Actors have nights in the theatre when they’ll come off stage at the end of the play and say that all their props jumped up and bit them.
“The doorknob came off in my hand…”
“My lighter wouldn’t light…”
“I choked so hard on my drink that I couldn’t get my lines out.”
When that kind of thing happens, good actors will improvise their way out of trouble – and often it’s a team effort, as others actors on stage frantically cover for an unlucky colleague while he or she sorts out the problem.
As a presenter, you too can be the victim of the sudden spite of inanimate objects.
Perhaps, like an experienced actor, you’re confident that others would bail you out, or that you’d adopt a brilliant spur-of-the-moment Plan B.
Or perhaps you just have to hope for the best. It may well be, especially if you’re speaking at a large event, that it’s not up to you to make or alter decisions about the material things you will be required to deal with, from the type of lectern to the presence of a video link.
But if you’re at the mercy of equipment and/or technology that’s been set up by other people, you have some good reasons for equipping yourself with as much foreknowledge as you can – and if at all possible, some rehearsal in situ.
I’m not going to talk about slides here – how NOT to commit Death-By-PowerPoint is a book’s worth (I’ve written one. It’s called How to Fulfil Tight and Demanding Briefs – A Hundred and One Ways of Making Ballsups in Business and there’s lots in it about how NOT to do slides as well as many other business activities involving human interaction.)
I’m going to talk about one of the other technical things that can throw you if you’re not used to it, and that’s the microphone.
The worst, and most common way of using a mike badly is to assume it does all your work for you.
Not so. A mike merely amplifies whatever you’re doing already.
So if your diction is poor, that’s what we’ll get – only louder.
If you speak so fast it’s just a barrage of words, that’s what we’ll get – only louder.
If your energy is low, that’s what we’ll get – only louder.
Energy and volume are not necessarily the same thing. It is perfectly possible to be energised but quiet at the same time.
Mike or no mike, you need deliberately to send a part of your attention and energy to the people at the back. It goes along with what I’ve said before about ‘placing’ – i.e. using an appropriate amount of energy – and it follows on from what you do with your eyes (which I’ve also talked about before).
A mike cannot help you to make more of an impact upon those at the back, if your energy falls short of reaching them in any case.
Nor can it help to make your diction more distinct (depending on the room’s acoustics, it may do the opposite).
Nor will it magically separate out your sentences if you are talking like a runaway train – again, depending on the acoustics, it can exacerbate that effect.
If you are obliged to work with a fixed mike on a lectern, bear in mind that we lose you every time you turn your head.
So don’t keep turning round to look at a screen behind you as you are talking. (Please don’t do that anyway.)
That doesn’t mean, however, that you have to poke your head forward into the mike like a tortoise.
A lapel mike is infinitely preferable, as it doesn’t tie you to one position (your physicality plays a huge part in the impact you make, don’t forget – and that’s harder if you are obliged to stay stuck at a lectern).
But beware the rustling jacket, chunky necklace or heartfelt gesture that creates an undercurrent of unwanted sound effects.
If your technical team are worth their salt, they should help put you at ease about mikes and cameras before you begin. Certainly, in my experience of large conferences, it’s well worth befriending the people at the control desk so that you can ask questions about technicalities.
If you can, try out the mike before the event kicks off – and get someone to stand at the back to tell you how you’re looking, as well as sounding.
That means checking that you’re lit well enough for us to see your eyes, and that if you walk about, we’re not getting a strobe effect as you hit alternate hot spots and darkness.
Well, ok – that’s what an actor would do. We have whole ‘technical rehearsals’ in the theatre world to sort out precisely that kind of issue. Theatre technicians are expected to make the lighting support the performance.
Alas, that’s rarely so in any of the business conferences I’ve been to. It never seems to have occurred to anyone that the slides are NOT the most important thing in the room – nor that, if we can’t see the presenter’s eyes, we lose a major part of their message.
But I’m not going to expand here on the evil cult of PowerPoint slide worship. Have a look at my e-book for that – you’ll find it illuminating.
It is sadly true that the business world often deprives us of control over the environment in which we need to perform. The dimensions and layout of the conference hall or the meeting room may be a given, over which we have no choice.
And technology – particularly at large conferences – has a way of taking over, restricting choice even further.
All the more important, then, to exercise control where you can.
Rehearse in the space, as we’ve said before.
And whatever you do, don’t get so bound up in the technology that you forget what the impact of your presentation is really all about.