Everything I know about speaking at conferences

I spent nearly 2 months preparing to speak at Enhanceconf 2016 in front of 180 people at the RSA in London.

I never thought I would speak publicly for many reasons — not least of all because it’s fucking scary and I have (had?) no idea what I am doing. But for one reason or other I decided this is the time for me to jump right out of my comfort zone.

I am the sort of person who goes hunting for the very best advice about doing something, before I do it myself. So that’s what I did, I hunted down the very best advice from different parts of the world, combined it with my brain and this is what I learnt during the entire process…

Before accepting the gig

1. Choose the right timing and gig

There is never a perfect time to do it. You will always be fearful. I was fearful that I would make mistakes, that people wouldn’t find value or that I can’t inspire others, or that the audience weren’t right for my talk. But all in all, my values and the conference’s values aligned and I decided to go for it.

2. Choose the right theme

There is no point in giving a talk on something that a) you don’t know about and b) you’re not absolutely passionate about sharing with others. You need to show enthusiasm for your topic, otherwise don’t bother.

3. Choose the right duration

All Ted talks are somewhere between 15 and 20 mins. The is because people can’t concentrate for longer than that and if you can’t explain your message with inspiration in that time, then you’re buggered anyway.

4. Make sure you have enough time to prep

I gave myself a clean schedule for 2 months as I prefer to be over-prepared. Otherwise I would be more nervous.

5. Choose the right remuneration

I never negotiated but I probably should have. ‘They’ say that you should negotiate for about 5 times the ticket price. In reality it’s not about the money, it’s about the experience and ‘spreading good ideas’ but bare this in mind.

After accepting the the talk

1. Purchase a Kensington clicker

You want to be free to deliver the talk, not shackled to your computer fumbling around the trackpad, mouse or keyboard to progress the slides. This one is good value, well recommended and very good.

2. Design your slides last

Whatever you do, don’t design your slides first. Slides are props. Nail down your script first, then add slides as an enhancement to your talk if necessary. You might find you don’t even need slides.

3. Write down your ideas

Always write down what pops into your head or what you come across in life. Ideas, links, photos, thoughts, videos, quotes, books, articles, tweets, peoples, work, case studies, experiences, anything. Don’t underestimate your ability to forget.

4. Design your talk

You need to work out what the message is and how you’re going to present it. Make sure the message is close to your heart. My talk was about “embracing simplicity” which touches so many parts of my life from different angles. From minimalism, to essentialism, to web design and coding websites, I strive for simplicity.

5. Start fleshing out your talk

You need to find some quiet time to start fleshing out your talk. Whatever is easier, just start writing and sharing stories that back up your points.

6. Tell stories

Tell personal or other peoples stories that convey what you’re saying. Make sure the stories come first, make sure they last at least 1/3 of the entire presentation. Reason being is you need to connect emotionally to your audience. Stories are the way to do this.

7. Start to practice the script

The script won’t be perfect, nor will your delivery but start practicing it, thinking about it and delivering to someone you know. Over and over and over. Then keep refining, adding, reducing. You want to get to the point where you’re thinking about delivery — not what it is that you have to say. I practiced at least once a day to anyone that will listen. Thanks wife.

8. Deliver something new

It doesn’t have to be completely new, but if you have a unique spin on something, share it. It will help your audience engage with you.

9. Deliver stats and logic later in the talk

After connecting emotionally via stories, add logic and stats to back it up.

10. Deliver a jaw dropping moment

Deliver a jaw dropping moment if you can. Something the audience will remember. This could be anything, it could be a stat, it could be you playing an instrument, it could be anything, as long as it relates to your talk.

11. Consider not having slides

Consider giving a talk without slides. I ended up using slides because I thought they were appropriate and added value during parts of my talk. Also, whilst I memorised the script, the slides were semi-prompting and that made me feel more secure.

If your content doesn’t require it, then ditch the slides and free yourself from technology and having to sync your words up to your slides.

12. Don’t put lots of text on a slide

Whatever you do, don’t put lots of text on a slide. Especially if you’re not reading it out word-for-word. Nobody can listen to you talk and read text on a slide.

13. Be you

Don’t try and be someone else (everyone else is taken anyway). Don’t change the way you speak just for the talk. Go up, have a chat with the audience, be honest and you can’t go wrong.

14. Watch other amazing talks

I watched other great talks in my field. I also watched great Ted talks. It all helps. Watch out for the details, why it works so well. And what bits didn’t work so well.

On the day of your talk

1. Arrive early

You don’t want to feel rushed. It’s stressful enough as it is, so plan your routes and get there comfortably.

2. Find the bathroom

You will need this. Having hardly drunk any water, I went for a wee at least 5 times until I was on in the early afternoon.

3. Travel light

Bring your essentials, I brought too much stuff “just in case”, but I should have only brought my clicker (and spare batteries), my laptop and my charger.

4. Familiarise yourself with the stage

I was on in the afternoon, but having arrived early before the conference started in the morning, I found the organiser and got my bearings. It was very different to the photos online so was well worth doing this.

5. Bring someone for support

I did and it helped a lot.

6. Speak to other people and speakers

It’s great to speak to others, it calms you down. Most people are nervous (like you) even if they’ve given lots of talks before. And part of the day is about getting to know others.

7. Don’t eat too much or too little

I didn’t eat enough, I felt too nervous to eat and I ended up with a headache, but adrenaline carried me through. Work out your timings based on what time your talk is. Give yourself at least 1 hour before your talk to digest.

8. Sound checks

Get your shit in order early. My slot was in the afternoon so while people were at lunch I was on the stage making sure my computer hooked up to the projector and that my mic worked.

9. Drink water 10 mins before

Drink it 10 mins before your talk. The reason why it’s 10 mins is so you don’t need to go to the toilet when your talk begins. Even if you do this, you might still be dry from nerves when your talk starts.

10. Bring water on stage

I decided not to do this — big mistake for me. A couple of minutes into my talk, I had to jump of stage for 5 seconds to get water because my mouth went dry from the nerves. It was seconds, but felt like hours. It broke up my talk, and made me feel awkward. Silly!

After your talk

  1. Thank the organiser if they are available.
  2. Sit down, put your shit away and relax.
  3. When people compliment you on your talk, smile and say ‘thanks’.
  4. Grab a drink and a little snack.

After the conference

  1. Relax.
  2. Post your transcript on your blog/Medium/both/other alternative. Here is what I did for Embracing Simplicity.
  3. Upload your slides to speakerdeck.com or an equivalent.
  4. If there is a video recording online share that on social media and also add it to the transcript.
  5. Basically allow others to benefit from your efforts.
  6. Thank everyone who helped you.

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