As someone who speaks at several IT conferences each year, I have to say that it's always challenging to keep your audience interested in your presentation. Here are a few techniques I've discovered, and some I've seen other speakers use, to keep presentations lively.
1: Let your demos do the talking
Maybe it's just me, but when I attend a presentation, nothing puts me to sleep faster than a slideshow. Don't get me wrong. You pretty much have to use some slides. The audience expects it. However, I think it's a bad idea to rely solely on slides.
My experience has always been that demos tend to be more interesting than slides, so I try to include lots of demos in my presentation. I know some speakers who are petrified of presenting demos for fear that something will go wrong. My solution to this problem is to prerecord all my demos. That way, I can make the demo perfect. As a bonus, having prerecorded demos frees me from having to bring extra stuff with me. For example, my last presentation was on unified messaging in Exchange Server 2010. Had I not prerecorded my demos, I would have had to bring along a few Exchange Servers and a telephone switch.
2: Offer giveaways
My friend Peter Bruzzese uses the sessions that he presents as a way of marketing the books he writes. Every time the audience begins to look a little sleepy, Peter takes a break from the presentation and raffles off a copy of his most recent book.
Even though I have never used this technique myself, it seems to work really well for Peter. Another thing that's kind of cool is that Peter has attendees use their business card as raffle tickets. By doing so, he can go through the cards later and find out who attended the presentation.
3: Encourage interactivity
One surefire way to liven up a presentation is to encourage interactivity. When I am speaking at a conference, I always make a point of telling my audience that I like to keep things casual and that if they have any questions as I go along, they should feel free to speak up. I try to convey the idea that I am theirs for an hour (or however long the presentation is) and that during that time I want to help them in any way I can.
For the most part, this technique has worked well. On a couple of occasions, I have had someone in the audience who wants to be a jerk trying to discredit me, but that's been the exception. Most of the time, the audience seems grateful to have someone who is willing to take the time to address their questions and concerns.
4: Get to know your audience ahead of time
Over the years, I have found that presentations tend to go much more smoothly if I can make friends with your audience. When I am going to be speaking at an event, I try to get there early and get set up as quickly as I can. Once I am set up, I go into the audience and talk to some of the attendees before the presentation starts. I ask them what they hope to get out of the presentation and if there is anything I can cover that will help them. I don't always have all of the answers to everyone's questions, but knowing what the audience expects helps me speak at their level, and it helps me to know what subjects I need to spend a little bit more time on during my presentation.
5: Do the unexpected
My sister once told me that when all else fails, you should do the unexpected. This can be especially true for public speaking. Every once in a while, you may find that the best way to maintain control of a presentation is to do something that others would consider insane.
About a year ago, I saw Peter do just that while we were speaking at a conference in Florida. For some unknown reason, the conference organizer had scheduled one of Peter's sessions for the same timeslot as one of the conference's keynote sessions. As a result, Peter had a room full of attendees who were secretly wishing that they were at the keynote.
Sensing this, Peter told his audience he was giving them a guilt-free pass, and that anyone who would rather be at the keynote should go there instead. He even went so far as to open the doors to the room and tell people not to be shy.
In the end, about half of the attendees left. Some may consider this catastrophic, but the attendees who stayed were the ones who were really interested in the topic he was discussing. Having such an enthusiastic audience made for a great presentation.
Brien Posey is a seven-time Microsoft MVP. He has written thousands of articles and written or contributed to dozens of books on a variety of IT subjects.