Planner's Workshop: On Site

So, you've got a great presenter. She's well prepared and has a great personality. Even more, she's vivacious, charming, and a great entertainer. I might like to have a drink with her, but is she accomplishing the business goals of your meeting? As a presenter and an attendee, I go to dozens of events, from scientific conferences to sales conventions. Most speakers are enjoyable, some are enlightening, but not many get the audience rushing to buy the services or products of the host organization or make major changes to their habitual perspectives. A speaker may have great handouts, wonderful visuals, and a professional style, but there is little correlation between presentation style and business results. Here's what a speaker needs to do to really make a contribution to your conference.

Add Value
Whether the content of your meeting is sales or science, the respective speakers will have something in common; they are using words, data, and pictures to influence your listeners. They are doing one or some of the following:

Educating
Selling
Promoting an idea or method
Advocating for a new approach
Raising motivation to take an action
Asking for change

But whether your speakers are in sales, politics, or academia, if they are standing in front of an audience, they are selling or at least influencing. And if you want them to have an impact on your audience, your speakers have to refer to Sales 101. Thirty years ago the basics were: in a sales conversation, make sure the ratio of talk time is about 40 to 60, speaker to client, otherwise the listener is too passive, making it harder to gauge their thought process and less likely that they will buy into your proposal.

The basics are still the same today. Research shows that if a client, or audience member, speaks, he or she is more invested in the outcome. Not only that, but if the sales person, or influencer, listens well, they will uncover the areas to which they might add value. Therefore, good influencers ask good questions. They don't talk at; they talk with.

So why do presenters forget this rule when speaking to a group? I am not sure, but I think it is because they don't know how to do otherwise.

The Principle of Real Questions
I have had many people tell me, "I hate when the speaker asks me (the audience) questions." To them I respond, "It's because the speaker is asking phony questions." So, what's the difference between a phony and a real question? Phony questions are questions to which the speaker already has the answer. This type of question is patronizing; it asks for support for a previously offered suggestion, like "Don't you agree," or it tests the audience's intelligence. Phony questions promote the guessing game that proves the speaker is right.

As a speaker, don't get sucked into the false sense of security that a phony question brings. Real questions are questions to which you do not have the answer, just like in a real conversation. Real questions help the speaker to determine the level of understanding, experience, and perspective of their participants. When you ask a real question, you will be forced to listen to your audience in order to respond appropriately.

Help The Audience To Help You Help Them
Recently, I sat in with the audience at an investment seminar. The speaker asked us to tell him what we knew about 401(k)s. We knew lots about them; we didn't care. What we wanted to know was how to deal with the stock market losses we had all experienced. We sat around a large table and whispered our real concerns to each other. The speaker could have engaged our real interest and helped us to use his expertise. He could have asked a real question.

A real question determines:
What are most audience members concerned with at this point in time?
What prevents the audience from using this, doing this, or otherwise buying this?
How have you dealt with this issue in the past?
Are there any reasons why this new technique/idea/service might not be useful to you?

Do You Design For Questions?
Don't think that good questions occur spontaneously. A speaker should design the questions beforehand as follows:

Lay out the notes of the presentation in sequence and identify each major point it makes.
For each point, place a check mark next to an aspect that meeting's participants may know something or feel something about.
Consider whether it is important to address knowledge or attitude. You may want to address each separately.
Design a question that elicits the critical knowledge and/or experience that is required to drive the main point home.
Plan answer(s) to the potential range of responses.

A speaker should invite the audience to tell her, and each other, what they think or know about the topic area. This shows them respect for what they already know and think. It also helps to build rapport, a critical factor in being influential. In addition, it allows the audience to become conscious of the gap between what they already know and the additional value the meeting is providing.

Successful speakers are not the ones who get the most applause. They are the ones who add value and are worth the time their audience invests in them. And they achieve results.

Gail Rae, president and founder of Washington, D.C.-based IInteractionMatters, coaches speakers, writes speeches and seminars, and choreographs conferences. She specializes in content logic, influence, relationship development, and achieving results. She can be reached at [email protected] or at (202) 360-1636 or (505) 216-0621.

Originally published June 01, 2007

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