To follow up on my open letter to conference organizers, here’s an open letter for speakers.
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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
[Minor edits: July 17, 2017, Sept. 26, 2019]