There are usually two types of sessions at a conference – general sessions and concurrent sessions. The general sessions are the ones where you don’t have a choice, so everyone attends. Concurrent sessions are placed before and after the general sessions, to give participants the opportunity to pick and choose the sessions that best suit their interests. Sometimes, conference organizers set up their concurrent sessions in themed tracks.
In the pecking order of speakers, general session speakers, often referred to as “keynotes”, are the alpha dogs of speakers. They are the ones on the front page of the conference website and brochure, get to sit at a special table, and often get paid for their presentation. While there’s been plenty written about how to deliver a speech just like Steve Jobs, most of us will never have an opportunity to do a keynote.
There are far more opportunities to deliver at conferences as a concurrent speaker. While lower conference status than keynotes, there are still a lot of benefits. You usually get a free conference registration, get a special name badge, you get to share your expertise with others, and it makes it easier to meet people and network (“hey, Dan, I loved your presentation on how to use a nine-box”).
I’ve never been able to find much on how to deliver a great concurrent session, but I’ve done a fair number of them and learned by trial and error. I’ve also sat through enough outstanding and horrible ones to get a good sense of what works and what doesn’t.
So with that as a long-winded intro, here are 10 tips on how to deliver a great concurrent session:
1. Don’t oversell your expertise.
It’s assumed that if you’re asked, or if you submit a proposal to present, then you have deep expertise in some area that others can learn from. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. If you are asked to present on a topic that you would not feel comfortable in calling yourself an expert, than turn it down. If you don’t, participants will be disappointed; you’ll hurt your reputation, and be shunned at the networking receptions.
Tip: come up with a session title that has a little pizzaz, yet accurately describes your session.
2. Present – don’t “facilitate”.
When I hear a presenter open their session by saying something like “Well, I’m certainly no expert in this topic, but gee, I’ll bet we have a room full of expertise, and my job will be to create an environment for the next hour to share that knowledge” - I just want to set my hair on fire and run from the room. Don’t even grab a handout, just hustle down to your second choice and hope you can get a seat. I’ve seen professional trainers to this with good intentions. Yes, while participant involvement is a must in an all-day training program, in typical 60-90 minute concurrent session, participants have come to hear from YOU. If they were experts, they wouldn’t have come to your session. Please, no breaking the room up into groups to answer their own questions. I’m not saying a well-placed, quick 5 minute exercise isn’t a good idea; just don’t overdo it at the expense sharing your own expertise.
3. Know your audience.
Yes, “know your audience” is a presentation skills 101 cliché, but for some reasons, I’ve seen way too many concurrent session speakers not tailor their content to the needs of their audience. If I’m doing a session on succession planning for CPA firms, then I’m at least going to take the time to interview a few CPAs and look up some good accountant jokes. Not being paid is not an excuse for lazy preparation – your audience deserves nothing but your best.
4. it’s not a sales presentation.
I like to hear a little about the speaker’s background – it’s good for credibility and context. However, anything more than a few minutes begins to feel like an infomercial. I’m also OK with a quick mention of a book, website, or blog at the end, as long as it’s quick. I realize that at conferences, we are all selling something. Just let your tips and best practices do your selling for you, there will be plenty of time to hand out business cards and autograph books after the session.
5. Play nice with the conference planners.
Conference planners usually send speakers specific instructions, checklists, deadlines, and forms. Take the time to read them and comply with their requests. One of my pet peeves: speakers who don’t submit their presentation material in time to have it included in the conference notebook.
Please don’t tell me about your long flight or late night karaoke session at the bar – I don’t care. Suck it up, gulp down some coffee or an energy drink, and give me your best for 60-90 minutes. The presenter should never come across as more bored than the participants. Hey, I once drew the 7:00am track at a conference in Vegas – day three, no less! The handful of sleepy participants that showed up rated it as one of the conference’s highest rated sessions. Bring your A game, and nothing less.
Tip: Don’t stand behind the podium tethered to a microphone – request a lavalier, or lapel microphone, to give you the freedom to move around.
7. Save time for questions… at the end.
Plan – and rehearse your presentation to ensure there is time for 10-15 minutes for questions at the end. While a few questions are OK during the session, too many run the risk of satisfying a few at the expense of the many. If a participant asks a question that you know you’ll get to later in the presentation, don’t be afraid to say “Great question, and I plan to address that in about 10 minutes. If I don’t answer your question then, please let me know”.
Tip: The first few minutes are also critical - you need to convince participants why they shouldn't grab a handhout and bail on your session to head out to the pool to work on thier tans.
8. Arrive early and stay late.
Get to the room early to load your slides, check equipment, straighten out the room, and greet participants. Stick around after your presentation- these are often the particpants that have an individual question that they didn't want to bother the enitre group with. You should be honored that they are waiting around to ask you. If there is a line of participants waiting to talk to you, then you know your session hit the mark!
9. Get feedback.
Ask a few participants for feedback and make sure you get a copy of the evaluations from the conference planners. Even better if you can buddy up with another presenter to give each other feedback. If you're really brave, ask them to record it on your smart phone camera. Getting candid feedback is the only way I’ve learned not to repeat some bone-headed mistakes.
10. Enjoy yourself!
If you treat doing a presentation as if it’s a root canal, then your participants will feel your pain as well. Smile, laugh (at yourself), and enjoy your moment in the sun! If you’ve having fun and enjoying yourself, then chances are, participants will as well.
For a related post, see How to Rock as a Panelist.
How about you? Any dos and don’ts to share when it comes to doing a concurrent session?