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presentation training Speaking at conferences p23

The best advice to somebody contemplating reading a speech is – don’t, if you can avoid it.

The written word and the spoken word are totally different. Reading a speech sounds stilted and insincere. Usually people speak far better from understanding, than from written notes.

There may be occasions, however, when you have to present a paper on behalf of somebody else. This is an extremely difficult exercise because to get any life into the speech you must try to look at the audience as often as possible. This means that your eyes have to be five or six words ahead of your voice. It is an extremely difficult technique to perfect; hence the use of the teleprompter or autocue.

If you fear this misfortune may fall on you, you can practise reading aloud from a book or magazine and looking up as often as you can. Alternatively you should get specific training; speech reading is a skill in itself, mainly used by politicians and senior executives. Should you ever have to use a teleprompter plan very carefully, allowing plenty of time for rehearsals and work closely with your technicians.




Presenting to large audiences at conferences presents particular challenges although the general guidelines on voice, body language and structure will apply.

However, at a conference, you are a more remote figure with little or no opportunity to interact with individual members of the audience. This will have an effect on how you present your information in terms of the language you use.

Furthermore a number of elements are under someone else’s control. These include the layout of the auditorium, visual aids, lighting, introductions, and how questions are handled.

Here are some general guidelines:


a) Your material
In general terms, speaking at a conference involves giving a speech rather than making a presentation.

Your language therefore will need to be much more precise and less conversational. The danger here is the temptation to write your speech and read it the audience. The trouble is that written text spoken aloud often sounds stilted and unnatural.

Perhaps the best way to prepare is to follow the preparation guidelines for normal presentations, ideally producing notes in pattern form. Consider the use of some rhetorical techniques such as contrasts, puzzle-solution formats, list of three, position takers (see notes on rhetorical techniques) to make particular points of emphasis.

Then record it on tape using simple, spoken language, remembering to use signposts to make the structure of your text visible. Type it up and then rehearse it as often as you need to be fluent. It the organizers offer you the use of an autocue, you then have the typescript for conversion to autocue format.

You will find that you are so familiar with the text that you hardly have to glance at your script or autocue. You will also be able to ensure that the duration of your speech is exactly right.

Use of Microphones

b) The Venue
You must visit the venue in advance to familiarize yourself with the layout. Practise walking from your seat to the lecturn and back again bearing in mind who will be in your way when the hall is full. If you are on a platform with other speakers, know which will be your chair and the best route to the lectern past the other speakers. If you are to speak from your position on the platform, make sure that your notes will be visible when you stand, and how the microphone will be positioned in front of you.

Meet the person in charge of projecting your visual aids. Make sure you are both sure of the cues for new slides. Give him a copy of your script with the cues marked in.

Remember that your slides may be projected into a large screen which you will find difficult to see clearly. Have hard copies of each slide with your typescript so that you know which one is being projected.

Discuss with the conference chairman how he will introduce you. It would certainly help if you were to prepare for him the key points to be included. Make sure you agree how questions are to be handled. If there is a general question session involving all speakers, the chairman will probably wish to acknowledge and repeat each question and then nominate the speaker to answer it.

Sometimes the organizers require a copy of your script in advance, to circulate to the audience and the press. By all means have copies available but try to discourage distribution to the audience in advance of your speech; if they have your script, why should they listen to you?


a) Body Language
You will probably be speaking from a lectern or behind the speakers’ platform, so only the top half of your body will be visible to the audience. The rostrum and a fixed microphone will force you to be more static then will feel natural. However don’t let this lead you into gripping the side of the lectern and making no hand gestures at all. Look at your audience. You may be in the glare of floodlights and hardly able to see them, but try to make real eye contact with people in the auditorium as much of the time as possible. They can very clearly see if you are reading a script, which emphasizes the remoteness between you and them.

Use of Microphones

b) Voice
With good quality sound systems you will not need to project a lot of vocal volume, but you must speak slowly and clearly, with a great deal of intonation. The audience want to hear the strength of feeling and commitment behind your words, and this can only come from the variety of tone and pace of your voice.


Modern radio microphones have made life much easier for presenters by doing away with the snakes and cable which always tripped you up.

Static Microphones
However, lecterns are still frequently equipped with static microphones, and these impose severe restrictions on your freedom of movement. When you visit the venue in advance, position the microphone so that it is not in your line of either your notes or the audience. It should not need to be nearer than 15 to 18 inches from your mouth but check with the sound engineer the ideal position and volume level. Make sure you know how to switch it on or off and, if possible, agree with your preceding speakers how they will leave it.

Once you are speaking you will need to keep your head reasonably still. Beware of rocking to and fro as this will cause variations in the volume level.

Lapel Microphones
Lapel microphones are a great advance but pose certain dangers.

Firstly, position the microphone so that inadvertent movements of hands, jacket, tie, etc do not brush across it causing noise or at worst dislodging it.

Make sure yours is switched off until you need it. You do not want your private comments during the other speeches amplified to the whole audience. Be sure you know how to switch it on. The on-off switch is usually located on your own receiver/transmitter unit which will be attached on your waistband or belt, and the switches and their attendant indicator lights are often rather small.

Speak clearly at about the same level of volume that you would use when presenting to a small audience.

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