They’re not that expensive and they work great on a Mac or a PC. Don’t forget to bring extra batteries!
The problem: Presentation was too short
Brevity is the soul of wit, but there is such a thing as a performance that’s too short. This workshop was scheduled to run for 45 minutes but the presenter finished in 20. After the 6-minute Q&A session it was “Thank you and goodnight!” It seemed to be a real waste of the prime real estate that was the main stage.
If they’d accepted my speaking proposal I would’ve been up there for the full 45 minutes delivering great content. But I’m not bitter…
The solution: Talk longer
For a 45-minute time slot you should prepare at least a half an hour of material and allow for 15 minutes of Q&A. That way, if there’s only 6 minutes of discussion you can dismiss the audience early. People love being dismissed early! But not too early.
Although the speaker appeared confident and knowledgeable, these mistakes were very distracting to me. So I hope that by reporting them to you, you won’t let these or similar easily avoidable gaffes take away from your otherwise great presentations.