Less choice is more for presenters on stage writes Ian Whitworth.

Is multitasking real? Can you switch quickly between different things and do them all well? Can you Tweet and listen to a speech? Can men chew gum while boiling a kettle? Scientists are divided on these topics, but it’s fair to say the more things you’re doing, the lower the chance that any one of them will be done brilliantly. Particularly if one of those tasks is really hard, like doing a major presentation.

This topic crossed my mind while presenting in a high-tech conference room, with a lectern featuring controls for absolutely everything. Room lighting. Sound. Video. There were touch screens with sub-menus. I used to be an AV tech and I’m OK with buttons, but it was like putting on a show while landing a commercial aircraft.

It was a lesson in what happens when tech people are in charge of designing things that regular humans must use. Tech people love buttons, and feel very comfortable surrounded by them. If you asked them ‘how could we make this lectern a better presentation tool?’, the answer would be ‘add more functionality’, their code for ‘more buttons’.

More buttons is not what an adrenalin-tripping presenter wants to see when they step up in front of an audience.

Because if you’re going to do a great presentation, every molecule in your body has to be 100 per cent devoted to the talk. Making eye contact with the audience. Standing like a confident expert. Moving your hands the right way. Relaxing your vocal cords. Vocal dynamics to emphasise key points. Getting your graphics paced just right so the audience doesn’t read ahead. Pausing for effect. These are the human elements that can make a live presentation so much more compelling than watching it online.

For the audience, it’s like the difference between watching a rock star and an electronic artist who hides behind a bank of computers on stage. Sure, David Guetta can pull a crowd, but nobody will ever go home talking about his stage act. Plus you don’t have the advantage of an audience surging with drugs that make you like the material*.

Anyone who has stage-managed presenters in the moments before they go on stage knows it’s like talking to a dog. You tell them not to bend and tap the lectern mics, to obey the speech timer in front of the stage, and to stand under the stage lights. They smile and nod in agreement, then go on stage and do all the stuff you told them not to. They weren’t listening to you because their brain was on fire with nerves and half-rehearsed material. This is not the time to introduce anything new into their lives.

So when you’re managing a major presentation, don’t ask ‘how can I give them more controls over their presentation?’. Ask ‘how can I minimise their choices and options so they can just focus on talking?’. You’re paying for technicians at the back of the room to monitor the vibe in the room, so let them do their job and keep the stage environment calm and uncluttered.

* Note to pharmaceutical companies, now there’s an idea for the corporate world: ‘enhanced’ conference mints that really make you love PowerPoint.