An Open Letter To Speakers

To follow up on my open letter to conference organizers, here’s an open letter for speakers.

Dear Speaker:

Most presentations aren’t very good. There is a reason that “to lecture someone” is meant as an insult. And since events consist of people giving presentations, who is responsible for boring events? It’s the speakers.

Most organizers know that most speakers don’t do a very good job. They’re aware of the common mistakes speakers make every year. But what are they to do?

They’re busy and rarely have the gumption to critique their speakers, or to provide coaching for new speakers, so many people who speak at events  repeat the same mistakes.  And speakers confuse polite applause with true appreciation for a job well done, which means many speakers finish their talk with a distorted sense of how good or bad they are.

Here is what you need to know.

  1. Serve the audience. You’re providing a service to the audience, not to yourself. The audience is there because they want to a) learn, b) get inspired or at least c) be entertained. Whatever your topic, find the 5 most pressing questions the audience has about it and answer them. If the audience leaves with 5 solid answers to their 5 biggest questions, they’ll be very happy, even if you have mediocre charisma and didn’t make them laugh. This simple premise often explains the best-received talks at any event. Ask the organizer for job title breakdowns, age ranges, and other demographics about who you are speaking to. Ask for the full schedule so you know what talks are before and after yours, so you can adjust your material accordingly.
  2. End early. Practice so you know how long those slides actually take, since a slide is not a unit of time. Plan to leave time so people can get to their next session early, beat traffic or the crowds at the lunch lines. Stick around in the lobby or chat room so people who want more can get it from you (provided there isn’t another speaker right after you. In which case, get out of their way).
  3. You are not Bono or Beyonce. It is an honor to be invited to speak somewhere, but you’re not a rock-star. There are likely other speakers and the organizers have to attend to their needs as well as yours. Even if you are keynoting, it’s not your event (unlike a U2 concert). You are an invited guest. Treat the hosts, speakers and other guests with respect. If you have a long list of requests, prioritize them and the make the requests early. Some speakers have large egos, and often it gets in everyone’s way, especially the audience’s.
  4. Your mistakes are YOURS. When on a stage, you are a performer: professional performers don’t blame their tools. If your laptop flakes out, or your movie won’t play, you are responsible (at least as far as the audience is concerned). If you have special needs, say a laser light show or dancing bears, let the organizers know early and ask for a rehearsal. If you can’t get one, simplify your plan. If at the rehearsal the tech guy is high on drugs, or the organizer seems overwhelmed, simplify. It’s your show and you will be judged regardless of where you point fingers. Practice and prepare accordingly. Have a simple 5/10 minute fallback version of your talk you can do even if the there’s no electricity. Even the worst speaking situations can be handled if you are prepared.
  5. Drop your bio – you are already credible. If you are on a stage the organizers have granted you more credibility than nearly anyone else at the event. And 95% of the time your bio is on the event website. The audience can get it if they want it, right there, on their phone, at any time. If you must, 30 seconds is enough time to say your name, profession, and why you care about the topic. Anything more is likely wasting their time (See How To Write A Good Bio). Let your host introduce you, as they can provide social proof you can’t.
  6. Being nervous is normal and can be managed. Our bodies respond with fear to being in front of crowds. It’s ok. Even experienced speakers and performers get nervous. But there are things you can to do minimize and compensate for this particular kind of fear. If you practice, get exercise the day before, and arrive early to the room, you’ll cut down your fears dramatically.  See Attack of The Butterflies for a run-down on the science and practice of managing speaking fears.
  7. There is nothing inspiring about winging it. If you paid $100 to see a Broadway musical, would you want to see the actors and musicians making it up as they went along? You’d call them unprofessional. It’s not only disrespectful to fail to prepare, your gamble is likely obvious to everyone in the room.  Why speak if you’re only going to do it half-assed? Say no instead.  All good speakers practice more than you think. Their carefree vibe is the result of hard-work, not the lack of it.
  8. Honor your commitments. The dog did not eat your homework, nor your slide deck. The organizers know all the excuses and they’re embarrassed for you that you need to make them up. If you are a professional, treat your deadlines professionally. If you need more time ask for it advance, not a day after the deadline has passed. Don’t double book and bail last minute as it’s a sure-fire way to never be invited back again.
  9. The organizers have more power than you think – treat them well. Event organizers are often producers of the show – meaning they can make speakers look very good or very bad. Be nice to them. Make it easy for them to help you.  In a pinch, they are the only people who can find the tech guy, fix the lights, or a thousand other little things you won’t realize you need until the last minute.
  10. Get there early.  You can learn much from watching the speaker before you. What is the energy like? How filled is the room? More important perhaps, organizers need to see you and know you’re OK. They have many things to worry about, why make them worry about you? Get their cell # and send a text when you arrive or if you are running late.  And stay around after your talk. People will want to ask you questions, and often you’ll learn insights that will make your talk better next time.
  11. Be smart with your slides.  Make them simpler. Always simpler. Avoid small fonts: no one can read them (in rehearsal, put up your most text-heavy slide and walk to the back of the room. Can you read them?) Avoid dense slides (or go without them entirely) – no one will understand them anyway. If you insist on dense, complex slides, put them online before your talk so people can choose to follow along. Reading off a screen is much harder than you think, doubly-so if someone is lecturing at the same time.
  12. Put your contact info up twice: at the beginning and at the end. In large type. And leave it up long enough for people to copy it. You want people to contact you. They will tell you about typos, references, stories and books that you will find interesting. If they found your work valuable your contact info lets them recommend your work to others. It’s one of the payoffs for all the work you put in.
  13. Honest feedback is hard to find. If you are not very good, audiences are unlikely to boo you off the stage for fear of appearing rude. And after you finish, few people are mean enough to seek you out in the hallway just to tell you of your incompetence. Most speakers confuse polite applause, and respect for being brave enough to get on stage, for true appreciation of a job well done. Organizers have little reason to go out of their way to inform you of your bad habits: they’ll simply not invite you back. If someone says “good job” respond with “Thank you. What could make it better?” which establishes a positive frame for suggestions.
  14. Use this Checklist For Great Talks.  There are many little things to do, and they’re easy to forget. Work from a simple checklist to help you prepare, perform and follow-up after your talk.

If you enjoyed this, you’ll like An Open Letter to Conference Organizers. Or my bestselling book, Confessions of a Public Speaker.

[Minor edits: July 17, 2017, Sept. 26, 2019]

34 Responses to “An Open Letter To Speakers”

  1. Chris Houchens / Marketing Speaker

    #3 should be a mandatory rule for all events. I’ve seen speakers waste half their allotted time giving a history from the beginning of time to the present moment. No one care about the speakers’ bios. If they do, they’ll check the program. Or let people track you down. (from your point #13)

    This is a great post. Thanks.

  2. Dave Van de Walle

    This is so awesome it deserves a comment. Top to bottom, a great list.

    One thing I add – this is a personal viewpoint and controversial – take the number of people expected to be in the room, multiply it by $50 (the average hourly rate of attendees). That is the value of your speech.

    So many speakers think of the speaking opportunity from strictly their own bottom line. If you reverse this and think about the value you need to bring to the attendees, you prepare more. (IMHO.)

    Again, great stuff.

  3. Brian Kennemer

    Great set of posts. PLEASE tell me that there is a 3rd open letter coming addressed to conference attendees. As on target all your points have been about organizers and speakers there are some that attendees need as well.
    1. Shut up and listen
    2. If you missed an entire section because you were reading your email then dont ask to have it repeated.
    3. evaluations that are all 10s or all 1s is just lazy.
    4. If you are going to rake someone over the coals in the eval, at least say why. A 3 with no comment is pointless.
    5. If it is a technical conference dont ask the presenter to troubleshoot your broken network from the podium.
    6. You might think it is clever to ambush someone with a public callout from the mic (asking Balmer why Product X does not do Y yet) but remember that everyone that is not clapping thinks you are a huge jackass.

  4. Livia Labate

    Good stuff Scott, thanks. I just wrote about my latest experience and what I learned from delivering one of my worst presentations to date:

    It’s interesting that even though I know a lot of these things, I will take some unnecessary risks. It’s sloppy and should not happen; it’s something I am trying to be more mindful of.

  5. Stephen Lead

    This post should be mandatory reading for every presenter. Spot on, as usual.

  6. Mick Collins

    Scott – Great post; I will send to my colleagues as a primer on delivering an effective presentation.

    A twist on #3 is speakers that spend 8 slides describing their company – its brands, history, products, mission, etc. I’ve seen this take up to half the presentation to get through!

    Speakers should provide a 30 second overview of the company but tailor it to the material being covered. For example, explaining that the firm has a decentralized business model if the subsequent presentation will cover global/local brand management.

    1. Quentin Whitehead

      Excellent post! Really and truly put things in prospective as speakers / performers. Thanks for this great information!

  7. Jen Cardello

    This is a fabulous list! One thing I thought of this week while attending a conference was that, many times, speakers don’t deliver on their catchy presentation titles and, oftentimes, users don’t fully read descriptions. Reco: Use a title that accurately reflects the audience benefit and/or contents of your talk.

  8. Michael L Perry

    I’m going to print this list and post it on my wall as I prepare for my next talk.

    Here’s a tip. Go buy a cheap video recorder and practice your entire talk. You’ll feel like a fool talking to yourself for an hour, but it will give you an incredible amount of insight.

  9. Jeff Yalden

    From another CSP . . . This was excellent! Thanks for posting. Great!
    Jeff Yalden

  10. Miki Collier

    Wow! Great information. A lot of it, publicly I’m all ready doing. I teach and minister weekly, yet I’m taking my gift and calling to the business sector as I love to empower people to become their very best. I’m working on my online visual as I teach myself and learn from others. Thank You again. I will continue to follow your blog as it is a wealth of information.

  11. Lois Creamer

    Great job Scott! Every new speaker should read this, and vets cam use it as a reminder on how to always put your best foot forward. If you want repeat and referral business, do all off the above!

  12. Manish Chhabra

    I definitely believe that there are charismatic speakers and people with low or no charisma.

    Even if charismatic speakers are under prepared, their voice pitch, their tone and interactions with the audience wins the game for them. I would usually come out feeling of content and enjoyed.

    On the other hand people with low charisma, they really need good content to back them up and deliver the knowledge. Again I would come out content but may be not enjoyed.

    And before I finish, thanks Scott for a great post.

  13. Manish Chhabra

    I would like to add to my previous comment, that your post will help the speakers present their content in a charismatic way.

    Manish Chhabra

  14. thom singer

    Amen. My mantra is “Just because someone is smart or has done something cool- it does NOT mean they belong on the stage”. Too many speakers think that it is okay to just present some good facts and statistics without regards to any elements of style as a speaker. Speaking is a learned skill and if you plan to take the stage you owe it to everyone (audience, organizer and yourself) to do a great job.

  15. Mike Nitabach

    Excellent post!

    End early.

    This should be number one in the list. No matter how outstanding the content of your presentation, if you go long, the organizers and audience will *HATE* you, and all they will remember about your talk FOREVER is that you are a total asshole for going long.

    Even if charismatic speakers are under prepared, their voice pitch, their tone and interactions with the audience wins the game for them. I would usually come out feeling of content and enjoyed.

    This is very true. I once delivered a highly technical talk to a technical audience, but with a non-technical administrative staff member also present. Afterwards, this staff member told me that she really enjoyed my talk and found it emotionally gripping, even though she hadn’t the slightest understanding of what I was talking about.

  16. J. B. Rainsberger

    I absolutely love how simply you’ve written this. I like to think I do a good job as a speaker. I know I used to do an absolutely dreadful job. I feel good that your list overlaps mine which I wrote after making all these mistakes in the same presentation. :) I fell awfully nervous about recording myself, though, because I don’t want to break the illusion of being good. :) (I will do it, but I’ll really hate doing it.)

  17. Llewellyn falco

    Practice. My rule is “no new talks at national/international conferences”
    User groups and code camps are a great place to try out new talks. Personally I like to do 4-5 iterations before a national conference, but even if you can’t get booked at a user group, an audience is an audience. Grab 3-4 friends and do a rehearsal.

  18. Theresa Behenna

    Excellent article although I have several colleagues who would argue your point about practicing. They think it sounds rehearsed. I am in the small ratio of speakers that practices more than 15 times. It gives me the freedom to use spontaneous wit and have more fun with the audience.

    Thanks for the ‘no frills’ reminders of how to do this crazy business well!

  19. Gilles

    Well, what kind of conferences have you been attending before to be so rude with the speakers ?

  20. Michael E. Rubin

    As a former conference organizer, I could not agree more with this list. From top to bottom, it’s absolutely 10,000% spot-on. Well done!

    I would only add this:

    15. Leave time for Q&A. I know this is very difficult, but you have to involve the audience somehow. They didn’t pay $1495 just to hear you drone on. Leave enough time for Q&A and you’ll become a very popular speaker.

  21. Youth Speaker Laymon Hicks

    Scott, thanks for the valuable post and thanks for the link to the speaker’s checklist. I can remember speaking at an event this past spring and the client sharing with me her frustration with the speaker before me because they had the Bono mentality and chose to arrive later than stated. It is definitely something we, as speakers, need to be reminded of–remove our ego out the way!

  22. Dennard Mitchell

    This is great advice for new and experienced speakers. This is a reminder for me not to get to comfortable that I stop paying attention to these important details. Speaking tips 101. Thanks for the post!

  23. Lalo Martins

    One thing I’d add. If your *entire* talk is about your life or your startup (might sound absurd but happens a lot on local user groups where organisers don’t have that much time and resources to screen talks), don’t bother. Chances are nobody cares — unless it’s a pitch event. We call those “vanity talks” and all they’re good for is making people cringe. It doesn’t make you look good or get you job leads, it just makes you look like a douche; or in the case of a startup, it doesn’t get potential customers or employees to become interested, it just predisposes them against you for wasting their time.

    Giving a talk is not a bad way to promote yourself or your company; *as long as* the talk is not about you or your company. Rather, you want to present a talk about something you excel at, and then have your contact info in the beginning and end, your logo or twitter username on every slide.



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