How a Subject-Matter-Expert Self-Destructed — and How You Can Avoid the Same Mistakes

bad-speaker-thumbs-down-microphone-WEB-dreamstime_l_103771195Extraordinary Leaders will often be called on to make presentations, under the label of “Subject Matter Expert” (also known as SME). I recently watched an extremely intelligent and knowledgeable SME totally self-destruct, and lose all credibility with the audience. As I cringed inside, I began making a list of what this individual was doing to destroy her ‘expert’ status with the crowd.

Here are the Top Five Critical Errors this SME made. You can learn from her mistakes, and make your presentations powerful, credible, and on-point for your audience.

#1. Settling for an Inadequate Setup. The SME arrived early enough to get her laptop set up and do a check in with the AV folks (she gets plus marks for that!) — however, she failed to assess the room setup and make necessary changes. The group had conducted a special memorial service for members who had passed away during the year, for which they has placed 3 rows of chairs in front of the table setup for the conference. The audience for her presentation would be sitting at the tables, but she left those 3 rows of empty chairs in place, separating her from the audience and leaving a boatload of lost energy in its wake.

#2. Opening with an apology. The first words out of the SME’s mouth were “I’m really sorry I wasn’t able to be with you last night at the reception.” At that moment, she let everyone know she had not been at the reception, and let the whole group feel unimportant. She just gave up the power of an impact opening!

#3. Word-heavy PowerPoints. Half the slides were word-for-word what she was saying, so she became a reader to the group. Many had 10-14 rows of words, nearly too small to see. If she is reading the slides to the group, either she or the slides become superfluous!

#4. Ringing Cell Phone Distraction. Her cell phone rang — not once, but twice — during her presentation! Need I even talk about this disastrous faux-pas?

#5. This is the WORST offense of all! Failure to know the audience! She offered action items to the group that were not even legal in their state, and she shared examples from her state that were inappropriate for those in the group. What ensued next was a free-for-all, with group members challenging her and arguing with every idea she presented. She got group participation all right, but not the kind she (or the meeting planner) wanted!

I could go on, because believe it or not, these are only the tip of the iceberg. Oh, yes — did I mention that she also went 25 minutes over her allotted time, eating into the time scheduled for the next speaker (who happened to be me)?

Tips for Subject Matter Experts -- So You Can Shine!

Tips-microphone-purpleBkgd-WEB-dreamstime_l_98405961When you are approached to be a Subject Matter Expert, don’t rely on your expertise alone. Make the effort to present as a professional, providing the audience with the powerful information you have in a way they will resonate with and remember. Use these five tips that Professional Speakers live by:

#1. Arrive early, make friends with the AV team, and assess the room setup. Don’t be afraid to make changes to the setup, to enhance your ability to connect with the folks who are there to hear you.

#2. Plan a powerful opening that immediately grabs everyone’s attention and keeps them riveted on what you have to say. Use a quotation, a question, a contrarian point of view statement, a provocative statistic, a story, or anything else that creates instant impact and interest. Hint: Avoid jokes!

#3. Give your PowerPoint Slides a major makeover! Use graphic images that conceptually illustrate the words you are using, rather than writing out everything you plan to say. Above all, avoid slides that require you to say, “I know you can’t read this, but …” No matter what follows the “but…” you will have lost the interest of the majority of the group.

#4. Turn off your cell phone. Don’t just turn off the sound. Put it in airplane mode, or better yet, power it down. Nothing is more embarrassing than having the speaker’s phone go off during the presentation!

#5. Do your homework about your audience. Even though you are the SME, you still need to be aware of the composition of your group so you can tailor your comments specifically for them. Become familiar with the roles these people hold, state regulations impacting them, and local situations impacting your topic.

And as a Bonus Tip: Please, please, please, please, please — stay within your designated timeframe! You are part of a planned agenda that was carefully crafted to meet the needs of the conference attendees. Be aware of your specified end time, and no matter when you get to begin, be sure you flex your presentation so you end on time! The only exception is when the meeting planner explains to the entire audience that you have been asked to go longer.

If you’d like to improve your presentation as a Subject Matter Expert, check out our coaching programs. 

Never let a poor presentation rob you of the expert status you deserve!


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