If there's one thing I've learned from public speaking, it's that you always want to provide value to your listeners. Maybe that lesson alone is everything any speaker needs to know, but there are a few other things I've picked up.
Last September, I reached a milestone of speaking at 100 events as a panelist, moderator, or keynote speaker, and I've been working on a roundup of 100 lessons from the experience ever since. Rather than force it, I expanded and edited the list over time until I added them up and saw it crossed the 100+ mark. I'm sure there will be much more to add down the road.
I haven't followed all of these lessons every time, and there are thousands of things I have to learn. Please add your own thoughts in the comments. Some lessons below will be especially biased toward the media and technology events where I've spent the bulk of my time and may not apply universally. Still, I hope this is a useful reference, even if it is a work in progress.
And now, here are over 100 lessons for anyone who ever speaks at or actively participates at an event or conference:
Pitching the event
- Follow instructions. As someone who has organized events for MediaPost and elsewhere, it's amazing how many speakers fail to fill out basic forms.
- Have a webpage somewhere with your speaking experience and any relevant content. Mitch Joel has great advice on this. Include this link in relevant places, such as from your LinkedIn profile (where you get several links) or blog. (You can view my page here.)
- Come up with a new angle for the agenda rather than trying to fit the previous show's agenda, especially if you're pitching early in the process. Some of the best speakers I selected offered ideas that were great for the event but hadn't occurred to me when planning it.
- Offer up other great speakers, especially if you're proposing a panel. I often get requests to refer speakers for events that aren't a good fit for me at all, but I'll often know people who'd be perfect. Being a good resource can keep you top of mind.
- Never pitch anyone as a guru. Just delete that word from your vocabulary. And make sure the speaker doesn't use it in their Twitter bio, unless they're the Dalai Lama (he avoids the term, so you definitely can).
Before the event
- Always ask yourself how you'll provide value to the event and its attendees. Ask yourself when accepting an invite or making a pitch, when you're preparing, and right before you speak.
- On that note, accept some events when you'll be providing far more value than you're getting. There are certain events that you'll be dying to just get into even if it's to hold another speaker's cue cards. There are others where you won't find as much professional value but where you can offer something to the audience. Do some of the latter as they're often the most rewarding.
- Triple-check your schedule and any remotely foreseeable conflicts before accepting anything. And then check again.
- Events often get clustered together, sometimes with multiple events on the same day. Make sure you can give enough time to each of the multiple appearances when it happens.
- Especially as you're starting out, take any kind of role the event organizer will use you for. Be the bench player, get in there, and exceed expectations. As they say in the theater, there are no small parts.
- Stretch, if you know you can deliver. Remember the 'provide value' rule, but you rarely need to be the world's foremost expert before you accept an invitation.
- Check to see if the event's listed on Facebook or LinkedIn (assuming it's a public event) and RSVP. For event organizers, that's always appreciated, and they'll notice.
- If the public event isn't listed on those sites, or on emerging sites like Plancast or HotPotato that may not be on the planners' radar, list the event. Alternatively, let the organizers know of opportunities like those for them to promote their event.
- Assuming you're active in at least one social channel – LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs – mention that you're going.
- Review Twitter the day before, or even earlier if the event has some buzz and/or an active community of participants. Get a sense of who these people are and what they're saying. You can search blogs and other forums, but Twitter's where most of the relevant conversation will be today.
- If you're giving a presentation, work in some of those people and comments that you come across. See slide 2 of this talk I gave to the Rochester AMA for one way to do this that took five minutes (even if I spent awhile longer getting to know those attendees virtually).
- Look for the event's Twitter hashtag to further do some research, and to join the community when you tweet anything about it. If it's not clear, offer one up, ask the event organizer, or ask attendees on Twitter what they plan on using.
- Stalk people on LinkedIn and Facebook, especially if you're on a panel, but you can also stalk other speakers. You don't have to connect with them in advance (and you shouldn't connect unless you really know them), but it's a good ice breaker when you discover know people in common.
- Buy an adapter that converts one outlet into three. They're $5, fit in your pocket, and often come in handy when power's tight. Usually the power outlets are fine on stage, but it's another story if you're making last minute edits the day of the event.
- Don't worry too much about the time you're scheduled to speak. At great events, people tend to stick around for all the content.
- If you're on a panel and the moderator sends questions, come up with a few bullets for how you'll answer them, and make sure you can answer the questions concisely.
- Get rest beforehand.
At the event
- Show up early.
- You won't always have the option of starting on time. End on time, even if it means taking less time for yourself, and attendees and event organizers will love you.
- Savor your preparation rituals. Before I speak, I always take a few minutes to myself – and hit the restroom.
- Turn off all electronic devices before you're on. The exception is if you're moderating and monitoring Twitter for feedback or otherwise using gadgets to illustrate your talk.
- When answering moderator or audience questions, numbered lists are awesome. Every speaker sounds smarter when they go, "This can play out three ways," or, "These are the four obstacles the industry needs to overcome." I'm not advocating being gimmicky or hokey, but if you can do it on the fly, it sounds like you really have a mastery of your material.
- Keep a bottle of water handy.
- Tweet that you're there.
- Stick around after you're done.
- Bring business cards. And when you think you have enough, pack more.
- The experience is more important than the content. The audience's reaction to a good speaker is largely emotional. You don't have to cram in a ton of hard information like statistics to make it work.
- Find people in the room to connect with from the stage, or at least one person. You want to make sure you're talking to the audience, and as long as you find a friendly face or two – especially when giving a solo talk – you can keep looking back in their direction for reassurance. Once you hook a few people, it's much easier to hold on to them.
- Wear comfortable shoes.
- If it's an event that thins out toward the end and you're on late, consider it a great opportunity to refine your material. If there's only one person left in the room, he or she might just impact your career someday.
- Enthusiasm's contagious. If you love what you're talking about, others will love it too. If you don't love it, it'll show.
- When you get to the event, familiarize yourself with these three vital locations: your session's room, the speakers room (if available), and the bathroom.
- Come handy with real world examples to include among your talking points.
- If you wind up shaking a lot of hands, you should probably bring hand sanitizer.
- If you wind up not shaking a lot of hands, you should probably bring breath mints.
- Check in on Foursquare, Gowalla, Whrrl, or your mobile social service of choice. If the event or venue isn't listed there, create it and say why you're there. If there are multiple listings where people have checked in, use whatever's more popular. Even if this doesn't matter as much to you, it's another bonus for the event organizers.
After the Event
- Thank the event hosts or organizers.
- Request feedback from organizers. Many events collect feedback but not all share it.
- Review Twitter and other social channels to get feedback.
- Embrace the positive feedback. Savor it. They know what they're talking about.
- Take consistent critiques to heart. Most of the time attendees will let you slide even when you're not at the top of your game – and I have days where I'm much more enthusiastic about how sessions went than others. Once in awhile you get called on it.
- Brush off any hecklers. Reviewers are harsher during keynotes, and big crowds are less personal so people sharpen their knives. You'll find an occasional jerk in any size crowd.
- Use the custom URL feature of bit.ly when you're sharing links. Even months after giving it, I can tell you my slides from SMX in October 2009 are at bit.ly/smxsocial. When good links are taken, add in your initials or something else easy to remember.
Speaking on Panels
- Odds are if you're on a panel of three or more people, you won't be the smartest person on the panel. That brings three benefits: you won't have the pressure of the highest expectations, you'll get to learn more from everyone else, and you'll have a chance of matching wits with people at least as smart as you.
- Keep answers concise. You can always stick around after to elaborate. If you answer a question for a full minute, it'll feel like five to the audience and ten to your other panelists.
- Don't answer every question if you really have nothing to add.
- Keep a pen and paper with you so as others are talking, you can jot down notes on what to respond to. It also helps when you don't want to forget any talking points when a moderator asks a question.
- If the moderator does take the time to send questions in advance, think of one more to add and send it back to him or her.
- Stats make you sound smarter. I don't do this too much, but I am a stats junkie (spending a few years at eMarketer only helped fuel that). If you can cite some brief statistics to answer a question (rather than just to sound smarter than anyone else), do it. And stats ALWAYS get tweeted.
- Tools also always get tweeted. Have some favorite in your back pocket and mention it if it's relevant.
- If you're in a bunch of office chairs behind a table, check to see if you can adjust the chair to raise the seat as high as it'll go. It just feels better sitting up, and the people in the back will see you better.
When Using PowerPoint and Visual Aids
- Use lots of pictures, few words.
- Use a PowerPoint remote to untether yourself. A PowerPoint remote, which can run $50 to $100 for a decent one, is the safest bet. I've seen other options like iPhone apps that work as presentation remotes, but you need something reliable.
- If it's at all worth sharing, put it up on SlideShare after – or even right before you go up if you can.
- If you really used a lot of pictures and minimized text, uploading that presentation to SlideShare won't be too useful for most people as is. Instead, annotate it. I did it for this presentation on Facebook, which would have been hard to follow otherwise.
- Except for those cases where you're doing a very short intro and are given a maximum of 1-5 slides or so just to get your point across, don't go by any rules for how long it takes to present a certain number of slides. You can have one huge idea on a single slide you can talk about for an hour. On the flipside, I presented a 114-slide deck in under 30 minutes – and didn't rush anything more than I wanted to.
- Spell check. And do it again. I've reviewed talks ten times over and went on with a typo and beyond looking like a boob, it just makes me want to skip over the slide as fast as I can.
- Ask yourself for every slide and component of a slide, "Does this help the narrative?" When it doesn't, delete. If you're not sure after making some cuts, keep saving the file as new versions, or keep a section of deleted slides at the end until you finalize the deck. Rarely have I gone back and reinstated deleted slides.
- Do a run-through on the computer that you're presenting on. Allow time to fix errors.
- If you're not using your own laptop, save PowerPoint in the 2003 version. Anytime in the past couple years I've had a glitch it's been from using a 2007 version on a PC running 2003.
- Audience members are far more likely to request presentations that include stats or case studies. Top 10 lists and the like (such as this Top 11 Twitter Tools one I did) are also great.
- Adapt your visual aids and examples to the nature of the content. Talking about video? Show a clip. Talking about mobile? Incorporate your phone.
- Tell a story.
- Rehearse it until it feels natural – and you can do it within the allotted time. My favorite part about rehearsing is that a lot of my best ideas for what I'll say come up when I'm going through the material aloud. It also becomes very obvious when you don't have proper talking points or transitions for each slide.
- Time your presentation. Doing it a couple times, know that you can: a) do it in the time allotted, b) still do it all, perhaps picking up the pace in parts, if you're given less time should other sessions run late or there's a schedule change, and c) cover enough ground – perhaps not even all of it – if there's some Q&A that may take place before it's over. I don't time talks down to the second because of these variables, but if I'm given 30 minutes and I do it once in 25 and another in 28, I know I can make it fit when I get 22.
- When you're going through a dry run and there are some really slow parts, cut them – even if it's really smart. Prepare some leave-behinds or follow-up materials if it's vital.
- Leave time for Q&A.
- When there is reliable Internet access for your presentation and it's relevant, use it. Live examples are powerful – they make what you're saying more real and show not everything's perfectly rehearsed. But of course be prepared with visuals or just good talking points if the connection flakes.
- Break free from the podium. Wireless remotes help.
- The best advice I can give is this: the panel you moderate is YOUR panel. Make it yours. You'll have lots of guidelines and limitations set by the event organizers, but for the hour or so that you control, the room is yours. Do what you can to make it a great session.
- Don't forget to introduce yourself.
- Learn your panelists' names well. It shows when you know them, and it shows even more when you have some chemistry.
- Don't spend more than a minute on your own introduction. The ringmaster may make the circus, but ticket holders are there to see the lion tamers.
- If you're merging multiple presentations into one deck, go through it a few times and make sure it looks at least half-decent. Otherwise you run the risk of embarrassing your panelists.
- Send questions to panelists at least a week in advance – or within a few days of getting all their contact info. Often the session description will have questions included, and if it doesn't, you can base a lot of your questions off of that.
- A good rule of thumb for questions: come up with ten. That's probably five more than you'll get to on a typical length panel.
- Find some way to connect with all your panelists at once. I've moderated a lot of panels and most of the time it doesn't make a difference whether you do a call or you find a way to meet in person the day of the event. Some panels are more collaborative where people will benefit playing off each other, so then it's good to get a call in early. Some great ideas can often come out of prep calls, and you can often tell how well speakers will play off each other.
- If your panelists are presenting – meaning, they're talking for more than just 1-2 minute opening introductions – request their talking points and/or their slides a few days in advance and share those with the other panelists. It helps the other panelists to have that context.
- After the event, make it easy for audience members to find any presentation materials, assuming it's okay to share them. The event organizers may do this too, but you're the ringmaster for your hour or so. If you have a blog that's one easy way to do it, but there's no shortage of ways to efficiently share such information online.
- Leave time for audience Q&A no matter how little time you have for the panel. If you don't, you run the risk of really irking the audience. They're paying or at least taking the time to be there. You're there because you're smart or accomplished or charming or paying a lot of money so your questions count for something. The audience's questions still count for more.
- When you think you've left enough time for audience Q&A, start 5 minutes before that.
- Prepare enough questions so that if the audience really has nothing – it's just a dead crowd or they're in a post-lunch coma – you can fill the time.
- Don't make your panelists answer bad questions from the audience, and cut off sales pitches. Give the audience a shot, but they don't always know best.
- Moderate, don't pontificate. Let the panelists do the talking. On occasion if you really are the best person to chime in with some insight that will be valuable for the audience, fine, but you're there to run the show.
- If it's a tweeting crowd, encourage it – and even try checking Twitter for feedback and questions during your session if you're able to multitask.
- If there's debate or controversy, keep it going. Don't move on to another question if the panelists are getting into it. The audience lives for moments like that, and it's what'll get discussed during and after.
- Know who's in the audience, in a general sense. The 'show of hands' device early on can help.
- Visit your panelists' corporate sites before you reach out to them. Get a sense of how they're positioning themselves.
- Search for panelists' blogs and Twitter accounts if there's a chance they have them.
- Consider creating a Twitter List with your panelists' info in advance so others can easily follow them, or use some other vehicle to promote them.
- Try Google Moderator to share questions in advance and let attendees and others vote for the best ones. People can even submit their own. I've been trying this experiment recently, such as offering questions for my interview with Google's Dylan Casey at TWTRCON, and I've already tried it again.
- Send an email thanking your panelists after it's done.
- Selectively link up with panelists on social and business sites after. On Twitter it's appropriate and even courteous to follow everyone if you're so inclined, but in other venues such as LinkedIn and Facebook, make sure they're people you made a real connection with and plan to keep in touch with, rather than just more names to boost your friend count.
- If the audience has any Twitter users at all, collect Twitter names of speakers – and share those on-screen when speakers go up.
- Create a tag for the event and get the word out about it to any of the content creators. It comes in handy for Twitter, Flickr, Slideshare, YouTube, blogs… most anywhere (except some sites like Facebook that don't use tags). And you'll be able to aggregate it all after.
- Share that content after it's done. This is surprisingly rare.
- Limit panels to four people tops, unless it's a radically different format than your typical talking heads. I'd love it if organizers could use a rule of thumb of making sure the panel runs at least 15 minutes per number of speakers on a typical panel, so that, as an example, an event with four-person panels has sessions lasting at least 60 minutes. With Q&A it's still not a lot of time. It's also a bad sign when you start running out of mics – and chairs.
- Welcome bloggers. Yes, I'm biased, but they'll help disseminate ideas, aggregate insights, and create great content you'll be able to share. It also provides value for speakers and attendees after to get some outside, informal opinions from people who aren't paid to be there (as opposed to conference staff or journalists).
- Get a sponsor for power outlets. I'm thinking back fondly to Chevy's branded surge protectors at SXSW, and then AT&T's power sponsorship at TWTRCON NY. It's great for brands and attendees, and the conference can at least cover costs if not turn a profit. Ample power is becoming more of a perk than cocktails or swag.
- Read Presentation Zen. Slideology is great too, though I haven't read every last page yet.
- Tim Sanders, one of my favorite authors and speakers, frequently shares great advice on his blog.
- Peruse SlideShare. It's such a great place for education and inspiration.
- Participate in EventCamp. I met some of the most passionate event planners, speakers, and other related practitioners on the planet when they generously included me on their agenda in February, and the community is one of the most welcoming I've seen before, during, and after an event. Follow Jeff Hurt too, one of the founders and a great resource.
That's a wrap, for now. Be sure to leave your own thoughts in the comments so others reading this can benefit from your lessons as well.
I only reached the 100 event milestone thanks to the support from hundreds of others. To call out a few, Michelle and Ferrol while at PR Newswire took a chance on including me in their webinar, which kicked off my public speaking in any professioanl sense. The team at MediaPost gave me my first moderating role, and I've spoken at more of their events than any other by far; so much of their team has been incredible to work with over the years. I've been at 360i for most of the time I've been speaking now, and I wouldn't have spoken at nearly this many were it not for the great support of Sarah, Bryan, Amanda, and Katie, among many others.
The saying goes that people are more scared of giving a eulogy than being in the coffin. I'd much rather be giving the eulogy, and I don't plan on shutting up any time soon. Thanks to all of those who've taken the time to listen, and I can only hope I've done a decent enough job returning the favor.