A captivating presentation often requires weeks of behind-the-scenes coaching, rehearsals, and finessing of decks and talking points. Here are some tips from conference organizers and fellow architects to make your next talk a hit.
Know Your Subject, Edit, and Practice
Drawing on 50-plus years of professional experience, Moshe Safdie, FAIA, founder of his eponymous international firm says he always begins his speeches “with at least 10 minutes of talk without images.” Knowing that architects are notorious for windy lectures that “show too much and move from project to project,” Safdie recommends editing “what you’re delivering brutally so it is compact and essential.” Jargon and repetition, he says, can detract from the core message. However, rather than scripting a lecture, Safdie favors an improvisational approach, using image headings as mnemonic devices to “trigger one subject after the next,” helping him think as he talks and surveys the audience's response.
In the dozen or so lectures Safdie gives each year, he often returns to key ideas that have shaped his career—housing as a typology, urbanism in the public realm, and the symbolism of cultural and religious projects—allowing for oratorical confidence and fluency. However, he rarely repeats a lecture: His talking points evolve as projects and audiences change, but he maintains a consistent voice by prioritizing his concise delivery. “I have an obsession for clear and simple language,” Safdie says. “Clear ideas are universally understood.”
For less seasoned speakers, rehearsing a speech aloud before a talk is key. “The big thing is practice—practice repeatedly,” says Wayne Conners, the AIA’s senior director of member education services, who helped review presentation proposals for the 2018 AIA Conference on Architecture, which will be held in New York in June. “You should be able to do a talk even if projector breaks down and you don’t have notes, or if your co-presenter gets stuck at the airport,” he says.
Master the Technical Details
Accompanying a talk with images is standard professional practice, but a poorly organized or dense slide deck can spoil a presentation. Grace Kim, AIA, co-founding principal of Seattle-based Schemata Workshop and the presenter of a now-viral TED Talk on co-housing, recommends using large images as visual cues, with limited bullet points in at least 30-point font. “Any more than that and it is not a presentation, it is a paper," Kim says. "Nobody likes watching someone read.”
Nearly all speaking engagements require a professional headshot and bio for promotional materials, and Kim says the importance of these should not be ignored. “People want to know why they should come to your presentation. If the title is interesting or compelling, or [your] bio has unique experiences and expertise, they’re more likely to come.”
Often conference organizers will waive registration costs for speakers, Kim says, and while speaking fees and reimbursement for travel and lodging can be negotiated, speakers should not expect more than modest compensation. If the goal of speaking is to increase one's firm exposure or to promote a certain cause, asking for a fee may not be the best recompense. Instead, you might choose to forfeit your fee for a call-out in printed conference materials or online social media promotion.
Connect to the Audience
Kim began her April 2017 TED presentation with a single word—“loneliness”—followed by an image of a suburban house. The strategy, she says, was to grab the audience’s attention by evoking a timely subject that would strike a cultural nerve. Recruited to speak on co-housing, Kim set out to link the architectural discussion to social isolation, a widely publicized subject more familiar to the audience. Speaking before a live audience of 2,000 people, with tens of thousands online viewers, she needed to reach her audience at a visceral, emotional level, not a cerebral one, and do it quickly. “It’s important to understand who is in the audience and to tell them not just what they want to hear, but to connect your talk to a problem they are trying to solve,” Kim says.
For her 10-minute speech, Kim drew from her rigorous TED preparation of video and in-person rehearsals, editing sessions, and body language training. Walking calmly and comfortably across the stage, standing poised and upright at the podium, making large intentional gestures, Kim spoke in a warm, resonant tone “with the tongue sticking out to create a chamber in the mouth and nose.” She concluded with a strong call to action, ensuring she had the audience's attention from start to finish.
According to Conners, such strategies are applicable in nearly any setting. So, too, are audience engagement techniques rooted in adult education: straw polls, small group activities, and pointed questions directed at the audience. “The tradition of the sage on the stage, the elder statesman expounding on a topic of expertise, is going away,” Conners says. “The movement is toward actually engaging the audience in conversation or dialogue.”