10 Lessons Learned from the “Other Side of the Microphone”

Before becoming a professional genealogist, I spent ten years as an audio-visual technician. As a frequent public speaker myself now, finding myself on the “other side of the microphone,” I try to apply what I learned in those years to my experiences now.

Working as an audio-visual technician in Washington, D. C., I saw many different speakers and presentations. I worked on contract at two major national corporations, as well as at the National Press Club, the Washington Convention Center, nearly every large hotel in the city, and several smaller companies. In the course of this work, I had the opportunity to set up and operate the audio-visual equipment for everything from national (and even international) conferences to small in-house presentations, including some events that aired on C-SPAN.

Though technicians are trained to accommodate each presenter individually, sometimes the presenter is so unprepared technologically that his presentation, and therefore the audience, suffers. Here, therefore, are ten tips (in no particular order) to optimize your presentation and take advantage of your equipment. Please note that these tips are more applicable to those speakers at large events with a dedicated audio-visual technician as opposed to smaller events where you have to do it yourself, but you may find them valuable even in these smaller events.

1. Let the technician know of all of your needs beforehand. Though most major events are handled by an event coordinator speaking with a sales representative, the needs for your presentation should always be carefully explained. The details will eventually filter down to the technician, who should have it all set up before you even arrive. Last-minute changes on your end may throw a wrench into the works. Some equipment requires an elaborate set-up “behind the scenes,” and some equipment may not be available without prior notice. If changes are necessary, let your coordinator, or the technician, know immediately.

2. Upgrade. Throw out those old 35mm slides and well-worked transparencies. Though many audio-visual departments may still own the old slide projectors or overhead projectors, they do not get used very often, and may not be in the best condition. These machines are disappearing from the market, and the number of companies that still service the machines is growing fewer and fewer each day. Both slides and transparencies can be easily converted to digital files, which you can show as a slideshow or upgrade to a PowerPoint presentation. These digital files have the added benefit of a long life. They will not degrade dramatically over time the way your slides and transparencies will. And the upgrade will also improve the audience’s perception of your presentation, from antiquated to cutting-edge!

3. Be specific. If you are doing a straightforward PowerPoint presentation, then feel free to say so. But if you have video or sound embedded in the presentation, let the technician know ahead of time. Don’t just say “PowerPoint.” Depending on the construction of the room or hall where you will be speaking, different set-up requirements may be necessary to accommodate audio or video from a laptop. If you require Internet access, also let the technician know. The audio-visual technician is not always the “go-to guy” when it comes to network access, meaning that a third party may have to be brought in to deliver on your needs. And in these cases, you should always test the website prior to the beginning of your presentation. You do not want to discover in the midst of your presentation that the site central to your theme is blocked by a firewall.

4. Show up early. If you are scheduled to speak at 10 a.m., be there by 9:30 a.m., at the latest. Even if you are not the first speaker, you should still plan to arrive prior to the beginning of the entire program. Often, this is the only opportunity you will have to express your audio-visual needs to the technician, who may be tied up with other presenters later in the day. If your needs can be expressed early, they may be prepared early, and the transition into your presentation will proceed much more smoothly, leaving the audience with a favorable impression.

5. PowerPoint Tip #1: Keep it simple. Microsoft PowerPoint has a lot of bells and whistles, and a dynamic presentation may use them. But you should also recognize that what looks great on a computer monitor does not always look great projected on a screen. You may have a vast spectrum of colors to work with for your background and text, but these do not always project well. Nor do text effects like shadowing and embossing, and fancy fonts. Keep it simple: Black text on a light background (or the reverse) shows up the best. If in doubt, try it out. Projectors are available at a relatively low price now. If you do a lot of presentations, this may be a worthwhile investment.

6. Create a script. Especially if your presentation has multiple parts or sections, a script should be provided. A script can be as loose and informal as a list of audio or video “cues,” or as detailed as a word-for-word copy of your presentation, with photos of the slides. However you want to do it, it will certainly improve the impression that you give to the audience, if you do not have to stop to say, “Raise the lights,” or “Next slide.” In coordinating specific cues with an in-room technician, you should be able to weave through your presentation effortlessly.

7. Be aware of your microphone, and project your voice. There are many different kinds of microphone, but most of them need you to talk in their general direction, at the least. I once worked at a national conference for a certain department of the federal government, where the keynote speaker pushed the microphone out of the way and spoke without it in a normal, conversational voice. In a large hotel ballroom. Needless to say, no one beyond the first two or three rows could hear a word he said. We technicians in the room tried every trick we knew to try to improve the situation, but there is only so much that can be done if the speaker refuses to mind the microphone – interrupting the keynote speech to explain this to him was simply not an option! But even if you are using a microphone correctly (and your in-room tech should make sure you do), you should still project your voice as well as you can. Do not yell, but speak loudly and clearly. This will ensure that what gets amplified throughout the room – that is, your voice – sounds as good as it possibly can.

8. PowerPoint Tip #2: You are the presentation. Remember this when designing your presentation. Do not put every word in your PowerPoint presentation. The audience came to see you, not your PowerPoint. When you have a lot of text on-screen, it distracts the audience from what you are saying. People cannot generally read and listen at the same time. And never, never use anything smaller than a size 16 font on a PowerPoint slide. Not only do small fonts usually mean that you are putting too much information on a slide, chances are that the text will be unreadable anyway. Some projectors cannot handle an ultra-high resolution, which means that small text could contain too much detail for the projector to display properly. Even with the best equipment, however, there will still be those in the audience with poor eyesight, and the only way to reach them is with large, bold lettering; they simply will not be able to see—or read—small text.

9. Sometimes it is better to address your own needs. For smaller devices, like a portable mouse and a laser pointer, it might be better to invest in your own. First, the cost of renting your equipment from the facility will be lower, in that these devices can be left off the list. But more importantly, you can practice using your own devices while practicing your presentation, rather than learning to use a new device (however simple) “on the fly.” Looking down at a portable mouse to locate the button that proceeds to the next slide, detracts from your overall effectiveness as a speaker.

10. Talk to your technician. You want yourself to look and sound good. You want this to be your technician’s goal, as well. Form a relationship with him, and you will be the one who benefits. After all, in today’s increasingly technological world, it is the technicians who can achieve this.

14 thoughts on “10 Lessons Learned from the “Other Side of the Microphone”

  1. Good tips! Now if technicians (official and “self-appointed”) would keep their hands off of my laptop and projector, life would be great! 🙂

  2. One of the things I love about genealogy is that we have such a diverse group of people from a variety of professions. We have people with expertise in a broad swath of subjects. It’s cool.

    I would love to see this in the APGQ..and as someone with less-than-fantastic hearing, I would like to make #7 into a tattoo and apply it to the forearms of a few speakers I’ve heard (or, more accurately, NOT heard).

  3. Hi Michael. This is great information! I am going to link to it in the Jamboree Call for Papers. I hope everyone will read it. (Look for the CFP coming out by the end of the month!)

  4. Michael
    An excellent column that should be passed around. Recently i attended a genealogical conference where the last speaker was in deep trouble. First her PowerPoint presentation was not working half the time and second she was proselytizing for the LDS church!
    Anyway, what you were saying, I feel, can be called the 6 Ps: Prior Planning Prevents P – – – Poor Performance.

  5. Pingback: Make your presentation less annoying « Planting the Seeds

  6. Pingback: Show ‘N’ Tell: Creating Effective and Attractive Genealogy Presentations « Planting the Seeds

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