Pragmatic advice for anyone taking the stage
Tip #1: Prioritize yourself
“Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.” — Oscar Wilde
Being nervous, drunk, tired, or overconfident will sink a talk in no time. It’s easy to burn the candle at both ends if you’re not careful. Here are some common traps for speakers.
Stage health is real.
When you’ve got adrenaline going through your veins, you stand taller, feel energetic, and react faster. Save all that for the stage. Excitement about talking is great, but when you start that feeling on day one, and your talk is on day three, you should look for ways to relax so you don’t burn up your focus.
Jet lag is real.
If you’re traveling over an ocean, do your best to give a few days to acclimate. Unless you’re well traveled, you could find yourself shooting upright at 4AM thinking of your speech. Even a few hours can mess with your head if you’re not prepared. Have a plan.
Distraction is real.
Speakers dinners are fun, drinks abound, and mingling with attendees can be great networking. Only you know if your slides could use another once-over or if you’re safe to hang out and burn the midnight oil with others. Don’t be afraid to disconnect and say “No.” Skipping outings or even talks for a recharge siesta is wise.
Tip #2: Work on your slides in a high energy environment
“There’s a direct correlation between positive energy and positive results.” — Joe Rogan
Speakers know, an environment sets the tone. As a speaker we have little control over the environment we’ll be speaking in. Will there be visual obstructions, will you hear other speakers through partitions in the walls, and will there be a big ugly chandelier like the public speaker/author Scott Berkun notoriously hates? WHO KNOWS? BUT, you can control the environment before your presentation, and somehow that affects your slides.
Best selling author Team Robert Cialdini found that when he wrote in his university office, his text fits a university tone. The context was dry and scientific, but when he wrote his book at home, his chapters changed in direct correlation. The chapters from his home office were more pragmatic and human. Your environment will change the tone of your presentation. For speakers, some of our best conference ideas happen while we’re sitting at a conference. High energy environments let us connect with our audience far before we ever meet them, or even finish writing our presentation.
Chris DeMars (GDE) has a particularly interesting method for work and slides. He does it from a bar.
After work and even on the weekends do you ever feel like, “I could really use some coffee and get some work done at…medium.com
Consider where you are when you’re writing your slides. And more importantly, review them when you’re in a different mood and in a different setting to inspire fresh ideas.
Tip #3: Know where you are in the schedule
“It is more important to know where you are going than to get there quickly. Do not mistake activity for achievement.” — Isocrates
Your talk should adjust ever so slightly depending on the schedule, if possible. Depending on the speaker ahead of you and time of day, small adjustments can add a professional polish to your talk.
If you’re an early talk in the day, you’ve got everyone’s best brains. Don’t waste it! Feel free to throw out complicated questions and give people permission to solve, laugh, and interact with their energy. An early talk can and should capitalize on the audience energy.
If you’re right before lunch, your audience is still excited … but DO NOT run over your time. Everyone becomes a clock-watcher when a line is about to form for food. I wholeheartedly agree with pratik patel’s advice here:
If you’re right after lunch, expect a lethargic but happy group. I’ve found these groups to be the hardest to get a reaction. So instead you can wake them all up with jumping jacks or squats as I’ve seen several speakers do. There are quite a few tricks to get the blood pumping for your crowd, and if you’re after lunch, consider doing so. If you don’t, that’s fine, too. Just don’t take their silence as an insult, you’re more likely to mesmerize than excite this group.
If you’re a day closer, consider that your audience has spent the whole day (sometimes several days) using their brains. They are drained of glucose and their focus is wavering. A good day closer talk emphasizes excitement rather than technical specs. Novelty is more valued than critical insight when you’re a closing talk.
Lastly, but most obviously, in single or double track conferences find who will be speaking before and after you. Introduce yourself to them and get to know their topics. Having a prepared reference to information that has recently been covered can help you stimulate and emphasize your points in a way that is both flattering for others and perfect for your audience.
Tip #4: Know the stage
“Sometimes I just want to curl up on stage and lie there for a while — it’s weird” — Michael Hutchence
Not all conferences tell the speakers what the setup is going to be, so it’s crucial for you to investigate for yourself. Questions to find out:
- Will I have a microphone?
- Will it be lavalier or handheld?
- If handheld where is the mic holder?
- Will the audience questions have a mic for recording or will I have to repeat them through the PA?
- What plugs will be at the lectern on stage?
- Will there be an adapter or should I bring mine in hand?
- Will there be a clicker from the recording team, or can I use mine?
- If their clicker, does it have a laser, a back button, or even work right?
- Where will my clock/timer be?
- When can I test my setup on the projector?
Stage and Staff
- Will I be announced or do I just setup? (multi vs small track)
- Do I shake the MC’s hand?
- Will I come from backstage or from the audience?
- When should I report to the stagehand/MC if at all?
- Who do I alert if there’s an issue with equipment?
These are the typical questions you’ll want answering before you take the stage. Given your situation and the conference layout, these can and usually grow. Often times, all of these questions are answered for you without you having to ask, but a mental checklist is better than finding out right as your presentation kicks off.
Tip #5: The “Speaker’s Bag”
“Confidence comes from being prepared” — John Wooden
If you’re going to be a serious speaker, that means being prepared for any situation and any venue. Let the tragedy of others become your wisdom, pack a filled “speaker’s bag” and be ready!
⚠️ Link Disclaimer:
All Amazon links below are associate referral links. Purchasing items with the links will not affect your price but will donate a percentage of your purchases to the Open Source Mental Illness non-profit. Kudos to Nic Steenhout for getting me in contact with this organization.
Speaker Bag Contents:
- Backup glasses/contacts (I’m personally blind as a bat w/o them).
- Buy a slides clicker + laser that lasts forever and works for you.
- Have headache medicine (and other critical medicine) on-hand.
- Have a men or ladies handkerchief. Stylish! but also randomly useful.
- A styptic pencil + band-aid is a fantastic backstage life-saver for cuts.
- Mints/Gum/Toothbrush for conversing after you eat.
- Stickers, business cards, or SWAG for your audience.
- Backup charged power-packs, and laptop charger.
- Water, rehydration powder, lipgloss — Common talker needs.
- International power adapter and USB for world travelers.
- Your laptop output converted to EVERYTHING ELSE connector.
Special thanks to quite a few speakers who helped me round out the above list. Some of the people who rummaged through their speaker bags were George Mauer, Chris, Marisa Morby, Jason Lengstorf, pratik patel, Juho Vepsäläinen, and Kyle Welch
UPDATE: by the amazing Simone Spence
Five more tips!?!?
These were just a few of our tips on being prepared, quite a few other speakers had tips that would make this blog post last forever. It makes sense to break it up, as we’re already doing a follow up with 5 more tips which will be coming soon. Subscribe to see the next installment, and definitely add all these fine speakers to your Twitter feeds so you can find us at any conference to say “hi”.
Got a tip?
Did we miss something key? If you’re a public speaker in tech, and you’d like to share some of your knowledge, be sure to tweet at me with your speaking experience, and we’ll connect to share your tips with others.
Gant Laborde is Chief Technology Strategist at Infinite Red, published author, adjunct professor, worldwide public speaker, and mad scientist in training. Please clap/follow/tweet or visit him at a conference.
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