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9 Expert Tips on How to Become an Effective Conference Speaker

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Jon Clark
Jon Clark VIP CONTRIBUTOR
9 Expert Tips on How to Become an Effective Conference Speaker

I attended my first search marketing conference way back in 2006.

Back then, digital marketing conferences were still a novelty and SES (Search Engine Strategies) was the place to be.

At the time, I was working at a startup and teaching myself everything I could about SEO, Overture and this still relatively “new” platform called AdWords (now Google Ads).

What I found at SES was a smart and innovative community of search engine marketers that shared my passion for the industry and were learning from each other.

Not only that, the conference was still small enough to have the conference party at the Googleplex in San Jose.

I was in heaven.

Since then, the available digital marketing conferences have expanded dramatically, as well as the opportunities to take part in panels, presentations, and the anxiety-inducing keynote.

For many, public speaking is not easy. And, let’s be honest. It is really difficult to be an effective speaker, let alone presenting to a group of all your peers that may include clients, colleagues, and even friends.

Over the years, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for many of these presenters; the work they put into their decks, their level of expertise, their presentation style, their command of the audience, and, more importantly, their willingness to share what they’ve learned or discovered.

Knowledge sharing is super important for our industry!

So, I decided to contact many of the folks I consider presentation “experts” to discover what two or three specific tips they might have for tackling things like:

  • How to deal with nerves.
  • How to practice.
  • Preparing/formatting slides.
  • Presenting: what to do with your hands, eyes, body language, voice tones, etc.
  • How to brainstorm a topic.

As you’ll see below, they more than over-delivered in their responses!

Whether you are presenting to a small group of clients, at a local meetup, or at that big keynote you just secured, I’m confident you’ll find a tip (or ten) that you can apply to your next presentation.


Focus on Winning the Audience

All of my presentations have a goal to win the audience in one way or another.

It could be selling a product or service, or even just selling an idea, but I’m always selling.

To do that, I have to avoid three major pitfalls:

  1. Don’t be boring. If it’s boring, then you lose immediately and no matter how great your information is people won’t listen. Energy is contagious – so bring the fire.
  2. Don’t sell too hard. If you sell your product or service to hard, people will get turned off.
  3. Don’t try to educate too much. If you are “teaching” too much, people will get lost in the message vs focusing on where you want them to go.

The point is to get the audience over their fears, doubts, or objections to whatever I’m “selling” and come to my side.

Every slide should be planned out to convince the audience, so that they are thinking “I see how this could work for me!”

If you can do this correctly, you can position yourself as the authority and use that to achieve whichever goal you have for that presentation.

Clayton Johnson, CMO at TheHOTH


Don’t Be Afraid to Break the Presentation ‘Rules’

I’m conscious that I break a lot of ‘rules’ when I speak.

I talk quickly, I wave my arms about, I wander around the stage, I use bullet points (albeit with careful consideration), and I’m unforgivingly technical.

According to conventional wisdom, these are all bad habits!

It’s surprising, then, that I keep getting asked to speak at events, and receiving great feedback from a range of audiences.

So what’s the secret?

Here are five tricks that help me succeed:

  1. I’m ridiculously passionate about what I’m talking about.I make sure that my topic is the most exciting, interesting, compelling thing in my universe – so the energy and enthusiasm I’ll bring to the stage is going to go some way to convince you to feel the same way. Enthusiasm is infectious.
  2. I develop my story organically.When I start working on a deck, it’s rare for me to have 100 percent clarity on the precise flow, story, or takeaways. I know that there’s a problem I want to solve, or a concept I want to crack, but I don’t know the specifics until I get there. That means that my story evolves and matures as I explore it, fill in the gaps, and weave the narrative. I start with bullet points, evolve those into a framework, and write up the full narrative. That forces me to have a rock-solid story arc with a clear beginning, middle, and end.
  3. I iterate and iterate and iterate and… I spend hours tweaking the order of slides, the precise wording, the breakdowns, the wording. Using one word vs another, or missing a critical link between concepts can cost audience attention and enthusiasm, so I’m obsessive about tweaking the minutia until I’m absolutely certain it can’t be refined further.
  4. You have to be the expert. If you’re talking about a topic, you should be the smartest person in the room, with unique knowledge and experience, which you can share. If you don’t have that, go get it. Learning a topic deeply enough to give a great talk on it forces you to become an expert – it’s a great way to learn, and to build confidence in your story.
  5. Be nervous. If you’re committed to telling a challenging, exciting, memorable talk, then you’re going to be taking risks. People may disagree with your thinking. A slip in your delivery might lead to confusion. An error in your logic might undermine your messaging. All of these risks, and more, force you to invest more time, energy and thought into your preparation. Imagine what can go wrong in your preparation, messaging or delivery, and go to lengths to fill in the gaps, reinforce weak points, and refine the story.

Jono Alderson, Managing Director at DaysOfTheYear.com


Focus on What Your Audiences Do Not Know

I speak a lot. I make a lot of decks.
The below will help turn any fear you’ve got about presenting into confidence.
  • Don’t include advice/tips/tactics more than 20 percent of your audience already knows. One of the fastest ways to be tuned out by an audience in our field is to present them with informtion they already know. The level of knowledge will vary by the audience – at SearchLove, SMX Advanced, or MozCon, that level will be incredibly high and it will take great effort to uncover unique tactics, data, or stories. At less expert-level events, that bar may be lower, but it’s still there and the vast majority of speakers in my experience will underestimate what the crowd’s already learned.
  • Disable the viewer’s ability to read ahead. Rather than grouping numerous points on a single slide, create a separate slide for each point. Otherwise, audiences will read ahead, ignore what you’re saying, and then find their brains frustrated by the speed of your descriptions/explanations lagging the text they’ve just scanned on the screen.
  • Create tension/anticipation, then resolve it. To build drama in a talk, simply take the points you’re planning to present and craft a story around them that begins with conflict or a problem. If it’s a major point, let that drama or problem build by piling on, rather than immediately resolving it.
  • Ask the audience to engage in unusual ways. Rather than “raise your hand if you …” try asking folks to perform a search on their phone/laptop to illustrate something or suggest that folks close their eyes and picture a scenario. This less orthodox participation techniques can build greater engagement.

Rand Fishkin, CEO and Co-Founder at SparkToro and Author of Lost and Founder


Focus on Studying Presenters Outside of Marketing

Study the Great Orators of the Past and Present.

One of the biggest pieces of advice that I give folks trying to break into the world of conference speaking is to study the greats.

A lot of people automatically assume that this means studying the presentations of past marketing events but I’d recommend taking a different approach.

Study some of the greatest political speeches, stand up specials, and TED talks to uncover what differentiates a great talk from the rest.

As you study these talks you will begin to better understand the importance of pacing, body language, storytelling and other elements that go into making a presentation great.

Create Compelling Slides, But Don’t Use Them as Your Crutch

If you’ve ever seen a yellow font placed directly on a white slide; you know first hand how important quality slide design is.

The importance of quality slide design comes down to two key elements of being a great conference speaker:

  • Communicating key points on stage.
  • How well your presentation is conveyed on social media when people start sharing photos via Tweets/LinkedIn.

Take the time to invest in slides that are worth sharing and it will make it easier for your presentation to stand out.

Ross Simmonds, Strategist and Entrepreneur with a long speaking resume


Focus on Practice – It Makes Perfect

  • Delivery is important. But it’s not a substitute for content.
  • Don’t worry about being too advanced. I often advise our speakers to aim their talk at our other speakers to help them avoid going too basic.
  • Practice! And perform in front of trusted advisers – aiming to get 5 percent / 30 percent / 90 percent feedback (“is this idea any good” / “how is this hanging together? What resonates? What doesn’t” / “how do I polish this and perform it to the best of my ability?”) Make it clear that you want real feedback and impress your peers first.

Will Critchlow, Founder and CEO at Distilled and regular speaker at SearchLove


Focus on Selling, Teaching & Entertaining

Becoming an effective conference speaker is a lot like becoming an effective salesperson, an effective teacher, and an effective carnival barker…all at once.

While those might seem somewhat random, there’s a reasoning behind it.

What do good speakers all have in common?

They are covering a topic you want (selling it to you), are knowledgeable enough to explain it and impart their wisdom (teaching), and manage to hold your attention all the way through (carnival barking).

The real trick though is in understanding how to address those three items for your time slot on stage.

Understand Who Your Audience Is

One thing I’ve learned in reading “Pitch Anything” by Oren Klaff is how much deal pitching is analogous to speaking; in other words, a room full of agency CEOs and owners at a marketing conference needs a completely different approach than a room full of interns that were tasked with “figuring out the search stuff” at an automotive conference.

What does the group of CEOs and owners in your industry want? What do the interns outside of their field want?

This is the sales piece.

Figure that out in your topic selection and within the first 2-3 slides let them know what they’ll be able to walk away with so you don’t have to fight to keep their attention.

Be Knowledgeable

It’s disheartening to see presentations where the speaker clearly does not have the requisite expertise; practitioners can see through the celebrity speakers that have impressive slides, but no practical experience to support their claims.

If you can remember your high school days, you may recall the best teachers were also those that had a complete grasp of the source material – you’re on stage to showcase your own specific expertise, so stay true to that.

It can be difficult sometimes when you’re trying to balance your abilities with what you perceive the audience to want, but try not to stray.

Be Entertaining

It’s perfectly normal and natural to be nervous, especially when you’re new to public speaking.

If you focus on trying to give the audience a good show, though, you’ll find it easier to get over those jitters.

The entertainment aspect is especially important the more complex a subject is, because you’re fighting to keep dopamine and serotonin pumping into possibly frustrated brains; granted, you don’t necessarily need to dress up in an 8-foot inflatable Baymax outfit and deliver a speech as a robot, but it doesn’t hurt.

If you can tackle those three key elements for your next upcoming speech, I’m confident it’ll go over swimmingly.

Joe Sinkwitz, CEO and Co-Founder at Intellifluence


Focus on Your Presentation Format

My tips for becoming an effective conference speaker:

Presentation Style

Memorize every word or freestyle speaking with a fixed outline?

I do not recommend one way over the other. But I can state the advantages/disadvantages of both and what is my personal preference.

  • Memorizing word for word kind of guarantees you do not forget to mention every point you would want to cover. But the disadvantage is memorizing can be hard to do, and when you forgot and get stuck in the middle, you are suddenly lost and may not know what to say. Additionally, if someone has seen your presentation before, and you present the same topic at another conference that may have the same audience, their first impression would be you have nothing new to say.
  • Having an outline and speaking freely, you can adapt to the situation of the day, adjust your presentation and customize it based on whatever are the conditions of that day. The presentation will be more customized, making it appear more intimate to the audience even for those that might have seen your presentation before. If you accidentally forget something, it will not appear like you are lost. If ever you tend to forget from points to discuss when you don’t memorize it word for word, then just make your outline slightly more detailed, just highlighting points that you don’t want to forget.

Stationary or Moving?

The podium was made as an area where you supposed to stand and present, but if you can move around freely, I prefer moving around. Just don’t move too much that it becomes too distracting. And do not stand like a log.

You can use hand gestures to emphasize some matters. And when the topic reaches any point where you need some kind of comparison and contrast, like onpage vs. offpage, natural links vs. artificial links, blackhat vs. whitehat, whatever it is… I would often stand on one side when talking about one side, then move and stand on another side when talking about the other. I feel the distinction between the topics where you are in the presentation works better.

Surveying the Audience

Many speakers do this, they ask the audience questions to determine what kind of audience is listening.

  • “Who among you work in an agency?”
  • “How many of you are in-house SEOs?”
  • “Any web developers here?”
  • And many other valid questions you can ask related to your topic.

Surveying is not just an ice-breaker or a warm up before you start speaking or something meant to wake up the audience. It is also what it really is, a survey.

Knowing what kind of audience you have can change how you present things.

If most people are novices then you define terms more, you explain what some acronyms mean. If most people are more advanced, then you define less and go straight into strategies and tactics.

If your audience is composed of more developers, then explain in code and platforms. If they are mostly managers, explain more on how to delegate task instead of doing it themselves.

Survey the audience and adjust the presentation based on your audience.

Waking Up Techniques

Sometimes you get the session right after lunch. Sometimes the last session of the day on the last day of the conference.

Your topic can be extremely interesting and valuable, but if presented in a monotone way, less people listen and some may fall asleep.

A few things that can be done:

  • Jokes.
  • Asking the audience by randomly walking up to someone and ask their thoughts.
  • Changes in the tone of your voice.
  • Fancy PowerPoint Slideshows.

Practice

More seasoned speakers need less practice, but many still do.

But if you are just starting out, practice by presenting to others first. This gives you a sense of timing, if you can present within the allotted time and whether or not your audience can comprehend what you are presenting.

  • Present to co-workers: If your company has brownbag presentations, lunch and learns, or internal training, propose to present your conference presentation and ask for feedback on what you can improve.
  • Present at smaller meet-up groups: If you are speaking at SMX or Pubcon or whatever, search for meetup groups online, Meetup.com is a good place to start. Look for smaller groups you can present. Pitch it to the organizer. You will get a feel of the reception of your presentation. If you feel there are areas you can improve, fix them before the big conference.

The PowerPoint Presentation

  • Mostly photos, almost no text vs. some illustrations with bullets vs. text-heavy paragraphs.
  • Never do text-heavy paragraphs, and (even worse) don’t read them verbatim.
  • Some illustrations with bullets are ideal if the intention is to make the presentation also a guide that the audience can use even after the presentation. Users can share it online, link to it, embed it and further helps in your promotion as a speaker.
  • Mostly photos with almost no text tend to work best for inspirational, motivational type of slides. They do not need to remember every word you said, they just have to remember the feeling they got when you presented it and along with that, they remember the message in their own words in their own head.
  • If there are too many bullet points… try splitting it up into multiple slides or animate the bullets to come in one at a time to not overwhelm the audience.

Benj Arriola, SEO Director at Myers Media Group


Focus on Prior Conference Attendee Feedback

  • Know your audience! Ask your session moderator or conference organizer what was the most common comments/suggestions/negative/positive feedback from previous years and what does s/he want to accomplish with the session.
  • Practice your presentation in front of a mirror. Best advice I got from my Intro to Speech Communication teacher my freshman year (thank you Ms. Huck!). To this day I still do it during my final run-throughs.
  • If it’s a panel, talk to your fellow panelist to discuss and divide up areas you all want to cover so everyone’s prepared. Send a couple seed questions to your moderator before-hand to get things going.
  • Depending on the conference I always consider hiring a professional designer to work over the colors and images of my deck. If that’s the direction you go, come prepared with a theme (*Think: Dark Side of the Moon album cover, The Royal Tenenbaums, Legos, etc).
  • Don’t operate in a vacuum. Ask colleagues, friends, wives/husbands for their honest feedback. I find those outside the industry give the best input, especially if a slide or concept is confusing.
  • Be aware of and watch for nervous tics (and we all have them) – “Ummms” or other transition words, sounds, and even gestures as you’re moving through thoughts can be very distracting to your audience.

Marshall Simmonds, Founder at Define Media Group, Inc.


Focus on Setting Speaking Goals for Yourself

Thought leadership – speaking engagements, in particular – have been a huge contributor to Aimclear’s growth over the past decade-plus.

We’ve cultivated a stable of industry-leading speakers and have been around the world (literally), speaking from Sydney to London, Munich to Las Vegas, and New York to San Francisco.

Progressing to “A-list” speaker doesn’t happen overnight. But those with fire in the belly and some imagination can join the keynote set.

Some tips to get started:

  • Pick an area of focus and BE the expert. Posers need not apply. Study. Understand. Stake a claim to a viewpoint or position. Audiences can smell a fraud. You have to know your stuff through and through. No matter how much you know about a topic, someone else knows as much – if not more.
  • Be provocative – or visionary – or both. People don’t flock to industry conference sessions to understand how things are currently done. They want to know where the industry is headed. Tell audiences how they can be relevant in a constantly changing industry. Over the years, Aimclear has staked bold, visionary claims during our keynotes, sessions, and workshops. In many cases, the claims we staked helped redefine marketing.
  • Make your content tailor-ably repeatable. Have your core content rock solid, but adjust the pitch and content to be of great importance to the audience. Your core story might be about performance marketing, but the event is more focused on branding or even PR. Make the connection between content and conference focus (but be legit). There is a lot of great interdisciplinary crossover in our space. Being reliably tuned in to conferences and their audiences helps make a presenter indispensable for conference organizers.
  • Be memorable. When presenting, be brave and let your inner personality cut loose. Scream, laugh, jump, stomp, roam the room. Presenters who make an impression and stand out get asked back – or recruited to other conferences around the world.
  • Make connections. When the session is done, don’t shrink from the room. Be present. Mingle. Welcome opposing viewpoints in the hallways. Debate. Argue. Have a beer. At the very least you’ll make lifelong friends and enjoy amazing food and drink (if that’s your bag). I’ll bet you land clients or partnerships or podcast requests or countless other business props too.

The people up at the conference podium didn’t get there by accident.

They set a goal to do one speaking opp. Then set a goal for a second one, third or fourth.

Next thing you know, they’re hooked and getting invited to speak at other cool places and nailing new business in the process.

Be intent, focused, purposeful, provocative, repeatable, memorable. You’ll be at the podium soon.

Marty Weintraub, Founder and Creative Director at Aimclear


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Jon Clark

Founder, CEO at Fuze SEO, LLC

Jon Clark is the founder and chief SEO at Fuze SEO, a boutique digital marketing agency in New York. He ... [Read full bio]

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