Do these or Don’t Speak!

Professor Val got an invitation to be one of the lead paper presenters at an international conference. He had been working on a research formula for a while and he had received several awards and international recognition; therefore, he believed the audience would be excited to listen to his presentation. He negotiated his fee with the organizer of the event and agreed to speak for one hour.

The conference was to begin on Monday and Val’s presentation was scheduled for Tuesday. Nevertheless, he arrived on Sunday because he had to transverse several countries to the location of the conference and the organizer had appealed to him to be present at the opening ceremony. To demonstrate how much Professor Val was appreciated for attending the conference, a welcome party was held in his honour on Sunday night.

Finally, it was Tuesday and Professor Val’s presentation began. Unfortunately, not quite 15 minutes into the one hour paper, the audience started to be distracted. Don’t tell me that the distraction came because Val was not energetic and passionate about his subject matter because you are wrong. He worked really hard at it. However, the more he tried to be convincing, the more he lost the attention of his audience.

One of the challenges he had was that he believed the one hour was not enough to do justice to the topic so he tried as much as possible to force so much information into the time. Of course, he also tried to speak as fast as he could. The greatest challenge of the presentation, however, was that he was a Russian and didn’t speak good English. That, more than any other thing, made it difficult for the audience to comprehend the presentation. Quickly, the initial excitement of seeing Professor Val “in the flesh” gave way to boredom.

Thirty-five minutes into the presentation, about 50% of the audience was asleep, 25% was busy with a book or other materials, while the remaining 25% struggled to follow the presentation because of a particular interest in the topic. The Master of Ceremonies (MC) took a look at the audience and was uncomfortable, so he approached the organiser to discuss the situation. The organiser, however, insisted that the contract with Professor Val specifies that he would be speaking for one hour and he had been paid accordingly.

After 50 minutes, the MC approached Professor Val, like he did for other presenters, to tell him that he had 10 minutes more. Professor Val reacted sharply by saying, “I have one hour to present. I will use my one hour”. While the MC courteously returned to his seat, the audience murmured as though they could not bear another minute of the presentation. When finally the presentation ended, members of the audience couldn’t wait to go for their long awaited break and they didn’t care much about asking questions from the speaker.

I’m sure a few questions may be going through your mind right now. One of them may be, “what did Professor Val do wrong?” The truth is that he worked perfectly by the book. He prepared hard, he was energetic and passionate, he was time conscious (his one hour) and he wanted to pass across a lot of valuable information to his audience. These are all virtues aren’t they? So, what did he do wrong? Well, his asset was also his liability- he worked perfectly by the book. In public speaking, there are lots of valuable rules that enhance effective presentation. Nevertheless, it is extremely important to note that public speaking is an art. It is dynamic. Rules are set as guidelines but we must also learn when and how to apply them, or even how to sensibly break them.

In this series, we shall be exploring exceptions to some public speaking rules. The greatest attribute of an experienced public speaker is the ability to effectively evaluate his/her audience and respond according. Whether you are a professional public speaker or you simply make presentations at work, your audience must be your prime focus. Next, we shall take a closer look at Professor Val’s errors.