HOW TO BE A BETTER SPEAKER OR PANELIST AT SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST


So you made it to the big time. You landed a speaking slot at South by Southwest (SXSW), the annual conglomerate of interactive media, music, and film conferences. They say everything’s bigger in Texas, and there aren’t too many stages bigger than this event in Austin. So you’d better bring your A-game.

But with nearly 400 panels and workshops, and hundreds of speakers, how can you make your talk memorable long after the city cleans up from an influx of 70,000 attendees?

Well, it’s all about connecting with your audience. So whether you’re a featured speaker, panelist, or hosting a workshop, here are some tips to take your talk to the next level.

GET STRAIGHT TO THE GOOD STUFF

It may be customary to thank the organizers or moderator at the beginning of your talk or mention that you’re happy to be there, but forget tradition! Save the pleasantries for later. You need to capture your audience right away.

When you’re walking onto the stage, people are likely checking their phones, thinking about the next session they want to attend, or wondering where they’ll grab lunch. Your job is to get them listening and interested in your topic. The best way to do this is to skip the warm-up and dive right in.

You can start with a compelling story, a joke, an interesting statistic, or even a striking visual image on a screen—anything but the usual boring ramp-up, which signals to attendees that they won’t miss anything if they tune out for a little while longer.

GET THE AUDIENCE INVOLVED

The public may be there to hear you talk, but when they speak up as well, they become more emotionally invested in the topic.

A simple way to involve the audience is by taking a poll. However, instead of the standard, “Raise your hand if you use multiple social media platforms daily,” consider something a little bit different. For example, you can ask, “Show me with your fingers, how many social media platforms do you use on any given day?”

This type of question produces a wide variety of answers and serves several purposes. It pushes the audience to think more critically beyond a binary choice, it makes them curious about how others around them responded, and it gives you data on how the audience feels about a topic. Most importantly, it gives people a chance to think about and express an opinion, thereby increasing engagement in the subject at hand.

Another way to get your listeners involved is to ask them to pair up and share their thoughts on a topic. Then call on a few pairs and ask, in a couple words, what they had to say. It doesn’t matter whether attendees share their opinion with the entire audience or just one other person; expressing their views will intensify their investment in your presentation.

RESPOND TO TOUGH QUESTIONS LIKE A PRO

What if you’re caught off-guard with a difficult question or contrary opinion?

First, instead of stumbling through an answer or talking in circles, buy yourself time to think about your response. Do this by getting someone else’s opinion first. Deflect the question back (“What do you think?”) or to someone else (“I’ll tell you my thoughts in a moment, but does anyone else on the panel want to share their opinion first?”). Granted, it’s important to judge whether this will benefit the audience – it’s a great tactic to garner some dialogue, but not if you think you’ll lose control of the discussion. A quicker version of this approach is to bounce the question back to the audience with a poll (“How many of you agree that XYZ could raise a problem?”).

In some cases, an audience question is actually a statement in disguise (after all, everyone has an opinion). But whether or not you agree, in order to be heard, you must first ensure the individual asking feels validated in their views.

Your goal is to fully acknowledge the feelings behind their question or statement. If they argue, for example, that consumers don’t have the patience for video ads, you can reply by saying: “You’re right; some people hate video ads so much, they’d rather skip a video entirely than sit through those 15-30 seconds”—taking their statement even further than they did. Once you see them relax (which is a sign they feel validated) you can share your own views: “The reason I believe video advertising is the biggest trend to watch is…” Try to avoid the words “but” and “however.” Most of us recognize “Yes, but…” to mean “no.”

These techniques can go a long way in improving how you communicate with your audience. They’ll make your talk more compelling by engaging listeners and making them feel more invested in the content you’re presenting. You made it to the big stage of SXSW. Now make sure you own the auditorium while you’re there.