Speaking at conferences: theatre rules apply

Offstage, I am a data scientist, leader, and decision intelligence engineer. When I’m invited to give a talk, I turn into a theatre company of one. Everything from actor to director to costume designer.

The bad news is that the same goes for your talk, whether you know it or not. Unfortunately the skills that got you the speaking position might be entirely different from what you need to dazzle your audience.

The good news is that industry and academia are stuffed to the gills with novice speakers who don’t realize that public speaking is theatre, so it’s fairly easy to set yourself apart in a crowd of newcomers to the stage. To help you out, I thought I’d share some tips along with 6 newbie mistakes to avoid.

Speech length

A professional speaker finishes on time. That means planning on a shorter speech that the maximum talk length. Since I know I like to improvise a little to keep my speech from feeling stiff, I will plan creating content that fills 75% of the available time.

Always have topics in reserve that you could throw in just before your closing remarks if you run short, though ending early is usually okay.

Slides

The fewer words the better. Your slides only really serve three good purposes: entertainment, illustration, and roadmap. Anything else is distracting your audience from listening to you. Your slides should highlight what you’re talking about.

In early iterations of a talk (in private or with my friends), I’ll use dense slides (to remind myself) and drop most of the text as soon as I’m comfortable with the script.

If your talk will be recorded, you should be prepared for your slides not to make it to your video. As I learned the cringingly hard way, if you have a sound bite that sounds silly without your slides, it’s best to change it.

Equations and jargon

Although I come from a field that loves equations (statistics), you’ll find almost none in my talks. (Here’s why.) To know whether you’ve used too many, try my Chinese character exercise.

Public speaking vs teaching

There’s a myth that public speaking equals teaching. Wrong job. Public speaking is entertainment. So where do the teaching skills come in? Designing the speech so that your audience learns something.

The teaching skills come into play before you hit the stage and help you craft your message. The teacher in you is the playwright, but the actor in you wins your audience’s hearts.

Be authentic

When I say you’re an actor playing a role, that doesn’t mean you’re inauthentic. Your role should be you. Or, more precisely, your personal brand. You might be angry at the traffic fiasco on the way to the talk, but the audience doesn’t need to know that unless your personal brand involves being grumpy all the time.

The biggest mistake is not meditating on your personal brand before you ever step onto a stage.

Minimum expectations

All speakers are expected to know how to move on a stage and how to use standard mics, so practice before you have to give a talk that matters.

Find an opportunity to practice using each of the default mic types: handheld and lavalier (“lav” for short, also known as a lapel mic). Showing up unprepared to handle one or both of these is unprofessional. If you know there’s a good reason you won’t be able to use them, let conference organizers know in advance.

Costume design

“Wear whatever you’re most comfortable in” is just plain bad advice. There’s a good reason speakers rarely wear pajamas or yoga pants to the stage. Your clothes speak for you and should be selected to support your brand and message.

When you take to the stage, your audience will examine every detail the way they examine a painting — as if it’s there to signify something. For better or worse, clothes serve as visual symbols, so it’s worth thinking about what your clothes are saying as the latest sentence in humanity’s very long visual conversation.

“The detail is unyielding.” — poem by Szymborska

Low necklines mean something, as do epaulettes, hats, and everything else. In the west, the way to say “nothing to see here” in that visual language (for all genders) is to wear a well-cut buttoned shirt, flat closed shoes, and long grey/dark business trousers. Everything else says something — be sure you like what it’s saying and ask for advice if visual language is not your strong, ahem, suit.

If you pick a chunky bracelet or a tie with cartoon characters, your audience will devote brainpower to pondering their meaning and appropriateness. Be sure that’s what you want. Fashion statements are great when you’re intentionally making a statement. But theatre rules apply: if the item isn’t appropriate to the role you’re playing (in this case, your personal brand), leave it behind. For example, I’ve seen very few situations where shorts would have been consistent with the setting and personal brand of the speaker.

As long as you pick items that your personal brand dictates for the setting, everything will be fine. You don’t have to wear what everyone else wears, I sure don’t. Instead, imagine what a costume designer would prescribe if told the scene and a description of your personal brand. Wear that.

Impractical details make you look bad

The last thing you want your clothing saying about you is that you were unprepared for the stage or that you’re impractical. Here are a few mistakes I’ve seen frequently.

Mistake 1: Nowhere to hang a lav mic’s heavy battery pack. The conference doesn’t pick your clothes for you, so they’re not responsible for your outfit being stage-compatible and working with standard kit. That’s on you. Check that your waistband can hold the weight of a can of beans, especially if it’s elastic. No waistband? Try a belt or sturdy pockets. None of the above? A special mic belt or armband or lanyard might be worth incorporating into your outfit.

Mistake 2: Silly shoes. If you’re planning on any amount of standing, I suggest you ditch any pair you haven’t walked two miles in. Watch out for blisters, slippery soles, and squeaking. Also, be sure you can put your full weight on the heels — if you can’t lift your toes and walk across the room, the shoes will only make you look bad on stage.

Mistake 3: Mic-incompatible collar. The lav mic will be clipped at or just below the collarbone (not on the neck under the chin!), so high collar options like turtlenecks tend not to work. Saggy or wispy fabric can let you down as well. The safest choice is a buttoned shirt or t-shirt. I imagine the Elizabethan ruff is among an A/V crew’s worst nightmares.

A/V crews have nightmares in which you turn up dressed like this and then tell them it’s their fault their mics don’t work with your outfit. You’re the costume designer, design smartly so your gear works with standard kit.

Alternatively, ask for a headset mic, which is like a lav mic that works with all collars (no need to practice) and has the bonus of tousling your hair. Bring a comb!

Mistake 4: Sweaty fabric. Some fabrics show wetness remarkably well. Grey cotton t-shirts are pretty much designed to be a trap. Instead of relying on not sweating when the room is heated to a million degrees, check how the garment holds up when you pour a few drops of water on it.

Mistake 5: Not planning to be seated. Always check you like the look of your garment in its seated form and that sitting doesn’t uncover parts of you that your personal brand prefers covered. When it comes to trousers, don’t forget that they will reveal your mismatched socks when you sit. Have a seat in front of the mirror before stepping out.

Mistake 6: Forgetting air conditioning. When you’re cold, your body language says you’re nervous. It’s important to bring something warm along even when presenting in tropical places.

Equipment you must bring

Watch: Have a digital watch in case the conference’s clock isn’t working. A professional speaker ends their talk on time.

Clicker: Bring your own clicker to advance your slides. You’re a grownup now, please don’t advance your slides by pressing the arrow keys on your laptop.

Laptop and charger: Even if you’ve sent in your slides. Be disaster-proof.

Speaker emergency kit: Keep a packed kit with a threaded needle, nasal decongestant, throat lozenges, headache pills, band-aids, and whatever other things (medical/hygiene/beauty supplies, props, snacks for blood-sugar) help disaster-proof you. A friend tried to sneak magnesium fire starters into mine once. What are friends for, right?

Equipment you might need

Mic belt / armband / lanyard: Since you — not the conference — are responsible for your costume design, ensure your costume works with standard hardware. Your outfit must have a place to clip the heavy lavalier mic battery pack. If it doesn’t, fix that by adding something like a mic belt.

Water bottle: If your mouth ever goes dry, bring water on stage with you.

Display adaptor: It’s nice not to have to be at the mercy of the conference having whatever obscure widget is needed to get your particular laptop to talk to their projector. I like to be prepared.

Makeup

Stage lighting is a real thing. If you’re giving a talk on a big, custom-lit stage, you need to think about makeup. If you usually wear it, apply it on the more intense side since it always looks less bold on camera and stage. If you don’t typically opt for makeup, consider powder and blush on stage if you don’t want to look washed out.

Take lessons

There is such a thing as speech coaching, and chances are that if you’re admiring a talented speaker, they’ve had lessons. Voice, pronunciation, pace, gestures, body language, and delivery can all be improved with practice. If you’re getting serious about a public-speaking career, invest in a professional speech coach.

Warm up

Speech coaches will tell you to run through a series of power poses (e.g. arms out like a star!), tongue twisters (e.g. “You know you need unique New York.”) and facial muscle warmups (e.g. squeak like a mouse then roar like a lion, repeat) designed to simulate smiling/laughing. This is good advice, so listen to them, don’t listen to me, since I do this once every… never. (Don’t tell my coaches!)

I do warm up, though, but I do it by talking to a few people guaranteed to make me feel cheerful. They’re my secret weapon. (Thanks, guys!) Sometimes they’re out of my timezone, though, so I sing along to a cheerful playlist and watch something on YouTube that puts me in the right zone.

Don’t ask me why, but rewatching James Veitch’s comedy works like a charm for me… or maybe it’s my ritual hexpresso kicking in? Which reminds me: have rituals!

Stay in the zone

Under no circumstances should you let your first words after a grumpy interaction (or waking up) be on stage. One of the worst talks I ever gave happened when I took the stage after a charlatan. Full of righteous fury at his butchery of machine learning, I was so distracted that I proceeded to bomb my own talk.

Now I make a point of not listening until it’s my turn to walk on. I stick to my rituals. If I have to be in the room, I’m skulking in a corner listening to music in my barely visible headphones.

Don’t cut time between talks so fine that you can’t take a moment to get back in the zone if you’re ambushed by one of life’s lemons on the way. Take the time to warm up!

Audience size

For me, each of these room sizes was special when I experienced it for the first time:

20 — Most of us experience this as kids and the first time it happens, we’re terrified. I stared at my shoes and mumble-read my little speech about cinnamon from a script I clutched in shaky hands.

50 — Getting used to this one feels like the milestone between thinking of yourself as wobbly versus confident.

100 — This tends to be a scary milestone for grownups. For me, it was the hardest one. I couldn’t sleep the night before. It might help you to find two smiley faces in the crowd: one in the first three rows center, one in the back of the room. Ignore the others and move your gaze between these two. It’ll look fine to everyone else and you might feel more relaxed.

200 — The first time I used a mic out of necessity rather than choice. You’ll notice the equipment requirements changing rapidly between 100 and 200.

500 — The first room that felt “significant” to me after a staple diet of 100–300 person gigs.

1000 — Just kidding. The lights are a bit different, but it doesn’t feel like anything new if you’re used to 500.

3000 — Anything bigger than 3000 means the lighting probably makes it very difficult to see your audience’s faces. They’re not even looking at you, they’re looking at the big screens with your face on them. You’d think a number like 5000 is scarier than 500, but actually you feel almost alone in the room because it’s hard to see individual faces and connect with them. The trick here is to do your best even if you’re missing the audience feedback you’re used to.

Practice makes perfect

No professional speaker would skip rehearsing. In fact, my mentor has a name for speaking after two dry runs: “winging it.”

Intentionally rehearsing gestures is a good idea — simply set your phone camera to video mode during a dry run, then watch. Sometimes I record my script and mime gestures (gestures always were a particular weak spot of mine). Hate watching yourself or listening to your own voice? I did too, and then I forced myself to get better. Besides, if the mics are set loud enough, you’ll hear that voice you’re uncomfortable with during the talk. Get comfy in advance!

In addition to practicing your lines, ask to visit the space and play with the equipment so there are no surprises. Try to get your slides clicked through before you present.

Hope you found that useful, new speakers. It’s really not too mysterious — just remember it’s theatre and you’re cast in your personal brand. Stay true to that and have the practical details ironed out, then all will go swimmingly.

Good luck, thespians. Break a leg!