Becoming a Better Conference Presenter

By John Oxford

In the yearly cycle of business conferences, early spring and mid-fall are usually when you pack up and hit the road to learn, network and share ideas. When “conferencing,” there are many types of presenters whom you will experience. You may even be one—or an aspiring one—yourself.

As a former university speech teacher, in this week’s Marketing Money Podcast with Josh Mabus I share a few tips on what it takes to become a conference speaker and what makes a great or not-so-great experience for both the speaker and the conference audience. (In fact, these tips apply to any presentation you might make in your bank marketing career, whether at a conference, a corporate event at your bank or a community gathering.)

Speaker and employee engagement coach Kelli Vrla has a saying that the success on your presentation can be summed up in three simple parts. It’s the presentation you bake, the presentation you make and the presentation you take.

The presentation you bake

Much like baking a cake, the ingredients, effort and timing you put into a presentation make it rise to the occasion or fall flat. It really shows when presenters are trying to wing it, have not prepared or are just trying to give a pitch of what they want to sell vs providing value to be consumed by the audience. Sometimes these can be same, but an audience will always know when they are being sold versus being given value for their time.

A few quick ingredients for baking a great presentation include: Practice, practice, practice. Spend one hour practicing your speech for every minute you are asked to speak. I know what you’re thinking. You’re telling me if I have a 20 minute speech, I need to spend 20 hours on it! Yes, that’s exactly it. We’re talking about being great here, not just speaking to speak. And the more practiced you are, the better and more confident you’ll be, which will lead to more speaking and maybe even getting paid.

You must know your environment. Much like taking a big-time rock act and removing their electric guitars, microphones and all the special effects that make a concert awesome, when you’re given a breakout session small tan room (they are always tan, aren’t they), you will not have the tactical help that a main stage setup will give you. With no producer, big screen, confidence monitor or professional lighting, even the best speakers are challenged in breakout session rooms.

But if you are in the dreaded tiny tan room breakout zone, it can be much more intimate. Thus you’ll need to take advantage of this setup. Engage with more audience questions. Even plant them. Handouts are also much more effective in this setting. Include a chance for deeper audience participation in your presentation by inviting them to come up front and share as well.

On the flip side of this, if you are speaking from the main stage, we assume you don’t need any advice from this article on preparation because you were already asked to be on the big stage. However, often our assumptions can be wrong, which leads us to…

The presentation you make

The most important part of your presentation is the beginning. It’s like a rodeo: you’re judged the most in the opening eight seconds. So, while not as awesome as Garth Brooks singing about how they call the thing rodeo, this is where you either get your audience’s attention or you buck your audience’s attention right back to looking at their phones. Since the mid-2000s, when all of us became addicted to our smartphones, public speaking became even harder. Now your audience can check out, film you, roast you in real time—or promote you if you impress.

With this in mind, bring energy and excitement. And for the love of all things, never ever say you’re nervous. Of course, you are nervous—it’s public speaking!

When conferences offer you big screens, big audiences and high-level production (and, if you’re lucky, big checks!) you must take advantage of it. Use multimedia to wow your audience with great examples. Also, we are trained to look at screens, as previously mentioned, and multimedia delivery can also serve as a crutch to reset if you find you’re a little off with your audience, need to grab a sip of water or catch your breath.

If you use a digital crutch (that is, a PowerPoint or Keynote) for your speech, you should follow Guy Kawasaki’s 10-20-30 rule. That’s only 10 slides allowed for every 20 minutes and use 30 point font. If “thirty points,” is too dogmatic, here’s an algorithm: find out the age of the oldest person in your audience and divide it by two. That’s your optimal font size. If you’re speaking to school-aged children, don’t worry, they aren’t listening anyway, but if you say Fortnite or mention TikTok they might look up for a couple seconds.

Three points on your subject. Not four or two. Three. Don’t try to do more because they will not be recalled. Any arguments on this reminds me of the scene from There’s Something about Mary when the hitchhiker says, “It’s seven-minute abs, not eight-minute abs, and no one is talking about six.” In speaking, it’s three points, not four—and no one is talking about two.

The presentation you take

Finally, end with something memorable. Leave your audience wanting more and you’ll be successful. Provide the ability for easy follow-up. Many presenters are asked for their contacts immediately after speaking so make it easy on the audience and have your contacts on the screen or in a handout. I’m not the biggest fan of business cards, but for quick contacts should you have a line of people hungry to follow up, going analog in a LinkedIn world is acceptable here.

In addition, it’s often baffling when speakers do not take questions from the audience, no matter if they are on the big stage or the tan breakout room. Plan time in your presentation for questions, which is always appreciated by the audience.

Finally, ask for feedback to improve. Criticism often stings, but it’s not as bad as repeating mistakes that can be corrected through feedback. Many conferences have speaker ratings and boards that review presenter performance. This information can be invaluable to making improvements to your presentation and, although you can never make everyone happy, providing value in the future that your audience wants to receive.

In conclusion, remember it’s the presentation you bake, make and take that can be the difference between being a sought-after—and potentially paid—speaker or a badly reviewed flop who didn’t meet audience expectations.

You can hear an in-depth dive on presentations and other tools for improving your public speaking as I hash it all out with Josh Mabus of the Mabus Agency on the latest Marketing Money Podcast.

 John Oxford is director of marketing at Renasant Bank and co-host of the Marketing Money Podcast.