Brown corduroy trousers and bicycle clips

Roger Hunt

Some advice to first time conference speakers

I have spoken at, and attended as a participant, more conferences than I can remember. Sometimes, as a speaker, I have felt great, at other times I have had to put on my trusty brown corduroy trousers with bicycle clips securing the bottoms of the legs and live on hope, trust and charity. I have attended some marvellous talks and some excruciatingly painful ones. I once vowed never to walk out of a talk, no matter how bad, but I must confess one or two have been so bad that I had a choice between a plastic bag over my head or a very early coffee break (so I had the coffee of course).

Here are a few tips for you which I hope will help keep your audience riveted to their seats throughout your first conference talks. Some are a bit more serious than others, but we are all different and different things work for different people; I hope you find some of use, but don't blame me if you follow my advice and your audience all walk out of your talk after the first five minutes!

  • Have a beginning, a middle and an end to your talk. Preferably make the end the same as the beginning. In other words start off by saying something, expand on it, exemplify it, give examples of what you did, quote what other people said about it, what they thought, what you thought about what they thought, how this changed your /their behaviour, then – when all seems lost go back to the beginning and remind everyone about what you are talking about.
  • Speak for slightly less time than you have been allocated (everyone likes longer breaks and being first in the queue for coffee)
  • Never go over the time you have been allocated (everyone hates curtailed breaks and being last in the queue for coffee)
  • If you are worried about telling people things, don't. Instead talk about what you have done (a classroom experiment for example), and quote the responses you received from the participants in the experiment. People don't like being told things (eg: 'You should do this, because I do'), they like hearing about things you have done (eg: I tried this because….. The results seemed to be…). They can try these things out for themselves later if they want to.
  • Acknowledge your sources. If you don't, you can rest assured that the author of that obscure article you based your talk on is in your audience, is drunk, and has a very loud voice, and is willing to use it.
  • Don't quote yourself (eg: as I said in my article in/my book about/etc). No-one likes a big head unless you are famous (and if you are a first time conference speaker, let's face it-you're not!)
  • Don't think you invented the wheel. Whatever you are talking about somebody else thought of it before you. Acknowledge this, even if you don't know who that person was. If you don't, that person will be in your audience, drunk, loud voice etc (see above).
  • Don't just talk. Have something for the audience to look at-it doesn't matter all that much what it is: you can always quip: 'So, here's a nice picky of Brad Pitt for some of you and a picture of Pamela Anderson for the rest.' They might not laugh at the time, but they might appreciate the light relief if your talk gets really dull. (They'll certainly remember you….'Hey, remember that guy with the sixty foot high picture of Pamela Anderson?' 'Yeah, great! Let's invite him to speak at our conference!'). Of course, visuals that are relevant to your talk tend to go down even better.
  • Don't say: 'Now I'm going to tell a joke'. People like to think you're talking from the heart and what you say is coming to you in flashes of inspiration at the moment of speaking (this in spite of the fact that they spent seven weeks preparing their own talks). Instead say something like: 'Oh! That reminds me of a funny little anecdote'. Then tell it. Of course, they'll all know you planned it really, but….will they??? Could it be that you are really a natural, humorous, very likeable person at ease with your audience and you just happened, at that moment, to think of a pertinent little story to tell? They'll love you.
  • Don't forget the punch line!
  • Your notes can be visible, but don't read aloud. Reading aloud separates you from the audience, creates an impersonal distance (and they'll never believe you when you read out: 'Oh! That reminds me of a funny little anecdote...')
  • Mention other speakers whose talks you have attended before yours at the conference 'As so and so said…', 'I thought Gertrude Brine's comment on... was...' etc. This way, if they are the drunk, loud mouthed author of that obscure article, or invented the wheel before you, they'll be on your side and won't heckle during your talk. (On the other hand you'll probably have to suffer a lecture from them in the coffee break 'Did you read my article/book on…? I must send you a copy' etc) By the way, mentioning other speakers makes you part of the conference – an insider- and cuts down on the amount of original stuff you have to say.
  • Make sure that whatever you quote from a previous speaker is relevant to your talk
  • Only say positive things about previous speakers in the conference! Never begin: 'Well, I thought Gertrude's comments on... were unadulterated crap!' If you don't take this piece of advice you might well need that plastic bag for your head once back in the hotel (if you make it that far!).
  • Don't say 'I thought Gertrude's comments were…'. Use her surname as well. If you don't: 1. Gertrude will get miffed 2. The audience will think you a smug git for mentioning someone famous by first name (it doesn't matter if you share a bed with Gertrude, you are a first time speaker and no-one knows you do).
  • Don't say: 'As Ms Brine said….' They'll think she was your primary school teacher. Her name is Gertrude Brine (or whatever).
  • Don't let your notes get between you and the audience. Invite intervention; listen carefully; paraphrase the intervention (for all those who couldn't hear what the person said); check with that person that your paraphrasing was accurate; invite responses from the audience (this gives you a moment to think of your own); give your response; thank the person for their pertinent intervention (even if it wasn't), then carry on with your talk.
  • Don't limit questions to 'Question time' at the end of your talk. Many participants will get frustrated if they can't question when they have the question in mind, others will forget what they wanted to ask and others will think their question is no longer relevant (as it wasn't asked at the time it occurred to them). Plan pauses in your talk to allow for interventions; everyone likes to say something now and then and the interventions can help you to address the people you are talking to, rather than just parroting your speech.
  • Be confident about dealing with intervention. Don't feel threatened. Keep calm, listen and respond.
  • Don't let interventionists take over: a lot of conference goers seem to think that a speaker's talk is a chance for them to dominate and say what they want to on the subject. It's your talk, keep it yours.
  • Remember that most conference organisers will expect or require a paper from you to publish after the conference itself. It's usually better to write this after the conference so that you can include all of those interventions and quotations from other talks that you attended. So keep notes of them, otherwise you'll forget who said what and might end up in court.
  • Remember that your audience is on your side – they are willing you to do well; they are your friends; they have nice smiles on their faces and they are waiting to applaud you like mad at the end of your talk. You may feel nervous and in need of corduroy trousers and bicycle clips, they are relaxed and willing to listen (after all it's only an hour or so). Smile back: this is your party and these are your guests – enjoy yourself.

I wish you the very best of luck!


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