I do my fair share of speaking, and I attend conferences regularly. After having done both over the past month, I have some observations that hopefully may help other speakers as well as those who recruit people to speak at events.
1. Have a Roadmap. There’s nothing more painful to watch than a speaker who does not have a clear direction for a talk. I’m not talking about someone who has a PowerPoint — I have seen plenty of folks with a great slide deck who still aren’t really prepared with a cohesive plan for what they’re going to say. Take the time to think through your presentation in advance.
2. Tell a Story. A speaker reciting facts will lose an audience fast. Bouncing from subtopic to subtopic will dizzy, not dazzle, your listeners. Come up with a thread that ties together everything you plan to say. It isn’t necessary to hit the audience over the head with it, nut you should think of what you are doing as akin to writing a magazine article. Grab them at the open, move through a believable plot, and tie it all together with a bow at the end.
3. Practice. If you’re going to give an hour long talk, it isn’t all that realistic to think that you will practice the entire presentation several times. That’s simply more time than most of us have to give, unless we’re speaking before millions of people — but most of us are not world leaders. But you should at least practice the opening until you have it polished, then figure out how to nail the closing. Like a novel, you will either win or lose your audience in the first few minutes, so don’t stumble into the start. Similarly, you want to make sure the last thing you leave your listeners with is potent and coherent.
4. Stay on Topic. I’m not saying you shouldn’t throw in some interesting asides that may be slightly off-topic, but please don’t decide that the conference organizer’s topic isn’t quite right. People decide which conference sessions to attend based on pre-printed descriptions of what a speaker will say, and it is important to meet those expectations. I regularly attend conferences where speakers announce things like, “I know it says I’m going to talk about X, but I’m actually going to talk about Y instead.” Unless you are the President of the United States or some earth-shattering event has taken place since the program was published, you need to stick to the published topic. If you want something different, work it out with the conference organizer in advance.
5. Know Your Limits as a Speaker. If you’re not comfortable speaking solo for a full hour in front of a large crowd, don’t agree to do it. I have seen people accept speaking invitations because they want to do it, not because they’re confident that they can do it well. Obviously it takes practice to get good at different formats, so I’m not saying speakers and organizers shouldn’t look for the talent to stretch themselves a bit, but newer, less comfortable speakers might perform better on a panel than as a solo presenter until they perfect their skills. The burden here is shared equally by the speaker and the organizer to make sure someone doesn’t end up in an awkward situation where they are out of their depth. It will embarrass everyone.
6. Slides Matter. This doesn’t mean you must have slides. Some of the best talks I have ever heard have been slide-free. But for the love of all that is good, please don’t put up horrible slides. Often speakers will take a kitchen sink approach to their slides because they have been asked to share the deck with attendees. A presentation should never be a leave-behind. Create something separate for that if you must. Your slides should augment your presentation and help you make points, it should not be able to stand on its own — otherwise what are you doing wasting our time by standing up there and yapping?
7. Don’t Excuse Your Own Bad Behavior. If you know you’re doing something annoying, don’t apologize for it, just don’t do it! I recently attended a session where the speaker said, “I know this slide is an eye chart.” Never criticize your own slides; just make them better to begin with. Another presenter at a different event said something to the effect of, “This is going to be a bit confusing and difficult to explain.” Then what are you doing presenting about it? The whole point of a conference speaker should be to simplify things and make them understandable.
8. Know Your Audience. Conference organizers should tell speakers in advance what to expect from the audience; if they don’t say, speakers should ask. There’s nothing more embarrassing than making assumptions about the knowledge level of attendees that prove to be incorrect. Of course, this also means a speaker should not give the same talk to experts and beginners in a subject area. There’s not much sense in knowing your audience if you don’t tailor your presentation to their interests.
9. Leave Time for Questions. With few exceptions, conference sessions benefits from the ability to take questions from the audience. Often there may be obvious elephants in the room that even the best speaker may overlook and a question or two can root it out. The amount of time for questions should be tailored to the type of audience present. Questions should not be a dodge for preparation (I have seen speakers do little preparation and rely on questions as a crutch for inadequate prep), but should be used more extensively in a training environment than in a trends discussion, for example.
10. Accept that You Can’t Please Everyone. In any good size room of people, there will be a few who don’t like your presentation. Don’t worry about it. Conferences are, in many respects, lowest common denominator affairs where speakers and conference organizers must play to the vast majority of attendees and not the edge cases. This means there will be some tough questions and bad reviews. Don’t sweat that which you cannot control. Mind you, this is not carte blanche to not even listen to criticism. There may be great nuggets of learning in the constructive criticism of those edge case attendees.
Are there other suggestions you have as a conference attendee or speaker? Share them in the comments below.