How to be a great conference speaker

Just got back from yet another conference where I was a speaker and organizer — it’s getting to be a habit! — and was struck by what some of the speakers did right, and what speakers did wrong that adversely impacted both the attendee experience and, by extension, their experience in the front of the room.
As I watched, I started to take notes and reflected upon other speakers and conferences where I’ve seem the same mistakes again and again. So, without further ado, my notes and comments…
Show Up Early For Your Talk
I admit, I don’t always manage this myself, but there’s little as annoying to an audience than showing up 5-10 minutes early to get a good seat, just to have the speaker walk in the room when they’re supposed to begin talking and start monkeying with their gear, asking for the AV consultant, etc. This is a matter of respecting your audience: show up 15 minutes early, get your gear set up, video working, mic hooked up, etc. Then if you walk in two minutes before your talk starts, at least you’re ready to go.
Which reminds me: conferences hire local people to staff the rooms, run the audio and visual gear, interface with the hotel or conference venue, etc. Treat them with respect and recognize that they’re good at their jobs, but they’re not miracle workers. They also can’t say “jeez, show up earlier next time, chump” even if that’s what they’re thinking. You’d be surprised how expensive a crew of four people plus wireless lavaliere microphones, receivers, speakers, mixing boards, etc., can cost on a per-day basis. Not to mention wireless Internet.
Carry Your Own Video Adapter
I don’t care what kind of cool or weird computer you have, if you plan on hooking your own computer up to the projection system and displaying slides, showing Web pages, whatever, it’s your responsibility to bring all the equipment, wires, dongles, and adapters you need to hook to a standard VGA display system.
This applies x10 for MacBook owners, as Apple keeps changing the VGA/video out adapter. I used to carry $100 worth of adapters so I could help people out regardless of what generation of MacBook they had, but got tired of it and now only carry the adapter I need. Odds are fairly good that there will not be anyone in the audience that has the adapter you need, and the AV people might not either. Then what?
This is an easy one, Mac folk. Take your computer into an Apple Store and ask them to help you pick out the right VGA adapter. Then buy it, slip it in your bag and carry it with you at all times. Problem solved.
Need Audio Out? Allocate LOTS of Extra Time
The vast majority of presentations at professional conferences involve video, but rarely have an audio component. If you have a movie to show, a funny video clip, or an audio sample, awesome. But get to your room extra early to set the audio up.
The problem is that most of the AV contractors just don’t have much experience with audio so it really can take 10-15 minutes to get it working properly, without being too loud or too soft. You’ll also need to probably tweak your computer settings to use the external output and adjust the volume so it’s audible.
Reading between the lines here? It’s your responsibility as a speaker to get your presentation ready to roll before it’s time to start. That start time for your talk? That’s when you’re supposed to start actually addressing the audience, not fiddling with your gear. Don’t be “that guy”, be ready to go a few minutes before your time comes around.
Don’t Reject a Microphone if Offered
Here’s another one. You’re a speaker at a small event and decline the offered microphone because you’re sure you can project your voice adequately. Yes, but… but people come into talks after you start, the people who are further back might not be able to hear you that well, people with hearing disabilities might have amplifiers hooked into the AV system (and not want to be making a big deal about it) and your talk might also be recorded or otherwise captured.
Do everyone a favor, put your ego away, and just gracefully accept the mic and be hooked into the AV system. That’s why conference organizers pay for those expensive wireless microphones and speaker systems in the first place. Just trust me on this one.
Keep Track of Your Time
Good conference organizers make sure that there’s someone to give a speaker time cues (like “10 minutes left”, “5 minutes” “TIME!”) but really, it’s up to a speaker to pay attention to time and to both start and end promptly. Lots of great questions? Either learn to push them to the end of your presentation or suggest meeting in the lounge after your talk to further explore the conversation.
Epic fail: “I’m out of time, which is frustrating, because I have so much more to share”. Your job as a speaker is to manage that time and yes, leave them wanting more. Don’t tease, educate.
Leave Time For Questions
Personally, I love when people interrupt my presentations to ask questions and challenge me, but I’ve also learned how to really aggressively manage my time and am quite comfortable saying “off topic” or “we’ll get back to that”. If you’re not positive you can stay on track, allocation 75%-80% of your time to your talk, say “great question, let’s get back to that at the end” and keep moving your presentation along.
Quite often, you’ll wrap up and people will need a few minutes to process and think through what you’ve said, but have questions. This means that it’s surprisingly common to say “Any questions?” and have no hands go up. Give it a second. Have a prepared question or two of your own so you can give your audience some thinking time.
And it’s not a crime to end a few minutes early if everyone’s really done with the topic, so don’t force it if it’s not happening.
Use Audience Members as Examples
If you know people in your audience who demonstrate something you’re talking about (ideally a positive trend or trait!) then don’t be afraid to give them shout-outs as you go. This is incredibly effective, demonstrates you’re part of the community, makes them feel great, and also helps other audience members identify people they want to talk with after you’re done with your speech.
As an extension of this, be as interactive and engaged with your audience as possible. If you’re talking about brands, for example, point out someone who has a logo on their shirt, or a sticker on their computer. If you’re talking about corporate responsibility, point to people from a company that demonstrates your concept.
I would, however, be very cautious about pointing out a bad example. “It’s really important for companies to donate 20% of their profit to the Humane Society, which those losers at Company X”, and here you point to two people in the audience, “do NOT demonstrate.” That’s probably not going to end well. 🙂
Create Legible Slides
This is one of those “I can’t believe we’re still talking about this” topics: small text, dense graphs, lots of information, they all look TERRIBLE when they’re projected onto a screen. Easy rule of thumb: no text smaller than 18-point, whether it’s a graph’s legend or whether it’s bullet points.
I’ve written about how to compose good presentation slides before. My suggestion: always think big when you’re creating slides. Some of the very best speakers I know use slides that have no more than 3-4 words on each one, or perhaps just a cute photograph to illustrate the point.
Your slides are not your talk. They are an adjunct and visual aid. Get it right already, speakers. There’s no excuse.
It’s a privilege to step in front of a group and share your thoughts, ideas and perspective on your industry or company. Take advantage of it, prep, present your ideas clearly and accurately, and you’ll find that you’ll get much, much more out of the experience and so will your audience.
Additional Reading:

I hope these tips and thoughts are helpful! Got more? Add ’em here as a comment.

9 comments on “How to be a great conference speaker

  1. Dave,
    You might also make sure that conference speakers at least have an understanding of the technology they’ll be using, such as the video projectors. I was at a recent conference where some speakers had Macs with “preset” video settings on the video projectors, not “auto” detection of video.
    Needless to say, “Macs don’t work with the projectors” was the common comment from people. I jumped up and spent about 5 minutes figuring the projector out. Since the projectors were not in “autodetect” the screen resolution was out of sync (Had to change the Macs from 60Hz to 75Hz). Walla.
    Also, whether the projector handles the Keynote colors you intend to use, i.e. plain colors such as white make things easy to read versus fancy images, etc.

  2. Great post as always. My favorite is connecting with the audience. That is huge!
    One point I would add and I know you agree. Don’t use foul language during a presentation, as you said, it is a privilege to be up there and it is insulting to your audience and in poor form.

  3. Great checklist for us future… potential… possible… only if we have to speak… speakers LOL.
    Anyway, I agree with Melissa about connecting with the audience…… just make sure it’s natural. Humor, being animated, interacting with your crowd, confidence, all make for a better speaker…. again all in the context of being natural.

  4. Hi Dave,
    It *is* a privilege to speak to a group. I like that you made that point. It puts you in the right frame of mind to connect with an audience.
    I’ve learned a lot of these points by making mistakes. I’m always working on my speaking skills. Sometimes they’re a home run and other times I feel like I totally bombed. My best involve the audience but start with a good fit (for example I have more success speaking to small businesses than to big brands).
    Do you think you should be more specific (“how to”) or do people like you to paint a big picture?
    I’d love a post on what to charge to speak in a recession. – or should you (or when should you) speak for free.
    Blog on,

  5. Dave- really glad to see you give a shout to all three of the “time principles”: 1) Show up (early), 2) Keep Up (with your alloted time), and, 3) Hold up (early enough for questions). I can’t say how many times the best part of presentations is the Q and A, and how many I have seen a speaker “saved” by good questions. They look better AFTER the prepared stuff. Nice post.

  6. Thanks for the great comments, y’all. A few thoughts:
    I am definitely not a fan of obscenities from a speaker, but cut them some slack if it’s necessary and beneficial in context. Relaying a story or experience where that’s how one of the people spoke, for example, Still, there are public speakers who seem to use vulgarity (esp. the “f-bomb”) as a way to show they’re tough and no-nonsense. Instead it almost always makes me think they’re inexperienced and a bully. Professionals can get the strongest point across – effectively – without a single vulgarity. Something to think about before you’re next on stage.
    In terms of charging, I think that every speaker should have time in their schedule for local events that are gratis. It’s called “giving back to the community”. I run workshops, talk at meetups, and even hang out at coffee shops and offer consulting advice to colleagues without even a mention of money. If every minute you’re talking is billed, you’re doing it wrong. In my opinion, at least.
    In terms of pricing when you do speak, it’s about value, not cost. I would rather quote a standard rate and have the event organizer pass because their budget doesn’t allow them to pay me my standard fee than lower my fee and then grumble about not getting paid “what I’m worth”. That’s your own call, though.
    Finally, the wheels in my brain are spinning about a similar post about how to moderate / be a part of a panel. Stay tuned for that too!

  7. Great post Dave.
    I recently ran an event and completely agree with the Mac adaptor thing!
    We had a nightmare with one of our presenters refusing to present off the mac we had setup, which meant a mad dash to the apple store to grab an adaptor for his older macbook!
    Great post mate

  8. There’s a lot of good information here, Dave. I’ll have to incorporate this into my style. I definitely have to agree with the point about slides. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen presenters cram their slides with information only to have them be illegible. It’s even worse when they do nothing more than read off of them. That drives me insane.

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