Simple tips on effective public speaking, particularly at conferences

Public speaking varies considerably, so I’ll stick in this post to proferring unsolicited advice on speaking at business conferences.

Speaking is probably the wrong word. Contributing critically, thoughtfully and pragmatically would be a better, if lengthier term.

Based on my experience of creating, running/chairing business conferences since 1999 (I think the total is probably well over 150 of them by now) here’s some thoughts below on making your contribution count for something.

It’s worth noting that I base this advice more on the last five years of my career than the first fifteen. At Innovation Forum, the company I founded in 2014, we specialise in this approach of beyond PowerPoint, beyond mumbling panels with endless introductions. So here’s my musings: (other opinions are available, and yes, your statutory rights are unaffected)

  1. Make sure you are qualified. I can’t tell you the amount of mumbling, shouldn’t-have-been-there speakers I’ve had to facilitate sessions with. Why they said yes I don’t know. Even if filling in for a colleague, say no if you don’t know the subject well enough to enter into an intellectually critical debate about it. You are making a prat of yourself if you do it when you shouldn’t. It’s really that simple. You are also wasting your time, and the time of everyone else involved.
  2. Don’t use PowerPoint unless to display simple things. You wouldn’t be allowed to at one of our events anyhow, but the rule should go for all others. Instead, use images, of people, of visually compelling items, places or scenes. Use data if you need to, but display it simply, not in some hugely complex blurry slide. If you use images, data slices / charts, be ruthless about which you use. Cut your first draft by 70%, then stick to that.
  3. Don’t use video. Video seems like a great idea. It isn’t. Unless your video is 30 seconds of utter brilliance (which it won’t be, let’s be honest) it may SEEM like a good idea, but it will bomb, always. Corporate videos of course, are the worst. Remember this, unless you have that 30 second of genius to show, video is one way condescension to/for the audience, almost always.
  4. Don’t sit down, ever, if it’s just you. Insist on standing, it will be better. Panels are of course different, as you can’t control the setup.
  5. Dress well, and dress simply but don’t wear a tie or over do the formality.
  6. Speak as slowly as you can without sounding like a drunk trying to cover that fact up. Clarity is so important.
  7. Keep your narrative plan simple, someone once said, “tell ’em what you are going to tell ’em, tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em” Very good advice.
  8. Know your audience. Simple is good, but I once watched Joe Stiglitz deliver a lecture for 18 year olds on economics to 1000 experienced managers. Ouch. So know WHO you are taking to, and keep “simple” relative.
  9. Keep your head up. This makes a huge difference to how you sound.
  10. If you use notes, don’t read from them. If you have to read from notes, or slides (the absolute worst, how many presentations have you seen where someone puts up five bullets and then reads them really slowly, with little insight additions, to the audience?) then you should turn down the gig until you know your stuff.
  11. Have an opinion, please! Anodyne ‘on the one hand this, on the other hand that’ stuff is for generals in war rooms, not for audience engagement. I’m not saying become overly radical in your views, but remember the Monty Python definition of an argument: “A series of statements designed to establish a proposition” (they all went to Oxford, studied Plato). So WHAT is your point? Please have one, and keep coming back to it, particularly at the end.
  12. Be honest about the trade offs in your argument. No solution, proposition is perfect. Acknowledge the flaw in your position before others do, it’s disarming, charming and realistic. We choose the best of several bad choices as solutions to a problem, often, and with the knowledge of unintended consequences. Be frank about that.
  13. Keep to time, always. It’s basic manners
  14. Smile. But not like a maniac. Make it real. Practice.
  15. Remember: EVERYONE wants you to be good. If you are dire, it’s just as bad for the audience. They are on your side. Confidence is important.
  16. Be prepared, in debate formats, to be contradicted. Don’t get angry or annoyed. Disarm, question, and acknowledge. That shows you grasp shades of grey and ambiguity. Be prepared, and hope to come away from a good discussion session not seething that you were contradicted, but curious as to how others thought about it differently and use it to learn from.

I could go on, but I’m at 16 points already, and point 13 is important. Time is limited, let’s use it well.

More about what we do at Innovation Forum, and our events, is at: https://innovation-forum.co.uk

Update on 18/09/18. (Not that the date matters really, does it?). Stuart Poore and Mallen Baker suggested these additions, in that order (edited and rephrased a little):

17. Don’t pitch your firm. Only talk about things your organisation is doing if it’s to make a specific and interesting point with wider resonance that challenges the audience.

18. Stick to the topic at hand. I’ve often chaired sessions with a fascinating topic but speakers completely ignore it and give their usual pitch instead.