Zestful Blog Post #218
I’ve been meaning to share an article I wrote for Writer’s Digest magazine of March/April (2017), as well as a revealing experience I had after speaking at a conference last year.
The article is my blueprint for being a successful conference presenter. The first part covers how to pitch your idea to the organizers, and then if selected, write a talk illustrated with PowerPoint slides. But I’m leaving that off here, because there's advice about that everywhere you look. What I want to share is the second part of the article: the other stuff you don't see anywhere, about what to do, how to act, and essential logistics to help you enjoy a successful, no-stress-added conference. Not that I love conferences; I tend toward introversion, which is why I’ve worked out these protocols to help smooth the way.
When you arrive at the conference, touch base with registration, check for messages, and try to say hi to the organizers, whom you’ve likely corresponded with but not yet met in person. Drop off your books (if you have a published title you plan to sell or sign onsite) at the bookselling venue, if there is one. It’s typical for authors to bring or ship ahead their own stock, which simplifies things for the bookseller. But even if the bookseller has promised to obtain and sell presenters’ books on their own, I try to bring extra stock just in case.
Allow lots of extra time to find your assigned session room, set up and get comfortable. Make sure the room is equipped with anything you need for your presentation (a laptop, projector, handouts you sent ahead to be printed, etc.). If there’s only a short break between the prior presenter and you, be ready to set up fast. Your room may have a staff member on hand to facilitate the end of one session and the beginning of another. If it doesn’t and the speaker before you runs over time, approach the podium and say with a smile, “I have to start in X minutes.”
Be prepared to introduce yourself. Few conferences have enough volunteers to provide intros for every session. I include a slide of my relevant credentials at the beginning.
[This is one of the least flattering photos of me talking I could find. Good for my vanity, which according to some, as you'll see, is extreme.]
Keep cool if something goes wrong. Power failure, medical emergency, missing property, disputes over seating—I’ve dealt with them all. Attendees will look to you as an authority figure, so if you stay calm, they will too. If a tech issue arises, send for an AV tech immediately; don’t spend more than a minute trying to troubleshoot it yourself. If all fails, be prepared to deliver your talk with just your script.
Unless the room is very small, use the microphone and speak into it consistently. Tell your audience, “If at any time you can’t hear me, call out.” It’s easy to drift away from the mic.
If you’ve brought a signup sheet for your email list, circulate it right away. I hand around a small paper shopping bag and ask people to throw in their card or a scrap of paper with their email address; I tell them they’re signing up for my newschats, and a chance to win this! (One of my books, personalized to them.) At the end of my talk I find the bag, draw a name and ask that person to meet me as soon as I’ve gathered my stuff.
Abide by your time limit. If you have a room monitor, ask that person to signal you when you have 10 minutes to go. Otherwise, keep an eye on your watch. Be prepared to skip material at the end if need be. Don’t talk faster to cram in your last bits of material. If you’ve built in time for a Q&A, you have some wiggle room.
Be sure to thank the organizers and volunteers at the beginning and/or end of your talk.
Clear out quickly when you’re done. Sometimes attendees will come up and want to talk; tell them you can chat in the concourse once you collect your things.
When “off duty” at the conference, remember that you might be recognized and approached for conversation. Smile and try to be generous with your time. It may sound obvious, but avoid gossip and vulgarity—which includes getting too drunk in the bar after dinner.
There is a lot of work involved with being a successful conference presenter. But if you do it well, you’ll achieve the dual goals of giving valuable information to your audience and piquing their interest in you and your work—beyond the podium.
That’s the end of the article. But some conferences extend your experience by sending you audience feedback weeks later, which can be helpful, delightful, affirming, depressing, and soul-crushing. I can never really come to terms with the diametrically opposed feedback I’ve gotten.
Here are exact quotes from feedback from one session I gave last fall. These people were in the same room as I, all together. Same time-space continuum.
“Excellent presentation, very informative and fun.”
“It was as if someone else had prepared the slide deck for her and she didn’t know what was coming next.”
“She dealt very well with the interruption of PurseGate 2016.”
“Perhaps interruptions rattled her but she never got over it.”
“Delivers a lot of information in a manner that is super personal and therefore we feel like intimates of hers, fun and comfortable.”
“Big commercial ego trip.”
“Great, could listen to her for longer, very good.”
My very favorite: “She knows her stuff but seemed to be on drugs or something.”
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