Speaking Professionally

By Edward Marczak

Originally published: 2014-28-Sept, 11:33:35
Last updated: 2017-9-Feb, 12:44:22

I've been speaking at conferences since about 2004 or so. I'm always looking to improve my craft of presenting the material I'm looking to deliver. I certainly think I've improved, but know that I can always get better. Now, I have seen a lot of good advice to speakers, particularly Peter Hosey's, "Presentation Tips," [http://boredzo.org/presentation-tips/] and others. However, most of what I've seen talk mostly about your slides. I also happen to run a conference [http://www.mactech.com/conference], so, I have some views from that perspective as well.

Here are my tips on delivering your message at a conference.

Know what's expected

Find out from the conference organizer(s) what is expected of you. How much time do you have? Are you speaking to a room or running a hands-on, follow-along workshop? Should you leave time for Q&A? Is there a conference laptop for presenting, or will you use your own? Can you present from an iPad or other possibly unexpected device? Do you have to provide a presentation remote? (If you're expecting to use the Keynote Remote.app from Apple, have a backup plan - I've seen conference WiFi make that impossible. It's not the the conference WiFi alone, but the density of WiFi signals that can even make a peer-to-peer network crap out unexpectedly. Use a real presentation remote...I've even seen people still try to use that line-of-sight infrared Apple remote. Yuck.)

The Presentation

Of course, the presentation itself is your focus. Since the "presentation" is the encapsulation, start working on it immediately once you find out you're speaking. Or, possibly before. (For example, you may have a topic that would make a great talk, but haven't submitted it anywhere yet.) In either case, start mapping it out, either in your mind, on paper, or both. Make an outline. Start a document to collect notes as you think of them.

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

From inception, to the last practice before delivering the talk, it all counts. You can't invest a short amount of time working on a presentation and expect it to be rock solid. The rare speaker that you see that makes it look off-the-cuff and effortless does that through practice and preparation. A big part of preparation is understanding the audience. Remember: the presentation is for them and not you. Understand what the audience wants to get out of your talk--what keeps them up at night? What one or two things will improve their life (at work or whatever)? That's what you should be covering. What main point do you want people to take away from your talk? Make sure you make that in a way this particular audience will be able to relate to. Work with the conference organizers to understand the audience. If they can't define it enough, try to find a previous speaker or attendee to get some semblence of a typical attendee.

Really Like Your Topic (Passion)

There's no better rule here: Love your topic, or don't try to sell people on it. Again, this writeup is for presenting at a conference where you're invited or respond to a call for papers. In a business environment, you may need to give a report on something you don't necessarily "love." At a conference, though, where your attendance is likely optional, have some passion about your topic/solution/vision/whatever or don't speak. Just having some enthusiasm for your subject can drive your entire presentation forward by leaps and bounds.

Have Fun!

Have some fun with your talk. Standing behind a lectern, reading off content from slides is a recipe for boredom. Boredom equals people losing interest, no matter how important your message. Is there something besides you or a static slide that makes the point in a better or more dramatic, memorable manner? Use it! This might mean playing a video or song. (Even better if you write and perform the song yourself!) This might mean handing out something to the audience that makes your point. Anything unexpected--which is a pretty low bar comparatively--will be memorable. If you're having fun, the audience will, too. However, there's one corollary to that: don't have fun at anyone else's expense. Not the audience's, not your competitor's and not even strangers. Stay positive, and positive results will follow. (In other words, focus on the solution.)

Slide Clarity

This is something that is covered elsewhere, but bears repeating: densely packed slides are a problem for you, the speaker, and the audience. There's almost no reason for slides with bullet-points. Ever. This also goes for incomprehensible, dense diagrams. Focus on a small part of the whole at a time, and "zoom in" on separate slides. Also, remember the people in the back of the room. If your slide is not easily readable to everyone you have work to do on your slides.

What to include

Include a slide up front with the talk title, your name and email address/Twitter ID. Wrap up with that same slide. People will follow up with you. Personal stories that illustrate your point are great. I call this out specifically, as it's not the same as the 'about me' bio I oppose in the next section.

What not to include

Drop the 'about me' introduction. Remember: it's not about you, it's about the audience. You don't need to impress people or explain why you're there: the fact that the conference organizers gave you a speaking position vouches for you enough. It's like Yoda from Star Wars: Obi Wan just told Luke to go see Yoda. When Luke found Yoda, there was no speech or grand intro. Yoda proved he was a worthy mentor through speech and action, not some bio. In short, you're wasting time in the preso by blabbing about yourself. Like all rules, this one can be bent or broken at times. I recently heard a great talk at the MacSysAdmin conference. The Speaker, Kevin White, is an American presenting to a mostly European crowd. He starts the talk with a little background about some of the places he's lived in the US including his current home in Kentucky. It turns out that this was a really nice personal touch for a crowd that likely knew nothing about Kentucky and was perhaps curious. He spends an appropriate amount of time on it, and then moves on to the main talk. This goes back to personal stories and having fun. There's a video of the talk here: "Modern Trends in Apple Management." Don't include a 'watermark' with your company logo on every slide. If you need to display a company name, do so on the intro and outro slide mentioned earlier. (If anyone wants more info on you or your company, they'll just use Google. Honestly. Also, a note from Zachary Cutlip: this extends to the bio you send for the conference web site. )

Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse

Practice the talk. Out loud. Record it, play it back listening and watching closely. You should even be rehearsing small sections at a time. For example, as you modify a slide or two, briefly go over the section and make sure it flows. Want to be a real pro? Give the talk out loud to yourself or a willing participant (your spouse or workmate, perhaps?) without the slides. Just remember: rehearsing your talk isn't a one-time event after you've composed it. Practicing it as you develop it will not only make you better at delivering it, but will also help inform the overall direction, where to fill in information, and where to remove some. (Did you know that Keynote includes a "Record Slideshow" function under the Play menu? It will create a QuickTime movie of your slides and audio from the microphone. It's a great aid to capture both for your self-training.)

At the Event

You've prepared and rehearsed. The event is beginning. What should you be doing?

Make Requests In Advance

You should make inquiries and requests of the conference organizers well in advance, however, in all honesty, the organizer may not know the answer until they themselves are on site. It's just courteous to make requests--such as having a specific audio set up in your room--as far in advance as possible. This way, the conference organizers can address it, and, they can let you know if they cannot. If they can't you can adjust your presentation or come up with some other workaround.

Check in With Staff

When you do arrive at the conference site, pick up your speaker badge and let the people running things know that you're there, and ready when they are.

Show Up Early

This goes for both arriving at the event and before your talk. Ideally, you're at the event a full day in advance to acclimate, check in with staff and relax a bit. This also goes for your talk. Be in, or close to the room you're going to talk in one full talk ahead of your scheduled time, and let the organizers know where you are.

Rehearse in the Room

I can't stress this one enough: get into the room you're presenting in before you present in it. Ideally, not only stand in the spot you'll be presenting from, but actually run your slides. Don't forget to also look at your slides from the back of the room. Font too small? Pictures too light or too dark on that specific projector or screen? Slide transitions make people sea-sick? This is the last chance you have to make adjustments before you're apologizing in front of an audience.

During the talk

Stay cool. You notice your mistakes more than anyone else. The human brain is wired to discard small variations in speech, small slips and backtracking. Don't let it throw you. Of course, the more rehearsal you have, the less likely you are to make these mistakes. Just remember: the audience is on your side. No one goes to a conference to hear a bad talk. No one is rooting for you to fail. People want to see a good talk. Resisting the urge to go out drinking the night before and actually getting a good night's sleep will go a long way to keeping you relaxed, focused and at the top of your game during the talk. Also, take off your conference badge when on stage. We know you're a part of the conference by virtue of you being introduced and presenting.

End Early

Always end a little early, and always leave them wanting more. Seriously: end early and you're a hero. Of course, not too early. The longer the time you're allotted, the more time you have to play with. For a, "lightning talk," you're expected to nail the 5 or 10 minutes exactly. for a 30-minute talk, end at 25 minutes, drop the mic and walk off. For an hour allocation, shoot for 50 minutes, and due to the energy of the talk, you'll likely hit 45 minutes. Of course, none of this takes into account Q&A time, which you'll need to check with the organizers if they expect or want Q&A.

There's a bit of a fine line here, but it really goes back to "Know what's expected:" be a professional and have a conversation with the organizers if you can or should wrap up early. You may simply feel that your time slot is too long for your topic. The organizer may just say, "OK, have it run short," or, they may really want a certain length. In the latter case, don't pad your presentation with useless information, but rather add to it a useful sub-topic. Go into more depth on one or more of your points. If given the option, though...end early.

In Conclusion

There are likely more items to add to this list. It's really impossible to capture everything involved in giving a successful talk. With that in mind, I do not intend for this document to go stale, but to update it as I think of more tips. In summary:

Again, while there are plenty of other writings relating to creating your actual slides and dealing with the contents of the talk, I hope this list helps you present professionally.