Be Here Now When Giving a Talk

I spent Monday through Wednesday of this week at O’Reilly ETech and was struck by how infrequently the audience met the presenter’s expectations. We rarely seemed to be large enough. Since this is about emerging trends I picked a number of oddball sessions and saw the same reaction several times: the presenter waiting five or ten minutes past the start time for the talk hoping more folks would arrive. At least they could have started informally and interacted with the folks who had showed up. Some suggestions for your next talk, no matter how well attended it may be:

  • Attendance is a function of marketing and competition. Once you are in the room and it’s time to start, give the best talk that you can.
  • Anytime you are giving a talk, ask questions of the audience. In a large group you can ask multiple choice show-of-hands questions, and in a small group you can solicit short comments. These are the folks who cared enough to show up: learn more about them and why they came.
  • Once your talk starts you have to “be here now” and focus on the audience in the room, not the one you were hoping for. Don’t lament the poor attendance to the attendees: they’ve voted with their feet already.
  • If you have a presentation that is modular and you are giving a shorter version, don’t let the seams show. One workshop presenter mentioned while giving his talk perhaps half a dozen topics that would be covered in a full day version of the workshop but that he was omitting from this half-day version. I can see mentioning this in a summary at the end or once in an overview, but it was annoying to hear again and again that we wouldn’t be covering a topic.

Personal confession: we do the Bootstrapper Breakfasts, which are early morning events where not everyone who registered actually decides to get out of bed and be there by 7:30AM. About three years ago we had been doing them for about six months when I attended another business networking breakfast–also at 7:30AM–where the moderator kept lamenting to the four folks besides myself who had showed up that more people had signed up. He left the room to look for strays and delayed for twenty minutes until another person arrived. Once we actually got started it was a very interesting conversation. I realized then how I looked to attendees when I lamented that some folks who had registered were not here yet, and that just getting started was always better than waiting and/or wringing my hands.

Update: Garrick Yan left a great comment

Excellent post Sean. I have not yet started the speaking circuit, but starting a meeting on time is the right thing to do for those who “showed up” at the meeting. Waiting for the stragglers tends to put more importance on the late comers, and also takes away from the importance of your own message.

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