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Speaking at a conference? Tips to inspire belief in your leadership

4 min read


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Speaking at a conference is an exciting and challenging prospect. It’s also good professional development. Taking a speaking role builds your self-confidence, shows your expertise and supports a key leadership communication skill: public speaking. But not all speakers are created equal.

The last conference I attended featured more than 20 speakers. Each one had proven expertise and know-how, but there was a large divide between the effective and ineffective speakers. Some imparted serious wisdom and inspiration which I put to good use; however, most are now forgotten.

I’d like to share some easy ways for you to demonstrate leadership and business expertise the next time you’re a speaker.

What works

  1. Have a well-defined point of view. You’re a leader and leaders know what they think. By presenting a point of view, you are showing your peers that you have learned from your experience and can translate your experience into actionable efforts. Spark your audience’s thinking by giving them a new idea that challenges their current framework. This is how we grow and learn, and it’s one of the main objectives of attending a conference.
  2. Use structure and planning to deliver your message clearly and concisely. Devote planning time to your message by defining your objectives and developing an outline that supports it. Be sure what you talk about matches the description in the conference materials. Attendees should be able to say in a few sentences what they took away from your session.
  3. Use few slides. Leader-like speakers don’t use pages of dense slides. You and your wisdom are the focal point. Slides, if you use them, are there to support you. An elegant, well-designed presentation is a statement of confidence. You are experienced enough to know that a simple message reflects deep knowledge and understanding of your topic.
  4. Offer more value than the text on your slides. Don’t simply repeat the words on your slides; add value by using examples and resources. If you read your slides, the audience will wish they had downloaded your deck and gone to a talk with more substance.
  5. Tell stories to bring your message to life. Choose a story or two that ties to your message and connects with your audience. Stories helps your audience put meaning to your message and remember it.
  6. Rehearse, preferably aloud. Yes, it can feel awkward, but there’s no replacement for it.
  7. Dress appropriately. Dress standards have become more casual and I’m all for it, but be pressed and neat. Support your expertise by a professional outwardly appearance.
  8. Engage the audience. Some portion of your session should be audience interaction; ask questions and encourage participation.

Watch outs

  1. Avoid dropping the names of your friends or referencing people that have no relevance to your message. This is distracting and borderline annoying.
  2. When something goes wrong with the audiovisual equipment, have a backup plan. I’ve had slides disappear and audio fail. If this happens, keep your talk going and show your calm under pressure. Don’t repeatedly acknowledge or complain about the glitch. Your professionalism will win over any issues.
  3. If you moderate a panel, ask challenging questions. People are here to learn, so be provocative.
  4. Be specific and clear. The audience wants the benefit of your knowledge and expertise. When you talk in general terms, your message is lost; and moreover, you’ve lost the chance to demonstrate your credibility and leadership.
  5. Verify that your slides show well. Keep your slides simple, straightforward and easy to digest. Avoid light colors because they almost always become diluted and difficult to read.
  6. Don’t curse. Profanity isn’t necessary. My suggestion … just don’t do it.
  7. Keep your phone in your pocket (turned off). If you want to know what’s happening in the conference Twitter feed, assign someone to monitor it. They can alert you to good posts or questions to integrate into your comments.

Whether you’re an aspiring leader or a seasoned professional, presenting at a conference is a solid step to deepening your communication skills and demonstrating your thought leadership. I hope these practical steps will help you prepare for your next public speaking opportunity.

Gretchen Rosswurm is the vice president of global corporate communications and corporate social responsibility at Celanese, a global chemical company in Dallas. Throughout her career, she has advised leaders on communication strategies to enhance employee engagement and improve business results. Follow her on Twitter @GRosswurm.

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