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Behind the scenes of being a conference speaker

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Do you panic at the thought of giving a big presentation or speech? Or have lots of ideas about the things you want to say but just have no idea where to start?

Rachel Miller, founder of All Things IC and internal communications guru, offers Women in PR her practical tips and advice on how to get organised and prepare for those big keynote presentations and speeches that can often fill us with dread.


Behind the scenes of being a conference speaker

Author: Rachel Miller, founder of All Things IC

I’ve spoken at conferences for years, I love being on stage and seeing the reactions of the audience as they share the conversation with you. I’ve spoken on stages at Facebook, Google and Microsoft, plus industry conferences such as the International Association of Business Communicators, Public Sector Comms Academy, Chartered Institute of Public Relations and Institute of Internal Communication.

My original career ambition was to be a TV presenter or an actor, so I’m comfortable being in front of people. That’s not to say I don’t get butterflies, but I’ve learnt how to channel that energy into creating the right experience for everyone in the room.

Do I make mistakes? Of course, I’m human.

Do I forget what I want to say? Yes I used to, but the process I’m going to share with you means I rarely do that now.

Could I improve my performance? Undoubtedly, you should never stop trying to develop yourself as everyone will benefit from your investment.


Choosing where to speak

I only accept a handful of speaking invitations each year and choose carefully. Sometimes I do pro bono work e.g. the NHS Communicators event I chaired last January. The choices I make and conversations are always at my discretion. I believe you should not pay to speak and have never done this.

If you’re approached to speak at a conference or event, key things to consider include:

  • Does it align with your personal brand?
  • Why has the organiser asked you?
  • Who will be attending?
  • Who else is speaking?
  • What does the setting look like? E.g. will you have screen/s, comfort monitors, microphone, cameras, be in the round etc.
  • How long will your session be?
  • Content deadline and whether you can use your own branding.
  • Will Q&A be included?
  • What do previous attendees say about the event?
  • Logistics e.g. location and fee.


Where to start?

If you’ve never spoken on stage before, you have two options – start small or jump right in. If you are a Comms professional, there are many breakfast and evening events and panel sessions where you can see how you feel being in front of smaller audiences or speaking online via webinars, before taking to large stages.

When you hire me as a keynote speaker, you’re not only getting the time it takes to deliver the session, but up to three months of planning, which is reflected in the cost.

I have secret boards on Pinterest which I’ve been collating for years. They are the first place I turn to when I’m invited to speak as these swipe files contain images that have made me think, quotes I like and ideas I know I would like to use in future.


Creating an experience

I know exactly how I want the people listening to me to feel during and after my presentation and I work hard to create that experience.

That is displayed through the way I talk with them, whether I ask questions, how I move on stage and how I interact before, during and after the session, both in person and online.

I always keep this quote from the wonderful Maya Angelou in mind: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

How do you want people to feel as a result of your talk?

What’s the outcome you’re aiming for? How will you know you’ve achieved it?


Using stories

Stories are an incredibly powerful way of evoking feelings. A few months ago I had a conversation with Comms pro Natalie Corney when she came to one of my monthly Masterclasses. She told me she remembers a story I told during a presentation about using social media for internal communication back in 2012.

Not only that, she shared how she’s told that same story to her stakeholders to help them understand permissions for social media use. So seven years on from hearing a story during my presentation at a CIPR conference, that information makes her feel empowered and has stuck in her memory. I doubt some stats or a graph would have the same impact.

During my PRSAConnect talk I shared various stories I’ve not told on stage before, from family anecdotes to client conversations. Original content is important, do take the time to do your research and analyse your thoughts.


How I structure my talks

As a general rule of thumb, I divide my talk into sections.

Typically, the start/introduction, three main sections containing three points each, then the end/conclusion.

I have three stories or proof points in each section. So in short: I’m going to tell you this, I tell them, then summarise at the end what they’ve heard.

This is the process I follow:

1) Notes on my phone

I jot down ideas in the notes app on my phone as soon as I accept the invitation to speak. I ask to speak with the conference organiser early on to understand their expectations and then couple that with my own experience, ideas and musings.

The notes on my phone can be as long as eight sides of A4 when printed out. They’re an assortment of quotes, things I want to remember to say or suggestions for images/slides.

Once I’ve printed them out, I work through them, filtering them down to distil them into the correct length, remove duplications and erase topics I’ve decided not to mention.

During August 2019 I spent time in France and ran around my mum-in-law’s garden. During these sessions I was testing how it felt to say some of those notes for my upcoming CIPR Inside conference talk out loud. I spotted where I naturally felt able to talk, where the barriers were and what didn’t feel right, before updating the phone notes again.

2) Post-it notes

The second part of my process is to take the shortened notes from my phone and start to arrange them in order.

I use Post-it notes to do this. I’m a visual thinker and find the process of writing the notes out by hand and seeing them in front of me distils the information further and helps me map the flow. I’m also a *bit* of a stationery fan (my Instagram accountwill attest to this!).

Once I’ve categorised them into the following: Intro, Section One, Section Two, Section Three, Conclusion, I’m ready to transfer them to my talk planner.

3) Transfer to talk planner

This stage often has two halves, first it’s the talk planner, pictured right, followed by creating slides (if I’m using them).

As you’ll see from the image, each section has three bullet points. This helps me plan properly, keeps me succinct and to time. It’s also far easier to remember.

My aim is to transfer the notes from the post-its onto this planner as a final version. If I’m creating slides, this leads to step four as I’ll follow this as a visual roadmap to know the slides I need to create to illustrate my points.

Let’s break it down.

> Intro

If you are speaking at a conference, chances are there is a description of who you are and what you do listed in the agenda. Don’t waste time by repeating this information and giving huge amounts of background about your experience, who you work for/with. This rarely adds to the audience’s experience and is something they could look up themselves. You don’t need to prove why you are talking, give yourself permission to just start.

Think about how to have a strong opening. This could be a quote, a video or a truthful story, which then leads you into a proper introduction, which should be focused on “I’m going to tell you this today” and/or “as a result of our time together, you’ll leave with XYZ.”

> Sections – also known as the power of three

I usually structure my talks into three sections. For example, for the #PRSAConnect conference, my topic was How your personal brand can transform your internal communication.

I broke this down into three proof points. “You can do this by focusing on 1) Consistency, 2) Clarity, 3) Certainty” – this structure provided the headings for each section.

I then had three proof points for each section, including one story each.

If you are promoting the event you’ll be talking at, knowing those three sections is useful if you are invited to talk about it ahead of the conference. For example, I was a guest on Chuck Gose’s ICology podcast two months before giving my talk in the US. My answers to his questions gave a glimpse into what delegates could expect from my session. I could only do this because I’d been planning my talk using my process.

This is part of the reason why I’m selective and say no more than I say yes to conference speaking – you need to give yourself space and time to think and plan ahead.

> Conclusion

My conclusion saw me summarising what I had shared, repeating the Consistency, Clarity and Certainty points and providing a call to action.

Tip: What is the final thought you want to leave delegates with? What’s the last thing you want them to hear and take away?

Tip: Don’t overcomplicate the sections. I recommend keeping the content of equal length. For example, if you have a 30 minute time slot, plan to spend five minutes on the intro, then six minutes on each section, followed by five minutes on the conclusion.

4) Completed presentation

Sometimes my completed talk planner is everything I use. If I don’t have slides to accompany my talk, I’ll take that planner onto the stage with me.

Tip: Even if you do have slides, take the planner with you on stage in case the tech doesn’t work.

Should you have notes? Yes, if you feel like you’d like them.

I use slides to illustrate my points visually and provide takeaways or “Tweetable content” of the key points I want people to focus on or remember. If you have a 30 minute, 45 minute or hour-long presentation, that’s a long period of time for people to concentrate.


Top tips:

  • Make sure your social media handle/s and conference hashtag are on every slide if there is one.
  • Make sure you have copies of your presentation with you. I store them in the cloud and have a USB on me when I arrive at an event to speak.
  • Be early, meet the audio crew and check your slides if you’re using them. Did your pictures work? Do videos have audio?
  • Make sure what you’re wearing will accommodate the microphone and you don’t have jewellery that will jangle. I always take a belt with me as I rarely have pockets for clip-on mics to hook into (they can also hook into your bra – poor Brenda at the Institute of Internal Communication and I got rather up close and personal before my talk at the IoIC annual conference last year. Luckily we’ve known each other for years!).


Practice makes perfect

Once you know what you’re saying you need to practice. Constantly. An effortless looking presentation takes hours of work.

I video myself using my phone and analyse the rhythm, what I’m saying, how I’m saying it and hearing how the thoughts sound out loud. By the time the conference comes around, the actual speech on stage will have been said numerous times by me in the confines of my house, office and phone.

I often have to walk away from it for a few days or weeks, then come back to it fresh.

I remember standing on stage looking at the room full of Comms pros in Phoenix and musing how it was wonderful to finally share those thoughts with the people I created them for.


How do you know if you’ve done a good job?

In this age of social media, you can tell instantly whether the people in the room think you’ve done a good job. It allows you to analyse whether your key messages have resonated and gives you an opportunity to follow up with any questions or criticisms.

If your talk is at a conference, don’t forget to ask the conference organisers for their feedback too. If it’s at a wedding, you’ll know from the heckles or laughs.


Further reading

A few years ago I worked with Impactologist Martin Brooks and asked him to analyse the talk I gave at Google in 2014. Thanks to his feedback, I’ve made some adjustments to the way I talk on stage.

I also like watching Grant Baldwin’s Speaker Lab videos where he deconstructs talks and critiques what makes them work or what needs to be improved. I enjoy his podcast too.

Further reading: Why women don’t speak at conferences – published in 2015.

I hope this article has been helpful. Do get in touch if you have any queries. If you use my Talk Planner to help you structure a speech, do let me know how you get on.

Need additional help? Why not book a Consultation Call with me? We can talk it through together.

Finally, best of luck and try to enjoy it!


First published on the All Things IC blog 29 August 2019.


Get your own Talk Planner via All Things IC

If you would like to access Rachel Miller’s Talk Planner to help you construct your upcoming speech or presentation click through to All Things IC here and complete the form for it to be sent to you: https://www.allthingsic.com/how-to-write-a-speech/

Visit All Things IC for blogs, tips and a host of free resources on a wide range of internal communications issues: www.allthingsic.com/

You can follow Rachel on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/AllthingsIC