The Best Presentations are the Start of Conversations

I recently tweeted out this title in response to a science communications message:

In my workshops and working with speakers one-on-one for specific talks, I often say

What do you want the audience to be talking about after they see your talk?

Rest assured the audience members will be talking about something. If you feel your content is important enough to be presented to an audience, you should hope that some aspect of your message figures into that conversation.

Consider this three act play, told in stock photos. What story do you see?

people on a meeting
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people inside conference room discussing
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adult african american black women blond hair
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From a presenter’s perspective, a story is told and a message is relayed. But this is just the beginning of a conversation the audience starts to have after seeing the talk. It is only once the audience has talked among themselves (and perhaps others) that you should imagine your ideas driving their actions, possibly in your working directly with that audience. Therefore if you want your ideas to be in their conversations, your message needs to be memorable and activating for that audience.

The tagline I put on my business cards echoes this central need for all presenters:

Put audiences first to deliver persuasive talks.

Or as Nancy Duarte puts it in her 2010 book Resonate, “Audience interest is directly proportionate to the presenter’s preparation.”

Thus your preparation in your present will determine what ideas in your audience’s future are considered. Remember, you may or may not be physically present in their future, but your ideas could influence their experiences and the outcomes.

Now, you might be asking what exactly I mean by “conversation” if you, the presenter, are not physically part of it. Certainly there are talks where the speaker and audience are chatting back and forth through the entire session, like in a classroom.

I am using the word “conversation” here to include engagements spread out across time, but always involving the audience. As a speaker there are three conversation moments you should keep in mind as you prepare to influence your audience’s future discussions:

  • immediately after your talk, also known as Q&A (question & answer)
  • shortly after your talk, when the audience is having conversations among themselves and with others they encounter
  • longer after your talk, when that audience engages with another speaker in the same idea space as you:
    • this might be another member of your team;
    • this might be someone you know of;
    • this might be someone from your field that you did not know existed.

In only one of these conversations do you have an active ability to steer the discussion: the Q&A. This is the time to ensure that the conversation with the audience considers your ideas the way you express them. In Q&A you should listen very carefully:  the questions you get will help you reinforce what you said in the formal presentation.

In the other conversations, you have little to no active control in how they evolve – the audience between themselves (and others), then that audience’s next speaker engagement. But you can influence what is discussed.

Dismiss where your audience goes next at peril to your message.

Those conversations that do not directly involve you are where the audience decides to pick up your message and do something with it. Or not.

If you do want your ideas to influence the audience’s future, make sure your ideas are clear and engaging to the audience. Put audiences first. This is why preparation and much practice are vitally important in delivering quality talks.

Additionally, if your message involves a hope that the audience will go forward thinking more positively of your discipline, an excellent preparation strategy is to think of this process as a series of conversations. That third moment – longer after your talk – is very similar to the first conversation: the audience is engaging with someone like you.

So prepare your talk to give that subsequent presenter an audience even more charged up to engage. This is how to build community and inter-community connections one audience at a time. If you do a good job of this, that audience might help you and that other speaker and all others in your community do more of what you want to do: find a funding supporter, discover new ideas that make the world a better place, get an artistic piece out into the world, change lives.

Your talk in its best form is the start of a conversation.

Prepare your talk with the audience first in mind. Make a good impression for yourself and those like you. Encourage the audience to ask questions. Catalyze their thoughts and motivate them to incorporate your ideas.

Put audiences first to be remembered in the end.

people at theater
Photo by Monica Silvestre on

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