A Crash Course in Speaking at Conferences

Out of curiosity, I Googled, “public speaking tips” and the first piece of advice I saw was: “Breathe.” After my eyes rolled out of my head and I plopped them back into their sockets, I started typing this.

This isn’t an “ultimate guide.” This isn’t going to be 5,000 words containing every single thing you need to know about public speaking. This is a crash course. Succinct advice on a bunch of things that you need to know about speaking at conferences. Things that most people wouldn’t even think to advise you on.

First, a few assumptions about you:

  • You are a subject matter expert in your field
  • The speaking opportunities you’re going for are generally within your industry
  • You give a damn about delivering a really, really good talk

Good? Good. We’re going to walk through public speaking from beginning to end: From the moment you apply to or accept your invitation, to the moment you step foot onstage. We’ll cover ideating, staying organized, promoting the event, what to wear, your stage presence, and everything in between. (If you want some food for thought on whether you should pursue paid speaking opportunities, we have some thoughts on that.)

1. Pick your topic.

You mean you didn’t complete that keynote speech before hitting the “Join the call for speakers” button? Kidding. Mostly, I think about my talks like this:

The intersection of what I think is fun, what I’m good at, and what the audience wants. It needs to be fun to hold my attention while I finish building the deck. It needs to be something I’m good at, otherwise why would I be qualified to speak on it? And it definitely needs to be in line with the audience’s goals. If I have no clue what the audience wants, I’m unlikely to accept the speaking invitation.

How to pick your topic…

Do some research on the event itself, and do some audience research. You’ll probably want to know more about your attendees. Are they typically front-line practitioners who are looking for tactics? Or are they organizational executives who care more about overall strategy? You can ask the event organizers for this, and you can search on social media to look for past tweets and LinkedIn posts from people who talked about the event last year.

You can also use a couple content marketing tools for content inspiration. Find your industry on Feedly for a refresher of some blogs and newsletters to check out. Head over to BuzzSumo to see the current, most popular content in your niche.

And of course, use SparkToro to get an even more detailed picture of your audience — their sources of influence, and the things they’re currently talking about.

The easiest way to do this is to run a search for: “My audience uses these words in their profile: <insert a job title that best represents the conference’s audience>”

Here’s a SparkToro search I ran for people whose profiles include “marketing director”:

A SparkToro Overview page showing some Demographic and Text Insights of people whose profiles include “marketing director”

Interesting. Now I know some hashtags to help me find additional content — so I’ll make a note to check Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter for those hashtags. And I see some of the frequently used phrases. I see people talking about email marketing a lot. Do I have a strong point of view here? Should I consider structuring my talk around big ideas in email marketing?

From here, I’ll look at the influential people and channels within this niche. This audience likely listens to Guy Kawasaki’s “Remarkable People” podcast. I wonder if I can find some relevant episodes that will help inspire examples for my talk! This audience also listen to “This Old Marketing.” Maybe I should give that a listen for Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose’s latest commentary on content marketing news.

I’d use all this intel to strengthen fluency in my audience, find new ideas and inspiration, and overall make sure that what I’m saying in my talk is unique and additive to the broader marketing conversation.

2. Cover your ass.

It’s the event organizers’ jobs to make sure you don’t miss deadlines — like sending your headshot and bio, submitting your outline, and sharing the completed deck. But you should be aware of all the deliverables too. Plus, it’s not very nice to make someone chase you down for your homework.

So ask for the deadlines upfront, and once your day and time is locked in, put it on your calendar.

Extra pro tip: In the case of webinars, where you’re the only speaker and you’re Zooming in remotely, ask the organizer to send you the calendar invite. That way, if the time changes, the organizer can edit the invite and you all can avoid potential confusion.

And in the “cover your ass” category, I’ll suggest that if you’re in doubt, ask for feedback early on. Don’t wait until your presentation is almost done and your deadline is tomorrow to surprise the event organizers with hesitations and questions. Consider sharing your outline before you complete your deck and get their first reactions to it. They might have suggestions for how to make your presentation even better.

Oh also, make backups of your slides. Working in PowerPoint? Make your backup in Google Slides. Using Keynote? Make a PDF deck as well. Cover all your bases. It’s unlikely you’ll get to plug your own laptop into their AV setup. Most likely, they’ll have a dedicated PowerPoint setup and you’ll get a remote control slide advancer. They’ll usually let you preview your slides onsite to make sure they’re rendering properly, but that typically doesn’t happen until the morning of the conference. You won’t want any surprises then.

3. Promote the event… if you want.

Many event organizers will want to tap into your existing audience (if you have one). And some are more upfront than others about asking for that access. In my experience, most organizers won’t expect you to do much marketing on their behalf, but they definitely welcome it.

When Rand or I speak at an event or webinar, we’ll usually engage with the promotional social media posts. When it’s especially relevant to our audience, we’ll also a include a link in our Audience Research newsletter. But we are wary about seeming overly self-promotional, so we’re reluctant to ever commit to any set promotional cycle. Here’s an example, from the top of a recent newsletter edition:

A recent webinar callout from SparkToro’s Audience Research newsletter

You can also find ways to get creative about co-marketing the event. It’s customary for speakers to get 1 complimentary conference pass, which people often use for their colleague or even for their partner. And while it’s not customary to expect multiple passes, most conference organizers are happy to give you some extra free passes if you use them to promote the event. I sometimes ask for 2-3 extra passes to raffle to my audience or gift to mentees. If your request is in the spirit of getting the word out, most organizers are happy to oblige. And if they’re not able to, they’ll politely let you know. (Don’t worry, it won’t be weird.)

All this is to say: it’s up to you and what you’re comfortable with. There are no hard and fast rules. Perhaps you have a specific platform (like a blog or personal newsletter) in which you’re comfortable being more self-promotional and directing people to purchase a ticket on the conference website. Or maybe you’ll find a competitive edge in public speaking as being the type of speaker who promises a set amount of promotional activities.

4. Practice your talk, gestures, and stage movements.

I know you know to practice your talk. But practicing is much less about reciting all the words perfectly, and much more about making sure your delivery works as a whole. Are you pacing the story in a way that reveals the stakes? Are you pausing long enough (but not too long!) to let the audience react to the joke? Practice in front of a mirror. Practice with a loved one you feel comfortable with. Or if you have the stomach for it, record yourself and actually watch it. Look for the moments your voice trails off, you forget to emote, or when your posture sags.

Speaking of posture, you’ll also want to be mindful of your body onstage. Consider practicing a couple of hand or arm gestures for emphasis. Accept that bigger gestures, no matter how ridiculous they will feel, will always look better onstage than do smaller gestures.

Case in point: Twirl your finger in a circle while saying the statement, “around the world.” It might feel more natural in the comfort of your office, with your audience of zero. Now use your whole arm in a circular gesture with the statement, “around the world.” I know. It feels silly. But trust me, it will look much better on a stage, under the spotlight, in front of an audience.

Beyond hand gestures and posture, think about moving your whole body across the stage. The best, most engaging speakers use much of the space around them. Move sideways across the stage while you’re setting up a story. Walk back across to appropriately channel your nervous energy. March several steps while you’re hammering home a point, and stop when you get to the end of your sentence. Or, just be mindful that in shifting positions, you’re making it easier for the scattered audience to see you. However you move, move with deliberation. Don’t fidget side to side just because you’re nervous.

Extra pro tip: If a professional photographer is capturing the moment, be sure to hold your poses longer. Strengthen your stance and try not to blink for several seconds. This was something I did at MozCon 2022 and I thought my pics came out alright!

Amanda onstage at MozCon 2022.

5. Dress accordingly.

My favorite advice on attire comes from Rand: What you wear should match your talk.

If you’re giving a really serious talk even in an informal setting, you probably don’t want to wear a graphic tee. If your style is more casual and even humorous, you might want to forgo the tie or overly crisp button-up.

But overall, you just need to make sure you’re comfortable. Don’t wear those dress shoes that pinch your pinky toes. And definitely don’t try a new-to-you look on the day of. You’ll end up feeling self-conscious about the bold fashion choice. (This last advice comes from my husband, who cautioned me against choosing a speaking session for the debut of my wide-legged pants: “I’m just saying, you’ve literally never worn those pants before. It’s a pretty bold statement to wear them as though it’s your usual look.”)

6. Attend the conference.

Well yeah, of course you’re going to be there. But are you really going to be there? Part of being a good conference speaker means being a good guest.

Not every speaker is able to stay for the full duration of a multi-day conference (and organizers don’t expect this), but if you can stay for an entire day, you should. Attend the other sessions, learn from the other speakers, and network with folks. You’ll get a better pulse on what’s top of mind for everyone, what they care about, and what’s resonating well. Plus, having the full picture of the event can help you better connect with the audience — perhaps you can add in a few references to the other sessions within your own talk.

If nothing else, you’re being a gracious guest. You’re enjoying the event and helping to make it a good environment for everybody.

7. Reuse your content.

Finally, if you’re going to put all this time, brainpower and energy into a single talk, you would be wise to make sure you get full use out of it. Think beyond reusing the talk. Think of how you can:

  • Use the live feedback to clarify, harden, or expound on concepts
  • Immortalize your content into a blog post (or ebook, or book)
  • Repurpose standalone bits of advice into discrete social media posts
  • Take the most tactical parts of your talk and turn them into a webinar
  • Turn your answers to the best questions from audience Q&A into blog posts

The more that you think of additional use cases for your presentation, the more you’ll create a flywheel, and the more you’ll build a path towards sustainable content. You just might find that a single talk can turn into a whole month’s worth of social media and blog content.

And if you’ve read all this advice and you still feel daunted and unsure of what to do next, you could always just… breathe.