Candid Thoughts about Conference Speaking
This year I’ve spoken at six events – that’s actually more than one a month – and I gave a 90 minute lecture at Hult International Business School. I’ve also given two long round tables on content marketing.
Getting to speak is an amazing privilege. It’s something that helps gets your name out there, generates leads, and forces you to think about new things. But it’s also quite a burden. Most take some time to prepare for, and I often feel under pressure,. Worst of all is the over-assessing of performance.
An Uncomfortable Feeling about Performance
In the week of 15th April, I spoke at four different events – one of which was 90 minutes long. When I got to the end of that week I was mentally shattered – but I’d also been slightly uncomfortable with my performances.
After speaking at Sheerluxe, I felt my delivery cracked under pressure. It was a new audience, and I was slightly nervy – so I tripped over some of the slide transitions and mucked up some of the delivery. I always ask people afterwards about it and they said I was confident, and that they hadn’t noticed. Problem is as the speaker, you always notice.
The next day, at IonSearch, I had a content strategy slide deck that I had delivered a few times inhouse, but with a few adaptations I felt it was good enough for an external conference. I knew the audience well so felt I’d be able to get through it easily. I did, but I also messed up some pretty basic points – particularly around ‘Genuinely Good Ideas’ which I basically skipped through. Truth be told, I hadn’t practiced enough.
In fact, when I look at each of my speaking performances this year, I feel somewhat uncomfortable. I feel like there is genuinely something that I didn’t get quite right. On four occasions, I feel like I didn’t quite get the delivery right. On the other two occasions, there was barely anyone in the audience, so while I wasn’t nervous, only a handful of people saw me speak!
In my mind, this remains by far my best conference talk.
The Importance of Practice
About the same time last year, I’d written How I Spoke at Seven Conferences and How You Can Too. Out of the points given, number 7 ‘Practice Relentlessly’ was the most important to me. But something happened this year: I felt like I didn’t need to practice as much. In some cases I just felt so exhausted by the whole process that I just couldn’t practice any more. About five run throughs was always enough. I was experienced enough for it not to matter.
But it’s not really. When I wrote Saying Stuff is Dead is Dead, I spent a huge amount of time preparing. It was filled with jokes, timed lines, and facts where I worked on delivery and diction repeatedly. I got completely obsessed with delivering it perfectly. I disposed of about 30 slides in an effort to make everything I said matter. I was terribly nervous beforehand. What if the audience was there to learn rather than laugh? Fortunately, it only took my first line to hear genuine laughter, and I was away.
Having gone through that process once, I can say it was immensely satisfying. Hearing genuine belly laughter from an audience is fantastic. At one point I even got a round of the pause at a punchline. But I can’t commit the length of time that this sort of content demands. Also, I was another year older, and I had more content to rely on, remix and retell to different audiences. This caused an issue over it being slightly stale.
Moving in a New Direction
Doing six presentations in less than six months has told me that you can’t be satisfied with your performance every time. In my first year of conference speaking, I had enough time to do them all justice, and I had a real hunger to make an impact. This year, the time disappeared and the same hunger wasn’t there – it couldn’t be with so many conferences in so little time. There was only one conference where I felt like I didn’t screw up a transition – and that normally happens because of lack of practice.
Perhaps the biggest realisation came in the latest FODM event just last week. I had practiced more than the other conferences, used some of the material before, and thought I knew the subject inside out. But the audience was much more high profile than I was used to and I definitely got spooked. I completely fluffed at least two slides and messed up transitions on most of the deck. The feedback later was fine - people said they liked it. But I feel like I could’ve delivered it so much better. With these things, I’m always my worst critic.
So instead of accepting every conference going, I’m going to be more selective. This means a few things:
- Only one SEO conference between now and the end of the year. If BrightonSEO comes calling, then it’ll be that – it’s my favourite one. I don’t really focus on SEO these days and want to move away from the audience I’m most familiar with. If I was asked to do a Distilled conference I’d have difficulty turning that down – so we’ll see!
- I’m going to max out at two others – one of which is the Digital Marketing Show. The other I want to be able to spend enough time to polish something and really nail it, because that seems to have alluded me (at least to me) for this year.
Truth is I don’t just want to go to conferences, deliver a talk, get a round of applause, meet a few people and then leave. I want to speak at conferences, offer something completely unique, learn a lot and pass this on, and be remembered. If the final thing doesn’t happen, what’s the point?