Thought Leadership

November 30, 2017

The 10 Speaking Commandments

Kathleen Reynolds

Congratulations! You booked a speaking role at a conference. That means you’re full of valuable and timely insight and you can really shine on behalf of yourself, your company and your industry. But as anyone who’s attended events knows, some people nail it…and others bore their audience into scrolling social media or scanning for the exits.


The difference (paying homage to “Hamilton”, of course) is in following the 10 Conference Commandments.


1. A panel is a conversation.

Look up “conversation” in the dictionary and you’ll notice it does NOT say “case study” or “elevator pitch.” Sure, savvy marketers may repurpose existing materials like these. You may even be able to use a compelling stat or line from your marketing materials. But whether it’s a group presentation or a small panel, people will tune out if you go to the dark side of sales or worse, trot out the tired deck you’ve presented five times. Conversations are about interactive exchanges of ideas. You can’t speak one-on-one with each attendee, but the best presenters engage audiences and spark thinking, emotions, note-taking and questions.


2. Don’t go down a rabbit hole.

I recently attended what I thought would be a fascinating panel about Artificial Intelligence. The panelists were diverse and smart as whips. But after one brought up a point about regulatory challenges, the conversation took a turn. While the panelists clearly enjoyed “geeking out” on this tangent, the audience went into a snoozefest. A little latitude to go off-script is fine, but stay focused on the big-picture issues and stay true to what you promised the audience you’d address. You can chat about that inside-baseball stuff – over a free beer at the cocktail hour.


3. Don’t make fun of puppies at a pet show.

I attended a healthcare conference in which panelists took turns taking swings at physicians, lamenting how hard it is make docs true team players. A pediatric orthopedist stood up during questions and schooled the group for what felt were inaccurate and offensive generalizations. The bottom line: research and have your team look into who attends the event carefully, and speak with this information in mind. Tailor your information accordingly and avoid landmines.


4. Prepare for breakdown.

You may have the best presentation with the most dazzling graphics. But during my last conference, I saw technology tools completely malfunction twice in one day. One panelist smiled and immediately moved on. I don’t know how good her deck was, but it didn’t matter; she fluidly listed compelling stats, told a story about how her institution overcame an obstacle and didn’t look back. Another person spent almost five minutes trying to rejigger a video that wouldn’t play correctly. Instead of moving on, she then tried (and failed) to talk over as the video played the wrong part. She was overwhelmed and ultimately overshadowed. Know your stuff and if you’re working with multimedia, rehearse with and without it so you’ll be ready, no matter what.


5. Milk it online.

People think of conferences as an opportunity to network in person, but it doesn’t end there. Participate in the social media dialogue happening and use the hashtag. Use soundbites from your own remarks to compose social media posts (pro tip: do this in advance and have your team share the posts in live-time as your remarks are happening). “@ mention” other panelists or influencers you’re hearing and meeting. Retweet with abandon and follow folks and companies on LinkedIn. Take note of new followers / connections who come in as a result. On your plane ride home, combine your insights into a few paragraphs that you can parlay into a thought leadership piece, summarizing takeaways from the event (no shame in making a few of them your own message points, but not all). And then don’t forget to share that piece with your network and new connections from the conference. They might appreciate a timely piece they can share with colleagues about the event they just attended!


6. Anticipate trolls and tough questions.

Speaking at an event makes you vulnerable. While most attendees are there to learn or get inspired, others want to voice contrarian opinions, troll or hear the sound of their own voices. I’ve seen folks grab the question mic and never let go. Good moderators can keep folks in check, but prepare anyway by anticipating the types of tough questions you could get. And remember that no matter what, you must keep your composure, wit and good humor.


7. You’re never really off the record.

Some speakers have mocked other companies in remarks and gone deep into the competitive playbook without realizing that competitor X had a junior marketing person listening to every word (and surely, reporting back). I’ve listened on a Webinar (registered with my company’s information clearly stated) as speakers rattled off proprietary information and you can bet that I used to my client’s advantage. Conferences are melting pots and that means the coffee line, your exhibit booth, the elevator, the bar at closing time and yes, even the bathroom could be within earshot of anyone. And anyone – competitors, prospects, reporters or others – could be there scouring for a story, some intel or a juicy tweet.


8. Make headlines!*

DO use a conference or a speaking opportunity to make some news intentionally and embrace the opportunities around you. Are you unveiling a new solution? Releasing new research? Use this moment to strategically launch – share your news via a press release timed to go out with your appearance. Get the conference press list from the organizers and book meetings with the reporters who are literally there with the sole purpose to find good stories and sources. You could even pre-select one priority reporter target and give that person an exclusive scoop to ensure one piece of coverage on your launch day – and follow-up with a full court press. This does not give you permission to disobey #1 and go into robot-mode, making the presentation a press conference. In your remarks, touch on what’s newsworthy and keep it conversational. Conferences are an incredible platform to work with your PR team and get your news in front of the captive audience onsite and other stakeholders beyond.


9. *But do NOT go rogue!

I know, you’re looking and feeling good, you just nailed your presentation and the audience loves you. But now is NOT the time to let it slip that you are *this close* to acquiring X company – or whatever else is on the confidential horizon. By sharing information before it’s ready for prime time, you could sabotage your own strategy.


10. Have some fun.

There are usually a few “forced fun” moments at any conference. The group expedition, the happy hour or even the mid-afternoon brownie break may seem cliché, but they are chances to put your phone and your talking points down and actually interact. Talk to people about more than work! Smile! You will enjoy yourself more and you’ll make real connections.

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