15 Traits of the Most Brilliant Conference Speakers

What separates brilliant conference speakers from the also rans, the meh, the downright painful? Whether you are speaking at Business or Software Conference or a small group of colleagues, here are some thoughts on what the very best speakers do to be so great. It was prompted by a question…

“Hi Mark:

Myself and our COO attended BoS 2014, and we are sending 3 people this year.

We are doing our own user conference in October. If we could get our speakers to anywhere near BoS levels (of quality), I would be ecstatic.

Do you have any published guidelines/tips for your speakers that you could share with me?

Thanks in advance.”

We tend not to publish guidelines or calls for speakers.

We get a lot of inbound inquiries (of varying quality) already and while they occasionally bring undiscovered gems, given the significant pressure on speaker slots – 14 over the course of 2.5 days, we generally tend to end up curating content that we believe will carry a high level story across the event. It means that we put a lot of time into researching speakers, taking suggestions from others, looking at previous talks speakers have given and trying to understand how their style and approach will resonate with the audience. Ideally, we will have listened to a speaker live and in person before we commit to a talk. We don’t always get it right but we try.

In my experience, most of the best speakers have the following things in common…

  1. THEY NEVER SELL Everyone hates this. Everyone hates you when you do it. It means people are less likely to buy your product. People want you go away.
  2. They understand the audience they are speaking to, deliver a talk or a message that is relevant to that audience. (This is often not the case with high profile speakers pitched by speaker agencies (we will not do business with them. They have a great, repeatable, schtick that they rely on to distract the audience from the fact that they are doing it for the money.).
  3. They genuinely care about the subject, the community they are in, the people who are listening. They would come to the event even if they were not speaking not just to learn from the other speakers, they learn from the other attendees. (In the Business of Software Community for example, Peldi, Alex Osterwalder, Des Traynor, Derek Sivers are regular attendees at the conference whether they speak or not).
  4. They use Fonts, Text and Images appropriately. Never read from a slide. Make slides readable from the back. (Make text size double the size of the conference organiser i.e. 90 Point text this year).
  5. They deliver new content. There is always someone in an audience that has seen someone’s talk before. The best speakers will always introduce some new slides, some new ideas, some new content.
  6. They are utterly prepared. They send slides through in advance – not because the organiser demands it, but because they want feedback on their talk. We love helping people develop talks and have found that speakers are often very grateful for honest feedback and collaborative approach. They turn up early for the event and run their slides through to check everything. They ask about mics, backup plans, where they will be sitting, we ask them how they want to be introduced, what music to play.
  7. They engage with and ask questions of the audience. It is not about them, sitting still for an hour is hard for me. Audience interaction makes for a much more switched on audience. Whether it is a show of hands to ask what people do, where they have come from, active solicitation of questions, this helps to form a bond with the group. It also gives people permission to move, to fidget, to get their circulation going thus pushing more oxygen to the brain.
  8. They’re humble. Confident about the things they know they know. They don’t rely on talking about themselves and their successes. They definitely don’t drop names “I asked Zuck” really means, “I am very important”. It probably also means they were in a room, alongside 6,000 other people and asked an audience question. You can also guarantee that they don’t have ‘International Keynote Speaker’, ‘Sought After Speaker’, ‘International Best Selling Author and Motivational Speaker’ on their LinkedIn profile.
  9. They are givers, not takers. They are not there to crap wisdom or news of their latest project on an audience. They are there to share ideas and learn from others. One of the things we have consciously tried to do at Business of Software Conferences is create and environment where people come in ‘LISTEN’ mode, not ‘BROADCAST’. So much of the conventional wisdom around the value of conferences is that they are great places to let people know about your company. Most often, they aren’t as everyone goes with the attitude that they want to talk about their launch, their product, their latest funding round. The noise of 3,000 people pitching themselves drowns out the valuable content.
  10. They’re good at Jazz. They know their material inside out. They have practiced it, practiced it, practiced it again. They have thought about their messages and played them back in practice many times – by videoing themselves, recording themselves, speaking to small groups. They aren’t reading from a script, they’re in control but can improvise effortlessly.
  11. They operate in slow motion. They leave lots of time for thought and punctuation. Typically, they won’t run on stage talking as they go. They take a moment or two to stop, look out at the audience, make eye contact with people, compose themselves and signal to the audience that we are all set to go. They speak more slowly than they do if you were talking with them in a social situation. They know that less is more.
  12. They focus on the positive. Many speakers have told me that sometimes an audience can be quiet, disengaged, even hostile. (Obviously not at our events!). Who knows why – have they been kept in a room for too long? Have they sat through a series of bad talks. As a speaker, if you look up and see stony-faced, folded-arms or people doing their emails, it can be very off-putting. The trick is to identify the people that are on your side. The eager organisers, the people who are engaged. Make eye contact with them and focus on interacting with them. You will bring the others round.
  13. They always leave people with an action. Inspiring, motivational talks, slick words and strong images are fine but those talks are forgotten if there isn’t at least one thing that the listener can take away and apply to their own lives.
  14. They repeat Audience Questions. Not just for the benefit of filming. It lets the audience hear the question and know what you are talking about.
  15. They stick around. Not just for the event, but by making themselves available via email. We have also started doing ‘Google Hangouts’ with speakers. When we post a talk online, we then have a speaker Hangout a week or so later. it allows a wider audience to ask questions and get involved.

Finally, the best advice for speakers I know of comes from Kathy Sierra.

“I am a UI.

Nothing more.

And what’s a key attribute of a good UI?

It disappears. 

It does not draw attention to itself.

It enables the user experience, but is not itself the experience.

And the moment I remember this is the moment I exhale and my pulse slows. Because I am not important. What is important is the experience they have. My job is to provide a context in which something happens for them.” Kathy Sierra – Presentation Skills Considered Harmful

What are your tips for better speaking? What things have we missed?

You can see talks from past Business of Software Conferences here.

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