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14 Tips for delivering a great conference presentation

If you are delivering a presentation at a conference - it's a huge opportunity to grow your business and personal brand. But so many people squander that opportunity. If you respect the time you're given, entertain the audience, drop the sales pitch, utilize storytelling techniques, present when you're hungry (yes - I'm serious), use a script, and practice - you can deliver a compelling pitch. I've critiqued my own delivery and studied greats like Steve Jobs and Guy Kawaski to create the following tips.

We’ve all been there – you pay $2,000 to attend an industry conference, sit in the audience for the keynote, and walk away thoroughly disappointed. It’s not because the speaker doesn’t know their topic – it's more likely that they didn’t say anything interesting in an interesting way.

If you’re given an opportunity to speak at a conference, company meeting, or webinar – don’t be that person.

I’ve worked to be better. And I’m still working to be better. Finovate was a great 'proving ground' for me. If you’re not familiar with Finovate – it’s a pitchfest for Fintech companies. Typically with over 1,000 people in the audience looking to be inspired. They sit through around 70 x 7-minute pitches (Sharktank style) and then vote for their best of show. My first presentation was mediocre. The second one was definitely better. And then we won 3 ‘Best of Show’ awards. You can see some of my presentations here.

But if you want to see two true masters at work, I’d suggest

  • This presentation from former Apple Chief Evangelist and VC investor Guy Kawasaki:

  • And the immortal iPhone launch by Steve Jobs

I wanted to share some of the lessons I learned (from my own mistakes as well as watching others like Guy Kawasaki present).

1. Respect the time you've been given by the audience

Nothing is more valuable than time. No amount of money can buy you another second of it. Think about the audience and the time they are giving you and respect it. They’re all busy people – but they’re choosing to sit and listen to YOU! For every minute you present to 60 people, that’s 1 hour of time. So if you present to 200 people for 30 minutes…that’s 100 hours. It’s a gift – treat it as such.

I like to play a little game and pretend I’m in the audience listening to my own presentation (critically). Would I feel I’d spent that time valuably listening to me? If not – I rewrite the presentation until I’m happy with it.

2. Entertain first, educate second

We’re all keen to talk about our awesome product or service or company. Of course, it’s awesome! We built it. But I can guarantee you, no one in the audience is as excited about your product as you. So – to capture their attention and hold it, you need to deliver an entertaining presentation. But it must be authentic and entertaining. If you entertain the audience, you keep their attention. If you keep their attention, you can get your message across.

We don’t all have the charisma of Guy Kawasaki – watch this presentation from Clayton Christensen at Google (one of the most famous business authors in the world). His dry delivery is authentic to his personality – but the presentation is still engaging. We’ve all seen lots of ‘try hard’ attempts to be entertaining or funny fall flat because they just don’t work.

If you’re boring, you will lose the audience’s attention. And if you lose the audience’s attention, they will hear nothing you have to say. And if they hear nothing you say...what was the point. So entertain first, educate second.

3. Have something interesting to say

OK – that sounds painfully obvious. But how many presentations have you sat through and at the end of it thought 'I’m not sure what they just said in the last 30 minutes?'

I’ve worked in fintech (financial technology) since it became ‘a thing’ around 2010. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people present and say

  • 'the future of banking is digital'

  • 'big tech companies like Google, Facebook and Apple are a threat to traditional banks'

  • 'banks must become more agile to survive'

  • 'banks must focus on customer experience'

Blah blah blah

Remember point #1 – respect the time you’ve been given. If you tell people something they already know – you’ll lose them. Don’t’ tell them what they’ve already heard before. They will go to sleep.

Find something truly interesting to say, and say it in an interesting way. Even if there’s only ONE point to your presentation – that’s OK. If it’s interesting and you can back it up and the audience walks away remembering that one thing, mission accomplished.

4. Drop the sales pitch (NO EXCEPTIONS!)

You are NOT going to sell anything in a conference presentation, so don’t try.

But if you deliver a compelling message in an interesting way, people will probably come and talk to you or at least check out your company’s website. And then the sales pitch can begin.

I bet you’ve sat through a presentation where the speaker squandered the gift (of time) they were given to talk about their “game-changing enterprise-grade agile offering that will transform the world of digital banking and given clients a first-mover advantage when dealing with digital native blah blah blah”. It's like Buzz-word Bingo (if you've never played it, it's a great game...Google it).

5. Personalize and customize your presentation for your audience

Do some homework about the location / the audience / local news - and incorporate this in the first few moments of your pitch. You will capture the attention of the audience (and demonstrate that you've invested in making this topical or relevant for them).

A few years ago I presented in Dubai – and at the start of the talk, I explained that my 7 and 9-year-old boys were asking why I was flying to Dubai. When I said I was speaking at a digital banking conference their eyes glazed over. So I asked the audience if it was OK if I took a 'stage selfie' to show my boys that I was giving a talk to a big room full of important people.

You can see most of the people in the photo were smiling 😊 (I just wish I didn't look so overweight in that photo!)

6. Don't dress down (relative to the audience)

This is a tip I took from Guy Kawasaki. Find out what the typical dress code for the conference is going to be and at least match it.

If people are wearing suits – wear a suit.

If people are smart casual – wear smart casual (or a suit).

I recently watched a speaker at a banking conference deliver a presentation in jeans and a Marvel superhero t-shirt. By contrast, 80% of the audience was in formal business attire. He looked like he was saying “I’m cool/smart/successful and you’re not” to the audience with his dress. I feel Jack Dorsey was saying the same thing when he addressed a conference in a tie-dye shirt.

If you have to prove you’re cool by your choice of attire – you’re not cool. You want the audience to relate to you and before you open your mouth, they see how you’re dressed. Be relatable.

7. Don't attack your competitors

Attacking the competition is a sign of weakness – it looks like you can only raise yourself up by stepping on the competition. Are you not confident enough in your abilities to focus on them?

You need to talk about what’s great about your offering, not what’s bad about others. If you’re speaking about the competition then you’re obviously focused/worried about them.

Now…if you took my advice at the start of this post and watched the iPhone launch, you would notice that Steve Jobs got away with attacking the likes of Blackberry and Nokia when he launched the iPhone. But you're NOT STEVE JOBS.

8. Use storytelling, but don’t ramble on and on and on

NOTHING conveys information more effectively than a relevant story.

And the best thing about telling a story is that it’s natural – you don’t need a script or bullets. When you tell a story you’re no longer talking ‘at’ the audience. You’re talking ‘to’ them. It’s a subtle but powerful difference. Take a look at the next two boxes…they say the same thing in two completely different ways. Which one will you remember in 30 minutes?

9. If possible, speak early in the event schedule

Try to speak on the first day. Even though people have spent $2,000+ to attend the conference (typically), attendance always drops after the first day. And certainly on the last day if it’s a 2+ day conference.

Also, try to speak early in the day. People get tired as the day goes on…plus they’re digesting food after the lunch breaks, etc. and the body goes into digestion mode. You’re far more likely to see people nod off in the audience after lunch.

If you’re forced to speak late in the day – make sure you’re entertaining…you need to keep them awake!

10. Present when you’re hungry

Humans are hunter-gatherers – we’re wired to be opportunistic omnivores and have evolved to take advantage of the opportunity to eat whenever food is present. As a result, hunger increases sensory awareness. Have you ever walked past a bakery when you’re hungry – the smells are intoxicating. But it’s also your hearing, your sight, your attentiveness. It’s all heightened when you’re hungry.

Presenters regularly make jokes about the fact that they're presenting to the audience after lunch. They know the 'food coma' has probably started to set in. But the same is true of the speaker!

Personally – I like to present when I’m hungry. I feel mentally sharper and better prepared to not only deliver my best work but also ready to deal with unexpected situations like technical failures. Whereas, if I’m full – I feel lethargic and that comes across in how I present.

This may not be for everyone – but it’s definitely helped me.

11. Drop the EHHHH’s and EMMM’s

As people listen to a speaker, they need a bit of time to digest the information. A second or two of silence between statements affords them this time to digest what you just said. Give them that gift. It also adds a certain gravitas to what was just said.

Speakers often fill those silences with “ehhhh” or “emmm”. This is a habit we, as humans, have developed to show people that we haven’t stopped talking. We're saying 'I’ve got more to say so DON’T interrupt me…I’ve still got the floor’.

Don’t think you do it? Well – it’s subconscious so it’s not surprising that you don’t think you do it. But listen to a recording of yourself speaking and I’ll guarantee there are sound fillers like ehhhh and emmm in there.

In general conversation – it’s bad.

In a conference presentation – it’s unnecessary. So lose it.

12. Practice...then practice...then practice

You can NOT be over-prepared for a presentation. But you can be under-prepared for a presentation.

In Aaron Sorkin’s movie about Steve Jobs – we see how meticulous Steve was about rehearsing for his presentations. He was famous for his preparation and attention to detail – and it showed.

This doesn’t mean you should know your script by heart. But you should know the key point of each slide and the transition between your slides. You must know the flow of your presentation so it does in fact FLOW!

If your presentation stops and starts as you keep looking down at your notes, then it’s hard for the audience to stay focused on your message. And your message won’t sound as compelling. If you have to ‘read it’, then do you really ‘believe it’?

You may have spent tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to get this speaking slot. You’ve probably spent hours or days preparing your slides. You may have spent months or years getting your product to this point. Spend a few hours making sure you knock the presentation ‘out of the park’.

13. Write a script and then summarize it

I believe there’s great benefit in having a script.

Some people will disagree with me on this point, and that’s fine. But I assume if you’re reading this blog and have gotten to this second last ‘tip’, then public speaking doesn’t just come naturally to you. And even if it does, like many of the great presenters/speakers throughout time – you may benefit from having a script.

Now, I don’t believe you should read from that script. In my opinion, that’s an absolute no-no. If put the appropriate level of effort into your preparation – you won’t need to read it. But it’s much easier to build suspense in your narrative and not drone-on if you write a script, then cut-cut-cut, and finally rehearse it.

Most of my presentations have been supported by a demo or presentation slides. So, I think of them as a storyboard. Each slide or core component of the demo has an associated talk track. This approach has also been really helpful for me in culling unnecessary slides. ‘If I can’t make a strong point with that slide – what’s its purpose?’ Now your storyboard won’t be like that from a Disney movie, but the concept is the same. You can start with post-it notes, and graduate to slides with speaker notes in PowerPoint.

And from that storyboard, I try to summarize the entire presentation on to a post-it note. Not with minuscule writing, but by distilling an entire slide into the keywords that make it important. Here’s an example. The script accompanying a single slide is shown in the box on the left, which becomes the words on the right. A single line on a post-it. This way, I can get an entire presentation onto a single post-it.

One line of the post-it represents an entire slide. And if I lose my way during the presentation, I can glance down at my short summary and quickly figure out what my next point should be.

(Obviously, by the time I’ve summarized the presentation, the post-it contains more than just a single line of text 😊)

14. Be yourself (and don’t try too hard)

Imagine instead of presenting that you are telling a story to a group of friends at a BBQ. You’re yourself, you're natural, you're excited because it’s a fun/interesting story, you’re engaging…but you’re you. When someone is natural in their conversation with you…when they’re authentic…it’s much easier to trust them.

Try to emulate that natural, authentic tone in your conference presentation delivery. Don’t try toooooo hard to be excited. It will come across as just that. Be yourself. If you read your script or listen to a recording of yourself presenting and saying those points and you gag – that’s not you. That’s not authentic. And it will come across that way.

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