Practical tips for public speaking – conferences & workshops

This is part of a series aimed at passing on what I’ve learned to help others get started with public speaking – to then pass on their specialist knowledge to others. Particularly women, as most of the events I attend have 70-90% male speakers. Many conference organisers are actively looking for more women to ensure greater diversity, helping to drive innovation forward and ensure more thought-provoking conversations. This is not about women being better, it’s about women having a different point of view and that view is often remarkably absent. If women want to be included in conversations they have to ‘be the change they want to see’ – step up themselves.

Building public speaking confidence:

  • Stick to what you know and really care about. Insecurity creeps in when you stray into fields where knowledge gaps start to appear.  Tell a conference organiser if they’re asking you to wander too far from your field of expertise, and suggest adjusting the theme.  If you get no joy there and you’re certain you will be a fish out of water (fundamentally – not a good fit for the audience, or perhaps jarring with the event theme), say ‘no thank you’.  Because being a square peg in a round hole can unfairly undermine your confidence, when starting out.  Think of someone else to suggest in your place, to ‘play it forward’.
  • Play to your strengths, when presenting. We all have personality traits and skills that are exceptional mixed with those that  ideally would be a lot better. But instead of obsessing about what isn’t perfect, keep your attention on what you do a great job of – and make it even better.  I have a habit of cutting to the chase. My directness and honesty is not everybody’s cup of tea but by accident, it is one of the reasons why I receive repeat invitations to talk at drone conferences in other countries.
  • Great presentations are either: excellent content (new information which is relevant to the audience, and useful) or entertaining (memorable, personal, moving or witty). Brilliant presentations combine both, to some degree. For most people, this requires years of giving it a red hot go and most of us just aren’t born with that special gift. But – we are all capable of doing a good job, and potentially changing someone’s life. Never underestimate the good that you may be able to do!  Accept that you won’t please all the people all the time and that this is ok, it is normal for every presenter!
  • Think about your favourite presentations and what made them great.
  • Remember that the audience want you to succeed. There might be the odd person in the audience who is hunting for flaws but as the saying goes ‘those who matter don’t mind, and those who mind don’t matter’. IE if someone is determined to find fault they will – but don’t waste an ounce of your time worrying about the few who do this.  If you’ve been invited or accepted as a speaker, and you’re up there giving it your all, then pat yourself on the back just for sticking your neck out. Most people never muster the courage, so just getting up on stage is commendable.
  • For me – I built public confidence simply by forcing myself take up public speaking offers (although also careful to ‘stay in my lane’, so to speak).  For me, it was at times harrowing. But if you keep doing anything and giving it your all, you will get better at it!
  • There’s some more comments relating to confidence-building, spread throughout these blog posts on public speaking.

Be well prepared – no surprises on the day!

  • Screen format (dimensions) – in advance, ensure the dimensions of your presentation match the screen to be used. Most conference screens are the standard size but newer venues sometimes use ultra-wide screens.
  • Projector quality – if you’re presenting in a less formal event venue (think – country hall or outdoor marquee), do ensure organisers are not using a $2 projector with feeble light output & that the room is sufficiently dark for the audience to be able to see your presentation. I’ve been caught with this frustration more than once.
  • If in a country where the first language isn’t English, or that’s the case for many in the audience, lean on images & diagrams more heavily. Use less text and give common words preference over more obscure. Dot points with keywords instead of sentences.
  • Style. What suits you, your audience, the event organisers, the industry or venue? I infinitely prefer quality content and character over glossy. Fancy will turn heads on the day but just like cheap cake, it won’t be remembered. And the more sophisticated a presentation is the less likely it is to be updated as often as it should be. My presentations are basic but I update them with the latest news and in response to other presentations that have just run – including audience questions.  Maximising audience relevance is the best thing you can do.
  • Use your own images – if you want your presentation to stand out, don’t use library images or graphics found on the internet – make your own. Imperfect is better than generic/impersonal.
  • Video segments can be supremely inspiring & informative. But avoid generic videos with high production values – they usually just look like expensive time-fillers that people could have watched on the internet in their own time. And it is wise to never rely on video functionality. There’s nothing worse than an audience sitting fidgeting indefinitely while a nervous presenter sorts out a technical problem. Be prepared for glitches by including a slide summarising points made in a video, in case it refuses to play. Writing up a video point summary is also an effective way to check whether the video content warrants airing.
  • Choose confident wording. Do you know your subject well? Then avoid irresolute words like ‘think’. Do sound research, stick to what you know and state your experience unequivocally.  If something could be one thing or another, a percentage or is yet to be investigated, then state that with confidence also. Provide links to other people with specific expertise, if relevant. Acknowledge your sources too.  Presenters really only come unstuck when they stray into areas they’re not experienced in and pretend they know what they don’t. Be honest.
  • Solve people’s problems. Say what other people aren’t saying. Don’t fence sit if you want their full attention.
  • Audience questions – if your session includes time for questions ensure you allow that time – it’s very frustrating for audience members to patiently wait until the end of a presentation to ask a burning question, only to discover the presenter talked non-stop for the whole session.
  • Paper summary as a backup – when you’ve finished writing your presentation write a summary of your main points onto a sheet of paper or have a backup copy on a tablet (in case your presentation can’t be screened).
  • Do a last spellcheck & check layout. Yes, obvious, but as I tinker with presentations up to the last minute I have been known to forget.
  • Not just one USB – personal preference but I copy my presentation onto 3 USBs and pack them separately, as well as uploading it to Dropbox. I have encountered a surprising number of presenters who only bring one copy of their presentation and I’ve seen sweat raised when there’s a hiccup. Each to their own, but this is sailing far too close to the wind for me!
  • Remote controllers for projectors are relatively cheap and usually come with an inbuilt pointer – well worth buying one from a stationery supplies shop, so you’re not anchored to the laptop to change PowerPoint slides.
  • Is a translation required – if presenting in another country you may be asked to provide your presentation in advance so a translation can be written down for a translator to read in another language on the day.

Usual presentation content format:

  1. Introduce yourself – take a few seconds to establish the facts regarding your background and relevant credentials. Why should anyone give what you’re about to say, any credence? Be aware of cultural differences, even within countries. EG Sydney is Australia’s most Americanised city – talking yourself up is more accepted. Run the same introduction on Cape York, and the audience will laugh. The less you look like what they’d expect or the more likely discrimination is, the more vital a pithy introduction is, to ensure the audience pays attention from the outset.
  2. Introduce the presentation – a few seconds to mention a dot point roadmap regarding what you’ll cover.
  3. Run through the body – usually centred around 3 main points.
  4. Conclusion or summary of the vital points.
  5. Your contact details, thank-you’s and any action you want the audience to take for you, organisers or themselves. EG – complete session feedback sheets? Post event comments on social media, using a hashtag?
  6. Question & answer session.

‘Tell them why you, summarise what you’re going to say, say it in detail, then conclude and open the door for a further discussion.’

Sharing your expertise and intellectual property:

  • Unless it’s the property of your employer, you own your presentation.  In Australia, your slides are automatically protected by copyright. (Note – not your ideas, however.)
  • Depending on the audience it may be appropriate to include a copyright symbol on the footer, along with your name or business name.  The more valuable your presentation is the more likely it is that others may pilfer content!
  • It’s perfectly acceptable to state guidelines regarding the recording and sharing of your presentation.  So state yes/no to the audience taking still images or videoing your session. And make it clear whether it can be shared online or only kept for their personal use.
  • I do not like being videoed by audience members holding smartphones up especially when they haven’t asked whether I minded. So I ask people not to and encourage note-taking instead – which is better for recall, anyway.
  • I do actively encourage participants to photograph any slides they like and in drone workshops include some checklists that may be helpful references for them to use. But I explain that these photos are to be for their own use only.
  • Don’t include anything in a presentation beyond a select group of trusted people, that you wouldn’t be happy to see shared on social media.  Depending on the trustworthiness of the group and whether they’re used to respecting I.P., you can ask them specifically to not take photographs of some slides.
  • For consideration of ethical and legal points of live videos, refer to my blog post on videoing the public (including at events)

On the day of the presentation:

  • Choose clothing carefully because feeling comfortable and like you fit in helps settle nerves. There’s many reasons why a jacket is wise. Top of the list is that it’s easy to whip on or off if the room temperature isn’t ideal. Ladies – if you’re on a panel wear long pants or a long skirt or dress in case they wheel out the dreaded bar stools. Not planning to be on a panel? If a panelist is unable to attend, you may be invited to step in at short notice.
  • Time keeping – use a watch with a big face, small clock or your phone with the screen setting changed so it doesn’t turn off.
  • Arrive early and check out the room as far in advance as possible; then put time into meeting a few people who will be in the audience & having conversations with them. Note any particular questions you’re asked so you can address them when presenting.
  • Meet the M.C., moderator, other panellists or anyone else involved in your session.
  • Especially if you’re running a video, hand it to the tech desk person early to give it a test run, to ensure there’s no glitches.
  • Always eat something light before your presentation and take a small bottle of water with you.
  • To dissipate nervous energy when possible I go for a lively walk around the venue before speaking.
  • Stand tall, shoulders back, equal weight on both feet and take slow, deep breaths. Taking an authoritative stance, even when extremely nervous, makes you appear confident. And ‘fake it before you make it’ does actually help. The audience is more likely to accept that you know your topic and that will in turn help you speak with confidence.
  • Speak up – project your voice and use a lower tone.
  • Personal preference but I like to move about the stage and wave my arms about to add emphasis. It helps ensure I don’t become bolted to the spot and lapse into a monotone that puts everyone to sleep, and that I do look out towards the audience.
  • Some presenters read every word they say but I’m yet to hear a speaker who can do this in a manner that is as engaging as off-the-cuff. Yes reading will ensure absolutely no detail is missed and the perfect words are used but it means diddly squat if everyone is silently dying of boredom and itching to run out of the room. Reading means you wrote it before seeing the people in front of you and it means minimal personal engagement. A more animated yet imperfect presentation usually beats a perfectly read speech hands down.  Instead of reading every word it would be simpler to provide a printed handout or screen a pre-recorded video. But – do read if there’s no other way you feel you can do it. As much as you can, just steer towards a summary of prompts rather than an every-word speech. Practice by reading it out loud to yourself – we all communicate in writing differently to how we speak; reading it out loud is the best way to ensure you’ve chosen language that will sound natural when spoken. Images on screen can be fantastic speech prompts, just practice what you’re going to say for each one. Props can also be great speech prompts – whether it’s a book you’d like hold up and comment on, a clump of vegetation, a piece of equipment or whatever will remind you of the point you wanted to make. You could line your props up in a row in front of you – the audience will be intrigued!
  • Start bang on time. Do not make those who have arrived promptly wait for those who have not and end up having to prune your presentation or impinge on the following session. The only exception may be that if another session has run late, so a slab of the audience can’t help a delayed arrival.
  • If the rabble are noisy and you want to start, seek some allies to help get a word in, and/or raise your voice and get started. Normally once it’s clear you’ve got going, the audience will settle and start listening.
  • If your session is the last before a long lunch break or the end of the day it may not matter if you run over time and it may be worth continuing if there are a lot of animated questions coming, even if some people are leaving.  But never encroach on another presenter’s allotted time or take the audience for granted. And you’ll get a sense when the audience is getting antsy, and it’s best to wind up.

Fiona Lake presenting an ‘Introduction to Drones in Agriculture’ session at the 2018 AWIA conference. I’m drawing attention to a blog post mentioned on the slide that contains a lot of detail regarding ‘what is the best drone to buy’. When the audience is quite varied I often include references in presentations so that people who are keen can follow up for more information later, rather than run through it all in shorter presentations. (Thanks to Terri Cowley for the image).

Responding to audience questions:

  • When you’re asked a very good question remember to first thank the enquirer, before giving the answer. (How you respond will encourage or discourage
  • If someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, say so clearly, and that you’ll find out for them & get back to them with your findings. Ask them to provide their email address (or other contact means) after the session ends.

Handling headaches:

  • Sometimes an audience member will voice disagreement. This may be because your meaning wasn’t clear to them so clarification is all that’s required (and note to self to explain better, next time). Or they believe you are wrong. In response wheel out facts to back up what you say. If the required figures or references don’t spring to mind (it can feel like being a rabbit in the headlights), explain that your information is based on solid experience or research and that you’ll be happy to debate further, after the session conclusion. Do NOT hesitate to assert your position. You are the one who has been invited to talk and you’ve been invited because of your expertise.  It doesn’t mean you know everything or are always right but it does mean audience members are expected to be respectful. Do not engage in ongoing to-ing and fro-ing up on stage – after answering, shift further discussion to after the session concludes.
  • Sometimes people ask very specific questions that are not of interest to the majority of the audience (or even irrelevant to the subject on hand). If a detailed answer is required respond with ‘great question but it’s very specific and the answer requires some explaining – happy to talk about it with you after the session ends’.
  • If you’re really unlucky you may get some audience members who talk amongst themselves. Get in quickly and ask them nicely but bluntly to continue their conversation outside, as it will make it hard for others to hear.  Although if you think they are discussing the topic in hand, you can put them on the spot by asking if they have a question. The audience will thank you for dealing with a distraction promptly and calmly – don’t leave it until everyone is getting irritated. Thankfully I haven’t had this problem but I have seen it happen to others.
  • If you spot a presentation typo or make a minor error – sail on without comment. If it’s an issue that must be addressed keep the explanation & apology as succinct as possible. People are there to learn, so they’ll want you to move on rather than dwell on it.

One of the jobs the moderator or M.C. is to manage time. Some do it brilliantly while others don’t do it at all.

  • A good moderator or M.C. will call for questions from the floor and clearly state ‘please only questions, not comments’; and cut short audience members who mistakenly think they’re the one who should be on stage – commenting to show off their own knowledge or mansplaining,  rather than asking a question.
  • They’ll also cut short the quarrelsome, bitter political ranters and plain attention-seekers. If this isn’t done for you, butt in and do it yourself – the rest of the audience will be very grateful. Your obligation is to the whole audience not an individual taking up everyone’s time thoughtlessly. ‘If I could just interrupt; you raise a very interesting point but we may run out of time, we can instead continue discussing this topic in more detail after the session ends. Does anyone else have a question?’
  • The drone industry is full of self-appointed experts. During one large full-day workshop one bloke constantly chipped in with his opinions and minor disagreements. Thankfully I’d be running workshops for a while and I only present on topics I know thoroughly, so it was easy to be unfazed rather than fall into the trap of becoming defensive. He did raise some good points and I deflected his erroneous chip-ins with ‘I think you’ll find that’s not actually correct’, to avoid engaging in a long-winded argument & boring everyone else senseless.  Often someone who is noisy can liven up a long session in a very useful manner – potentially becoming an asset. I’ve never had to shut one down. After this workshop ended and most had left, a local came up to me and apologised for the ‘resident know-it-all’ who apparently makes a habit of such behaviour.  It was a reminder to not take things personally. If an audience member is being difficult then you can be certain it’s a habit and that the issue is with them, not you, and the rest of the audience want you to take charge, albeit diplomatically.  I always make notes on audience comments as the session proceeds, and thank people for the points raised. I later checked the facts this bloke disagreed with and found out his claims were as I suspected, wrong, but I added some more detail in other places.

Providing your contact details to conference attendees & workshop participants:

  • Think carefully about each event audience, regarding what contact details you are prepared to share at the end of your presentation.  People may be offended if you do not respond promptly, in detail or on an ongoing basis stretching way into the future. Do you want people ringing you up? Or you’d prefer they emailed you? Or just contacted you via social media, EG LinkedIn? Unless you’re selling something, think about what suits you not them and don’t put contact details up on a screen if you’re not happy for them to end up on social media.
  • Clearly state contact preferences and guidelines, such as hours to ring.
  • Be aware that some people do use professional events as a dating service while others may just want to suck your brain dry and for you to do their thinking for them. Ensure it’s clear why your contact details are being provided.
  • Most of the time I just provide my website address, as that already has contact details spelt out, including office hours for phonecalls. Introducing a small amount of effort helps reduce messages from just tyre-kickers and my website contact form requires that people have to enter their contact details, so I know who I’m talking to.

When your session concludes:

  • Don’t forget to encourage feedback form completion, if relevant.
  • Point to a stack of business cards if you have them and suggest connecting via LinkedIn.
  • Invite audience members to approach you with further questions or conversation, and explain where and when. EG if you’re at the conference all day and there’s a lunch break coming up, invite people to approach you then. This can make a big difference to people who are shy or raised in more reticent cultures, regarding how at ease they feel about approaching you.
  • Be mindful of presenters following you and help clear the room for them to get started.

Remember that you’ve been asked to speak for a reason, stand up and talk honestly about what you know and what you care about and try to stick to time. Remember that doing your absolute best is all that anyone can ask and that the majority of audiences are great people.  And each time you talk publicly you’ll get a bit better and more confident.

After the presentation – write down clarifications and extra points that may have been raised by audience questions. I usually sit down with my laptop and update the presentation that night while it’s all fresh.

Note: This blog post was written in January 2020 and has since been updated.

For further information on workshops & conference presentations: