What I’ve learned about public speaking
I’m not a natural public speaker.
I wasn’t part of the school debate team.
(It was a rough school, and the closest we got to debating was shouting expletives across the playground.)
Acting wasn’t my thing.
(I did play Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz when I was six, but the reviews were poor.)
I had a brief stint as a radio DJ while at uni.
(But let’s just say I was a little burry when presenting, so I don’t remember much.)
And while working in advertising I was dragged reluctantly to pitching sessions.
(The Account Managers always did most of the talking, and rarely let us creatives get a word in edgeways.)
The answer seemed obvious: Public speaking.
I needed to get my plump little bottom on the speaker circuit and use it to promote all my business babies.
Not my first speaking rodeo
While I’d run a number of SEO workshops back in the day, I’d never spoken at a conference before.
But then I got my first big speaky break by scoring a brief spot on the ProBlogger stage.
I spoke about SEO – quite irreverently – and the feedback was pretty awesome.
People even asked for selfies afterwards in the loo (the ultimate accolade).
I’m eternally grateful to Darren Rowse for the opp, not least because I also met my business bestie there – Loren Bartley.
That first speaking thing gave me the buzz.
I could do this.
Last year I spoke at CopyCon (my own conference), Big Digital and WordCamp.
But I decided 2018 would be the year I’d grab speaking by the wiggly bits and go for it.
And so I did.
In the past year I’ve spoken at big conferences, my own events, local meet ups, dinners and casual soirees.
I’ve meet oodles of people, been hugged more times than I can count, and learned a few things along the way. Well more than a few.
I feel I can really add some value around what makes a good speaker and how to get the most out of speaking at an event.
And that’s what I want to share in this post.
1. Go with a goal
If you’re going to speak at an event be very clear about your “Why?” What do you want to get out of it?
The main reasons would be:
- To reach a new audience and build your brand.
- To reach an audience in real life that you’ve only interacted with online.
- To boost your profile and kudos by associating yourself with a conference brand.
- To promote a new product or service (see point 2 below).
- Because you need a night away from your son, husband and dog, and want to stay in a place that has crisp white hotel sheets where no-one is demanding toast and you don’t have to clean the loo.
These reasons are all perfectly valid. Just be clear on why you’re going.
2. Go with an offer
Most good conferences these days are pitch free.
But it’s kind of a given (especially if you’re not being paid – see point 8) that you can at the very least promote an offer at the end of your presentation.
So make sure you have something mapped out, such as:
- A free 15-minute consult for audience attendees.
- A special discount code on your products or services.
- A Facebook group they can join.
- A checklist they can sign up to via your email opt-in.
If people love you they’ll want to take the next step. Make it easy for them.
3. You’ve got to be in it to win it
I know it sounds obvious, but to speak at an event you’ve actually got to apply for it.
Yes, occasionally people approach me direct.
But most of the time I fill out the speaker pitch just like everyone else.
I also think it helps to get to know the organiser if you can. Follow their socials.
Fluff them a little so when you’re pitch comes through they’re more likely to react with “Oooh, it’s her” than “Who the hell is this?”
I recently applied to YoastCon in the Netherlands, thinking I didn’t have a bat in hell’s chance of getting to speak there. Guess what? I did. The Netherlands here I come.
4. Pitching is an art
When you’re pitching to speak, you obviously want to present your best self. But in reality – and I speak from a conference organiser point of view – it’s not about you. It’s about what you can offer the audience.
Here are a few tips:
- Take time to study the event: What topics have been covered before?
- Consider the audience: So many pitches for CopyCon19 were totally unsuitable for a room full of copywriters. I didn’t feel like those submitting had taken the time to tailor their pitch at all.
- Write a catchy presentation headline: Headline generation tools can be great for this. Save the organiser the job of having to write a salesy title.
- Outline the contents of your presentation: Use the features and benefits structure – what you’re going to say and why the audience will care.
- Emphasise the positives: Be super clear on the take-outs and learnings the audience will leave with.
And it goes without saying that it should be typo-free.
If possible, submit two or three different pitch ideas. This covers your bottom if someone with a higher profile than you has submitted a talk on the same topic.
5. Remember: Bios matter
Take time to craft a decent bio that really highlights your good bits. Conference organisers are looking for evidence that you’re a subject matter expert. Things that help include:
- Awards and recognition: Have you bagged an award for what you do? Mention it.
- Featured in: If you’ve appeared on podcast or in other media, include the names in your bio.
- Videos: If you have a YouTube channel or a show reel, include a link. If the organiser can see you confidently presenting on stage, they’ll be more likely to choose you.
- Be quirky: Show some personality. So many speaker applications are dryer than a parched possum. Lots of people can talk about a given topic, but it’s often not what you say but how you say it.
6. Remember: Photos matter
That badly cropped photo of you at your cousin Tony’s wedding won’t cut it.
You need professional headshots.
if you don’t have any I wouldn’t even apply.
It looks amateurish.
7. Be the organisers best friend
I know from experience that running an event is super time consuming, fiddly and at times stressful. So help the organiser out where you can:
- Hit all the deadlines they give you: Don’t be the person sending your presentation the night before the event
- Read their emails properly: They want your PowerPoint slides to have a 16:9 ratio? Do it. They want you there for a sound check 15 minutes before? Be there.
- Help promote the event: Share the event with your people. You’ll not only build a warm audience in the room, but also make the event organiser eternally grateful.
8. Accept that it’s not all about the money, honey
If you’re getting into speaking hoping you’ll earn the big bucks, think again.
Unless you’re super well known or speaking at more corporate events, you’re unlikely to be paid for your speaking time.
I’ve had some events pay me a fee. Some have offered hotels accommodation and/or flights.
But most don’t pay.
And speaking at events costs you money – the time to get there, the loss of earnings, the time to prepare the presentation. So it’s not something all business owners can afford.
That’s not to say I haven’t made money from speaking at events, because of course I win new customers. But so far the ROI hasn’t been as direct as you might think.
9. Keep your presentation simple
I’ve seen countless presentations this year, and I’d say 80% of them have been death by PowerPoint.Let me make a few things clear:
- You are not there to impart every morsel of knowledge you know on a topic.
- Filling a slide with 14 bullets of full sentence copy isn’t enjoyable for the audience.
- It is never acceptable to read the words directly from your slides.
- It’s likely the audience will remember only two or three major points from your presentation. And that’s okay.
I find simple image-based slides with minimal text works best. I also recommend including:
- Your branding on every slide.
- Your Instagram or Twitter handle on each slide.
- A brand hashtag on each slide.
(Bonus tip: Offer an incentive to the person who shares the most content or photos from your presentation using the hashtag to get extra social love.)
- A nice outro slide with your offer (see point 2) on it so as you’re saying your goodbyes it’s up on the screen and working for you.
Don’t use your presentation as cheat sheet to remember what you need to say.
Instead use it to entertain, intrigue and inform your audience.
10. Make sure you rehearse
Even though I know my topic well, in my early days of presenting I often felt I was stumbling through what I had to say.
Nervous, I’d forget an important point as I desperately tried to cover every last little thing.
But remember: the audience doesn’t know what you’re going to say. So if you miss something they won’t know.
I’ve learnt rehearsal is everything. It leaves you feeling more confident about your slides, your timing and your audience interaction.
(There’s nothing worse than a presenter shuffling through their notes.)
- Write up a full bullet list script for each slide.
- Read the script out and time yourself (then edit).
- Read it again and record yourself.
- Listen to the recording in the days running up to the event (in the bath, walking the dog etc.)
- Do not practise again on the day of the event. Trust that you’ll do your best.
11. Step away from the lectern
Don’t spend the entire presentation clutching the lectern like Kate Winslet clutching that floating bit of wood at the end of Titanic.
You have a whole stage to use. Use it.
Walk around, pause for emphasis, crouch, leap, dance.
Remember that a presentation is a performance. Yes, people are there to be informed. But they also want to be entertained.
Without the entertainment factor they may as well listen to a podcast or read a blog to grab the information you’re spouting.
12. Find a friendly face
One of the big things I’ve noticed about crowds watching a preso is they look as grumpy as hell.
Why? Do they hate what you’re saying?
No, they’re in concentration mode. And most people’s concentration face – like their orgasm face – ain’t pretty.
So when you’re waiting to go up on stage, check out the crowd.
Look for someone directly in front of you who has an open smiley face.
You could even ask someone beforehand to be a smiley person for you.
Having that one smiley face in the audience really helps you focus and stay on track.
13. Avoid the ums and errs
After thousands of hours of podcast recording, I’ve learned how to eradicate the ums and errs from my presentations.
These ums happen because your brain is ‘buffering’ – searching for the next thing it wants to say. You use the um to cover that buffer.
The solution to this is super simple.
Stop talking. Take a breath. Leave a pause. Allow some white space.
The goal of a good speaker isn’t to fill every living minute with words, but to say only what needs to be said.
Pauses add emphasis. Pauses allow points to sink in.
(And they let your brain catch the eff up and remember what comes next.)
14. Accept that you won’t know everything
No matter how smart you are, the collective knowledge in the room will be larger than your own. Someone will have read an article you haven’t. Someone will have tested a thing you’ve never heard of.
That’s okay. You’re there to present your perspective and your experience, not be an all-seeing, all-knowing orb of knowledge.
If someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, have some stock responses ready:
“That’s an interesting point Bob. How about we chat about that after the presentation.”
“What’s a great question Sue. I’d love to take some time to think about that and get back to you.”
Or a simple:
“Great question Alan. I’m not 100% sure of the answer, but I’m more than happy to do some research and connect with you to share it.”
It’s not about knowing everything.
It’s about being confident enough to admit you’re only human.
15. Handle the hecklers with grace
It’s only happened a few times. But yes, I’ve been heckled.
That person who says your information is incorrect.
That person who just doesn’t like what you’re saying.
Again, it’s important to be prepared for this. Don’t get defensive, angry or upset.
Simply acknowledge their viewpoint and try to move on. Don’t let it throw your presentation.
Again, stock responses can help:
“Interesting perspective Barry. Rather than go into it now, I’ll finish the presentation and we can discuss it afterwards, okay?”
“I’m always open to new ideas and perspectives Barbara. Let’s chat about it after I’m done.”
16. Take your own bits
I’ve turned up to some events that have more AV equipment than Pink’s roadie team.
But at others, there’s been nothing more than a dried-up whiteboard marker.
I recommend being prepared and taking:
- Your own laptop with your presentation loaded.
- A selection of HDMI cables.
- Your presentation on a USB key.
- Your own clicker (it’s so annoying having to hover at your preso just so you can click the forward button).
- Whiteboard pens and eraser.
- Water and mints.
Also, be super confident about turning your presentation to presentation mode, making it full-screen, etc.
Don’t assume the event organiser can do it for you.
17. Make a comeback
If the presentation goes well and you love the event, follow up with the organiser and let them know you’re keen to come back.
While many events want fresh faces each year, others will be grateful to have a known quantity they can trust to be awesome.
18. Get the assets
Most conferences and events will take professional photos of you and likely video your session.
Ask for these assets so you can add them to your website and showreel.
And don’t forget to nab their logo so you can add it to your ‘AS SEEN AT” panel on your homepage or wherever.
I also recommend asking the event owner for a testimonial you can use on your speaker page. It’s more social proof that will make getting your next speaker gig easier.
19. Mingle like a mofo
The truth is, most of the benefit of attending events doesn’t come from your 30 minutes on stage. It comes from the eight or so hours you spend at the event.
It’s all about the mingling, baby.
So get amongst the crowd. You have the added bonus/kudos of being a speaker and being recognisable. Use that.
Talk to people, hand out your card, ask they question, and get involved.
Just make sure you don’t do any of these things.
20. Enjoy yourself
While many of us feel like we should be speaking more, or that presentations are a great way to build our brand, it’s not for everyone.
If you’re a quiet introverted person, the stress of going to an event like this will outweigh any benefit.
But practice can make perfect.
In the past year, I’ve improved so much. Not just at speaking but also at humaning. I used to find it a struggle, but now I can’t get enough of it.
I actually enjoy speaking now. It gives me a buzz, and I do it as much for the experience itself as for any potential financial or branding gain.
So there you go. Twenty things I learned from speaking at 37 events.
Want a summary? Here it is:
- 1. Go with a goal
- 2. Go with an offer
- 3. You’ve got to be in it to win it
- 4. Pitching is an art
- 5. Remember: Bios matter
- 6. Remember: Photos matter
- 7. Be the organisers friend
- 8. Accept that it’s not all about the money, honey
- 9. Keep your presentation simple
- 10. Make sure you rehearse
- 11. Step away from the lectern
- 12. Find a friendly face
- 13. Avoid the ums and errs
- 14. Accept that you won’t know everything
- 15. Handle the hecklers with grace
- 16. Take your own bits
- 17. Make a comeback
- 18. Get the assets
- 19. Mingle like a mofo
- 20. Enjoy yourself
And if you’d like me to speak at your event, come check out my speaker page here.
Over to you
Do you like speaking at events? Do you have any additional tips you can share? I’m all ears. Pop them in the comments below.
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