Last month I spoke at the Open Forum event on Digital Transformation. While I have a fair amount of experience speaking publicly, I’m still very new to speaking to a technical audience and this was my first time speaking at a conference or presenting a case study. I definitely learnt that all public speaking is not equivalent – and a few specific lessons to bear in mind if you’re not used to speaking in front of this kind of audience.

1. Timing is everything

With any luck, the conference organisers have put some thought into the attention span of your audience for you. You’ll have an allotted amount of time, and you’ll need to judge the pace of your talk to fit reasonably within that frame. Seems obvious, right? But this timing is not something that can be guessed, rehearsing is the only test. I hadn’t fully rehearsed my talk, and ended up half way through my slides with only a quarter of my time remaining!

Practicing one slide at full volume and speed cannot be multiplied by your number of slides to get a reliable time (I tried that). Rehearsing your whole talk in your head will not give you an accurate idea of your speed (tried that too!). Run through your whole talk at least once. If you fumble, don’t start over – you won’t be able to restart on the day and you risk over-rehearsing the earlier slides and being less confident on later ones.

Make sure you have a timer with you, don’t rely on a wall clock to judge your time. The clock might not work, you might get on stage and realise there’s glare on the clock and you will more than likely forget to take note of the time when you started speaking anyway. I was so focused on the day of my talk that I forgot what time I was scheduled to speak (I knew when my panel was, just not my specific segment) so I couldn’t even guess at my timing! Make sure your time tracking is within your control.

2. Iterate on your notes

When speaking publicly I really like to have thought through my exact phrasing, so as not to get tripped up on finding the right way to explain something whilst up on stage. This means everything I plan on saying I have at some point written out word-for-word. Obviously, that doesn’t make for good speaker notes, as it’s not easy to scan, so I refine them into bullet points with key phrases I want to touch on. I didn’t spend as much timing refining my notes as I would have liked to, and ended up with a jumbled mess of half sentences – much too much to easily read when I flicked to a new slide.

Open Forum was the longest presentation I’ve ever given single-handedly – and the only case study I’ve ever presented – so there was significantly more content to fit into my notes. Different points merged into examples which merged into the next point, leading me to struggle to organise my thoughts whilst on stage. If you’re presenting a case study I recommend finding a way to match up an example to the talking points it explains.

Take time to consider the formatting of your speaker notes – move them out of Powerpoint or Keynote if that lets you organise your thoughts in a way you can more easily consume at a glance.

3. Don’t trust what you think you see

If you look into the crowd, don’t trust your read of the audience whilst speaking. If you look out and see only disinterest, or worse – disagreement, that’s more likely your self-doubt than the truth. Looking out into the audience while I spoke, I didn’t think I could see anyone interested in what I was saying, so I began to doubt whether my talk was at all relevant. The one exception to this was someone who I thought looked outraged, completely disagreeing with everything I was saying. I took this as a challenge, and started expanding on topics I hadn’t expected to whenever that one person seemed to disagree with something I said, trying to justify myself.

Don’t trust your eyes, and don’t let your perceptions derail all your preparation. Don’t get thrown by what you think you see – good or bad.

Eleanor Deal speaking at the Delivering Digital Transformations Event 13th July 2017.
Delivering Digital Transformations Event 13th July 2017.

Finally – one very important thing that surprised me – you can’t guarantee when the nerves will kick in! I wasn’t as nervous as I expected to be in the days leading up to the conference, until the night before when I could hardly sleep for running over my notes in my head. Keep your schedule light around the conference. Maybe you’ll get nervous from 24 hours ahead – not a good time to have important meetings. Maybe you’ll only be nervous on the day – but that might make focussing on other conference talks difficult, so plan on not attending the talks before yours if you don’t feel like it.

For more information please contact us or visit open forum events.