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Perfect Presentations: It’s All about the Room

You have heard of Murphy’s Law, which says that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. This law was probably discovered by people who give talks and seminars in hotels and convention facilities.

One of the key determinants of a speaker’s success is the room in which he or she speaks. You must inspect it carefully and prepare it as much as possible. There are three key physical considerations in speaking: sound, light, and temperature. These are the three areas where things most often go wrong in a speaking engagement.

Know the Lies People Tell
The first rule to know when holding any kind of public speaking function is that hotels lie. I learned this when I first began speaking and I have seen it proved over and again, 90% of the time. Hotels lie. It is almost as if the people who arrange facilities for conventions, seminars, and speeches have taken a special course in the various lies, distortions, and half-truths that they tell the meeting planners and speakers, especially on the day and at the moment of the presentation.

—Lie #1: Fire regulations
One of their favorites is ‘‘fire regulations.’’ They always say that they cannot do or change something because of fire regulations. The fact is that they do not want to change anything about the room or the setup. Their claim of ‘‘fire regulations’’ is invariably false, but it intimidates the inexperienced meeting planner into acquiescence. Whenever I hear this, I simply say, ‘‘My father is a fire inspector, and I am quite familiar with the fire regulations. Please show me where in the regulations it says you are not allowed to arrange the room in this way.’’ This always stuns them. They immediately drop the excuse and begin to cooperate. I’ve seen this happen over and over again, in hundreds of facilities.

—Lie #2: It’s computer controlled
Another excuse that they give you is, ‘‘The lighting is computer controlled. There is nothing we can do about it until the engineer arrives.’’ For some reason the engineer is never on the premises or immediately available. He or she is at a meeting, away on vacation, or dealing with another emergency.

How to Deal with the Lies People Tell
The key to succeeding in organizing the facilities is for you to be friendly, polite, and charming but simultaneously gently insistent with the staff. Your goal must be not to get them mad at you early in the process. They are the only ones who can help you. But here are some things you can do to get some results.

—Threaten them if necessary
One day, I was doing a seminar in Tampa, Florida. The room temperature was 80 degrees. People were perspiring, waving their seminar materials as fans, and generally unhappy and dissatisfied. They were starting to leave and asking for their money back.

I asked the organizer to call the hotel and have them turn the temperature down. She called them repeatedly, but to no avail. They gave all the usual excuses. ‘‘The engineer is working on it; it is computer controlled; we are doing everything we can.’’ Finally, at the break, I called the head office and told them that if the temperature did not come down and the air conditioner was not turned on within two minutes, we would cancel the seminar, refuse to pay for the room, and sue them for lost revenues. It was amazing. As I stood there, I could feel the air conditioning coming on. After pleading with them for two hours and listening to every excuse imaginable, as soon as we threatened not to pay, the air conditioning roared on and stayed on for the rest of the function.

—Check the lighting
Lighting is very important in a seminar presentation. The total attention of the audience should be on the speaker’s face, with only casual side-glances to any props. Remember that 70% of the people in the audience are ‘‘visuals.’’ They can only process information if they can see it. The other 30% are ‘‘auditories.’’ These are people who process information only when they can hear it clearly. Your job is to cater to and satisfy both groups.

Fifty percent of the time the lighting will be wrong in some way when you arrive at the location. For this reason, you always want to arrive early enough so that you can check out the lighting thoroughly before the presenter goes on stage. If something is wrong with the lighting at the beginning of the speech, it is almost impossible to make any changes afterward.

—Where to put the lights
In stage or TV productions, people spend one or two days in advance just setting up the lights. They arrange the lighting and move it around so that there are no shadows on the stage or on the actors. They make sure that every single person is absolutely clear to every single participant in the audience, from every angle. This is the ideal. The speaker must be fully lit, 100% of the time from both sides so there are no shadows on the face. It is not unusual for the facility to have lights that beam on the speaker from the top rather than from the front, shading out the bottom half of the person’s face. This causes a negative audience reaction.

The Phantom of the Opera
On one speaking occasion at a hotel, we asked for additional lighting and the hotel told us (remember, hotels lie) that it could only find one spotlight. The hotel staff brought it into the room and set it up to one side at the rear of the audience. This spotlight shone
on one half of my face, giving me a ‘‘Phantom of the Opera’’ look for my entire presentation. The reaction from the audience was immediate and negative. People actually became angry. They criticized the talk and demanded their money back. They walked out. For some reason, the half-faced lighting made me look sinister and evil and the people reacted in a negative way. We never made the mistake of having only one light again.

When I organize lighting for a seminar, I tell the technicians that a person in the back row should be able to see a zit on my face from where she is sitting. I emphasize that the lighting on the stage should be as bright as an operating theatre. They often nod and pretend to agree but secretly think that you don’t know what you’re talking about. You must therefore be insistent. In many cases, the staff will set up your stage and podium for
the convenience of the screens rather than to illuminate the speaker clearly. The staff members will say, ‘‘If we turn on all the lights, it will wash out the screen.’’ Be alert to this because it happens all the time. Insist that you don’t care how the screens look. The light on the face is what counts.

Check in Ahead of Time
I was giving a seminar in California, a couple of years ago. My seminar was for the entire afternoon, and, as usual, I arrived in the middle of the morning so I could watch the previous speakers. When I walked into the room, a first-class hotel facility, it was only half lit. It was a form of semidarkness, almost like a nightclub. The speaker was visible in a hazy, distant sort of way. I was appalled.

I immediately brought one of the hotel staff members to the room. I said, ‘‘Is there any way you can turn up the lighting in this room?’’ He said, ‘‘Oh, did you want the lighting up full?’’ When I said yes, he immediately went to a wall panel, touched a couple of buttons, and the whole room became fully lit, classroom style. It was a shock to me and to everyone in the audience. They had been straining to see and get the message of the speaker for the last two hours.

Whenever I go to a speaking engagement, I tell them that I want all the lights on full. I say, ‘‘This is not a nightclub performance.’’ It is amazing to me how many professional lighting technicians think that the speaker wants the audience to be darkened while the speaker is so brightly lit that he or she cannot see people in the audience because of the glaring light in his eyes. The other problem with this is that the audience views the speaker more as an entertainer. People sit quietly to watch the performance, not wanting to make any noise. They do not respond or interact with the speaker. The audience sits almost like a mole peering out of its hole at the speaker lit up on the stage. Remember, unless you are a professional entertainer in a nightclub, you want what is called ‘‘one hundred candle power at desk level.’’ This means that the entire room should be as bright as a schoolroom. You want people to be able to see one another, see you clearly, and take notes on the subject you are discussing. This is essential for audience enjoyment and satisfaction.

Adapted from Speak to Win: How to Present with Power in Any Situation by Brian Tracy (AMACOM 2008) www.amanet.org/books