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Conquering the Conference Presentation

Participants in my courses have often said, “It’s hardest to present to peers!” They’re right.  It calls for a strong mindset. And so does presenting at large conferences where the room is set for 200 and may attract 32 who move in and out as they please!

Ah!  Summer – the time for barbecues, sun, sprinklers – and the National Speakers Association National Conference. Every year we professional speakers gather while everyone else is on vacation.  And this year, I presented a 75-minute concurrent session program to my peers.Here are three things I’ve learned to help you conquer the conference presentation:

  1. Go for audience EXPERIENCE.
  2. Think DIALOGUE.
  3. Practice with ANOTHER SET OF EYES.

EXPERIENCE, not content. Avoid the natural tendency to dump your data to impress a large, savvy group. Data is important but can be added in a handout later. Instead, strive to share the experience of YOU – meaning your stories with the data. It’s the difference between saying, “65% of us are introverts,” and “Let me share what happened with a room of quiet, analytical engineers recently.” Think, “I’m sharing my best “stuff” with friends.”

DIALOGUE, not dumping. Someone once told me, “They’re always happier when they’re talking.” While this may seem the antithesis of conference presenting, there are many ways to engage even the largest and most discerning audiences and “let them talk”. Allowing questions at any time is standard. You can also ask them to briefly check in with a seatmate, write something down, or react and apply your content. Getting out among them is the best way to encourage dialogue. That means stepping off the stage for a bit, really listening to their feedback, and tying it into your points.

PRACTICE, not “winging.” This is the time to get another set of eyes on your 75 minutes. Don’t try to do it alone. For the NSA conference, I presented my program to college students and a trusted colleague who is also a professional speaker.  I’m glad I did!  As a result of their input, I cut my note pages in half, added visuals to my power point, clarified instructions for an interactive activity, and customized my opening story. I would not have thought of any of this myself.  Many of their ideas garnered my most successful audience reactions.

So while others may be basking in the sun, heating up the grill, or sipping lemonade this summer, take the time to pamper your conference speech.  When it’s your turn in the big, cold hotel room, you’ll be glad you did!

Your feedback and additional ideas are always welcomed.

  1. Avatar
    Rob Maxey

    All good points! As a presentations writer I’ve tried for years to get my corporate speakers away from numbers and talk about themselves and personal things they know about audience members. I’m convinced the audience doesn’t care about precise numbers because they never are, market share, economics, production all change a couple of days after the conference. People want to know about you and welcome the opportunity to comment early and be part of the presentation through audience interaction. It’s a hard sell, but when they do it their presentations are so much more effective.

    Less is more. If you can end 5-10 minutes early everyone welcomes this and gives the participants and the speaker a little time to mingle with each other. Whenever possible, I would exit through the audience so people have the chance to shake your hand, possibly give you a business card and possibly line you up for a future gig. Plus, if you can go right out into the lobby a few minutes early you’re creating the opportunity to sell more books and products.

  2. Avatar
    Wayne Turmel

    Cyndi, you did a great job at NSA 09 and it was terrific seeing you there. I agree with your premise AND I want to add one caveat…. yes, you want to focus more on the stories than the data just remember you still have to know the data and have it handy. Being able to answer a question calmly and precisely goes a long way to satisfying the challengers and those in your audience who need hard numbers. I like to prepare a statistics=type visual and not use it in the general presentation but pull it out during Q and A to show I am prepared and know my stuff. It keeps the critics on their toes.

  3. Avatar
    Tony Adams

    Great concise and practical advice, Cyndi, Lynn, and Cynthia.

    My two cents: Stay on time, if not finish under by a few minutes. Audiences have expectations about when a presentation will end. Audiences also have other obligations.

    I recently attended two 75-minute conference sessions, each consisting of five speakers (who had 12-15 minutes to present). In both sessions, the first two speakers took 25 minutes each to present, 50 minutes total (leaving 25 minutes for the three remaining speakers). Not only did the remaining speakers then have to rush, but the audience also negatively reacted to the two speakers who went too long, evidenced by innumerable sighs, side comments, and nervous seat movements. Some audience members even left before all of the speakers finished–they had other sessions to attend, and knew the session probably wouldn’t end on time.

    So out of courtesy for other presenters and the audience, I always suggest respecting the time limit. Expectations met, and respect as a speaker gained.

  4. Avatar
    Lynn Hazan

    I also encourage participants not to take down all my info from my talks, since the presentation will be posted to As a result, people can relax and enjoy the experience. if you are not yet aware of SlideShare, it’s an application on Linkedin and is also its own site for posting. Go to for the latest on powerpoint presentations on literally any topic under the sun. These do not replace live presentations. They are wonderful additions. Also, another way to get word out.

  5. Avatar
    Cynthia Rudmann

    Hi Cyndi,
    I agree with your points wholeheartedly. I would add another suggestion based on my experiences presenting to a room of expert colleagues.

    * Open it up and call on members of your audience early and often, for their “take” on certain key points you are making. I have learned that this takes some pressure of you, in the role of Expert Speaker. At the same time, asking for input/feedback shows that you value and need their contributions. You are not Going It Alone, which I have seen result in a murmur of grumbling and a tendency for some to tune you out.

    Thanks for the opportunity to contribute, and best regards, as always,

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