There’s a new issue of MICE.net magazine on the streets. This issue, my column questions the ancient convention of Q&A (the event kind, not the Tony Jones TV show that sends Twitter into hyperdrive).
Sometimes, meetings are no place for democracy. At a major event, you can spend a lot of time and money building up momentum and excitement, only to have it derailed by the sort of unrepresentative nutbags who write newspaper letters to the editor that start with: “Is it just me, or blah blah blah…”
Here’s how to avoid snatching defeat from the jaws of victory as you finish a perfectly good presentation.
The situation we’re talking about is the important speech – maybe a product launch or conference plenary speech. The one with the large audience in the hotel ballroom, with the big sound, lights and vision. It’s part information and part theatrical performance, and the message they take away is shaped by a few critical points during the speech.
One of the most important factors is how it ends. End on a high note, and they leave thinking “now there’s an expert!’
You need to be in control of that ending. If it’s clear, energetic and draws all your points together, you’ll walk off stage to applause and admiration.
That is, unless you follow your snappy ending with a guaranteed barbiturate-strength room depressant: opening up the floor to Q&A.
It’s one of those presentation traditions that people can’t seem to resist, like ‘warming them up’ with a joke, another dangerous habit we’ll discuss another day.
When you finish on “So, are there any questions?”, one of two things will happen.
Most commonly, nobody has a question.
Not because your topic or performance was unworthy, but because few people want to be the first to speak up in a big room.
Silence. The air conditioning is suddenly quite audible. The conference MC steps up to the lectern to drum up some action.
“Wasn’t that great? Anybody have a question?”
Distant clinking of cutlery in the hotel kitchen three floors below. Shoes are stared at all over the room.
“Surely someone has a question. No? Well, huh huh, you must have covered the topic so incredibly well that there’s nothing left to cover. Please thank our guest speaker…”
By now, the energy from your speech has fizzled out, replaced by creepy uncomfortableness and a feeling that nobody loves you. You slink off the stage to desultory clapping, feeling like a player on a losing Grand Final team heading for the change rooms.
Attack of the Smuggers
Alternatively, someone does have a question. The question is: what sort of someone will be asking it?
In 99% of cases, it will be a special sort of person – let’s call them smuggers. Smuggers already know the answer to the question, and are asking purely to show everyone how clever they are. Whatever you’ve suggested, they’ve worked out some kind of obscure exception to your rule.
“You make a persuasive point in noting that oranges are orange. But could you also say that in the case of the blood orange, its reddish interior suggests that your rule doesn’t apply in all situations?”
Some years ago I watched Bill Gates walk the Q&A tightrope in a huge auditorium full of software developers. Each questioner had clearly spent months preparing their question in a dark basement, driven by the chance to go down in programmer history as “The Guy Who Stumped Bill Gates”. One by one they reeled off lengthy, obscure questions about codes and protocols, and demanded to know what Gates was planning to do about it. In a virtuoso performance, Gates answered the lot in forensic detail, even politely correcting a few of them on their technical knowledge. Unless you have a Gates-size brain, don’t try this at home, folks.
Maybe you won’t cop a smugging, but you’ll never know until they open their mouth, and that’s introducing a level of uncertainty that you don’t need.
What To Do
Tell them that there isn’t time for questions, but you’ll be around after the speech if anyone has any questions. This way you can cover individual, specific interests without taking the rest of the audience off-topic.
There are exceptions to this rule. It doesn’t apply to small meetings, like conference breakout sessions or boardroom new business pitches, where the tone is more interactive. And at AGM’s, where the right to Q&A is enshrined in law, it sometimes actually adds some energy and entertainment to the proceedings.
After all that, if you’re still keen on answering random questions, study the work of the current world champion of audience interaction, Ross Noble. Mind you, it’s easier for him. He can wander off on tangents about hamsters, while the rest of us have to stick to subjects like mutual fund returns, clinical trials or new brands of detergent with faster-acting enzymes.
Presentations are often about trying to get people to change their thinking or behavior. To try a new way of doing things. To see a subject through fresh eyes.
Change is a tricky thing to achieve, because most people over 25 are very set in their ways and fear change more than spiders.
But what about yourself? Are you trying to persuade people to change something, while everything about your presentation follows the same tried, true and tedious techniques that audiences have been enduring all their lives?
Maybe it’s time to question everything you do. Just because most people follow a rigid rule book, why should you?
With that in mind, here’s 10 questions you should ask yourself before you put together another perfectly average presentation. We’re not suggesting that these are the ideal answers to a winning presentation, the idea is to suggest that it’s possible to break the routine a bit.
1. Why do you have to stand up the front? Why not walk down into the audience, get them to gather their chairs around you, and talk like you’re around a campfire?
2. Why not do a 5 minute speech and a 25 minute Q&A instead of the other way around?
3. Why not hand-write all your graphics with a felt-tip pen, illustrate them with your own childish, colored-in drawings, scan them and put them up on the screen to add some real, memorable personality instead of slick’n’predictable PowerPoint?
4. Why not do your presentation in the form of an on-screen puzzle they all have to solve, like a crossword made up of your key topic words or a something?
5. If it’s a small audience, why not take them for a walk outside and talk to them as you go?
6. Why not videotape yourself at work for a month – put a camera in the corner on a tripod and use a remote control - as you go through the real-life situations that form the basis of your presentation. Difficult phone calls, meetings, hallway chat, the rougher the better. Anyone can edit now, in a good-enough fashion - cut together short bursts of material that illustrate your points. It breaks up the routine and it shows you’re talking from real experience.
7. Why not put a large lounge chair on the front of the stage and talk to them from that, like a presidential wartime address? I suppose you can’t smoke a pipe these days, but would that make you look thoughtful?
8. Why not set your whole presentation to music, like a documentary narrator?
9. Why not restrict yourself to one word per slide, big enough to fill the whole screen?
10. Why not take a handycam, walk down the street and ask total strangers questions about your topic? If their answers are smart, it’s good material to illustrate your points. If they’re stupid, it’s good for a laugh and makes your audience feel smarter.
You can always find reasons not to change anything. There might be a Vice-President of Something or Other in the audience.
There might be a hundred other speakers and the meeting planner will kill you if you mess with their processes. But don’t let that scare you into eternal conformity.
Start gently. Maybe use a font other than Arial. Then gradually increase the size of the rules you break. It’s OK. You won’t go to jail, and you’ll jolt your audience into paying attention.
Ian Whitworth believes passionately in the power of live communication, without the buzzwords and bullet points. He works as a creative director and principal of agency A Lizard Drinking. He is also one of the founders of audiovisual company Scene Change. Ian is an ex-professional presenter and long ago, ex-audiovisual technician. For non-presentation stuff, try @ianwhitworth.