NextGen Public Speaking: Presenting to the Socially Distanced Audience

Photo by Noah on Unsplash

Keep this post in your hip pocket. I’ve gotta feeling it’s going to be awhile before you’re able to use it. Still, there’s nothing like planning ahead for your next event.

The next time you stand up in front of a live, in-person audience and take the stage for your next presentation, the room is going to look, smell, feel, sound, and yes, taste different. I have zero doubt about that upcoming feast for your senses.

I’m writing about your next live, in-person, public speaking engagement. Not an online, remote, mobile, ‘you alone in your echoing room sitting in front of your webcam’ for that streaming media only event.

I’m writing about a live, in-person, session for a socially distanced audience.

And you have your work cut out for you.

This means Marketing must go to work. (Kicking and screaming if it has to, but go to work on this it must.) It means Sales, Sales Enablement, and Executives also need to get ready. It means anybody taking the stage in the new, forthcoming normal of events, conferences, and trade shows has to prepare.

Because the job of being a good public speaker and presenter just got tougher.

Trade shows, conferences, and live business events will return, but I have to imagine that it’s going to take a lot of time before most of us are ready to sit shoulder-to-shoulder in a classroom-style conference room with 100 strangers who’ve just ventured to a meeting room buried deep in the Las Vegas Convention Center. Some may be quicker than others to venture out to a trade show. But some may never go back.

And much like your recent trip to that big box retail or grocery store, there’ll be new capacity, behavioral, and healthcare rules for that conference session, and meeting room designs.

Here are just some of the changes I envision.

How Your Conference Room Will Look

Audience members, each, six feet apart. That’s the new social distancing standard, and that’ll strictly apply to the next-gen conference room. I would not set the room with standard classroom style seating, or traditional theater style seating and politely ask people to sit six feet apart. I would set chairs six feet apart. Chair and floor markings to be included. And no tables for the audience. No exceptions.

For an example of this set-up, watch one of New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s daily press conferences and see how the press are seated. That’s how the seating chart in your next conference session will look.

This new arrangement will certainly limit session room capacity, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We’ve all been in an audience when the room’s been set for 100, only to be among those in a group of just 10. On the other hand, most of us have been to a sold-out keynote session where the hotel ballroom designed for 1000 draws an audience of 1200.

Seating arrangements will have to change.

For the foreseeable future — your next conference room, and that audience, will look different.

The room will be spread out; your audience will be distant. You’ll be met with the task of presenting to solo travelers. Travelers just sitting there, possibly silent, very possibly wearing masks and gloves, awaiting your presentation.

How Your Conference Room Will Smell, and Taste

That lunch buffet? Gone. That pot of coffee in the back of the room or in the hallway? Gone. Those breakfast rolls, donuts, cheese and cracker plates, and ‘grab a box lunch and can of soda on your way to the airport’ tables? All gone. And that mysterious convention hall water cooler? History. My guess it’ll be a ‘bring your own refreshments’ situation. Maybe. But I can’t think of anybody, anywhere who nowadays wants to clean up after your food and beverage conference room mess.

For the foreseeable future, sharing a refreshment area is a thing of the past.

Thus, the room won’t have that smell of the pot of coffee in the hallway. Or the hot lunch that has been left in the back of the room, until 3:00 pm. You won’t get to taste breakfast, lunch, or dinner before or after your presentation. Next time, you most certainly will be on your own for that meal.

This matters to speakers for numerous reasons. There won’t be an opportunity to interact with attendees over food and drink. You’ll have to plan your diet. (Remember, speaking is a physical activity. Energy is required.) The audience may not get its jolt of morning coffee. Or that sugar rush at 2:30 in the afternoon. An audience also needs its energy. And that could make for a longer day, and a much tougher audience.

On the upside, you’ll smell the hand sanitizer, and the other sanitizing products. But an audience can’t survive on hand sanitizer alone.

If they can find it.

How Your Conference Room Will Sound

It’ll sound emptier. Somewhat hollow. Open. It’ll echo with the sounds of attendees plunking away at their keyboards, on their laptops, in their laps. (Literally.)

You’ll hear the familiar, amplified sounds of some on conference calls.

Your room will echo with the sounds of attendees arriving late, and leaving early. With conversations in the audience, albeit six feet apart. Largely from attendees who don’t give a damn if their behavior is rude, obnoxious, or disturbing to other attendees.

Your conference room will sound distant. No longer will you be on stage, or at the front of the room, with the first row of attendees directly below and in front of you. The back of the room just got that much further away. The ceiling and the walls just expanded. And you just became that much smaller, in stature and sound.

All the while every cough from the audience will resonate. The sound of every sneeze will draw attention away from you, and to the attendee. Even an innocent clearing of the throat will be met with a wide-spectrum of responses.

You may become an involuntary referee among audience members.

But you still have to fill that space, with your voice and your presentation.

To do so, your health must be good.

Lest you cough, sneeze, or clear your own throat.

How Your Conference Room Will Feel

There will be people, but I doubt you’ll shake hands. It’ll be up to you to bump elbows, if you choose.

You may feel alone on-stage, because you may be alone, on-stage. Because who’s ready for an hour-long, six-person, side-by-side panel discussion? Or a co-presentation with that customer who isn’t feeling 100% after that cross-country flight?

You may feel alone before taking the stage. Or after.

When you have to put on a wireless microphone. Or take it off. Alone.

And wonder about sanitary audio/video equipment.

Your room will feel funny. Off. Like the hotel meeting room where I set up an exhibit in November of 2001. My first industry conference after 9/11.

So you’ll feel unsure. Disconnected. Even though you don’t want to be.

But you can’t allow that feeling of disconnect, because you’ll likely have multiple audiences.

The people in the room. Those watching online. Those watching and listening to your recordings, online, on their computers. Or on their mobile devices. Or via some other means in any one of a number of scenarios, and formats.

(I never said your weren’t presenting to an online audience in addition to an in-person audience.)

So you have the challenge of connecting to multiple audiences.

And now your challenges of being a next-gen public speaker are beginning to mount.

Preparing, and Speaking to the Socially Distanced Audience

I’m calling you a Next-Gen Public Speaker, because you’ll now have to be exactly that.

Exemplary public speakers used to prepare their physical skills and session content well before taking the stage. They worked on their trade. When a speaker didn’t, it showed.

And it showed so very, very often.

That was before March, 2020.

Now, that set of presentation and public speaking standards doesn’t even qualify as table stakes. The new standard of public speaking excellence calls for presenters to be ready with their physical skills, and their diet. To be healthy, and aware of their conference room surroundings. To set examples of healthy professional behavior.

All the while employing an upgraded vocal presence to reach new boundaries, and a physical presence that can simultaneously make individual eye contact and bridge multitasking audience members — wherever they are.

Delivering thoughts, messages, content, stories, and value props to those six feet away, and 600 miles away. Or half a world away.

As a next-generation public speaker, you must harness the ability to reach the socially distanced audience.

Welcome to a new world of marketing, sales, sales enablement, product marketing, events, and communication.

To a new world of business and personal leadership.

You’ve got work to do.

I’d better leave you alone.

Tony Compton holds two degrees from Loyola University Chicago: a 1987 B.A. in Communication and a 1995 MBA. He has held a number of marketing and business leadership positions over the past three decades.




Producer/Host: Now That’s a Marketing Podcast! | Cranking it up for those wearing 1000 Marketing Hats | Apple, Spotify, Google, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio & more

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Tony Compton

Tony Compton

Producer/Host: Now That’s a Marketing Podcast! | Cranking it up for those wearing 1000 Marketing Hats | Apple, Spotify, Google, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio & more

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