Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sussing out your speaker space: A checklist

Emily Culbertson posed this question some time ago: What should you know about the room in which you're speaking?  The room--especially its technology--is one of the six sets of questions in my checklist to prepare the whole speaker.  But here's a longer list of factors to consider when you're finding out about the room where you'll be speaking.  
  1. What's the size and shape of the room?  Where should I stand? Is that my only option?
  2. Will I be able to move around the room while I speak? Is there a remote and a portable microphone so I can control my technology if I move away from the front?  What's my range of motion with them--how far from the base technology can I get before sound fails or the remote stops working?  (That last question's important for speaker-phone-aided conference calls, too.)
  3. What's the seating arrangement for the audience: theater-style in rows? classroom style, in rows with chairs and tables in front of the audience? open-square? U-shape (which lets the speaker walk into the square)?  Can I move around that arrangement for better eye contact and engagement?
  4. If there's a lectern, what's on it or built into it? If a laptop is resting on it, is there room for anything else?
  5. If I need a whiteboard, easel and flipcharts or something to write on, will it be available?
  6. Is the room glass-enclosed or otherwise open to view or sound from another room?  Are there blinds or partitions to help avoid distracting views and noise?  If there's piped-in music (this happens in restaurants and other venues), can it be turned off?
  7. Where are the electrical outlets for the speaker's laptop (or other technology)? Is there wireless Internet access? Hardwired access?  Will participants be able to get online, tweet or use email?
  8. What will serve as the screen--a pull-down screen? A wall?
  9. Will I need technical support for the sound system?  Can I meet that person 1/2 hour before my talk to go over what needs to be reviewed?
Several of these items might best be answered with an emailed photo -- especially of the room shape, seating, the lectern from the speaker's viewpoint, and more.  Or, if you have access to the room ahead of time, pull out your cellphone or Flip camcorder and record your own details.

It's rare, in my experience, that you'll have accurate answers to all these questions before your presentation. That's because others will have incomplete information or make assumptions that are different from yours. (I can't tell you how many times I've arrived to find no available electrical outlets or some other fragile technology, with the organizer saying something like, "Oh, there MUST be an outlet" when, in fact, there isn't one.)  So your job is to have that plan B, C, D and perhaps E, standing ready to adapt.  That's the most important question to ask yourself about any room: What will I do if it doesn't work the way we are hoping?  Share the questions you find it useful to ask about the room in the comments.


Lee Potts said...

Great list!

One thing that I often see overlooked: If you are using a temporary, portable screen, make sure that it is set up in a place where light from the room's fixtures won't wash out whatever is projected on it. If you don't have a choice of screen location, see what you can do about the lights. Sometimes it's as simple as unscrewing a bulb.

As you mentioned, it's also important that you gain access to the room in advance because, as Breaking Murphy's Law Principle #5 states, the diagram is not the room (Whether it a conference room, ballroom, or theater — see the space you will be working in for yourself. The diagram provided by the venue will not reveal everything you need to know — no matter how detailed and accurate it seems to be.).

Unknown said...

Thanks, Lee--coming from the chronicler of "everything that can go wrong" for speakers, and what to do about it, I appreciate your insights! And readers, check out Lee's Breaking Murphy's Law blog for more preventive tactics: http://www.breakingmurphyslaw.com