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A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking at Phoenix Fan Fusion (formerly Phoenix Comicon). I did two talks: one on creator rights and one on lawsuits related to comics and movies. Not only were both talks well received, but it also gave me a chance to reflect on the lessons I’ve learned about being an effective speaker.
When I speak at events where they give me a table to sit behind, I often prefer to take off my shoes and sit on the table. I don’t like having the barrier between me the audience or feeling like I’m trapped in a chair. I feel less restricted when I’m on what my friend calls the “lawyer perch.” If I’m presenting with other panelists, I invite them to sit on the table too. We look really adorable sitting up there.
I’m not saying everyone should sit on tables. But do you, whether that’s reflected in how you dress, speak or your presentation style. You’re going to be more comfortable, and more effective, when you’re being yourself.
I like to arrive at the room where I’m speaking a bit early for two reasons: to make sure everything’s set up and ready, and because I’m neurotic. Before my talk begins, as the audience starts ambling into the room, I ask them what questions they hope to get answered during my talk. That primes the pump for what examples I should use. It also sets the tone that I want my talk to be helpful and one where the audience is welcome to participate. It also shows the audience that I’m not the old, stuffy Jewish woman they might have been expecting when they saw my name in the program.
I respect that some people won’t be enthusiastic about sitting in my talk, particularly when I’m presenting a CLE. I know some people are there just because they need the hours. They don’t actually care about learning from the session. That’s OK. I focus on the people who are interested in the content.
There will be times when some of your audience members will not be excited to be there. Perhaps they’ve been sent to your talk by their boss, or maybe they have something going in their lives that have nothing to do with you. It’s your job to present the material to the best of your ability, not to evoke a certain response.
I hope you have fun every time you give a presentation. I’ve learned if I’m having fun, the audience is probably having fun too. And if you’re more memorable, the audience is more likely to remember the information as well. Even if they don’t care about the topic, they can still enjoy watching me geek out about it.
I always have people who come up after my talk to ask a question they didn’t want to ask in front of everyone or because we ran out of time to get to everyone. I see it as my job to provide information, so I’ll keep at it as long as there are questions.
When I spoke at BlogHer in 2017, it was on a law and tax panel. It was the last speaking slot of the day, with no conference activities immediately after. We told the audience when our time was officially up, per the conference schedule, but that we would gladly continue to take questions as long as the audience had them or until we got kicked out of the room. We did an extra 45 minutes of questions. One attendee said our panel was worth the cost of the entire event.
Of course, you always want to be respectful of the event and the other presenters. You may need to get off the stage and take questions out in the hallway, but plan to stay and field additional questions if you can. If it can be helped, don’t schedule your flight home so soon after your talk that you have to literally walk off the stage and immediately catch a Lyft to the airport.
Even if it’s just your business card, always have a takeaway. I put my cards on the table in a spot where people can grab one on their way out without having to navigate the people who want to talk with me. It’s not uncommon for someone to email me asking for help long after they saw me speak.
There are times, depending on the topic and the event, when I collect cards from the audience to send them a resource afterward. This takes planning and preparation — but it’s absolutely worth it.
Whenever I’m invited to speak at an event, I treat it like theater. It’s not just about the information I’m presenting but how I do it, and especially what the audience can get out of it. Even when you have a highly technical topic (like the General Data Protection Regulation talks I gave last year), there are always ways to make it engaging for the audience.
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