What I’ve learned after giving over 730 professional speeches

I was terrified the first time I spoke at a conference

It was in front of 2,000 people as a keynote address, representing American Airlines, discussing the future of CRM.

Standing backstage, my adrenaline was pumping. I couldn’t remember what I was going to say. You know the feeling when you’re in a panic and can’t be logical.

The more I tried to calm down– by taking deep breaths, pretending the audience was naked, and trying to force a confident smile– the more I realized and exacerbated my fear.
My hands were shaking, as the technician snaked the wireless mic down my shirt, placing the transmitter in my back pocket.

I knew I was a few minutes away. And I was hoping the previous speaker would take longer since I wanted more time.

Maybe I should run.

I had the clicker in my hand to advance the slides in front of a massive screen on stage that could I pace 20 steps, back and forth, in either direction.

When I was done, all I could remember was the applause from a standing ovation.

I don’t remember what I said, 20 years ago. But I did know I wanted to learn how to do it “right”, to overcome my fears, gain respect, and be “successful”- whatever that meant to a 22-year-old kid.

For those of you who are new to public speaking, this is what I wish someone had told me when I first got started:

  • Join ToastMasters. It’s a few dollars a month. There are dozens of clubs near you that meet weekly. They’re full of people just like you, facing the same professional challenges and fears. And you’ll find you like the hour-long meetings to practice your speaking in a friendly environment among peers. Mine was at American Airlines. ToastMasters is why you don’t hear me say “um” or “ah” when I speak.
  • Write bullet points for your talk. Do not have more than a few words on each slide, lest you are guilty of reading them to the audience and sounding mechanical.
  • Start with 12 bullet points, including the phrase you’ll use to transition to the next point. Do not write out your speech verbatim, but you can include key “trigger” phrases or punchlines.
  • Speak these in your head and verbally, if you have a place to speak at full volume- perhaps in your car to and from work, if you don’t mind looking like an idiot. As far as others know, you’re on your phone or singing along to the radio.
  • Practice until you can whittle these 12 points down to just 4 chunks of three. Then practice with your notecard of 4 these points until you can do it with no notes at all.
  • If you aren’t giving a solo presentation, perhaps you can practice on a panel or via a webinar. These are stepping stones to giving your own talk or even a keynote.
  • When you are early in your career, take whatever speaking gigs you can get, paid or not. Ideally, your company can pay for it. This is key to building your network and authority in whatever topics.
  • Spend as much time in the speaker room as you can. You will get quality one-on-one time with the other speakers and the conference organizers. Of course, do as much research as you can on the speakers you most want to meet. Study the agenda so that you can identify every speaker and when their session is. You don’t want to talk to them either right before or right after their talk. The former is their focus time and the latter is when they’re collecting leads.
  • Take pictures of yourself with the other speakers and attendees. Then tag them on Facebook and Twitter. Provide one sentence of specific praise for each, showing you care. You can use these pictures as flash cards to follow up later on LinkedIn.
  • You or your assistant should fastidious track the contacts and presentations in your Content Library. Even if you are a one-person shop, you can still hire a VA (virtual assistant) part-time for only $5 an hour.
  • Have one slide at the end for your lead magnet. In other words, offer something of value in exchange for their email address. Perhaps you have a 10-page guide on something or series of short videos. Generally better to not sell directly. But if you’re a consultant, you could mention the package you sell or a “power hour” consultation you discount for show attendees.
  • If you can afford it, have one person travel with you to handle travel logistics, printing materials, fielding leads, and other assistance you may need. Some speakers bring along their significant others for companionship, adding a couple extra days to the trip to go on vacation.
  • The 30 minutes after you’re done speaking is the most powerful time for you. Don’t blow it by running away, not having a stack of business cards, or not having an assistant help field leads. One solid contact will more than pay for your trip. And the best leads are usually the quiet ones. While the loudest ones are usually folks who want to suck all your time and never pay for it.
  • Keep all your badges in a shoebox (or in my case, a large moving box), and record these in your Content Library. You’ll need to be on top of this so your assistant can update your bio on your site, LinkedIn, and other places.
  • The more you speak, the more you get invited to speak. You’re likely to get 3-4 invites for other conferences in the following 24 hours if you do a decent job. So get your Personal Brand in gear so you can handle these.
  • When you have a couple dozen of these under your belt, you can start to charge for speaking. Folks like Brendon Burchard say you can charge hefty fees even if you’ve never spoken before. But this is the path only for folks who want to speak for a living, especially as motivational speakers like him.
  • To negotiate the right fee, say “My customary speaking honorarium is $5,000 plus travel. But let me know what we need to do to make it work, since I like you guys.” That way you don’t make the mistake of accidentally undercharging or of missing out on an event you could have spoken at. This technique will pull out the conference organizer’s budget. Folks like Bryan Eisenberg can demand $17,000 plus first class travel. I’m happy to speak at big venues like Social Media Marketing World for free because it is a key industry event.
  • When you know the topic well, you can do it with no notes and no slides- TED Talk style! If you’re speaking on digital marketing, like me, then actually open a browser to demonstrate the topic, like how to tune FB ads, analyzing Google Analytics data, tweaking WordPress, or whatever. Way more powerful than PowerPoint. And you have flexibility to go wherever you want.
  • My favorite technique in getting the audience going is doing live audits. Have the audience volunteer websites to analyze, whether their own or a competitor. Don’t do this in Asia or South America, where crowds are more likely to be silent.
  • If you are speaking as part of one track among many, here’s what to do to get more people to attend your session. Tell other speakers that you’ve networked with that you’ll mention their session in yours, and they’ll happily do the same. You’re generally better served by speaking midway through the conference. Too early and you can’t get momentum from others. Too late and people don’t have enough notice to spend time with you. Have your assistant stand at the door, welcoming people who are peering in, wondering if they should attend this one. You can make a one-minute video about your talk 2 weeks in advance and promote to fans of the conference for $1 a day for 14 days.
  • Personalize a gift for the conference speaker and other key people you’re meeting. I like to give out dollar bills with their faces on them. When you deliver these items, they will know you took the time to care and had the foresight to plan in advance.
  • Arrive the day before the conference and leave the day afterwards. Especially if you’re international, you’ll want time to adjust to jet lag and not have to worry about a flight delay causing you to miss. Rand Fishkin of Moz had a 30-minute flight delay to the Growth Marketing Conference last year, so I spoke in his slot to give him time to get to the venue. That’s cutting things too close.

What have you learned from public speaking? Do you have any tips to help others?

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