Being There, Before You’re There

In a little more than a month’s time, I will fly to Lisbon, Portugal for the Toastmasters District 59 Spring Conference. It promises to be a fabulous time and I am looking forward to seeing many friends from across Europe.

The organization for the conference has been superb. João De Mendonça and the rest of the Lisbon team have been attending to details for months. All indications are that things are right on schedule. I’m not surprised.

Last year, I had the pleasure of working with João and Rui Henriques when I spoke at the Effective Communication 2010 conference in Porto, Portugal. Not even the travel chaos caused by the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland could stop them from hosting a terrific event. It was a pleasure working with such professionals, knowing that I could focus on my presentations and that other matters were well in hand.

Recently, João posted photos of the speaking venue at the upcoming conference on the District 59 Spring Conference Facebook Page. Those speaking at the conference, particularly those competing in the speech contests, should study them carefully.

Seasoned public speakers understand the importance of being familiar with the speaking venue prior to the actual event. But in today’s world of long-distance travel, we often do not get to visit the venue until the day (or even a few hours) before. Enter the Internet.

Whenever I have a speaking engagement in a new location, I can usually find a pictures of the room in which I will be speaking online, particularly if the event is being held in a hotel. Most hotels have photos of their conference rooms on line; if they don’t, it is usually not that difficult to get the hotel or the event organizer to send you a couple.

Seeing the room in advance is important. It gives speakers a sense of the space and how open or constrained it will be. Knowing this beforehand, speakers can make appropriate adjustments, if necessary, to their presentations. Seeing photographs of the venue also allows speakers to visualize themselves addressing the audience, much like athletes such as skiers who visualize themselves racing down the course before they actually do it. The result is that the room feels familiar even when you enter it for the first time.

To take a concrete example, let’s look at the photos that João posted and see what they reveal. (You can click on them to get a larger size.)

The photographs are helpful because they show the room from different angles and provide a good sense of the speaking area. (João also posted a schematic of the room which you can see on the above-mentioned Facebook Page.)

So what insights can speakers glean from these photographs? Here are some of the things that I have noted about the room:

  • It is big. According to the statistics on the first photograph, there are 430 seats. This means that microphones are almost certainly a must. (Indeed, microphones are also mentioned in the list.) This means a sound-check beforehand to try out the acoustics. Keep in mind, however, that most sound-checks are done when the room is relatively empty. Once filled with 400 or so people, there will be more ambient noise and speakers should be prepared to talk a bit more loudly than usual. The last thing you want is to have your words die out before they reach the final rows.
  • The room is wide and deep. Speakers will have to remember to make an effort to connect with people sitting along the sides and in the back. Eye contact will be important. Of course, you can’t make eye contact with every person in an audience of that size. In such cases, a good trick is to mentally divide the room into a tic-tac-toe grid and then shift your look among the nine different sections.
  • The stage is big. Speakers should be prepared to make good use of it. Doing so will help them connect with those along the sides, as noted above. At the same time, however, speakers must be mindful that their movements must be purposeful and not distract from their message.
  • The room is in the style of a university auditorium. Because the rows are tiered, people will be able to see a speaker’s entire body. This will allow for maximum flexibility in terms of gestures that might be used to enhance the message.
  • Those speakers using slide presentation software (for example, for educational sessions) can get a good sense of the size and placement of the screen. Because of the width of the stage, they will be able to move about freely. However, they should be mindful of not standing in one spot for too long, especially near the front of the stage, because they will likely obstruct the view of some of the people in front row.
  • Speakers contemplating using props should be aware that, depending on the size of the prop, the people in the back might not be able to see it. In such cases, projecting an image of the prop (in addition to having the real thing) might be an option.

As speakers, we want to do everything we can to make sure that our speeches and presentations deliver maximum value to our audiences. Studying photographs of the speaking venue beforehand is a simple but effective step in that direction. Try it the next time you are preparing to speak at a location for the first time.

And for those of you in Europe, do consider joining us in Lisbon while space is still available. You won’t be disappointed.


About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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4 Responses to Being There, Before You’re There

  1. Faisal... says:

    Many congratulations John! I look forward to see your speech online soon and I am sure my favourite Toastmaster will be fantastic in Lisbon. 🙂

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thank you, Faisal. Your support is much appreciated. In fact I am not doing a prepared speech this year. I have too much on the go to be able to devote the time necessary to doing a good job. However, I am in the Evaluation Contest. I have not done it in three years. It is a challenge to give decent feedback in 3.5 minutes, but I enjoy the challenge and I enjoy trying to motivate people when it comes to giving speeches. Thanks again!


      • Faisal... says:


        One of the features from your website that I admire the most is the quality and detail of analysis on notable speeches. Although it is true that it’s challenging to give an evaluation of a District level speech, especially within such a short time, you have the mindset for it and I believe that you will do very well. Everyone is a winner at Toastmasters, especially at this level. 🙂

        • John Zimmer says:

          Hey, Faisal.

          Thanks very much for the comment. I have always appreciated your support for the blog very much. I am looking forward to the District Conference in Lisbon mainly because it is an opportunity to catch up with friends from across Europe. I also look forward to the evaluation contest. We’ll see how it goes on the day, but my main goals are to do my best and to have fun.



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