I gave my first full length feature talk on photography this month, to a sister camera club. Its members were knowledgeable, animated and fully open to the challenge of challenging me to entertain them. It isn’t easy spending 90 minutes in front of an audience, especially when any of them could have as readily been the speaker for hire.
I learned a few things that night, and thought I would share them with you.
Most photographers who also do speaking engagements seem to adopt one of three philosophies:
- My work is exceptional and people want to see it and hear me talk about how good it is. I have a lot of stories to tell.
- My work is important, but audiences want access to the knowledge and tips that will help THEM be better photographers. I’ll develop a few canned talks that I can use across different audiences.
- Each audience is different and deserves a custom delivery. Maybe I’ll have a few modular elements that I can blend together, but always with original material tied to the audience’s interests. Sometimes I’ll focus on my work, and sometimes I’ll use my work to help them see options.
Although I had done what I call “shorts”, meaning a few slides on a specific pre-defined photography question from the audience, I hadn’t yet had to develop a mainstream presentation. But in other settings in other careers, my approach had always been the last one: every audience deserves a custom delivery. So that’s where I started.
Although it’s extra work, I think that customizing materials puts you on the path to success even before you show up. When first approached to speak, I asked some questions about the interests of the audience, asked what they would define as a good outcome, and asked what background they already had. It’s simple. The more you know about them before you arrive, the better you can meet their needs. It’s never really about you.
Even if you do this in advance, it’s also critical to watch your audience as you speak. Be aware of body language, shuffling in seats, whispers to friends and obviously laughter and impromptu comments. You need to be able to respond on the fly, just as you would in any conversation. It is a conversation, not a monologue.
In terms of content, that really depends on the topic. But I’ve found a great formula in combining a learning opportunity with evidence that what you are saying actually works. I included a segment on Learning to See Like a Photographer, and I took the audience through a scene that I recently photographed. I had a shot of exactly what I saw when I arrived on the scene, then asked them questions about how they would frame, compose, shoot and finish the image. I then showed them how I had done it. A lot of audience participation; a lot of enthusiasm and creative ideas. That told me the segment worked.
What inspired me to include this? I’ve attended talks by many photographers, some famous and some less so. The ones I enjoyed most were the ones where I was somehow personally involved. The ones I enjoyed least were obviously canned, repeated presentations, often with older and even out of date information.
In my talk, the audience also drove the order of topics to be covered. I looked and listened for their reactions, speeding up or slowing down as I sensed what they needed from me. I think more than anything, that gave me a connection to them. Again, part of that conversation.
I guess deep down as well, I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. I tutored when I was in school; I volunteered to help students when I was learning photography; I continue to volunteer to help my colleagues when and where I can. So learning moments will always be part of whatever I do.
The time flew past. I found I couldn’t even start the last topic of the night, because my time was up. I promised to come back. That they asked me to come back was all the validation I needed that the night was a success.
If you are asked to give a talk because of your work or your expertise, do it. It feels great. But always remember that it’s the audience’s needs you must fulfill, not your own. Pretend it’s you sitting out there, listening to you. Will you applaud enthusiastically or shuffle in your seat and be thankful that it’s over? Do whatever you can to make sure it’s applause.