Free software conferences can be a little different, however, with the audience being a bit more .. participatory. When being interviewed, it's absolutely different since the audience is not passive.
While I haven't perfected the art, I have picked up a few points that others might find useful:
- At the start of your presentation, outline the ground rules. If questions should be held to the end, say so. If you want interaction during the talk, also say so. Either way, it communicates that there is an expected structure to the presentation. It is not random. It is not chaotic. In fact ...
- ... this is your presentation, and you are responsible for managing the progress of things. The audience participates at your allowance, they do not manage the flow of the presentation. Which means ..
- Sometimes you have to move on. "That's a good one, but I'll answer that question later.." or "That's a bit out of scope, perhaps you and I can discuss that together later.." or "I'm afraid I'm going to have to move on if I'm going to get through all the material, but that's an interesting point..." or "Good question; I don't know the answer off the top of my head, but let me get back to you on it.." There are lots of ways of shutting down audience over-participation, and don't be afraid to do so. If you let them take the reigns away from you, the presentation will jump the rails and nobody will get anything useful out of it.
- During the Q/A section (or an interview), you are not required to answer every query. Some people will purposefully ask questions that they know are out of bounds just to see if they can throw you or if you'll say something silly. That sounds stupid, but it happens. Sometimes the question is a good one, but is off topic, would take too much time or is unintentionally contentious. Skip all of that; those who have listened to interviews I've done have probably heard me say "I don't think that's a useful question.. and here's why.."
- Sometimes a really enthusiastic person will try and engage you in one-on-one dialog to the exclusion of anyone else getting to say anything, the typical "loud guy". They usually don't mean any harm, they are just really engaged and enthused. Don't let that derail the presentation, however; offer to talk to them one-on-one later and move on. If they keep just speaking out, make eye contact with them directly, smile and say something such as, "Would it be alright if we discussed that afterwards? There are others who haven't had a chance yet, and I do want to get to as many of them as possible. Thank you for your input, though. Good stuff!"
- If you end up with a dead audience, try and figure out why. Is the topic wrong? Is the detail level wrong? Did they just all eat and are falling asleep due to heavy stomachs? If you think you know why, stop for a moment, pause, gather your thoughts (it may feel like an eternity, but 5 seconds of pause time is absolutely OK) and then start in with an adjusted approach. If you don't know why ... ask them. "Am I being too detailed? Covering things that are too basic? I want to make sure this is interesting for you all..."
- Of course, solving problems isn't as fun as avoiding them. To avoid problems such as the above situations, get the audience on your side from the start by warming them up. Ask them how they are doing, if anyone in the audience is familiar with the audience ("How many of you use..") how they are enjoying the event or what they thought about something else (in specific) at the conference. If nobody moves or says anything, say something like, "Ok, we can do better than that, right?" and then repeat your question. Smile and move your arms in natural gestures while you do this. The whole point of the exercise is to get them to connect with you as a person, not a stuffed-shirt mannequin up on stage.
- Remember that it's OK to pause. You don't have to fill every moment. But keep eye contact with the audience unless you are re-grouping your thoughts and it will distract you. If you do need to gather your thoughts and break eye contact, be sure to hit the audience with your presence once you being again: smile, eye contact, gesture.
- In other words, avoiding uncomfortable situations is all about engaging the audience. Make eye contact, or, if you feel uncomfortable doing that, make hair-line contact: look at their forehead. The audience member will get the feeling you're generally making eye contact, but it's a lot less psychologically intense for both the audience and you as the presenter. Remember to engage the whole audience as well: use the words "we" and "us", ask them simple rhetorical or leading questions so they feel they are part of a conversation and look at people in different parts of the audience.
- Doing this requires practice. Try your licks out in front of the mirror, imaging yourself doing it in your mind before going to sleep, subject a friend to the horror of being an audience-of-one. ;) Whatever it takes, go through the motions at least in your mind's eyes if not in actual practice. Concentrate on natural, relaxed looking gestures, eye contact, avoiding those 'uh's and 'um's and smiling (again, in a style that looks natural). You can be an absolute wreck inside when you get up to give your presentation, but if you project calmness through your body language for the first 60 seconds (confidence is a bonus, but calmness is usually enough), you can win over the people in the audience, and that will make your presentation soooo much smoother.
These points, in my experience, tend to avoid most unfortunate situations that can and do arise when giving presentations. If you have any other tips 'n tricks to share, please put them in the comments here so others, including myself, can enjoy and learn from them too.