Been Hitting the Conference Circuit Hard

Friends of Scottie,

I just realized I hadn’t updated the blog for six weeks, which was about twice as long as I intended. And the primary reason for that is because I’ve been hitting the conference circuit pretty hard lately.

I’ve been in the audience at an event my client organized, I’ve watched my client deliver public remarks, I spoke on a panel, and I was just a regular ol’ conference attendee – all in the last four weeks. So with that whirlwind of conferences behind me, I thought my next entry should be... 

Best practices for conference organizers, speakers, and attendees

 

1)      If you’re delivering remarks, practice. A lot. I saw a speaker recently read right off the page to a room of several hundred people, and run WAY over the allotted time. I was cringing on the inside (and probably on the outside because I don’t have a great poker face).

Assuming this public speaking request was not sprung on you at the last minute, start preparing at least a month before the event. First, sketch out an outline of what to cover and assign an amount of time for each section. Chart out exactly what to cover in each section. Write out your remarks in their entirety. Practice and listen – does it flow? Are you telling an interesting story that will keep the audience with you? Is there a clear beginning, middle, and end or some kind of arc throughout?  Then shorten the written speech to bullets, and keep practicing with just notes and a stop watch.

Usually it is fine to take brief notes on stage if you’re speaking from a podium, but that will not work if you’re giving a TED (type) Talk. Those speeches are a huge lift, so absolutely consider that before you even accept an offer. And know that there is no “hack” to delivering a compelling, effortless speech. It is just hard work and practice, even if someone else writes the speech for you. I really enjoyed this Marie Forleo interview with Elizabeth Gilbert, which includes a great discussion of Gilbert's approach to public speaking (section on delivering speeches starts around 22:34). 

 

2)      In a PowerPoint presentation, less is more. Font, if it is even necessary, NEEDS TO BE VERY LARGE. Like, 28 pt+. It is better to use slides with images, pictures, and graphics – and as little text as possible. Make sure fonts and colors are consistent throughout, and (tastefully) brand your presentation with your logo.

Don’t use slides as a crutch, and do not read off of your slides.

Look, this is not a trade secret. This is an extremely well-known piece of advice, like don’t date a guy who peaked in high school and still talks about the 1996 football class AAA championships. I still can’t believe it when I see that happen – but it happens ALL THE TIME.

 

3)      If you’re an event organizer, pick an easy to remember, easy to spell hashtag, and display it throughout the event. For a smaller group, I recently saw a low-budget solution I liked. The organizer had the event’s hashtag written on a large poster board on an easel that was unobtrusively in the front of the room. It remained up, next to the screen, behind the presenters all day. No expensive AV needed, but still effective.

#EAsyHashtag #keepitsimple #displayitallday

 

4)      Give your audience a break. I don’t think of myself as a person with a particularly short attention span, but I have my limitations. And conference organizers are often, understandably, trying to cram a lot into whatever time they have. That said, you’re doing everyone – the audience and the speakers – a disservice if you don’t break up the day into manageable segments. By the time your final panel is still talking four hours since the last break, everyone is mentally exhausted, distracted, restless, possibly hungry verging on hangry. If you must cover an abundance of topics, insist presenters be short and tight. And build in a lot of coffee breaks. 

 

 5)      Filter audience questions to get the good ones.  Have you ever heard “Ok we’re going to open this up for a few questions from the audience now...” and the next thing that happens could not, in any way, be described as asking a question? Of course, that is literally what always happens. It becomes a soap box, a moment for someone to spotlight their own work and ramble on for five minutes and then, if forced, pretend to ask a question. I've sat through more than my fair share of trainwreck audience Q and A's. That is why I'm now a firm believer in submitting questions on a notecard. It forces people to put down in writing a real question, and the moderator has a chance to pick interesting questions that will keep the conversation flowing.

 

Ok y’all. I dig conferences, and when done right, they can be tremendously helpful for learning and networking with people you wouldn't otherwise get to meet in real life. I suggest people at all levels in their careers be proactive about finding conferences to attend and make the most of them. My conference circuit might be done for 2015, but I look forward to attending some doozies in 2016 (One Water Leadership Summit in Atlanta, I’m looking at you). Remember to practice your remarks thoroughly in advance, bring business cards, and tip your bartenders even if it’s an open bar and you don’t have to pay for anything. 

Abigail Gardner

Scottie Public Affairs