The Dos and Don’ts of Conference Presentations

Fresh back from Search Engine Strategies in San Francisco and I’ve got a new appreciation for conference speakers. Why? Well, a few weeks back, Bruce asked if I would take over the expo hall theater presentation for him at SES. Not a big deal, right? About 75 percent of me wanted to say no, but that other 25 percent that was fed up with my fear of public speaking prevailed, and so I signed on.

Once it was over, I attended remaining sessions and even recalled past conferences with a new perspective on speakers. It’s not easy for people to get up there and do what they do – especially if they do it well. It’s certainly an acquired skill that takes practice. But, it got me thinking about the conferences I’ve been to I the past year, some of the things I think make a good speaker and some of the things that even seasoned speakers can improve upon.

Conference Session Presentations: The Dos

Channel Authenticity

As I was prepping for my presentation, a friend of mine told me the most important thing is to be authentic, and as soon as I feel I’m moving away from who I am, to pause and go back to me. You don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to be funny, you don’t even have to be right. Just be a version of you that feels natural. It may take a couple speaking engagements to get to a place where you’re comfortable enough to let your personality shine through, but you’ll get there.

Some of the most engaging presentations I’ve seen happen when people move beyond the speaker and become the person.

Make Eye Contact

I know there are many tips and tricks out there for trying to avoid reality while doing a presentation; this includes things like looking above everyone’s head, picturing people in their underwear, yadda, yadda, yadda.

But just try to be present.

owl with large eyes
Maybe not this kind of eye contact...

What it all boils down to is making a connection with your audience. As an audience member, there’s nothing nicer than the feeling that you’re being talked to, not “at.” As online marketers, we focus a lot of our energy on the “social connection” online. Let’s take care to make those same concepts translate into face time.

Be Humble

People can smell an ego from a mile away. And while some react to this favorably in the form of being star struck, others just think you’re being a moron. The best speakers keep their egos in check by being humble and cognizant of the fact that all those people showed up to hear them speak.

It may be harder and harder as a speaker to do this as time goes on, as your name grows in the industry and as speaking becomes second nature, but it will continue to have an impact on your audience if you always exude appreciation. I’ve seen some very well-known influentials in the online marketing industry do this beautifully.

And of course, the other piece of this is not insulting your audience’s intelligence by the information you do or don’t present, the thought and care you put into your sessions and how you handle questions from the audience.

Conference Session Presentations: The Don’ts

Don’t Forget About Structure

It’s cool to be spontaneous, but don’t make your audience have to think too hard about what they came to learn. Remember that the audience is likely taking notes (or liveblogging!) and if they leave the session feeling more confused about a topic than when they came in, it’s not helpful. Someone said to me a simple way to structure a talk is to start by telling people what you’re going to say, say it, and then recap by telling them what you just said. So easy yet so powerful, right?

Don’t Go Too Far from Session Descriptions

OK, this is a bit of a pet peeve of mine, but I can understand how it happens. It’s usually the result of a combination of factors that includes pre-written session descriptions from people who aren’t the speakers, and the actual speakers’ interpretation of it.

The audience comes to a session thinking they are going to learn about X, and they really learn about Y. As someone who usually goes as press and on the company dollar, it’s probably less annoying to me than the people who spent big bucks on their session pass. As a speaker, can you think about how to better deliver on the promises of the session?

Don’t Speak in a Monotone Voice

There’s nothing worse than hearing someone speak for 20 minutes without any intonation in their voice. Whatever you have to do to channel the story teller in you, do it. Put some passion in your voice. Remember that tip about being authentic? Yeah, that doesn’t apply here. If you’re authentic self sounds like Ben Stein from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, then for the love of God, please fake it.

Speaking Prep: Must Haves

baby hit by rubber arrow
Needs more practice.

Here’s some things I’ve learned in the process of putting a presentation together:

  • Spend some time on your slide deck. Make it engaging with imagery or even video and don’t overload your audience with information or make them have to think too hard. Mine sucked because I did it the day before. Do the opposite of that, K?
  • Practice, practice, practice. Get to know the talking points so you’re less reliant on the slides. If you’ve done the same talk a million times, you’re golden, but the first time you present a new lecture, practice so you don’t sound rehearsed, if that makes any sense. And don’t focus on remembering every word. Let the key points be your driver.
  • Try hard not to let your nerves or stress get the best of you ahead of time. No matter what you are anxious about, no stress in the world is going to change the fact that the presentation will happen. And once it’s done, you’ll wonder what you were so nervous about.
  • Envision the persona you’re talking to. It’s easier to connect the dots and make a story meaningful if you know just who your presentation is directed at. Mine was to the small business owner who didn’t have a lot of knowledge about how to market their business online. Once I pictured that person and anticipated the problems and questions they had, the rest was easier.

That one tiny little theater presentation was a huge milestone for me. As a wanna-be speaker, the biggest hurdle is actually getting past the first one. After that, it just gets easier, you’ll see. And for seasoned speakers, my only request as an audience member is please, don’t forget that your audience is the most important aspect of your session. Because without them, there’d be no session at all.

Jessica Lee is the founder and chief creative for bizbuzzcontent Inc., a marketing boutique that focuses on digital content strategy and professional writing services for businesses.

See Jessica's author page for links to connect on social media.

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2 Replies to “The Dos and Don’ts of Conference Presentations”

Thanks, Muhammad! I am so glad I could help in some small way. Once you get past the initial talk, the personal and professional growth that comes from it will be well worth it all. Thanks for your comment. Come back and let us know how you did.



Thank you so much for these points. I have been preparing for some conferences this September. Your points have immensely cleared some of my fears. I am sure I will be better this time.



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