In Consultation

The Art of Presenting

Understanding What Your Audience Needs

Magazine Issue
January/February 2016

Q: I’ve been asked to present a workshop to other mental health providers. Some of the reviews I received after my last public-speaking event were mixed at best and I want to get better at this. Any tips or guidelines?

A: Early in my career as a public speaker, I was offered an opportunity to present a two-day conference on the treatment models I’d developed for adolescents. The conference was being organized by a big-time association, and I knew this was my big break. I prepared for months and couldn’t wait for the accolades to roll in. Then I saw the first comment on an evaluation form: This workshop was an insult to my intelligence.

Stunned and mortified, I forced myself to look at all the comments and found that most of them were actually quite positive. Even the ones that offered criticisms were polite and respectful. Since then, I’ve spoken at more than a thousand conferences, and over the years, I’ve learned a lot about what works for speakers and what doesn’t, as well as how best to design an engaging professional workshop. Here’s what I’ve found.

Focusing and Engaging Your Audience

The most important principle to keep in mind when designing the content of your workshop is to think like you’re in the audience. When I first entered the workshop circuit, I tried to pack in every interesting study and story I could think of into my outline. I was insecure, and I wanted to show off my deep and impressive knowledge. Sure, mentioning facts or examples that are especially interesting to you fuels the energy of your presentation, but you can’t let that get in the way of staying focused on what your audience needs: a clear theory, backed by research, with skills they can apply, presented in an entertaining fashion.

What else does the audience need? Clarity about your plan helps people follow the progression of your presentation and keeps them from losing the thread. As the classic advice for salesman goes: tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them. Of course, you’ll want to do this in an interesting way that doesn’t take up more than a few minutes. And you can reinforce your outline throughout your presentation with PowerPoint slides designed to keep you on track and your audience focused. A workshop that relies too heavily on PowerPoint can drag, but a well-balanced presentation provides a multimedia experience that breaks up the monotony that even the most interesting speaker can fall prey to.

Some celebrity speakers start out dazzling as advertised, but their anecdotes start to pile up on top of each other, and questions from the audience inspire them to go off on tangents. After a while, the time available for that last section everyone’s been waiting for rapidly disappears. Suddenly, the speaker looks at his outline and announces, “Wow! I guess we got into so many interesting discussions that we’re just not going to have time to go over how to apply this with resistant clients.” Now, although the audience may have been entertained for a time, the vast majority of attendees will leave disappointed.

Check Your Ego at the Door

Carefully chosen personal anecdotes and self-disclosure are valuable engagement tools. In fact, I’ve had audience members approach me years later about some anecdote that I relayed—like my self-deprecating story about refusing to carry my wife’s purse in a Paris plaza because it represented a blow to my years of establishing bona fide masculinity—that stayed with them longer than any theory, clinical strategy, or research study ever did. But remember that your favorite stories, studies, or theories are relevant only if they add to the package of information that your audience is seeking and deserving.

In an attempt to be really cool, too many presenters also engage in name-dropping. I admit that I like to make reference to the fact that I was trained by Milton Erickson just before he died—I can’t help myself. This experience changed my professional life. But your audience can usually tell when you’re making one too many references like that, and it makes you look insecure. Also, don’t keep referring to other theories or the work of other professionals as just variations on your own approach. You may always be viewing the world of psychological theory and intervention through your special lens, but most others aren’t. That’s ego-driven and serving your needs only—which is something you wouldn’t do as a therapist and shouldn’t do as a speaker, either.

Another ego-driven pitfall is to turn to the audience and ask if that last example or section was helpful. This is just a disguised way of saying, “Please reassure me that you still like me, because I’m worried about how this is going!” And be careful about the verbal tics of Are you with me? and Does that make sense to you? These are giveaways that you need reassurance. Nobody is going to give you a straight answer anyway.

I know that when I’m most confident about what I’m telling people, I speak more slowly and require fewer words. In contrast, when I feel shaky about how well this study or story really fits in, my speech becomes more pressured—and I overexplain.

Responding to Audience Questions

Handling audience questions is an art. Some speakers can get derailed by wanting to please everybody, which can lead to the dreaded syndrome of being unable to cut off questions. Most of your audience is there to hear you, the expert, offer your brilliant and pithy remarks. They’re not so interested in hearing the attempts by their peers to do the same. So when I hear an audience member drifting into a lengthy explanation of his or her pet theory, I interrupt with my most charming self and say, “Okay, I want to comment on this, please let me know what your question is.”

The same goes for audience members who want clinical supervision more than an answer to a specific question. Your response is often of great interest and value to that particular audience member—but rarely to anyone else. So I politely tell audience members seeking advice on a case to check with me on the break. The rest of the audience is usually relieved when the speaker takes charge like this.

Making Good Use of Evaluations

Another important workshop presenter skill is to make good use of the evaluations without getting destroyed in the process. Here’s where you really have to check your ego at the door and remember that it takes courage to put yourself out there on public display. Remember that the higher you reach, the more you open yourself up to criticism, failure, envy, and competition. It comes with the territory. If you don’t have the stomach for this, then stay away from public speaking. Or writing books. Or running organizations or departments.

It’s inevitable that you’ll get a few unhappy customers. I’ve learned to compartmentalize a single unhappy customer presenting a single complaint as an outlier—interesting, but not much to sweat over. But when I read several of the same type of complaints, such as I really wanted to see more of a demonstration, rather than just talking about what to do or Not enough attention to diversity issues, then I start to take it seriously and use it to reshape what I present in the future.

Finally, always bear in mind that, whatever the quality of your presentation, it’s a mistake to run over the break times or (worst of all) the actual end of the workshop time. Your audience members are usually polite and unlikely to protest assertively. If you actually ask people if it’s okay for you go overtime, you may be misled (and falsely flattered) by the ones who implore you to keep talking. If you’re one of a series of speakers in a packed schedule, every minute you go over your allotted time, no matter how much it seems like the audience loves you, cuts into another speaker’s time later in the day—narcissistically gratifying, but not professional and not cool. Despite the obvious ego rewards of having intelligent people hanging on our every word or story, it’s really about them and not us. Mostly.

Photo by Pavel Danilyuk/pexels

David Wexler

David Wexler, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and executive director of the Relationship Training Institute.  He’s the author of six books, including When Good Men Behave Badly and Men in Therapy.