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How to make a conference presentation work for you

Conferences allow you to speak directly to your target audience enhanced by the authority of the event. But without careful preparation it is easy to waste the opportunity.

Question: In a few weeks’ time I have an opportunity to speak on my specialist subject to a number of influential people at a conference. In particular, the audience will include some firms that have the right connections to be a very effective route to market. I want to convince them that I have something special to offer, but don’t want to give too much away. Any tips?

Answer: There is a risk of being too pleased with yourself when you feel you have something to offer which is significantly better than anything else currently available. It almost always provokes a ‘not invented here’ reaction. No doubt you will have seen this happen to other people.

The first thing to bear in mind is that your real target audience may be a small subset of the number of people in the room, so you have to do something that the majority will find interesting, but will prompt the important minority into action.

It is important to get your head in the right place before you begin to plan your approach. Much depends on how you frame the task you have set yourself. Think about what Antony Jay calls your desired audience response (DAR).

Telling yourself, “I want them to be impressed”, is likely to result in a different presentation to one where you say, “I want the right people in the audience to come and speak to me afterwards”. Assuming it is the latter that you are interested in, how do you set about it?

Step one: Get their attention by talking about something that is familiar to them and where they are likely to nod in agreement. It might start off, “You know when the client says…” Examples like this are often an opportunity for the wry humour of recognition. You are putting yourself alongside the audience instead of above them. The underlying message is, “this has happened to me too”.

If you are not too clear about what will resonate with your target audience, it’s worth taking the trouble to interview two or three of them in advance, just to get a flavour of their experience and reference points. Of course, you have to avoid putting anything into your presentation that they would see as betraying a confidence, or would embarrass them to recall – even privately. But it is a great confidence booster when you know that two or three people in the audience will definitely know what you are talking about and are already on your side.

Step two: Having got their attention and interest, you now have to get them to look at the real consequences of the amusing situations you have just described. “We have to laugh”, you say, “but of course we all realise this represents an underlying problem”, and you go on to spell it out. The syndrome to which you have drawn attention should represent a lost opportunity not only for the ultimate client, but for the individuals and firms which will provide your route to market. Ideally, you will be highlighting a situation where the resolution of this issue will create significant business opportunities for them. Otherwise, why would they want to work with you?

Step three: This says, “But it doesn’t have to be like this”. Get your audience to work their imaginations. Ask, “Suppose this or that was to happen, what difference would it make?” If you can get some audience interaction going, that is all to the good, but only do so if you are very sure of the answers you will get. This is where your early research comes in handy. If you have tried the question on your guinea pigs, you can propose different outcomes with confidence, and it will be in the words of your target audience, as opposed to your own.

There are two elements in step three; you need to describe not only the benefit or payoff from the change, but also the changed circumstances that will give rise to it. Very often, people will not accept the benefit as being real until they have played in their mind’s eye the scene in which it will occur.

Step four: You reinforce the idea that given the possibility of a positive outcome, it is really worth exploring a solution that might lead to it. “What”, you ask, “would such a solution look like?” This is where you enumerate the features that an effective solution would need. In other words you are building up a specification that any credible solution would have to match.

Step five: At this point, you might be tempted to pull your solution out of the proverbial hat and present it with a ‘Ta Da!’ But don’t. This is your opportunity to present your painstaking search for a solution (even if the reality was that it all came to you in a flash while you were taking a bath). If it did seem to be the result of effortless inspiration, on no account say so. Nobody likes a smartass. Once James Dyson tells you that he painstakingly made five thousand cardboard prototypes of his bag-less vacuum cleaner in his shed before he could launch the product, it is much harder to resent the standard of living to which one assumes he has become accustomed.

You want the people who will supply your route to market to realise that if they try to go it alone, by the time they have successfully reinvented your wheel you will have found another partner and have gained a head start on them.

Step six: You show how your solution matched the criteria you have just set out. It really helps if you can quote an evaluation from an authority that will carry weight with your target audience. What you say here will depend on whether you are launching a proven prototype solution, or looking for partners to help you set up trials and future reference sites.

Step seven – is your call to action. What do you want your target audience to do? Step seven may be nothing stronger than saying you are currently talking to people who have expressed an interest, but this is at an early stage and you are still open to preliminary discussions. But give them permission to approach you. Make it clear that you are interested. If you really want to be devious (and successful) arrange for a friend in the audience to go up and exchange business cards with you in as public a way as possible.

My final suggestion is that you write the first draft of your presentation backwards, starting with step seven. This will help you identify the members of the audience you want to target for your research, and what you are looking for when you meet them.

Once you have got an angle that will command attention, go back and rewrite your next draft in sequence from steps one to seven. Good luck!Final