How to become a go-to speaker for the technical conference circuit

Nigel Oseland, Toastmasters International

Conference organisers are always looking for speakers who can give informative technical presentations which are engaging and memorable

In my experience, there are two types of technical speaker: 1. those with fantastic content
but poor delivery, and 2. those that present well but have poor content.

Speakers with good content who can also communicate it in an interesting and engaging
manner are relatively rare. So how can you make your delivery as high-powered as your
content and become a go-to conference speaker?

Here are my tips from hard-earned experience:

  1. Begin (and end) with a bang – Conferences especially can be quite busy with delegates
    moving between sessions or discussing previous speakers. So, hook your audience from
    the start; make them want to stay and listen.

    Why not open your presentation with a question, anecdote or provocative statement
    (ideally relating to your research or the conference theme)? Above all, be confident,
    bold, passionate and be audible! Project your voice to attract attention, don’t mumble
    or apologise or make some private joke that only a few understand.

    Introduce yourself, your credentials, and your interests/purpose. Quite often the
    audience doesn’t catch the introduction by the chair or, at larger conferences, confuse
    speakers and their subject, so display your contact details on screen (at the start and
    end). Also, briefly introduce your fellow researchers and department, without overtly
    boasting or making it a sales pitch.

    Use the first minute to share your passion and personality to gain the audience’s trust.

    Psychologists have demonstrated the “serial position effect” in which people tend to
    recall better the first and last things they hear. So, also end on a high. Let the audience
    know you’ve finished by summing up, finishing with a poignant quote or leaving them
    with a call to action. Practice your speech and specifically your opening and closing.

  2. Hit the right pitch – Get to know your audience by listening to previous presentations or
    finding out more about participants from the conference website or organisers. This will
    enable you to pitch the right level of technical detail and understanding: Too little and
    you lose credibility, too much and you lose the audience or appear arrogant.

    When presenting data, don’t get too bogged down by all the details and caveats – you
    can offer more details in the question and answer period or refer people to your paper,
    book, website or blog.

    Offer your personal insights and experience on the research and try to say something
    new that’s not already in the paper, as the delegates may have already read the paper,
    or the research may have moved on (some conferences require papers submitted 12
    months ahead of the event).

    Don’t just fly in and present your work in isolation. Refer to previous speakers and links
    between your research and theirs.

  3. Stand out from the crowd – Technical conferences tend to have between 10 and
    possibly 30 or more speakers on one day. The opening to your speech will attract their
    attention but to maintain it you will need to be engaging and possibly entertaining.

    Inject energy through your passion for the subject, consider your vocal variety; changing
    the volume and pitch. Humour will also help keep your audience engaged – but only
    offer amusing anecdotes or observations relevant to your topic, not random jokes.

    And don’t hide behind the lectern! Come forward and use the stage area. Consider your
    body language, eye contact and movement across the stage which can all help with
    audience engagement.

  4. Avoid ‘speaker crimes’ – In my opinion there are two main speaker crimes at technical

    1) Over-use and over-reliance on tables and charts. Speakers sometimes present
    figures that cannot easily be read, I often hear speakers say “you can’t read this table
    but …” – no buts, just don’t show it or show the relevant part only.

    Often the charts are complicated but due to lack of time, the speaker does not
    explain the axis or the data points and the information is lost. Try to simplify your
    slides, just present the relevant material to your point, and always leave the
    audience wanting more.

    2) Don’t turn your back to audience and read off the projection. Ideally, there will be a
    monitor in front of you which you can refer to if needed, or even better, practice and
    know your presentation off by heart.

    But the worst crime is presenters reading their speeches, or worse reading their
    papers. Audiences do not like being read to and would prefer to read the paper by

    Likewise, do not read your slides, especially bullet points. Some of us find it insulting
    as people can usually read quicker than someone can speak and if we read the slides
    then what is the point of the presenter being there! If you do use bullet points,
    attempt to make each one a memorable phrase or a soundbite. The audience may
    include the press or Twitter users who are looking for choice phrases to broadcast
    beyond the conference.

  5. Be prepared – Surprisingly often, speakers turn up minutes before their presentation. As
    a consequence, they may not know how to use the audio-visual technology and they
    spend their all-important opening asking the chair or the AV technician how to advance
    slides. You will also miss out on being fitted with a lapel mic and so be tethered to the

    Arrive a little early and speak to the technician and the chair. Ideally, you’ll have
    confirmed the timing in advance of the conference but double-check with the chair as
    programmes change/slip. Remember to leave time for questions and establish whether
    that is within or outside your time allowance. It’s always worthwhile giving the chair a
    question to ask you in advance; audiences usually require a question before warming up
    and it can be embarrassing if the chair wraps up before a question is asked. Also provide
    the chair with some interesting information they can use in an introduction – many will
    simply read your official bio, so offer them a hook.

    There is a conference adage; “it’s not what you say but what the audience remembers that
    counts”. My experience a conference speaker confirms that the points above will help to
    make your presentation memorable.

Nigel Oseland is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that
has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network
of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and
Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence
in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find
your nearest club, visit