Public speaking – how to get started presenting at conferences or running workshops

Formal education should be just the foundation for life-long learning. Google is a perpetual feast of information and despite the advent of webinars, conference calls, Skype, Zoom, Slack and other conversations via technology, in-person gatherings can’t be beaten for speeding knowledge ahead, increasing understanding and creating strong networks . Over the last 3 decades I’ve attended countless educational events in person and online; on photography, marketing/social media and agriculture; and more recently – drones.

Many industries desperately need a greater diversity of speakers at their events to provide a wider and more thought-provoking range of views and an increased range of speaker styles. Thus resulting in a more powerful and more entertaining learning experience for all involved.  Some events look like a roll call from my primary school days (John, Peter, Paul, Mark, Andrew etcetera). But this is not about women being better it’s about women being different. Nearly every industry needs more women on the stage amongst the men. Especially the ag tech and drone industries.

And here’s the thing: I’ve met many conference organisers who have been looking for more women to speak at their event – but they sometimes struggle to find willing participants.

First to dispel two erroneous assumptions: nobody is born knowing how to do a good job of imparting information to an audience. And it’s wrong to presume good speakers aren’t nervous. It takes effort and persistence. But it can be incredibly rewarding to impart knowledge learned over many years and help others.

How do you begin, as a conference speaker or workshop presenter?

I was first asked to present at a conference, out of the blue, in 2000. It was a white-knuckle experience not helped by the fact that the following speaker wasn’t a particularly pleasant individual.  I had no idea where to get information on how to do it. Living in a remote area didn’t help (no local library) and the internet wasn’t going to help because it was then only young – no handy speaker blogs. This was not an auspicious beginning. It took about 17 years to really become confident – but that’s just me – I’m sure you’ll get there faster! Being a perfectionist I still leave the stage mulling over what I think I may have done better, and usually update my presentation notes that night. But I also know that if I didn’t think that, then it would mean there was no possibility of improvement.

Understand this: a lot of confidence doesn’t = great speaker.  Speaking is a combination of interesting content plus entertaining delivery. Someone not good at delivery can still be well worth listening to because their content is good. And some fantastic speakers actually have stuff-all to say. They’re like cheap cake with fancy-looking icing. They don’t change your life and you’ve forgotten them moments later (apart from remembering the money wasted).  Content is king. Stick to what you know and look for gaps – what are other speakers not saying, that would be useful for others to know? Once a person has been around for half a lifetime we all have observations, experience or knowledge worth sharing, and delivery is like bike-riding, you just get better with practice.

Nervous is normal. Being terrified is something you just move beyond via practice.  You can be certain that audiences want you to succeed (unless you’re at a political rally).

Getting started:

  • Local interest groups – short talks on something you know that they don’t and that they will find relevant and useful. Small friendly audience and free of charge. So no pressure – which means it’s easier to do a good job of delivery. But treat it like a job, don’t be casual about it. Start your research early and undertake it thoroughly, and write then rewrite then do it again. You can’t do too much preparation.  Most groups meet regularly and are always on the look out for meeting speakers, so ask them if they’re interested.  For me, camera clubs would have been the obvious place to start. And I wish that was where my start was, rather than a large auditorium with a few hundred people!  My start was #101 how not to do it. I don’t think anyone can go from nought to 100 in nanoseconds and do a good job  (I’ve sat in the audience and empathised with speakers who’ve made the same mistake as me).
  • Apply to national then international events as your experience and time allows, and confidence builds.  Check out the backgrounds of other speakers to see if your experience is up to scratch.  Along the way attend many presentations given by others, and pay attention to their style as well as their content, and figure out what will and won’t work for you.  It takes ongoing work to maintain or improve quality.
  • Most annual conferences put out a call for speaker proposals more than 6 months before the event is on. Pay attention to the proposal instructions and follow them. Make life easier for organisers from the outset – and ensure your proposed talk fits into their themes. Be mindful of the likely audience (age range, other interests, diversity, experience levels, professional or recreational etc).  If you can value-add in some way, then suggest it (and make sure you do it, if you get the gig.) Some conferences don’t call for speakers, they prefer to head-hunt. If you miss the proposal deadline but you’re keen, send them an email – you never know, they may have a gap on the program that you’d be ideal for.  If it’s early, you can send them an email asking whether your field may be of interest to them.

Fiona Lake presenting at Commercial UAV Expo Europe, Amsterdam. (Image by Pieter Magielsen)

Roadblocks to public speaking; how women typically operate quite different to most men:

Countless surveys and thorough research by a wide variety of people has revealed that most men will apply for a role (whether it’s a job or a public speaking opportunity) even though they may be substandard or completely lacking some of the essential criteria. Whereas most women won’t even contemplate applying unless they’re 100% confident that they tick every single box. And women are less likely to persist after a knock-back, taking it as indicating they’re not up to it. Note that I said most, not all.

This principle applies across the board. A published author explained research that showed women will often submit a book manuscript to publishers just once, if it’s rejected by the first one they try. They typically take the rejection to mean their work isn’t good enough and retreat. Whereas on average, men will keep submitting their manuscript to many other publishers before giving up entirely. Men tend to interpret the rejection slips as indicating the publishers are at fault!  When in fact rejection could be due to either reason, or a number of others – from timing to budget constraints.

A few years ago it never entered my head that I should run drone workshops. ‘I knew nothing!’. As I do things all or nothing, I attended a lot of drone workshops and conferences. As I learned I discovered that every single one I attended was either lacking vital information or there was incorrect information being given. And they were not holistic – very narrow in their view, and often run by people who weren’t licenced, didn’t fly drones at all, or who knew nothing about small business. Then I thought I’d better ‘put my money where my mouth was’ and run some myself, rather than just thinking negatively on the sidelines!

Like many women I do have to beat ‘impostor syndrome’ back. But I have had a lifetime of making myself step out of my comfort zone simply because it was essential in order to achieve my aims (primarily relating to rural advocacy). Countless times I have ‘felt the fear and done it anyway’. Things that are hard are rewarding; easy is not satisfying or character building.  I receive thoughtful feedback and have been invited back by many event organisers, so figure that while presentations are never perfect they are good enough to be useful.


Payment – what do conference speakers and workshop presenters get paid?

Conference speakers:

In short – very little. Apart from celebrity dinner speakers, most conference speakers do it for one or more of these reasons:

  1. To consolidate their own knowledge, learn new skills and knowledge, and meet others working in the same field (networking)
  2. Make the world a better place by helping a specific industry, advancing innovation or solving a problem
  3. Raise their professional profile as an expert in their field (which can lead to money-making opportunities elsewhere).
  • There’s huge variation according to the value/interest in what you can offer vs what the event host can afford.
  • But it all boils down to supply and demand.  Running events isn’t for the faint hearted, there can be many costs and conference organisers are often in a sweat just beforehand – will they get enough attendees to cover their costs?
  • So do you have solid speaking experience plus useful knowledge that isn’t particularly common, but which is of use to a large number of people? Your value will rise when short supply meets high demand.  If you’re an independent operator, such as I am, it’ll take much longer to get runs on the board and convince others of your credibility compared to someone who has a high-profile formal position, such as a company CEO.
  • When you’re starting out you usually won’t even get costs covered – it’s all a donation.
  •  The first way you’ll get some cash back in your bank account is via having some or all of your travel-related costs paid for. This starts to happen once you’re working at regional or industry conferences, you become better known in your field and you get referral work, or can refer enquirers to previous event organisers to obtain an honest view of your presentation ability.
  • Conference speakers are mostly only paid for their time/expertise if they are a drawcard – IE their presence at the conference encourages many other people to attend. Think company CEOs, celebrities, sports stars and comedians. People on pedestals that others really want to listen to and/or meet.  In Australia, household name celebrities often command $50,000 or more for speaking at a conference or dinner.  Sounds great but remember that these are people who are at the pinnacle of their respective fields, who didn’t get there without a massive amount of grunt work. People who are not already high-profile for other reasons cannot scale these heights.
  • Many conferences give speakers a thank-you gift. (Please no to flowers, they don’t travel on planes well; and no to wine, not everyone drinks wine nor does it travel well!)  And some conferences, rather than all-or-nothing payment arrangements (a keynote receiving tens of thousands of dollars & the rest nothing at all), give all speakers a set amount, EG $500 each.

Workshop presenters:

  • Are generally much better paid than conference speakers, particularly if they organise and run workshops themselves and there’s a defined business outcome.
  • After cost-recovery most people are only paid for their time/expertise for running a workshop.  IE you’re imparting some specifically useful knowledge to a select group of people that will help them with their work or hobby in ways that are probably easily measurable.

In summary:

  • Think about it from the event organiser’s point of view. Why you should be paid? What value do you add to the event, will attendees be encouraged to attend?
  • Estimate your value/usefulness. Do you have an uncommon level of skill, do you have higher costs than some other presenters (eg travelling from further away, drone insurance & short lifespan equipment). Research whether there many other people who could deliver the same content as you and with a similar level of speaking experience.  If the answer is yes, then advance your skills further.
  • Estimate a value on any in-kind benefits you may receive and assess the real value for you.

When considering conference speaker payments it’s also vital to consider who is arranging the conference. Because there’s quite a difference between speaker payment and other arrangements, depending on who the organisers are:

  1. A group of conference volunteers? EG rural women’s conferences are typically run by very busy women donating all of their time, with perhaps just one paid person handling admin & finance. Unfortunately as so often the case it’s often a committee with several people doing most of the work & the rest just fronting up to hand out name badges & be included in thank-yous.  Many volunteers end up out of pocket themselves, even if it’s just their vehicle costs. The annual QRRRWN conference is a stand out for other rural women’s conferences to emulate – because all speakers and workshop presenters have shared accommodation paid for, plus an at-cost travel allowance – and the conference fee is waived. And this is clearly stated on the website so it’s a level playing field. If QRRRWN can make this work on the modest budget they have, others should be able to (but they don’t).  QRRRWN conferences are also a fantastic opportunity for rural women to get workshop presentation experience.
  2. Industry bodies – arranged by full-time, paid staff or via a professional conference organiser (who usually follows standard practices re who gets paid & how much, and who doesn’t).  They’ll often run off a template from year-to-year – and are the most likely to have predictable (‘safe’) speakers and many of the same old faces.  There are exceptions but the highlight for many at ag industry conferences is meeting up with old friends, rather than the presentations.  This could mean it’s easier to be a stand-out presenter but you’ll have to be good to drag them back in from the smoko table.  But – industry conference speaker lists are often full of people who are in full time paid salary roles – whose company covers the cost of attendance – and industry members who are happy to cover their own costs in order to help others in their industry. If the conference is in your own industry you may be expected to fund your own travel costs as well as all your time.
  3. Commercial conference organisers plan and run stand-alone conferences independently of industry organisations, purely for profit. Due to Australia’s low population few of these companies exist in Australia but there are quite a few in the US and some in Asia and the Middle East that I’ve come across, running agricultural and drone conferences.  Sometimes they run events in Australia, if they perceive an unmet demand where a profit can be made.  My experience has been that conference organising companies are super professional, using tried and tested systems and with good communication skills. They will usually pay all or most travel costs if they invite you to speak at their conference but often this is only if you ask them what the commercial arrangement is (naturally they prefer to keep the cash in their bank rather than yours). Australians can usually expect to pay at least $1,500 for a return airfare to anywhere overseas that we’re likely to be asked to speak, so we’re not top on the list of expense-reimbursed international speakers (and less likely to get airfares reimbursed). But we can usually expect to receive cost-free accommodation for the duration of the conference, plus free conference attendance. It is reasonable to expect that an event that is promoted as being ‘international’ in standing, pays all the travel costs of the invited international speakers.

Unfortunately I have seen speakers take payment or cost covering for granted and not put effort into value-adding, let alone any thought regarding being good value for conference organisers.  At one conference this year, an overseas presenter listened to hardly any other presenters though in the same field, instead lounging outside eating from the cake display.  He spent hours showing the conference organisers, other speakers and attendees that he was not interested in listening to anyone else.  Manners AWOL and a repeat invitation is likely to be lost in the mail.

Commercial conference organisers are my favourite to deal with because I’m in business, they’re in business, we speak the same language and understand that like all good relationships the value exchange must be reciprocal and trust goes both ways.  They’re often more interested in discussing ideas and appreciate value-adding (EG help promoting the conference online). That said – they’re hard-nosed and rarely offer to cover travel & accommodation costs, let alone pay for your time & expertise, although they’re running a purely profit-driven event. Weigh up what’s really in it for you (EG career progression or the opportunity to help an industry you care about) and carefully weigh up the pros & cons of participation.

I’ve also found conference organising companies to be a breath of fresh air in the drone and agricultural industries, because they have an open mind regarding speakers and just hunt for the best they can find, for unique and valuable content, without preconceived notions or any nepotism. They also avoid sales-pitch presenters so attendees can be assured useful content rather than advertorials. Not to suggest there aren’t shark operators in this field, but these conference organising companies have a business reputation to protect and are undoubtedly less of a risk than conferences run by volunteers, which sometimes end up a shambles.

In summary – re being paid to speak at conferences and other events: don’t ask – don’t get. Ask what the financial arrangements are early on and politely. BUT only after considering carefully where you sit on the experience & drawcard ladder and the payment scale.  Over-reaching or thoughtless demands can be remembered by harried conference organisers and hinder the chance of a repeat offer. Ensure clear communication from the start. I came across one disaster when an invited speaker just presumed all their costs would be covered (around $2,000), without any discussion, only to discover just before the event that this was not the case. They threw a hissy fit and pulled out just before the event – not managed well by either party.

And conference organisers are wise to implement a logical payment schedule across the board, to ensure logical equality, as speakers do discuss payment arrangements with one another.  It’s not a good look to be forking out large amounts of money to some and little or none at all to other speakers at the same level.

2 day drone workshop run by Fiona Lake for the Blackall Cultural Association (RADF funded)

But what is the difference between a conference, congress, convention, symposium & summit? And workshop, seminar and forum?

If you’re considering attending or speaking at an event, or particularly if you’re planning to run an event – understanding or using the title right matters.

There’s a multitude of different definitions & there’s regional differences in interpretation. They’re all gatherings of people focusing on a particular industry or interest or a specific aspect of either.

  • Audience – science/research vs government/corporate vs hands-on practitioners/small business people. Science conferences typically ask for speakers to present papers, which may be made available to all attendees.  Speakers are less likely to be paid and in fact even expected to pay the full registration fee – because of the perceived benefit in publicising their research work.  Events run with a government focus are also likely to not pay speakers, as so many speakers and attendees are fully funded by taxpayers & there’s sometimes no understanding of what small businesses can afford, in terms of expenses, donating time and giving away expertise for nothing.
  • The style of presentations: lecture style (be quiet and listen) or more discussion/interaction (less structured and more time consuming) – often regarding problem-solving.
  • Presentation variations. EG an emphasis on keynote addresses – leaders of national or international importance, or storytelling speakers (EG over dinner – inspiring talks from people in  unrelated fields) or well-regarded hands-on industry practitioners. Are there many panel sessions and opportunities for conversations and discussions, in small groups or amongst all attendees? And are open discussions and questions actively encouraged – or not much.
  • Size & catchment.  Is it a local, regional, state, national or international event?  Parochial (with details only pertaining to the immediate area) or global (attendees & speakers with a genuine interest in the whole planet, not just their own patch).

Event titles can be misleading. Often whether a gathering is called a drone conference, congress, convention or symposium simply boils down to which term the organisers think will sound more appealing to top level speakers and the most number of attendees and tradeshow stand holders.  In Australia, conferences and workshops are the two main gatherings.

  • Conference – one-off or annual; a gathering of a large number of people associated with a particular industry or field of interest.  Usually a variety of related topics are covered and via more than one kind of presentation – eg some keynote or dinner speakers (high-profile drawcards, experts in their field, celebrities (sport or entertainment) or top-listed sponsor representatives; giving overviews; often no questions), panel sessions (panellists sit together on stage, each gives a short summary talk, then the audience is invited to ask questions of individual panellists or the panel as a whole), session speakers (break-out sessions where audience members choose which to attend; often 45 minutes plus 15 minutes of question time but sometimes half that time or less. Audience members are sometimes invited to ask questions throughout, but not usually until the end – this can depend on the formality of the event, length of speaker’s session and individual speaker’s preferences.)
  • Congress – similar to a conference but usually national and run by an organisation.  May be mostly attended by representatives eg of regional chapters or industry bodies.  Accompanied by a greater aura of gravitas, probably why this term is more commonly used in the US than Australia.
  • Convention – like a congress but usually a gathering of like-mindeds run by an organisation such as a political party, union, large company or religious organisation. So a bit more ra-ra; a gathering of the faithful – people with the same beliefs. Again, a term more commonly used in the US than Australia, where we tend to be fonder of some feisty dissent.
  • Symposium – like a conference but smaller scale, usually no longer than a day.
  • Summit – typically a gathering of national leaders either in government or a particular industry to discuss and decide on policies. (Summit meaning the highest level possible. Think NATO, OPEC, UN etc.)
  • Workshop – a small number of attendees (often just 10-20) with a solitary presenter imparting knowledge on a specific subject with a practical outcome in mind. (Rather than a whole lot of extra topics, features and presenters that may not appeal, as sometimes happens at conferences.)  More personal, with participant interaction plus hands-on content if relevant.  Held at random times; one-off or a related sequence over a number of weeks. Each workshop is usually only an hour or two if part of a sequence, up to one or two consecutive days if the workshop is a one-off.  Attendees are usually all locals if the subject isn’t especially uncommon; but if the topic is unusual attendees may travel long distances for a weekend workshop (EG attendees have travelled 1,000km to attend one of my drone photography workshops.)   Often organised by an individual, or organised by a group who engaged the services of an individual to be the workshop presenter, sometimes with industry or government funding.  Often only advertised locally or to an email mailing list, and sometimes at short notice.
  • Seminar – similar to a workshop but only theory – a more formal lecture (sit down and listen) rather than interaction and hands-on content. One-off event and usually a limited number of speakers; perhaps just one.
  • Forum – a gathering for open discussion of issues and problem-solving – many people have the opportunity to speak.  EG a community forum to discuss local crime solutions.

Drone World Congress, Shenzhen, China; presenters from the US, Turkey, Nepal, The Netherlands and Australia (including Fiona Lake)

Why speak at conferences or present workshops?

  • The best way to take your knowledge and skill up to another level is to teach others.
  • You’ll also learn from listening to the other presenters, and even if you’re an unpaid speaker, assisting with costs or waiving the registration fees helps with attendance affordability.
  • Give back to individuals, industry and society – pass on the information that you’d loved to have had when you were starting out; and help your industry forge ahead.
  • Presenting builds your professional credibility and can lead to sales of goods or services.
  • Build your confidence. You’re only going ahead when you’re not comfortable.
  • If things go well, you may be able to boost your income directly.

Summary – if you want to start helping others by passing on what you’ve learned, by speaking publicly:

  • Stick to what you know and what you care a lot about.  (Many celebrities fall into the trap of spouting on outside their field of expertise, and it often doesn’t go down well, even with fans.)
  • Think like an audience member when you speak. What do you like or not like?  What problems are the audience likely to have – can you help solve them?
  • After every presentation, make notes on what to improve next time.
  • Do not give the exact same presentation every time. You must keep it fresh & tweak it for each audience – make it locally relevant and personal.
  • You’ll never be the pinnacle for every single person. So forget trying because you’ll end up being so generic the audience will fall asleep. You know your topic so give honest opinions based on your experience. Take risks.
  • What you wear matters. People can’t help but form a view in less than a second, long before you’ve opened your mouth. So think about it. You can either blend in and immediately look credible, or deliberately wear something unexpected and set the scene for something out of the ordinary. Or just go for professional-standard comfort. Your choice – just make sure it doesn’t happen by chance.
  • Physical matters. Do what you would do if you were self-assured, and this will help you feel confident and impart useful information for others.
  • If you pass on some gems that make a lasting difference to some people in the audience, then that’s a great outcome for everyone.

For further information on workshops & conference presentations: