Win Over the Room: Tips for First-Time Conference Speakers

Bob Prentiss
Oct 3, 2017 · 9 min read

Presenting at a business conference can open doors to you professionally and draw clients to your business, but getting up in front of 500 people isn’t easy.

Conference presenters usually seem so polished they make running through a deck of slides seem perfectly natural, but that’s hardly the case.

If you want to talk at conferences and present with the ease of a TED speaker, follow these tips from the experts. With practice and preparation, you can soon be confidently addressing a room full of your peers.

Get Invited to the Best Conferences in Your Field

Many people assume conference speakers are sought after based on their experience or charisma. While some might be invited, many speakers spend months and years trying to be accepted to speak. Those who are just starting out often run into closed doors several times before one opens for them.

“In many ways, the speaker is actually more important than the talk,” Stormy Peters writes at Cloud Foundry. “Your job during the proposal process is to write the best bio you can…It’s the place to tell the committee what have you been working on and what you’ve learned that you can teach others.”

If you’re reaching out to conferences and just starting your speaking career, create a mini media packet that highlights:

  • Your relevant experience, job functions, and employer.
  • Your public speaking experience (including events you present at and topics you cover).
  • Any links or clips showing your speaking experience — even if you create one yourself.

You don’t have to have a ton of public speaking experience to present at a conference, but you do have to show that you’re an asset to the organizers’ lineup.

Pitch An Idea That’s Compelling for That Conference

Your presentation should never be “one size fits all,” and should rarely be given at multiple conferences. Cory House writes that the breadth of your topic should correlate directly to the breadth of the conference.

For example, if you’re attending a more introductory conference, then a general overview of a topic could be hit with attendees who are unfamiliar with it. However, that same overview could bomb at a niche conference with experts in the field. They don’t need an overview, they need an advanced discussion.

By knowing your audience and what they want to hear, you can pitch a presentation that resounds with the organizers and get that pitch accepted.

Partner With Others in Your Field

If you feel like you need to establish your name in order to get accepted at conferences or aren’t able to present alone just yet, consider forming a partnership with someone in your business or industry for a joint presentation.

“If you go this route, you need to commit to preparing in advance, and likely rehearsing the presentation a few times,” Dr. Liz Gross writes.

Gross encourages speakers to find something that bonds them together, like facing the same problem (with two different solutions) or debating opposing sides of an industry issue. This will make your dual presentation more compelling and add depth.

Create Goals for the Conferences You’re Accepted To

Erica McGillivray encourages every speaker to take the stage with a goal. Whether you asked to present or were invited, you should have clear objectives as to why you’re there. Furthermore, not all of these goals have to be professional or company-oriented; your goal might be to get something personally out of speaking at that conference.

A few goals that McGillivray suggests include:

  • Landing new clients and sales for the company.
  • Gaining personal exposure to land a new job.
  • Sharing new ideas and expertise with the best people in your field.
  • Conquering your fear of public speaking — or speaking to a room of more than 1,000 people.

If you’re speaking at a relatively small conference, you can use it as practice for presenting at larger ones.

Start With Smaller Stages and Work Your Way Up

You can’t expect to walk onto a national stage tomorrow. Smaller conferences, meetups, and internal lunch-and-learns can give you the experience you need to work your way up to speaking at a 1,000+ person event.

“If you can’t find a conference and/or don’t want to submit to conferences yet, there’s always user groups in your local area,” Ted Neward writes. “There is absolutely no reason you cannot get the experience you need to build your way up the ladder to speaking at the conference you have your sights set on.”

Start by speaking to small groups of people at your local library and then start applying to conferences for local organizations. Once you’re comfortable speaking on a local level, expand across your region and state, and then eventually you can talk nationally.

Smaller Conferences Add Less Pressure

Getting your “first talk” out of the way in a smaller environment can save you from panic or embarrassment when you get on a big stage. Todd Motto shares a story where spoke at a small group to gain experience before going on to a major conference. Everything started out okay until he felt a bad pain in his ribcage.

“I was apparently so nervous, that my body decided to take a massively deep breath and not let me relax,” Motto writes. “I took a brief moment to breathe out very slowly and relax as much as possible. From that moment on, the pain obviously went as I’d decided to let myself actually breathe, and I found the talk much more enjoyable.”

Smaller presentations can have significant benefits, even if you just learn something small — like the importance of breathing.

Look for Quality Networking Opportunities

Choosing smaller conferences can also help as far as the quality of networking and professional growth you can get out of attending. Remember, after your presentation, you’re likely going to spend your time attending other sessions and learning from others.

Attending a large conference means you might not get a chance to get the quality time you want with all of your professional heroes, marine ecologist Kirsty L. Nash writes. It’s better to spend an hour with a few people you can form a lasting connection with than a few minutes with someone who forgets you moments later.

Create a Compelling Visual Presentation

Finding the right conference and topic are great places to start, but then your focus should turn to your presentation. Almost everyone has horror stories or terrible presentations, and many of them are tied back to terrible PowerPoint practices.

Your Deck Shouldn’t Steal the Show

Sana Ansari at 3Q Digital encourages speakers to treat your decks like sidekicks: they can help drive your message home, but they shouldn’t give the presentation for you. You want your audience to hear the words you have to say, not read ahead and then wait for the next slide. To accomplish this, she encourages speakers to:

  • Limit your test to one or two supporting sentences.
  • Focus on images, diagrams, graphics, and key metrics.
  • Explain how the graphic ties into your presentation so the audience isn’t distracted trying to combine the two points.

Plus, if your presentation relies too heavily on your deck, then you could face problems if a slide gets stuck or if the venue has AV problems.

Start With An Outline

One of the best ways to make sure you’re not reliant on your deck during your presentation is to create an outline and gather your materials before you open PowerPoint on your computer.

Jennifer Aldrich at InVisionApp used to create slides as she thought she needed them. By the time she was done, she had dozens of slides and most of them were confusing or out of order. By saving the PowerPoint creation for after you have most of your presentation mapped out, the whole process will be smoother and your audience will appreciate the flow.

Try Different PowerPoint Formats

There are different schools of thought for how PowerPoint slides should be developed. Some speakers want the information to be valuable without any context, while other speakers want their audiences to focus on the verbal delivery.

Adrian Kosmaczewski, who has been giving talks since 2006, shares The Lessig Method which uses long sequences of slides with only a few words or one image on each. Audiences look at a slide for a few seconds before moving on.

“The idea behind such a visual presentation is to yield the power to the story told by the speaker,” he writes. This might be challenging for beginners, as you have to know your script perfectly so your presentation lines up with your slides.

Practice Speaking Clearly

As you walk onto the stage, take a deep breath. Within the first few minutes, your audience will either be engaged with your presentation and speaking ability or they will wonder if it’s possible to sneak out. If you can create a good first impression, then you can hold them through the meat of your message.

Let Audiences Adapt to Your Voice

TED Speaker Gina Barnett advises presenters to start with a few warm-up sentences to help the room adjust to your accent. Everyone has an accent, she says, and while you might not be able to hear your own, someone from New York, Texas, or England can probably hear it clearly.

By speaking slowly and over-enunciating your first few sentences, typically while you’re thanking your hosts or making comments about the conference, you can help your audience adapt to your way of talking. This way they can keep up when you move into deeper topics of conversation.

Establish a Common Thread in the Room

These first few sentences are also important for establishing a collective feeling, especially if you’re attending more of a broad conference where attendees range in job title, company size, and industry.

“You want to establish an immediate connection with the audience by getting everyone on the same page,” Anett Grant, founder of Executive Speaking, writes. “The audience may be filled with people who are very different, but you are all there for the same reason.”

Consider immediately addressing the problem that you’re trying to solve in order to prepare the audience for your presentation on solving it.

Stay Consistent Throughout

Establishing your pace, accent, and tone is crucial during those first few minutes, and they are also metrics you need to maintain throughout the presentation.

“If you become nervous, excited or worried about time you may often find yourself speaking at a pace that’s hard to understand,” Caroline Vander Ark writes. “Try taking a deep breath in between points and ask someone to monitor your speed during engagements.”

Whether you’re excited about a point or rushing through to hit your time limit, you can lose your audience if your presentation isn’t measured and clear.

Get the Most of Your Presentation After You Lead the Stage

You might think you’re in the home stretch as your presentation comes to a close, but good presenters continue to draw value from a conference long after their panel or session has ended.

Always End With Questions and Answers

Many conferences allow question periods, but it’s up to you to allow enough time to make the most of them. Otherwise, you could end up ignoring queries or rushing through them.

“Do not linger on any one specific topic for too long and if you are unable to address all queries, keep in mind that this is quite normal,” the team at Congrex Switzerland writes.

If you can’t answer a question succinctly, you can suggest the audience member who asked visit you after the presentation to discuss it in more detail. This sets you up for a quality discussion and networking opportunity when you set the microphone down.

Wear Something Memorable

Christine Clapp encourages speakers to wear something that makes them stand out when they present. It doesn’t have to be an outlandish getup, but try to wear something memorable, like a bright color or interesting pattern.

After your presentation, your audience is going to want to ask you questions and you’re likely to be recognized throughout the day afterward. These conversations can help your network, gain clients, and possibly land future speaking engagements. If you’re one of a million white shirts or navy blazers, then you’re less likely to stand out or get noticed later.

Get Feedback from the Audience

Talk to the people who attended your conference and get feedback on how you can improve. Maybe other speakers dropped in to see what you were about or a conference host was watching to see how your message was received. Either way, find people who can help you grow for next time.

“There will always be haters; try not to focus on reviews that say nothing constructive,” Katharine Jarmul writes. “Take both positive and negative feedback to heart and use it to make your next talk even better.”

Conference Presentations Take Time and Practice

Remember, you’re not the only one who is freaking out or spending hours trying to get your presentation right. Many experienced presenters are in the same boat.

“My ‘secret’ to success is an irrational fear of embarrassment and a vicious grind spanning multiple months,” Hynek Schlawack writes. “If you see a speaker give a great talk and it looks easy to you, it most likely means they put endless hours into preparations.”

You might not nail your presentation the first time, but if you keep working at your speaking skills as you present at smaller venues, you will improve. This will increase the likelihood of getting called back to speak again and being accepted to speak at conferences of your choice.

Images: kasto/©123RF Stock Photo, dolgachov/©123RF Stock Photo, crystal710, TechLine

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Bob Prentiss

Written by

Founder & Principal Consultant at Bob the BA, Inc. Trainer, mentor, consultant, badass BA, and major nerd, helping people to learn, think and work differently.

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