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Presentation Tips: When Your Speech Stands Between Your Audience and Happy Hour

By Howard Fencl, Hennes Communications

So you finally snagged a speaking slot at an important industry conference and you’re jazzed. You’ve tightened your script, added cool multimedia to your PowerPoint deck and you’re ready to rock an audience you know will be hanging on your every word.

One problem.  The slot you got is on the last day of the conference, a Friday, at 4 p.m. That means you’re going to be the only thing standing between your audience and a free margarita at the conference happy hour.

Wait, wait, you say! You’re a big TED Talk enthusiast, and TED says when you’re nervous about presenting to an audience, you must remember that “Everyone here is on your side.” A recent Inc. article offering TED advice to antsy speakers cheerleads that “People view their time as precious and limited, so once they’ve invested the time to come to your presentation, they are likely hoping that it will turn out to be a good investment, that they’ll get something useful out of being there, and that they’ll enjoy the experience as well.”

OK, no argument there – if you’re giving a TED talk.

Except…long conference…Friday…happy hour. And you’re going to be in the way. Suffice to say, they may NOT enjoy the experience, and they may NOT exactly be “on your side.” Even worse – for some, attendance may be a forced march.

So what can you pull out of your speaker’s bag of presentation tricks? Pump up your energy level?  Get more animated? Crank up more volume on your lavalier mic?

Nope, says Bruce Hennes, our CEO at Hennes Communications and a veteran presenter with more than 30 years of speaking engagements under his belt.  I recently sat him down and asked for his advice. His answers may surprise you:

1. Just say no. Even if these conference attendees are your dream audience and the event organizer slots you in at the end of the last day, you still have the opportunity and right to take a pass, especially if you’re relatively convinced that only stragglers will attend.

2. If you say yes and you wind up with 20 people in a room set for 200, they will invariably sit as far apart from one another as possible. Knowing that it’s really hard to “work” a room with too few people sitting apart, your first impulse may be to ask people to move. But if they’ve already staked out a seat, don’t bother. They won’t want to, and if they do, they’ll move begrudgingly. Knowing human nature, your audience is likely to now harbor some level of hostility.

3. Bring police tape. Go to your favorite home improvement store and pick up a roll of yellow “caution” tape and tuck it in your suitcase along with some adhesive tape. As you’re setting up, rope off the back third of the room (or the side wings, depending on the room layout) before people arrive so they’re funneled toward your podium.

4. Become an “aggressive maître d’” If you forgot the caution tape, position yourself at the entrance door as your audience arrives, greet them personally and show them to the seats you want them to occupy.

5. If only 5 people show up in a room for 200, this is the time to make them move.  Get out from behind the podium, hop off the dais and sit with them, explaining that instead of running through your presentation, you’re just going to have a discussion with them. And then put your negative thoughts aside and give them the best experience possible. While you may be thinking what a waste of your time, remember that the five people who showed up did so expecting a professional presentation.  Your duty, then, at that very moment is indeed to be a true professional.

An additional thought – this one from me – since they’re itching for the conference happy hour consider joining them when you’re wrapped up to continue the discussion. Get their business cards and follow up when you’re back behind your desk.

Finally, never show disappointment at the turnout. “Maybe I didn’t get what I wanted,” Bruce Hennes tells me, “but one way or another, I’m determined to give them what they want.”

Catch a Bruce Hennes presentation in a city near you. Here’s his speaking schedule. Note: you will find no conflict with happy hour, no matter the time zone.

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