Mark Walker is Head of Content Marketing at Eventbrite UK, where he helps people plan, manage, and get the most out of any kind of event. Here, he shares his insights on the things that presenters should keep in mind when speaking at a conference.
Speaking at a conference is an honor and a privilege, but often, as the day nears and your normal workload and responsibilities continue thick and fast, it’s easy to forget the positives that conference speaking can bring.
You might start to approach your talk as just another thing to be done as quickly and painlessly as possible, where ‘good enough’ will suffice. Unfortunately, if you try to muddle through, all of the personal branding kudos you could earn, and the brand lift your company can get from showing thought leadership, could easily turn negative.
This outcome is not what you want—and it’s not what the conference organizer wants, either! Instead, follow these simple steps. If you do, you’ll knock your presentation out of the park, so you can walk off stage with a whole lot of brand equity and applause ringing in your ears.
1. Read the speaker brief.
Most conference organizers will create a speaker brief or handbook to convey all the key information to you about the event. They’ll cover things like who the audience is, the overall event theme, and the agreed title and content of your talk.
If they’ve taken the time to create this document for you, they would be very grateful if you read it! Having all this information top-of-mind will make all the next points much easier too.
2. Turn up on time—ideally, a little early.
If you’re a keynote speaker at an industry conference, you’re probably very busy. However, turning up 30 seconds before your allotted time will cause the organizer to have palpitations.
Showing up early also gives you time to prepare to talk calmly and confidently on stage with a focused mind.
In an ideal world, organizers would like you to be there 10 or even 30 minutes before your session is due to start, so do your best to be early, and if you’re unsure when you need to be there, check the speaker brief!
3. Don’t make last-minute edits that involve tech.
Turning up to your talk two minutes early with a fresh deck or a new video is almost always a recipe for disaster. In fact, if you have any kind of interactivity or rich media in your presentation, you absolutely have to run through it with the organizer onsite before you go on stage.
This may require you to be there ahead of the start of the event, when you’ll have the opportunity to do a quick ‘tech check’ during the break preceding your talk. A good rule of thumb is, “If it can go wrong, it will go wrong,” so make sure you’ve tripled checked that everything works!
4. Stay on point.
Straying away from the key point of your presentation is the easiest way to lose your audience. Wide-ranging conversations are amazing when chatting with a small group, but in the context of speaking to a crowd, it doesn’t pay to drift off-topic.
Whether you’re on stage for 15 minutes or an hour, you should keep things relevant. Stories, metaphors, examples, jokes, pictures, videos and other props are all excellent ways to keep things interesting, but make sure that they clearly relate to your core takeaways.
5. Keep to your allotted time.
Conferences tend to be busy affairs, with back-to-back sessions and relatively short breaks. If each speaker runs over the allotted time even by 5 minutes, it can send the whole day into a tailspin.
I’ve seen speakers run on for twice their time, determinedly ignoring the moderator gesticulating frantically from the back of the room. Don’t be this person! It not only wrecks the agenda for the organizer, but it’s disrespectful to the other speakers and the audience too.
The best way to ensure your talk is the proper length is to practice, practice, practice. Also, pay attention to whatever cues the organizer has to help you pace yourself.
6. Be enthusiastic!
You can’t afford to be lethargic in your presentation delivery—unless you want to put your audience to sleep.
No matter how early in the morning it is after a long night of networking, get excited about your subject. Enjoy being on the stage and sharing your learnings and experience. Smile! Tell a joke. Be human, and you’ll notice the audience respond to you.
7. Involve the audience.
Sometimes when you’re speaking in public—particularly to a large audience of educated strangers—it’s easy to detach yourself from the situation and pretend that your audience is a static backdrop.
This is not the best way, however, to approach your time on stage. The more you involve your audience in your presentation, the more energy—and attention—you’ll get in return.
Whether you do this through posing a question like, “Can everyone raise their hands if…” or using an interactive tool like Sli.do to poll the crowd, speaking with the audience rather than at them is a surefire way to deliver a memorable talk.
If you’ve got ideas for how to make your session more interactive, chat with the conference organizers beforehand so they’re prepared and can help with any logistics if necessary.
8. Educate, don’t sell.
Just because you’ve sponsored an event, doesn’t mean that you should beat the audience around the head with your sales pitch. They will not thank you for it, and neither will your boss when you don’t actually make any sales because you’ve annoyed your target audience!
Instead of focusing on how great your company/product/service is, chat with the organizer and learn more about the audience’s educational needs (or read the brief!). Then, share insights that are genuinely valuable. People can come up to you after to learn more about your actual product / service once you’ve wowed them with your thought leadership first.
9. Don’t criticise.
Is the room a bit quieter than you’d have liked? Maybe you’re the last speaker of the day or on just before/after lunch. The truth is there’s rarely a ‘perfect’ speaking slot.
Telling the room how few people there are; or how difficult it is to keep the attention of a hungry crowd; or how disappointed you are at some technical glitch is an absolute no-no.
Your complaints will not only ensure that you’ll never get invited back again to speak but also cause everybody to focus on the exact thing that you want them to ignore.
It’s best to ignore whatever has gotten your goat and tackle your presentation with vigor. If you’re really bothered, you can have a quiet word with the organizer in private after the session is over.
10. Stick around after you’ve finished speaking.
As you stroll off stage and breathe an internal sigh of relief that, yep, you killed it, keep one more thing in mind: stick around!
Too many speakers finish their talk and then rush off to catch a plane, or hole themselves up in a hotel room to get back on top of email. If you do this, you’re missing out on one of the most valuable aspects of an event: the networking.
You never know how many great connections you can make after proving yourself on stage, from potential new customers to employees enthusiastic about working for you (or employers enthusiastic about employing you).
Attendees will also want the chance to exchange business cards or ask further questions, and of course the organizer would love to have a star speaker mingling with the crowd.
If you want to be a great speaker, get invited to more top industry events and maximise the value you get from those events, the 10 pointers above could be boiled down into this:
Be prepared, respectful, and enthusiastic.
If you can manage that, you’ll do just great.