On Public Speaking
Speaking in front of an audience can be downright intimidating.
As a speaker, you are offering yourself for unsolicited feedback and criticism, you will most likely be ridiculed for the vacuity of your arguments, and you will be berated for your rhetoric or told exactly what you did wrong and why, when all you want is to have a cup of coffee, wind down, and enjoy the rest of the event in a good mood.
On the other hand, you have been blessed with the incredibly rare opportunity to share your knowledge on a public stage. People will hang on to every word you say, and you have a real chance of compressing years of experience, knowhow, and practical tips into a 45-minute-long-with-5-minutes-for-questions bundle of altruistic power.
In this article, I tap into my inexhaustible vein of hubris and ego, and I’ll tell you exactly what I think about public speaking and conferences alike. Maybe there’s a tip or two for someone here, but I’m pretty sure my method of preparing for talks (and for giving talks) isn’t one to emulate in any shape or form.X
The Simmer Newsletter
Subscribe to the Simmer newsletter to get the latest news and content from Simo Ahava into your email inbox!
10 Things I’ve Learned About Public Speaking
Because lists are cool, I’ll present my ideas in a list (bonus tip: circular reasoning works like a charm on the public stage, too!).
1. Rehearse as little as necessary
This is one of the things I live by.
I try to rehearse my talks as little as possible.
I walk through the slides in my silent voice once or twice so that I’ll know if I’m risking going past the time limit. Note that there’s no penalty for going under the allotted time - in fact, many organizers might actually thank you for that since it leaves time for Q&A, and it also makes up for the delays incurred by other, sloppier speakers.
I don’t rehearse because I don’t want my talk to appear scripted. The rhetoric devices I employ are mostly conversational, and any kind of scripting kills that.
This means that I find myself running down tangents more often than not, and every now and then I go in so deep that I lose track of the main path. But having done this for years, I now have a full toolbelt of methods I can use to segue back to the original point.
2. Self-deprecation is your best friend
There’s nothing as powerful and disarming as laughing at yourself.
I try ridicule myself at least twice in every talk. I think it’s important to show that I, too, am just a human, charmingly flawed, clumsy, and often unintelligible.
3. Throw shoutouts to the other speakers as much as possible
One difficult thing about conferences is trying to identify a common theme. Why am I speaking on the same stage as, say, Rand Fishkin a bit earlier? The conference organizers might have a difficult time in drawing the parallel, so it’s up to you as a speaker to help them out.
I always try to refer to speakers who were on stage before me, and if I know what upcoming speakers will be talking about, I’ll mention them, too.
Just make sure you don’t crack too many jokes at their expense (I’m often guilty of this) - they might not share your opinions on self-deprecation, especially when you present those opinions in their name.
4. Be ridiculously thankful for being invited to speak
I have nothing but anecdotal evidence, but I have a feeling that many speakers forget to be grateful for the opportunity to speak on the big stage.
It’s a tremendous amount of ridiculously hard work that organizing a conference takes. As a speaker, you typically only see bits and pieces of this hard work, and most often in the form of recovering from a technical snafu, or getting ushered on stage by the MC.
When you are invited to speak at a conference, start your stream of never-ending “thank yous” already in your first response to their invitation. Be grateful that you were considered and accepted to participate as a laborer in the event.
Thank the MC for the kind introduction when you step on the stage, thank the organizers for having you over, thank the audience for having the patience to listen to you drawl, thank the tech people for how everything worked like a charm (even if it didn’t), and thank the cloakroom folks for taking care of your belongings.
5. Be professional
You might think that this conflicts with points (1) and (2) above, but there’s a balance between being disarming and professional at the same time.
I never have stage fright - and this is an honest statement. Why? Because I know the subject matter of my talk through and through.
If you feel nervous about your talk, just focus on the stuff you know really well. Make that the core of your talk. Make it obvious how well you know what you’re talking about. Exuding insecurity is not a good look for anyone.
I also try to avoid scripted laughs such as memes and written jokes in my slides. Most of the self-deprecation and tangential stuff happens in the beginning and end of my talks, because I want the core to be informative as hell.
6. Find a balance between inspiration and action
Because my talks typically revolve around technical stuff such as “things you can do with X” or “how to turn an organization into Y”, I rarely have the kind of inspirational content you might see in keynotes of some of the larger conferences out there.
That’s OK. Inspiration can be derived from hardcore technical content, too. There’s nothing as inspirational as seeing the potential of some tool or platform, and waiting for the chance to try it out when going back to the office the following day.
But there’s also room for reaffirming the audience’s preconceptions (that’s the inspirational part). It’s OK to let them know they’re on the right path, and to show them where that path might lead if all the pieces lock in together. It’s OK to say platitudes like “Believe in yourself and the world will be your oyster” (actually, never say that, please), as long as you cut it with some self-deprecation right after.
Though this leads me to…
7. Never underestimate your audience
If you ever have to think “Should I dumb this talk down?”, my advice is: DON’T.
First of all, going slightly over the audience’s heads is better than playing into their comfort zones. As an audience member, being enlightened about potential knowledge gaps is a good thing.
However, and this is why not rehearsing is a good thing, leave room for interpreting the audience’s reactions. If you see confusion in their faces, take a step back and explain the idea again from another angle, and if you see them give you the “Come on dude, I know this stuff” look, switch gears and tell them something they should certainly not know about.
The fault isn’t in the audience’s intelligence - it’s in your rhetoric. So fix it.
8. Be patient after the talk
After the talk, just as you’re heading for the open bar, you will have people coming up to you to talk about your presentation, your life, your family, your ukulele hobby, or your clothes. Don’t complain or roll your eyes.
Remember, you have been employed by the conference as a performer. You are expected to play your part to the very end.
And hey, why are you complaining about social contact? It’s absolutely delightful, humbling, and uplifting to be greeted by so many people who come and thank you for your contributions!
9. Avoid the speakers’ lounge
Some events have a speakers’ lounge. It’s a great idea, letting the “star performers” wind down.
But far too often I see speakers spending the majority of their time in the lounge, rather than out in the bullpen with the rest of the attendees.
Remember, again, you are an employee of the event. It’s your duty to make the event the best event it can be. And that requires you to mingle, meet with people, and just make your presence felt among the vendor booths, cafeteria lines, and the main lobby.
It’s OK to spend some time in the lounge, especially before and after your talk, but try to avoid it at other times.
10. If you can’t make it to a conference, have a list of recommended speakers at hand
There comes situations where you must (gracefully) turn down an invitation.
When you do so, it would be really great if you have a list of recommendations you can pass to the event organizer as potential speakers in your stead.
Heck, even if you CAN make the event, it’s a good idea to share these recommendations, since they might still be on the lookout for other speakers, too.
10 Things I’ve Learned About Conferences
The following list has some overlap with the previous one, but I want to focus especially on what I think makes a conference good, and what I’ve learned through my interactions with conference organizers.
1. Coffee and solid wireless network
I would like to say that the key to success is finding the right speakers and a motivated audience.
But, truth be told, I’m most easily persuaded by two things: coffee available at all times, and a Wi-Fi that doesn’t suck.
Those are two most important things you’ll need to keep the satisfaction level of the audience at a positive base level.
2. As few tracks as possible
This goes without saying, but multi-track conferences are frustrating.
You’ll always miss some great talk because there was another great talk going on at the same time.
I totally understand economy of scale, so having more than one track is necessary for any conference that wants to grow, but it’s still frustrating.
3. Be careful with panels
I typically dislike panels. Most of them are just speakers sitting next to each other and answering questions.
Best panels are those where there’s a debate or heated discussion going on. So pick speakers who are known to disagree on many topics, and pick these topics for conversation.
And don’t forget audience participation!
4. Diversity is extremely important
Try go for a 50/50 split between male and female speakers. It shouldn’t be difficult. If you’re having trouble finding female speakers, ask around for lists in Twitter - you’ll get plenty of responses!
At the very least, try to get a 50/50 split in keynote speakers and in panel participants.
Having an all-male cast in either is just lazy.
There are many other manifestations of diversity, but the gender gap is one that’s most striking to me (and this is my list).
5. Speakers might help you sell tickets but it’s the audience that makes the conference
Don’t blow your entire budget on the speakers, and don’t spend your entire conference fussing about them and catering to their every need.
Remember that when the conference starts, the audience is what matters.
They’re the ones who’ll spread the word and decide if you’re worth a second shot next year.
6. Implement a code of conduct
It’s terrible that we live in a world where there’s a need for codes of conduct. But, as it turns out, human beings can often be total dicks to each other, intentionally and unintentionally. Having a CoC will let you establish some ground rules for how to behave at your event.
Create a code of conduct (check out the SearchLove CoC for inspiration), promote it heavily, and make it extremely prominent in all your PR material.
If you fail to create a safe environment for your conference, you will lose the trust of the attendees, and you might even harm your and your brand’s reputation permanently. In addition, you might actually place some of your guests in danger.
7. Send invitations to speakers in good time
This is more of a personal opinion, since I know some conferences simply have a very short build-up time, but try to get invitations out months in advance.
Many speakers have a full schedule, and might need advance notice of up to six months to be able to make room in the middle of their busy weeks.
Also, try to scout around if there are other events happening at the same time in the same industry / niche. If possible, avoid too much overlap between other events - it might make it difficult to get speakers AND attendees to join you.
8. Set rules for vendors
Another way of building a “safe” environment is to prevent vendors from harassing the attendees with their pitches.
Sponsors are super important, and it’s often really interesting to see what different vendors have been up to, but some can be really aggressive in trying to pick up new customers.
And if vendors are awarded a speaking slot in return for their co-operation, please suggest that their talk be about something more practical than just gushing about how great their tool is and how much all competitors’ tools suck.
9. Make sure there’s plenty of time for networking
For many, conferences are networking events. It’s possible some attendees don’t actually visit a single talk - they come over to meet vendors, friends, business associates, and to make new contacts.
Cater to these as much as possible.
Building networks and bringing people together is one the best ways to get people to come back the following year.
10. Do something unique
There are gazillions of conferences that are so alike it’s impossible to tell each one apart.
So try to think of something that makes your event unique.
There are many ways to make your event memorable, and the more memorable you can make it, the more buzz it will generate.
These twenty items condense my learnings from the 150+ keynotes and conference presentations I’ve done in digital marketing/analytics conferences since 2013.
I usually think saying this is totally redundant, but these are all my own subjective thoughts. I’m not trying to teach you how you should present in conferences, or how you should run an event. I simply wanted to share my own ideas and thoughts about public speaking and attending these events year after year.
Do you have thoughts about public speaking or running conferences? Please do so in the comments!