Why hats and iPads are speaking mistakes

I spoke at TEDXDepaul last month and it was a fantastic event. The organizers Daniel Gurevich and Matt Helbig did a fine job from a speaker’s perspective. They chose a great venue, sold every ticket, paid for good A/V, the stage was well lit, and they had a great roster of other speakers (you can read my notes on all of the talks from the day here).

But there’s only so much organizers can do: speakers have to do the heavy lifting of good material and delivery.

Tactical mistakes are annoyances. If the material and delivery are good, people will overlook these problems. But a good speaker wants as few distractions from their ideas as possible. There were two tactical mistakes speaker’s made at TedXDepaul worth reporting.

If you hold a device, it creates glare that moves.

Marcy  Capron of Polymathic chose to use an iPad for her notes. There’s nothing wrong with notes themselves, or iPads, but in this case the stage lights reflected off her iPad onto the screen and walls behind her. And every time she adjusted the iPad, those glare spots moved around. It’s hard not to be distracted by bright things that move on a large screen.

If you plan to have a device on stage, ask for a run through with the stage lights on to check for anything unusual. If there are glare issues, most venues can provide a lectern to place your device on, eliminating this problem.


Don’t wear a hat.

Doug Zell of Intelligensia Coffee arrived late, and joked about it, which bothered me all on its own. The primary commitment every attendee and speaker have made is their time, and it’s a sign of great disrespect to be late, much less to joke about it (Apparently he was in a bike race earlier in the day, and would have entirely missed his speaking slot if the event wasn’t running late).  He  had a cavalier attitude about the whole thing which rubbed me the wrong way. His talk on branding was good (notes here), but he crossed the line for me on professionalism. You must show your hosts, fellow speakers and audience respect. He was the closing speaker and hadn’t seen a single talk for the entire event.

The specific tactical mistake he made was keeping his biking hat on. As you can see here, wearing a hat on stage puts a speaker’s eyes into shadow. Eyes are the most important part of the face to connect with, and a hat hides them. Good lighting amplifies the problem, as it casts the rest of a person’s body into good primary light.


If you’re looking for a pre-speaking rundown of things to do and avoid, here’s my handy checklist for speakers.

7 Responses to “Why hats and iPads are speaking mistakes”

  1. liz

    that’s a good post. do a run thru with the equipment, wouldn’t have thunk about checking for glares and reflections. incompatible cables of microphones and projectors and whatnot are often an issue at conferences. check all from the audience’s perspective, good idea.

  2. Scott Confe

    Agreed. Actually he seemed to violate one principle of his talk, I think it was authenticity. The hat and biking aspect seemed like a bit contrived.

  3. Phil Simon

    You have to question the commitment of any speaker who has something has time-consuming scheduled on the same day as the event.

  4. Mike Nitabach

    That guy sounds like a self-involved entitled douchebag.

  5. Sean Crawford

    I read once that the term “fashionably late” came from the people who were fashion leaders were the cool ones with lots on the go so that they often couldn’t help being late… Then I guess others tried to imitate being late, as a false way of being cool.

    If in some alternate universe I am important enough to be a main speaker for a day or weekend conference, then I have decided in advance that I will not accept the invitation to speak unless I can also attend the whole thing.

    I once attended such a thing where the main speaker, whose name you might recognize, “parachuted in” for his speech. The speech was real good, and I know he was real busy, but still: I felt irritated and hurt that he didn’t like us enough to share our whole event.

  6. Marcy

    Indeed, my biggest regret from my ipad-as-teleprompter experiment (as I like talking & writing but not “speaking”, so ipad-as-compromise) was a) not putting a matte protector on it, b) not pushing harder for something to set it on from the organizers, c) not having slides behind me. I would’ve relied less on the ipad if I’d had slides, the glare would’ve been a non-issue, and I think the talk would’ve been easier to understand. So, lessons learned, as traditional lectures are more my style I suppose.

    I see from your full-conference-notes that you missed my talk but if you get a chance to watch the video, I think you’ll find parts of it amusing.

    Thanks for the shotout of sorts :).

    1. Scott

      Hi Marcy: Hey – thanks for commenting here. Part of what was unusual was the professional lighting set up TEDxDepaul had – at most events it wouldn’t have been a problem at all, as there’s rarely that much direct lighting on speakers. My guess was you’d used the iPad before and had no problems. In your case it wasn’t a major issue, but it was a distraction worthy of calling out for future speakers considering iPads as their speaking companions.

      Organizers have so much to do as it is, but it’s always advisable for them to ask speakers to do a quick walkthrough on stage with full lights on, just as a last pass to catch any kinks or issues. And of course, it’s equally advisable for us speakers to ask for the same. But there’s often so much going on in the hours before and during an event, that it’s easily to overlook.


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