So You’ve Been Asked to Speak at a Conference… header image

So You’ve Been Asked to Speak at a Conference…

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You intended to start on your conference presentation weeks ago but you got interrupted; by the phone, emails, deadlines, yoga, juggling the kids schedule, flossing your teeth. Basically, anything and everything was a good excuse to delay your prep.

Life interrupted.  

Now you’re staring at the calendar as nausea and dread wash over. It’s almost here, you haven’t even crafted an outline, and the conference is requesting a copy of your slide deck.

It’s right about this time that I get frantic emails from friends or clients. A month ago a friend texted me while sitting in her car parked at her child’s soccer game trying to write an outline for a talk she was doing the following day!

Events can be scary, whether it’s for a smaller internal event or a larger external conference.

What you need is not a margarita or even more time; you need a game-plan. In fact, if you had a reliable game plan months ago, you probably wouldn’t have procrastinated this late.

Planning a keynote, breakout session or talk is like baking a cake; that’s our game-plan. (And it sounds more appetizing than message development, right?)

First, you have to decide what to bake: What’s your main idea?

You may think this is obvious but you’d be surprised how many people prepare a presentation before knowing what outcomes they want to achieve. Ask yourself: What do you want people to think or feel differently about when you’re done? What’s the main idea? Without this being clear, people may not understand why you chose all the flavors you did. Talking points can seem disconnected without context. This is why people walk out of meetings or sessions feeling more confused than when they walked in. No one’s on the same page. Direction was too vague. It was a waste of everyone’s time because your objectives weren’t clear.

Last year I watched several entrepreneurs pitch to angel investors. They knew their main ideas – it was the business model they’ve tweaked for years, in some cases. Unfortunately after one pitch, an investor commented, “After 5 minutes of hearing you speak, I still have no clue what your business does.” Knowing your main idea isn’t good enough. You have to articulate it well.

Take action: Clearly name your recipe. Create your last slide first to guide the rest of your content towards your main idea.


Second, figure out your ingredients:  What are your talking points?

It’s not enough to have a great product or idea; you have to validate them. Perhaps you’re presenting a product road map and you have to support why certain decisions were made.

Maybe your talk is more personal in nature; what are the stories you want to share that validates your life lesson?

Start by jotting down a rudimentary outline of basic concepts, ideas, or take-aways that support your main idea. For example, when I was working with TEDx speaker Ragini Dindukurthi (quite a brave 15 year old girl!), these were her ingredients:

-Opening: The rise of virtual reality but a call to use it for the greater good
-Main idea: Use virtual reality to solve phantom limb pain for amputees
-What is phantom limb pain (plp) and who suffers
-Historic treatment for plp
-How virtual reality can solve plp
-Current research being done
-Close: Recommendations for advancement

We thoughtfully filled each section with interesting and validated information. We also crafted clear transitional statements between ideas to comfortably guide the audience through the talk.

Take action: Support your main idea with the right ingredients. Have a content game plan with a strong lead in, well-crafted transitions between ideas, and a strong finish.

Third, bake it: Practice.

Without baking, you have unappetizing raw batter. You may have all the right ingredients but if it doesn’t bake, it’s not good. Similarly, you can’t give a good presentation with a bad delivery. Steven Jobs was known for being an excellent communicator. He set vision. He inspired people. And guess what, he also practiced religiously. All those ‘naturally good’ speakers you see, they weren’t born that way. They didn’t accidentally become good. You’re observing intentional work paying off.

I know your calendars are full and life interrupts but commit to excellence, especially when influencing others with your ideas. If Jobs could, we can. Practically this means 7 days before your event, have most of your content baked and plot blocks in your calendar for standing in an empty room and practicing the presentation out loud. The temptation to continually tweak content will result in more anxiety and less retention as you make late changes. Know when to stop messing with the ingredients and get that thing into the oven. Then work on nailing the delivery.

Take action: Check out our new 30 minute online class for practical tips on how to elevate your delivery skills.

Lastly, let it cool:   Stop practicing!

I know I just told you to practice but there comes a time when you need a break. Stop overthinking. Stop worrying. If you’ve done good work and prepared well, you now need to let go and trust your practice. Practically, this may be a couple hours before a shorter presentation or a whole day before a larger presentation.

At TEDxPortand, this cooling period is my favorite part of the whole process. It happens after rehearsal day, the day before the big event. Our brains are mush. We’ve spent an ungodly amount of hours in preparation. But once we’re done with run-throughs, we stop practicing and we break bread together. We have a fancy private dinner with a room of 60 people to toast our hard work.

Take action: Rest! Build out practice time in your calendar working back from the event but also block out a resting period right before your opportunity.

What we really remember…

At the end of the day, people don’t remember conferences for the signature cocktails, beautiful slide decks, colorful lanyards, or swag bags full of sponsor-branded items.

We remember speakers for how they made us feel: motivated, empowered, equipped, surprised, informed. Sadly, we endure a lot of average conference speakers who couldn’t find the time to craft meaningful content or deliver it in a compelling way.

That’s good news for you because exceeding expectations won’t be hard! To be remembered for all the right reasons, make a game-plan, build it into your calendar, and then the gimmicky branded hand sanitizers are just the cherries on top!