The presenter steps up to the podium, welcomes everyone to what will certainly be an awesome conference session. She segues into a typical warm-up exercise: let’s find out who is in the room. How many of you are chickens? Great, we appreciate the eggs. How many are cows? Wonderful, thank you for your service—without you there would be no cheese or chocolate. Do we have any alpaca in the room? There you are. Few in number but mighty in spirit. Please don’t spit.
The exercise can happen in different ways, but the goal is the same: to build rapport and gather information about who is in the room so that you can better speak to them.
At a recent conference session, some version of the above unfolded. The room was mostly filled with chickens—hard working creatures toiling hard to produce a golden egg. The presenter determined that right from the start. And then she spent the rest of the presentation speaking eloquently to an imagined audience of horses, delivering ideas and tools useful to running fast over hill and dale. Not so useful to chickens.
I sat in the audience trying to telepathically communicate with the chickens. I hoped that they were picking up nuggets of relevance between the lines. The session ended after its requisite 75 minutes. Before it did, I made some notes on how we could do this better:
- Know who is likely to be in the room before the session even begins. The attendee profile of most conferences isn’t a state secret, particularly for presenters who attend these conferences year after year. If you don’t know, ask the organizers. Optimize for the people most likely to be in the room.
- Influence who is in the room. At most conferences, anyone can attend any session, so how do you make sure your desired audience shows up? Invite them. When you write your conference description, include a clear description of who this workshop is designed for.
- Use your power as the holder of the microphone to connect people. Maybe you ask people new to the work to stand up so others can meet them later. Maybe you ask people to line up by years of experience and then “fold the line” to make pairs to answer a question related to what you are presenting. (I learned this from the awesome Tracy Flynn). There are many ways to connect people, and doing so strengthens your presentation.
- Customize in real time once you know who is in the room. By the time the presentation starts, your powerpoint and handouts are done. What isn’t done is how you deliver it. You have the power to shift your speed and focus through content depending on who is listening. You have the knowledge to stop and ask thought-provoking questions to get real-time engagement and feedback. You have the audience’s permission to adjust so that they get more out of their time with you.
- Stop talking. Let them play with your ideas. We hear all of the time about the importance of reflection. People need time to take what is going on in their heads and connect it to whatever you just said. They need to build a bridge between your idea and their lived experience. Presenters, therefore, need to build in time for people in the session to practice what they are hearing, share what they think about it, or otherwise exercise their brain. I know letting attendees talk introduces a certain level of chaos. Comfort with ambiguity is as great a skill in teaching as it is in life.
Want more on learning strategy?
I will be teaching a workshop on curriculum design this fall.