Do everything you can to avoid creating any distractions and to reduce those that exist.
Perhaps you’re thinking “Hey, Einstein, that’s obvious”. And perhaps it is. But it’s harder than you think to follow.
I’m not saying it’s simple, but here are some ways to follow the no-distraction rule.
Before your seminar
Your preparation is one of the best ways to avoid distraction. Judges who can speak off the cuff on topics are few and far between. If that’s you, great! If not, though, then preparation is really important.
Preparation isn’t just about knocking together a PowerPoint presentation. (In fact, several of the best seminars I’ve ever been to had no slides at all.) For the best facilitators, their slides, their own notes, and their handouts are all different documents, because they contain different sets of information.
I strongly advise running through your seminar at least once with a couple other people who are watching and are able to give you feedback. This also enables you to figure out whether it’s a bit short, too long, or indeed whether you’re at risk of getting boring. The feedback is incredibly useful to help you perfect your delivery – and another good piece of advice is to get someone to record you whilst you practice. Playing back and watching yourself deliver can be painful, but it’ll let you iron out a whole lot of kinks and improve yourself no end.
If you’re confident with it, use the speaker view feature on PowerPoint or Keynote. This lets you see a different screen on the laptop to what shows up on the projector, including speaker notes – which you can use to remind yourself of what to say without it showing up for everyone.
We will have more info on preparation in a future article.
Structure and plans
Distractions can be generated by how you build up your seminar. We’ve all been to that seminar where someone puts a load of text-heavy bullet points up on screen, and then proceeds to read them. Promise me you won’t be that judge? Thanks.
Instead of that, make your slides show things that you can’t say or that are more complex to understand. Charts and graphs are great things to show. You can try an image of a card with a relevant name. Nothing relevant to put on screen? Blank slides or blacking out the screen are fine alternatives. And a certain Jack Doyle swears by cat pictures…
Sometimes, you can’t get away with having slides containing only pictures, graphs or charts, and you need to have a list on the screen. The best examples are when you need to list all the elements of a more complex topic like all the layers, or all the shortcuts, or five different answers to a question you asked. Or maybe you’re just afraid your international audience may not understand your pronunciation.
In these cases, it is best to show your elements one at a time. It prevents the audience from reading off the screen instead of listening to you, and in the end, you still end up with everything.
During your seminar
You’re on-stage, and you’ve started talking. How do you apply the no-distraction rule here? Let’s look at a few ways.
Distractions you create
Knowing your presentation is very important, because not doing so may generate distractions. One way this arises is when you get ahead of yourself. It’s tempting if someone asks you a question on slide 3 to give a long detailed answer, forgetting that you’re covering it on slide 10 later on. This will distract you from your timekeeping and later on will mean you’ll get to slide 10, say “oh we’ve already covered this” and click on, which is really jarring for judges in attendance.
You also need to recognize when you’re drifting off topic, either because of questions or because of self-imposed tangents. Risks here (besides distractions) include you overlapping with a topic someone else has prepared, or the worst conference sin of all…
When your conference organizer asked you to speak, he/she gave you a time slot, right? Repeat after me. “I must not overrun my slot. I must not overrun my slot.” A few dozen times is cool. Not taking care of time is a big distraction – the audience know when your slot is meant to end and will get very edgy if you start to take longer than you should. You’ll also find yourself speeding up if you realize you’re running late, you might not have time for questions, and at worst the organizer may need to stop you dead.
You can avoid time-related distractions by rehearsing your seminar (as mentioned earlier), knowing which bits aren’t so important and can be skipped or trimmed, and keeping a close eye on time throughout. The presenter view on presentation software normally has a clock, too.
Here’s a simple one. Every minute or two, you stop what you’re saying, break off eye contact, wander over to a computer, and push a button to advance a slide. Or, you do if you like causing distractions. Instead, use a slide clicker (many organizers provide them, but I carry my own nowadays) or at worst, nod to another judge sitting at the computer.
Still on slide changing, ever seen a facilitator move to the next slide, stare at it for ten seconds, and wordlessly click on again? I call that the “unprepared slide stare of doom”. You can avoid it by knowing your slides and your seminar.
Finally for this section, be conscious of how you stand and move. Don’t clasp your hands together if you can avoid it. Don’t rock back and forth or move backwards and forwards unnecessarily – stand still and have a wide stance with your feet below your hips. Be careful when walking across in front of the projector, and use a laser pointer rather than your finger if you want to point something out on screen. Four more distractions eliminated! More information on the topic can be found in The ‘Tells’ of Body Language – Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
Distractions you control
You may find the venue is in a noisy area or your room is just large. This means the audience are distracted by being unable to hear you. However, this is in your control. First of all, you will use any microphone or sound system provided. These are not optional and the conference organizer didn’t buy or hire one because they needed more black accessories and cables in the room. Please don’t try to speak up or “project”; you’ll lose your voice. If there’s no sound system and people are struggling to hear you, I have two magic words: “come closer”.
Some seminars now contain breakout sessions or activities where judges do a task in groups, usually before reporting back to the group in general. This can use up a lot of time, so if you’re planning on doing it, make sure you discuss your plans with the conference organizer, give a clear briefing, and give a time warning a few minutes before you call everyone back together. Additional reading on the topic can be found in There’s a “we” in “weapon”! – Part 1 and Part 2.
Then there’s disruptive participants. Serious disruption is not common, I hope, in your local judge conference, but perhaps there’s someone who disagrees with one of your points or wants to go into loads of detail, or off on a tangent. It’s your role as facilitator to politely bring things back on track, perhaps with an invitation to take up the discussion one to one at a break or a suggestion that you’re going to run out of time and would like to make sure you cover everything you said you would.
If you’re unlucky enough to be facing judges who are chatting or acting in a way that’s making it hard for other judges to hear you fully, it’s a judgment call as to whether you stare at them a bit, call them out, or try to discreetly get another judge or conference organizer to deal with it. If you’re co-facilitating with another judge, whoever’s not talking might be able to go and have a brief chat to sort things out. In the worst case if you’re not in a position to deal with things, speak to an RC or organizer at a break so the issue can be addressed.
Tech is great, most of the time. Except when it breaks. Projector bulbs can blow. Someone can trip over a power cable and plug it out. The organizer might not have the right connector or cable for your laptop. So arrive early, check that things work, and give yourself time to prepare alternatives if they don’t. Maybe you can get to a Staples to get the necessary dongle, or maybe the venue can lend or hire one to you.
Let’s say the worst happens in the middle of your seminar though. Being prepared mitigates this, but if you can seamlessly recover the failure by pulling out a paper copy or tablet with your notes and slides, the audience will remember an effective facilitator rather than a technical disaster.
If you’ve requested props or accessories, such as flipchart, markers, playtest cards, paper, handouts, or anything else, check with your conference organizer well in advance and again on the day that everything you need is there, and have an idea of how you can cope without them. If you can’t, bring your own too.
Bonus anti-distraction tip
Do not write words in red or green flipchart markers. Ever. They cannot be read from a distance.
It’s a lot to take in, but cutting distractions is the core of facilitating effectively and it’s paid a lot of dividends for me and for many others.
If you’ve found this interesting and want to learn more about presenting without distractions, check out our other articles! Do feel free to reach out to me via email (firstname.lastname@example.org), Facebook, Skype (imfromcork) or at an event where I’m always more than happy to give advice.
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