Speaking at a conference…

By Alastair Grant

The conference season is here. We are already seeing plenty of speeches from the Democrats and Republicans, and two UK political party conferences have now happened, the Liberal Democrats and the Labour parties. The Conservatives are now having theirs. Much analysis is going on.

Now let’s suppose that you have been asked to speak at a business conference. Quite flattering maybe, or maybe quite daunting. But you are not a politician and you do not have speechwriters and PR support to help you through.

You may well have contrasting reactions. First pleasure and second panic. You are too busy. Better to refuse; you have enough hassle in your life already. But wait a minute, speaking at a conference will raise the visibility of your product, your company and yourself. OK, you accept!

A good decision, but by the way, most presenters at such conferences tend to produce a lacklustre performance.

Here are some ideas that can transform your performance from possible lacklustre into being one of the best.

To Start:

1. Consider the likely audience:
Does their subject knowledge vary?
What’s their attitude?
What are other speakers talking about?

It would be good not to overlap too much, but also to link your ideas with some others if you know what is being said. You may need to find out. Remember your points should be of interest to them and not as a platform for you to speak about what interests you.

2. What do you want your audience to remember about what you said?

Imagine you can overhear delegates chatting about your talk at the coffee break. What key points would you hope they would alight on? Put another way, what would be the essential points you want to get over? Imagine you only had 30 seconds – what would be the key message? You decide.

3. How are you going to prompt yourself?

The options are: read verbatim from a script, use notes, rely on memory (i.e. ad lib), or as most do, use your slides as a prompt. All options are possible, although ad lib is high risk and using slides as prompts means a continuous flow of slides, with you making the odd comment. It’s a safe option but the result is often mediocre.

Typically, we encourage our clients to start and end their presentations with no slides at all. It’s a good compromise. This guarantees that the audience will not be distracted or diverted. You could use notes written alongside a paper copy of any slides that you might use. Three slides on the left side of a page with notes written to the right works well.

4. Delivery.

The popular author, John Grisham, giving a conference speech. Possibly telling us about the big fish he caught.

The popular author, John Grisham, giving a conference speech. Possibly telling us about the big fish he caught.

Be engagingly conversational – hold eye contact at the end of each key phrase or idea. Stick to your notes and watch out for nerves – it’s good to have them, but as you rehearse imagine the audience leaning forward fascinated by what you are saying.

5. Structure.

People at conferences can get numbed by too much detail. Don’t say too much. If you are given 30 minutes, deliberately under run – no one will be upset.

These headings can help shape an overall structure:

  • An attention grabber to entice the audience to listen
  • The current position of the market
  • Challenges
  • Ideas to meet challenges
  • Finish – summary. A vision, the way ahead.

6. Abstraction.

Avoid it! Instead, give a number of pungent contrasting examples to back up your main points.

Those who are technically challenged may not grasp the complex detail, but will understand images – and remember it later.

A series of mini-summaries en route will help people to get back on board.

7. Endings.

Summarise your story – people will listen, as they don’t want to look idiots asking a question which shows they had not been listening.

But then go further: End on a call to action, or a forward-looking aspiration or concern. This puts the full stop neatly in place where people often just fizzle out.

8. Logistics.

Finally, try to anticipate Murphy’s law. Assume that something doesn’t work – the PowerPoint fails, or you cannot see the venue beforehand. Have a plan B.

Enjoy it!

The audience paying rapt attention to the speaker at a conference.

The audience paying rapt attention to the speaker at a conference.


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