TM&Th blog
Jean-luc Doumont
Make room(s) for the speaker

As if giving an oral presentation was not challenging enough—
what with structuring your contents, creating effective slides,
and mastering verbal, vocal, and visual delivery in real time—
speakers must face one additional obstacle: suboptimal rooms.
Whether recent or older, in conference centers or on campuses,
rooms are seldom designed or set up in a way that encourages
effective speaking. Often, there is little an unprepared speaker
can do about them, too, with all the equipment bolted in place.
I guess the rooms are designed by people who have never had
to give a talk in them—or would it be that these room designers
have wrong ideas on what speaking to an audience is all about?

Centered screen

In terms of room design, perhaps the most common offender is
the centered screen, as on the picture above. Why should slides
be given more prominence than the speaker, who is, as a result,
typically “cornered” in an awkward or crowded part of the room?
Still, the myth endures. Once, I was complaining about the fact
that a projector was too weak (the contrast with the room lights
was insufficient) and the AV person on duty answered that I had
to switch off the lights entirely: “If attendees see you,” he said,
“they will be distracted away from your slides.” Is that so, now?
How about body language? How about eye contact? Nonverbal
(and, in particular, visual) communication is a powerful channel
for convincing an audience, once you have learned to control it.
To “impress the audience with your body,” you—not the slides—
must be prominent, and the room should not cramp your style.

Placing the screen left or right rather than centered has nothing
but advantages. The speaker will be more visible. He or she will
have a larger chunk of the blackboard or whiteboard remaining
uncovered, which often comes in handy for answering questions.
And in most rooms, it makes it much easier to turn off the light
above the screen (possibly by unscrewing the fluorescent tubes)
while leaving plenty of light where the speaker will be standing.

Screen too far away

The idea, of course, is to balance the speaker and screen better,
not to move the screen as far away as possible from the speaker.
In the conference setup above, the speaker is definitely central
but also disconnected. After encouraging the audience to look
at the screen (with a laser pointer or otherwise), he or she will
probably become a “voice off,” no matter how centrally located.
A similar problem arises in auditoriums with screens positioned
too high, perhaps in an effort not to have it in front of the board.
Screens should be next to the speakers, and at the same height.
Clearly, hiding behind a lectern makes speakers look defensive,
not impressive. Better than a lectern is a small desk for laptops,
a remote to advance slides, and a clip-on, wireless microphone.

What can we do about suboptimal rooms? Fix them, of course.
If you know one in your building, talk to the person in charge
about “quick wins,” such as repositioning projector and screen.
If you must deliver a talk in an unknown room, get there early
and fix what you can: move the screen, push the lectern aside,
ask for a clip-on mic, look for the projector's remote control,
adjust the lights in the room, etc. I typically get there an hour
in advance and, if I travel by car, I now carry my own projector
and screen, just in case the room's projector is of low quality
or not projecting where I would really prefer to have my slides.
Increasingly often, I try to get pictures of the room in advance,
either from a Google search or from the people who invited me.

Whereas custodians are often uncooperative (“just don't change
anything”), my hosts are typically much more helpful: they, too,
want my session to be as successful as it can be, hence they try
their best to accommodate my requests or rearrange the room.
Still, if you don't ask, you don't get. So ask for what you need,
explaining why you need it. Give it a shot; your talk is worth it.

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