I’ve been to a lot of conferences over the past few years, as both an eager-to-learn attendee and more recently as an aspiring speaker.
The best talks I’ve attended have introduced me to new concepts and inspired me to consider topics in a new way. On a more tactical level, I’m always excited when someone is able to share a new way of tackling something, which I can giddily try out when I get back to the office.
Here’s the problem…
Unfortunately, these types of talks are few and far between. Of the conferences I’ve been to, far too many talks elicit audience reactions ranging from “This is kinda boring, what’s happening on Twitter” all the way to “If I jab these two free pens in my eyes, will it stop the tedium?”
I won’t pretend that I’m immune from this. My first talks weren’t all that, but I’ve gotten better at honing the delivery of my talks to make sure they hit home and resonate with my audience. Speaking is a craft and knowing your shit isn’t enough on its own.
How can we improve talk quality?
So here’s my two cents on what can be done to improve the quality of the talks at digital conferences and events so that audiences come away with more lightbulb moments and less self-mutilating thoughts involving conference swag.
Rather than focusing solely on speakers, I’m going to take a broader approach and give you the single most important thing that each of the main event stakeholders can do to improve the quality of talks, that is speakers, event organisers, moderators and attendees.
Speakers: Cut the fluff and give us actionable takeaways
A big problem I’ve seen with a large number of talks is that they have excessive introductions and scene setting. This needs to stop. Attendees take time out of work and often spend thousands to further their knowledge, so it’s inexcusable not to make it worth their while.
Some speakers are compensating for a lack of real quality content with excessive fluff. These people should have a long, hard look at themselves and up their game or get off the stage. However, on the whole, these speakers are fairly rare. For most speakers, the fluff comes down to a combination of bad habits, misjudging your audience and a poor structuring.
I came across the results of a poll about what attendees want from conferences in a post by Rand Fishkin. More than anything, attendees want new, relevant and actionable information.
This means the best talks are generally going to be more killer, less filler. It’s not as simple to say speakers need to deliver better talks, but here are a few ways that to minimise the fluff in your talks:
Research your audience
Talk to organisers beforehand to understand what types of people attend their events – are the attendees more technical, more digital, juniors just starting in their careers or do you need to cater to a more senior audience? These are questions you need to take into consideration when planning your talk. It would also be great if organisers made more of an effort to arm speakers with this information from the off.
I’d also recommend reaching out to people who have attended or spoken at the event previously to get a feel for the knowledge level and interests of the audience.
You can use this information to better angle your talks and focus in on the parts that they are likely to be interested in. It sounds obvious, but if you’re talking to a more advanced crowd, don’t patronise them by dwelling on the basics. And if the audience is a mixed bag, point the beginners to some resources they can learn from and hopefully they’ll come back to your presentation later on.
Ask your audience
If you aren’t sure how familiar an audience is with your subject matter, you could always ask them on stage and adapt your talk accordingly. It’s a far more engaging and inclusive experience as an audience member if the speaker genuinely cares that they are getting as much as possible from their presentation.
I will caveat this by saying that adapting your talk on the fly is a tactic that should be reserved for more experienced speakers. While it can enhance your audience’s experience, it has the potential to disrupt the flow and timing of your talk. Proceed with caution.
Pay close attention to talk structure
In the build-up to a talk, you need to keep a close eye on the structure of your talk both in the initial planning phase and further down the line when you’re practicing. When building the framework for your talk, minimise the time spent getting to the meat of your topic, allocating a few minutes at most.
I’ve often found that the pace of my talk changes from what I anticipated in the planning stage to the actual pace when practicing. I have a tendency to go off on tangents, which can mean I dwell too long on the intro slides and take longer to transition to the main part of the talk than I’d ideally like. Once you get to practice your talk, make sure you have a timer rolling so you can see how long it takes to get through each section. The key here is being aware of your bad habits and working past them with thorough practicing.
Event organisers: Give a greater diversity of speakers a chance
We’ve all seen it: the line up for a conference is announced and, without even scrolling through the agenda, you can predict a good percentage of the names.
This isn’t a slant on the more active speakers on the conference circuit, as the majority of them are chosen because of the valuable insights and experiences they have to share. This also isn’t an attack on event organisers, who are understandably inclined to side with established speakers because their obligation is to sell tickets.
My point is that organisers should be doing more to accommodate and champion a broader and more diverse range of speakers. Going back to the poll I referenced earlier, less a quarter of attendees care about celebrity speakers, it’s all about the quality of the knowledge that’s being shared. I’d argue that the risk of taking a chance on a less experienced speaker is more than offset by the benefits of including a fresh voice with a different perspective.
Props to Distilled who successfully introduced a Community Speaker session at SearchLove London last year, aimed at giving up-and-coming speakers a 20-minute slot on stage. I don’t know how these sessions rated, but Laura Hogan, Andi Jarvis, and Luke Carthy’s presentations were amongst the most informative and engaging sessions of the whole conference.
Credit also goes to Kelvin Newman and the team behind BrightonSEO who continually push the boundaries of how digital conferences should be organised. I may be biased because I was given the chance to speak on the mainstage at BrightonSEO with only a handful of talks under my belt, but they do an exceptional job of giving opportunities to relatively new speakers. Both BrightonSEO and SearchLove also do a great job of encouraging female speakers to apply to speak, who are nearly always under-represented at conferences.
It would be great to see other conferences take these practical examples onboard so they can stop being boringly predictable and freshen up their selection of speakers.
Moderators: Be the thread that weaves talks together
Moderators have a less direct impact on the quality of the talks at events but that isn’t to say their impact is negligible. It isn’t uncommon to have moderators who have made no contact with their speakers before the event and only stretch as far as to read out their name and job title in the introduction. Half-arsed efforts like this don’t do much to make the speaker feel welcomed and does nothing to contextualize the upcoming speaker’s talk in terms of the others it features amongst.
Moderators, you can do better than this. Moderators need to inject energy into the room with their introductions. In doing this it gets the audience excited for the talk and the speaker feels that as well, helping their confidence to deliver an excellent talk.
The best moderators I’ve had make contact with their speakers several times before the conference to make sure they are progressing with their talk and work to oversee the running of their session or track. A good moderator should aim to provide the segues between each of the talks and find common threads running throughout the talks so that they can weave together a memorable patchwork of takeaways for their audience.
Attendees: Get involved!
I’m going to finish off by turning my attention to attendees. You might be thinking, audience members can’t possibly impact the quality of the talks playing out in front of them. Wrong! If a speaker feels like they have their audience onside or at least engaged and interested in their talk, this can make a massive difference to the quality of their delivery, which in turn benefits you as an audience member.
Of course, it’s largely down to the speaker to engage their audience but sometimes (not least in the UK) audiences can be timid and unwilling to participate and react when called upon. This creates an awkward and uninviting atmosphere, which ultimately impacts the quality of the talk. So here’s a suggestion for audience members, if a speaker asks you to raise your hand, then raise your hand. If a speaker asks the audience a question, shout out an answer. If a speaker tells a joke and you find it funny, for god’s sake laugh! I can’t tell you how much willpower it takes to directly address a large group of people as it’s difficult to know if there’ll be a response. It makes such a difference when you know you’ve got a receptive audience who will interact with you. Please make a speaker’s life easier and react to them.
On a final note, if you’re not interested in a talk or bored by it, leave. I can’t talk for every public speaker, but I’d much rather talk to a half-empty room of people that want to hear what I have to say, rather than a packed room of people staring at their phones or laptops. Additionally, if you didn’t like something about a talk, then tell the speaker in a constructive way afterwards, either through conference feedback surveys or in person. It’s the only way they’re going to get better.
Equally, if you really enjoyed a talk, tell the speaker that! Tweet them, email them, send them a note on LinkedIn, whatever channel necessary. It takes a lot of hard work, effort, and energy to get on stage and deliver a talk, so as a speaker, it’s always great to hear when someone got value out of your talk and really enjoyed it.