Inside Counsel: Ready for the spotlight? 7 ways to prepare for your next speaking appearance

Originally Published in Inside Counsel | January 27, 2015 | By Adam Donovan and William Card

Attending a conference is a significant investment of time and money. It can cost thousands of dollars in travel and conference fees, and keep you out of the office for the better part of a week. Add a speaking role to the mix and you may return to the office with an overflowing inbox and lengthy expense report, wondering if the investment was really worth it. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to maximize your event ROI and, just as important, your ROT (return on time).

Qualifying the opportunity: Is it worth the effort?

Regardless of how you discover a conference — cold call, personal research, mailer, referral — you should consider your ROT above all else. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the event content aligned with your personal and business goals?
  • Do you know and trust the event organizer, or do you know and trust someone affiliated or familiar with the event organizer? Conduct some quick due diligence on the organizer before deciding whether to connect with them.
  • Can you see their leadership team listed on their website? Would you conduct business with these individuals?
  • If you do connect, ask the organizer for a list of confirmed attendees. Are they actually confirmed, or is the wording ambiguous (e.g., “The following is a list of people who have at one time or another suggested that they may be interested in possibly attending one of our events.”)?
  • Once you’ve qualified the event organizer, ask for an agenda and review the (confirmed) speaking faculty. Are they people you would consider peers and with whom you would want to be associated?
  • Are you comfortable with the subject matter?
  • Do you have the time to dedicate to preparing for a speaking role?

It’s well known that the most beneficial facet to a conference is the networking opportunities. It’s no coincidence that the strongest relationships built at conferences and events are often between those who participate in a session together. The “in the trenches” mentality and time spent together on stage form a bond between co-presenters. If you’re looking to network, which you should be, these connections alone can justify the experience.

Here are seven ways to supercharge a speaking opportunity:

1. Preparation: Get to know your fellow panelists through social media, especially LinkedIn. The conference organizer should provide you with your co-presenters’ contact information and coordinate a few pre-event panel calls. If they don’t, you should demand it, or take matters into your own hands and connect with them yourself. They’ll appreciate your leadership, and the end result will benefit. The goal of the pre-event calls is not only to evaluate your co-presenter’s backgrounds and expertise, but also their personalities and speaking styles. It’s immediately apparent to the audience if presenters have prepared before the live session, so make sure you have.

2. Keep on track: Have an outline that you have all agreed on and try to stick to it. If you’re the moderator, it’s your job to guide the panelists and manage the time. The event organizer should offer timing cards for 10 minutes to go and five minutes to go, so use these tools to ensure you conclude the session with impact. Similar to an essay, a great presentation will clearly first articulate the topics of discussion, and then delve into each part with seamless transitions — a feat that can only be accomplished with practice.

3. Aim for practical over theoretical: Leave your elbow-patched jacket at home — your audience won’t appreciate a lecture. Instead, at the beginning of the presentation, identify a handful of takeaways that the audience will remember, and tie each portion of the presentation back to the takeaway. If the audience remembers three pieces of information from your presentation, it means you did a remarkable job.

4. Don’t over PowerPoint: When it comes to the use of presentations, less is more. Only include slides if they demonstrate a particular point more effectively than you can articulate verbally. Use the bullets as notes, not a script, and don’t read from them. Understand that each time a new slide is shown, the audience will read it before they hear anything you’re saying, so keep slides brief. If you’re presenting alone and to an English-speaking audience, try to stand to the audience’s left of the screen, as the audience will read left to right.

5. Don’t dumb it down: Senior audiences want to be challenged. If it’s an interactive group, the Q&A will allow you to fill in the blanks. It has been said that audiences will apologize if they don’t understand a presentation, but they will expect an apology for a presentation that is too basic. The participants have taken time to come and listen to you, so make it worth their while and give them some key takeaways to remember and use.

6. Be confident: Conduct yourself assertively, with body language and tone that help to convey your expertise. Of course, too much bravado can turn the audience off. Audiences respond well to self-deprecation and are more likely to embrace a speaker who is both confident and kind. The more you practice the material, the more confident you’ll feel.

7. Don’t hog the mic: Be mindful of the other panelist’s contributions. Conversely, be prepared to assume control over a long-winded co-presenter, especially if you’re the moderator. Conducting a run-through of the entire presentation before the event will help you identify co-presenters who may require coaxing to overcome natural reticence or co-presenters who tend to ramble. Time can move quickly during a session and you must reach the conclusion of your presentation — it’s what most will remember.