Presenting at a conference for the first time

Posted by Belinda Huckle  |  On July 25, 2022  |  In Presentation Training, Tips & Advice

man presenting at a conference for the first time

It’s probably safe to say that you’ve had some experience of presenting already; to colleagues, prospective clients, or perhaps to the board. But presenting at a conference for the first time is something different, whether you’ve asked to do it, or been invited, or nominated to do it: by your boss, a colleague, a client, an industry body, or even an event management company. 

The mere thought of standing up in front of a large crowd can be daunting, to say the least, but it needn’t be if you follow our practical, step-by-step guide to presenting at a conference for the first time. We’ll take you through the 3 Ps  – Preparation, Practice and Practicalities, share some of our unique SecondNature Mapper Methodology to help you tailor your presentation to the needs of the audience, and give you a handy checklist of dos and don’ts.

There are some key differences to take into account when presenting at a conference as opposed to in a meeting or boardroom setting. Obviously, in every setting, your presentation should be driven by audience needs. In a boardroom, you are likely to be the only person dealing with a particular subject, whereas at a conference, you are probably one of a group of experts speaking, from varying perspectives, about a similar theme or topic. 

It’s more likely that you’ll be telling a story rather than presenting facts and figures – so the way you use slides may well be very different – remember that at a conference, particularly, the audience is there to listen and not to read!

The 3 Ps – Preparation, Practise, Practicalities

1) PREPARATION 

  • Preparing your presentation

Before you even start to think about what you might say you need to do your research. There will undoubtedly be an overall theme to the conference and that will dictate the type of audience that will be attending.  Remember, context is everything! So some key things to find out include:

  • How many people are likely to be in the audience?
  • What organisations are attending?
  • What is the level of seniority / roles of the attendees? 
  • What is their knowledge of the subject?
  • Who are the other speakers and how does their subject matter fit with yours?
  • How much time do you have?
  • Will you be taking questions?

conference audience

Also, think about your presentation from the audience’s point of view. In other words, walk in their shoes.

  • How does your presentation fit within the overall conference?
  • Why would you want to attend your talk specifically?
  • What would you hope to learn and /or get out of it? 
  • How would you want to use the information you’ve heard in the future?

You need to clearly identify the what (what is it that the audience wants) and the why (why do they care), as this will be at the centre of the story that you want to share. Only once you know what the audience wants and their motivators for listening to you, can you begin to craft your presentation and the narrative. 

An effective way of creating an impactful and memorable narrative is to use the 4 steps in our Presentation MapperTM methodology. 

4 steps in our Presentation Mapper

compass

Step 1. Decide your Destination

The Destination is the end point you want to take your audience to. Why do this first? Well, a presentation should take the audience on a journey. In the same way that when we take a journey in a car, we always decide where we want to end up before we put our keys in the ignition; so you need to decide where you want to end up in your presentation before you switch on your laptop. 

Put the what and the why into a coherent sentence that you can commit to with conviction. This is your Destination point. Everything you say and do during your presentation should lead the audience to this final Destination. 

Step 2. Plan your Roadmap.

To do this, chunk up your content into 3 – 5 ‘chapters’. Give each chapter a punchy heading. Try to resist having more than 5 chapters otherwise your story will feel long-winded and meandering. 

Step 3. Determine your Points of Persuasion

You need one Point of Persuasion, or key message, for each chapter of your story. To decide what these should be answer these two questions:

  • What is the one key takeaway from each chapter of your story that you want your audience to remember? You have to be strict with yourself here and make sure it is only one key message. Any more than that and frankly your audience will think you’re waffling.
  • Now ask yourself how does this key message take my audience closer to the Destination? If it does, you’ve just developed an impactful Point of Persuasion! If not, re-evaluate your key message until you have something that does.
Step 4. Put in your Proof.

Content in scrabble

Your Proof is your content. At this stage, it’s important to think about the wants and needs of your audience. Carefully consider, if you were them, what types of content would be the most meaningful, relevant, motivating and/or inspiring. 

If you follow these four simple steps, you’ll have a clear, compelling narrative to share with your audience. For more ideas check out our recent blog on strategic storytelling.

Having created the main narrative of your presentation, try to include ways to involve the audience in your story. This can be done by introducing passive or participative techniques to your narrative.

Passive involvement is where you involve the audience but they don’t need to respond. For example:

  • Pre-empting questions or concerns e.g. ‘Looking at the scale of the idea, some of you might be worried about whether your company can incorporate the extra workload.  I’d like to chat about that now.’
  • Using rhetorical questions e.g. ‘So, when exactly should we be adapting to this new way of working? Well …’
  • Referring to the audience e.g. ‘I was chatting to John from Company X and he’s also worried about the carbon footprint of our industry.’
  • Getting the audience to imagine a situation e.g. ‘Imagine life if you could finish work by 5.00pm 3 times a week.  Think about all the extra exercise, family, social, cooking, hobby time you would have. That’s what I’m going to talk about today – work/life balance.’
  • Acknowledging success or challenges e.g. ‘I’d like to congratulate the folks at Company Y on the way they are leading the field in this area.

The great thing about Passive audience involvement is that it’s a low-risk way of having a relationship with everyone in your audience. 

raised hands in the air at a conference

Participative audience involvement is where you ask questions of your audience. In a conference setting, these are more likely to be closed questions where you are looking for a show of hands rather than an individual response. They are also a good way to warm the audience up – especially if they don’t know each other.

Open questions (e.g. what other ideas can you think of that would improve your life/work balance?) should probably be avoided if this is your first time presenting at a conference. They can put you off your stride and interrupt the flow of your narrative.

  • Preparing your opening

The next step is to think about how best to open your presentation, using an Attention Grab, so that you hook the audience in the first 7-10 seconds of your presentation. Here are some Attention Grab suggestions that can help: 

  • Make the title of your presentation memorable. Maybe by asking a provocative question, or stating something curious or unexpected.
  • Begin with a startling statistic, a graphic graph, an arresting image or a powerful video – these are all great ways, using something visual, to reel the audience in right from the start of your presentation. 
  • Another memorable Attention Grab, that can be visual, can be introducing a prop. What’s great about props is that they can also be used repeatedly during a presentation. They can be quite fun too!
  • If you’d prefer a verbal Attention Grab, then think about starting with a story or an anecdote. Or perhaps a case study. Or maybe an inspiring quote. 
  • Or, as an alternative, you might decide you want to ask your audience a question at the start of your presentation. In a conference setting, this is more likely to be a closed (yes/no) question. A good idea is to ask the audience to give you a show of hands. With this approach, you should always raise your hand in response to your question. This will give members of your audience confidence to put their hand up too. And keep in mind, most people like saying Yes, rather than No. So, try to think of a positive question if you can.

Remember, no matter what Attention Grab you use, make sure it’s relevant to your message in some way.

  • Preparing your slides

Having crafted the narrative for your story and included a great hook for the start of your presentation, you now want to think about developing your slides. We don’t need to tell you to use minimal slides and make them impactful with images rather than words!

For 5 tips for creating great slides have a look at this blog: Using Visual Aids in Presentations.

  • Preparing for the venue

conference venue

Whilst creating a compelling narrative with clear chapters and a final destination is key, it is also imperative that you are fully prepared in terms of the layout of the venue, understanding what IT will be available to you, and how you can use the stage to increase your presence.

Ideally visit the venue in advance, if this isn’t possible ask for photos of the room:

  • Will there be auto cue or comfort monitors – monitors you can see but the audience can’t?
  • What does the lectern look like and where will it be positioned?
  • What kind of microphone is available? Is it hand-held, on the lectern or a clothing mic? If you have the choice, always go for a clothing mic. This gives you the opportunity to walk away from the lectern and ‘own the room’ using techniques like the ‘attention triangle’  
  • Where will you be before your presentation? How far will you have to walk from there to the stage?
  • Who will be introducing you? Make sure you give them a strong intro, including a relevant bio, so that they can establish your credibility even before you speak.

Developing a compelling presentation is only part of the challenge. The delivery – how you move and use the stage, your body language, props, audience involvement techniques – are just as important, so make sure you are totally familiar with the room and setting and can incorporate this knowledge during your practise runs.

2) PRACTISE

female presenter practising for presenting at a conference for the first time

Practise, practise, practise! In front of the mirror, colleagues, friends, family…and make sure you do it standing up. Try to move around in the same way you will on stage.

When running through your practise sessions, don’t use a tight script, and don’t try to memorise every word. Instead, treat your presentation as if it is a conversation. This will help you come across as more confident, relaxed and engaging.

Having said you shouldn’t use a script, you do want to make sure that you nail the start of your presentation. So, make sure you have this part down pat. 

You also want to make sure you land the 3-5 Points of Persuasion within your presentation, as these are key messages you want the audience to take away from your presentation. And it goes without saying that you want to close your presentation on a high. So again, practise delivering your Destination sentence with maximum confidence and impact.

You should also practise where you will be standing when you deliver each chapter of your story and how you might introduce movement and hand gestures to add impact to your narrative.

Practise pausing. Pausing at the end of each chapter of your story, and then moving to a different spot on the stage when you start a new chapter, is a great way to maintain the audience’s attention and to create a ‘visual flow’ to your narrative. You should also practise moving your head to make sure you make eye contact with every part of the room. Mentally divide the room into quarters if this helps.

It goes without saying that you want to practise using your voice to vary your vocal tone (change vocal gears) in order to bring your story to life. A good way to do this is to think about matching your voice with the content you’re delivering. So if you’re sharing something positive, use an upbeat, animated tone (high gear). Conversely, if what you’re sharing is more serious or perhaps negative, use a downbeat, more sombre tone (low gear). Using your voice in this way can actually be quite fun. And of course this will keep your audience engaged too.

Importantly, practise how to manage nerves and control your breathing before the presentation (the link above is a dedicated blog on how to do this effectively so check it out if you’d like to know more).

We’ve also got some great, bite-sized tips to help you understand how you can use your body language to add impact to your story.

Each time you practise, your confidence will grow. Your story will become imprinted on your brain. 

Don’t worry if your words vary slightly each time as long as the opening, Points of Persuasion and Destination sentence are strong. 

You will become more comfortable moving, pausing, using hand gestures or props. And the more comfortable you come across, the more engaged the audience will be, so don’t be tempted to skimp on this part of the process!

3) PRACTICALITIES 

Arrive early. Really early. If you have the chance, get on stage, walk around it, get a feel for the environment, the space, the lighting, where the screen is, where the lectern is etc.

Have a bottle of water with you.

Chat with the conference attendees/delegates so you get to know them beforehand and you have friendly faces in the audience.

female presenter at lectern presenting at a conference for the first time

Remember to smile, especially during the first 60 seconds. Why? There’s plenty of scientific evidence proving the many positive effects smiling has on our emotions.  Smiling releases endorphins, natural painkillers, and serotonin. 

Together these three neurotransmitters make us feel good from head to toe. Smiling also relieves stress, lowers blood pressure and boosts the immune system. It also makes us appear more successful, and guess what, it’s contagious. Smiling will create the impression that you actually want to be there, which in turn will help to make the audience want to be there too. This is a very, very easy, but very, very powerful tip on how to improve your presentation skills, but one so many people don’t do – it’s SO EASY. Just do it!

If you’ve followed these steps you should have a well-rehearsed, compelling and engaging, audience-focussed presentation that you can deliver with enthusiasm and confidence. 

Final Tips – Presenting at a conference for the first time (Dos vs Don’ts)

Do

  • Know your presenting space
  • Smile
  • Move with purpose and maintain a positive, confident posture
  • Involve your audience
  • Keep breathing
  • Pause if you need to take a breath
  • Make eye contact
  • Wear something that makes you stand out from your background but is also comfortable
  • Have a back-up plan in case there are IT problems
  • Be yourself
  • Have fun

Don’t 

  • Read from a script
  • Tell the audience you are nervous
  • Go over time
  • Hide behind the lectern
  • Use closed body language, such as folding your arms
  • Talk too fast
  • Forget to smile!

 

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Belinda Huckle

Written By Belinda Huckle

Co-Founder & Managing Director

Read Bio

Belinda is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of SecondNature International. With a determination to drive a paradigm shift in the delivery of presentation skills training both In-Person and Online, she is a strong advocate of a more personal and sustainable presentation skills training methodology.

Belinda believes that people don’t have to change who they are to be the presenter they want to be. So she developed a coaching approach that harnesses people’s unique personality to build their own authentic presentation style and personal brand.

She has helped to transform the presentation skills of people around the world in an A-Z of organisations including Amazon, BBC, Brother, BT, CocaCola, DHL, EE, ESRI, IpsosMORI, Heineken, MARS Inc., Moody’s, Moonpig, Nationwide, Pfizer, Publicis Groupe, Roche, Savills, Triumph and Walmart – to name just a few.

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