Conference success – what delegates want

As a facilitator and conference keynote speaker, at the start of a new year, I always like to reflect back on the previous year to understand what I could have done better to inform what I do in the forthcoming year to ensure I maximise the value I deliver on behalf of conference organisers and importantly delegates who attend.

This year I decided to take a different approach and ask the question of conference organisers via LinkedIn, ‘What are the top attributes you want to see in a conference speaker?’  The feedback has been fascinating and indeed a theme has emerged from it so thank you to all organisers and delegates that contributed.

The feedback has prompted me to put together an article based on it combined with my experience of being a conference speaker throughout the world. I hope that both conference organisers and speakers obtain some value from it to ensure their conferences are a success and delegates go away enthused and feeling that the conference has added real value for the investment in time and often money to attend.

The feedback on my question on the top attributes desired in a conference speaker were as follows, ranked in order of most desired, and represent feedback from LinkedIn members throughout the globe:

Personality, knowledge of subject, humorous, funny, entertaining , eloquent, poise,  credentials,  professionalism, expert, experienced at speaking, confident, topic suited to the audience, flexible, energetic, intriguing, engaging, knows how NOT to pitch,  content that surprises the audience, timely! Doesn’t go over their allotted time slot, and leaves appropriate time for Q&A.

Below I have tried to summarise the above into themes:

Personality & Knowledge

Psychologists say you have about 30 seconds tops to connect with someone so when you appear on stage in front of your audience the clock is already ticking. They will be sitting watching you and quietly thinking we know this person’s name and they have been briefly introduced however will I enjoy listening to them for the next 45 mins to an hour? So it is important for you to get your personality and message across about what you are deeply passionate about to grab their attention and connect.

When I speak, I am representing The Colour Works, the company I co-founded. Our passion is the potential in people and teams and our vision is that ‘We believe everyone in an organisation can make a positive unique contribution to it and that with our engaging facilitation style, passion and cutting edge learning and coaching, we unlock that potential to the benefit of the individual, team and organisation.’ A simple however powerful message that engages with the audience immediately. They don’t need to know if you have 8 degrees and 20 years experience in your field as the conference organisers should have ensured you were fit to speak at the conference in the first place.

Humourous, Funny & Entertaining

There is nothing worse than when you are sat in the audience and the speaker stands behind the lecturn, powerpoint slides appear on the big screen and the speaker reads word for word exactly what is on the slide and you know you have to sit through another hour of this! Whilst powerpoint is good, it should be used as a prompt to enable you to embelish on key points by simply talking to your audience.

Additionally, bring it to life. If you are talking on a particular topic, you should know about it from a personal perspective so why not tell a story about your experience and throw in some photos or graphs to mix it up a bit.

People love stories, just remember when you were younger how you used to love to listen to the stories your parents or grandparents told you. Linked to this people like to laugh, especially at someone else’s expense! So if you can weave in some anecdotes where the joke is on you. They will love you for it as it proves you are human just like them. Be mindful however not to offend anyone!

Educate On A Topic Relevant To The Audience

Always think ‘What’s in it for me?’ Put yourself in the shoes of your audience.

Think, if you were sat in the audience what would I want? For those of you that are familar with The Colour Works and the learning we deliver, you will understand that different people have different communication needs, learning styles and decision-making processes and you will be faced with a whole host of different people in your conference audience so it is vital to remember this and ensure ALL their needs are met. Some will want to know bottom-line, how what you are talking on will benefit them and their organisation, others will want to know the impact on them and their teams, others will want to be enthused by future possibilities and others will want the facts and detail to support the topic you are talking on. All the aforementioned need to be weaved into your presentation to ensure everyone takes away something positive from your talk.

Once you’ve been asked to speak at a conference, it is important to ensure you know what the overall theme of the conference is and how you will link your presentation to it to add value to the delegates. There is nothing worse than being in an audience and thinking to yourself, ‘Why is this person speaking at THIS conference?’ Recently, I spoke in front of 100 delegates and 250 respectively. The theme of one was relating to project management and implementing change effectively so my presentation focused on my specialist area which is getting the most out of yourself and your team in times of change – knowing, as a leader, your strengths and challenges, how to build a team around you with complementary skills to you and finally considering how to engage effectively with those affected by the changes you are implementing.

The second was how to build effective relationships with colleagues, customers and potential new clients.  This presentation therefore focused on understanding your behavioural style and communication needs, understanding the needs of others, especially those different to you and then considering how you may need to adapt to meet the needs of others.

The key is ensuring your presentation meets the needs of your audience.

Flexible – Have a back-up plan re travel, room-layout & presentation

Most venues I speak at are new to me. I always rely on my sat-nav to get me to the venue if I am driving however always take a paper copy back-up of the route as there is nothing worse than your sat nav failing and being lost knowing so many people are waiting for you. Lucky I did this as recentlythe information on the screen of my sat nav dissolved in front of my eyes, it reminded me of a scene from The Matrix!! Thank goodness for Google Map directions!  In addition, always make sure you have contact telephone numbers of your key contact in case you run into trouble or are delayed.

I always allow at least 1-hr of contingency in my travel plans and always aim to arrive at the venue at least 45 minutes beforehand. Some of you may think this is quite a time to get to a conference in advance of speaking however given a choice of panicking and being hot, bothered and flustered before your speaking slot or having a cup of coffee, relaxing or catching up with some emails on the go, I know which I would prefer to do.

The same can be said for your presentation in terms of having a back-up. The majority of people rely on Powerpoint these days however on a number of occasions I have seen presenters flummoxed when their presentation won’t load or there has been a power-supply failure. As such, it is always useful to be able to deliver your presentation without the need for Powerpoint, slides or other visual-aids.

Get In The Zone

Although I prefer to have the room-layout cabaret-style, often the shape of the room or the sheer amount of delegates or the venue does not allow this. Whatever the room-layout, I always give myself ample time before the conference to check out the room. I was once told the technique of visualising which a lot of top sport’s people use when preparing for major events. The technique gets you to visualise yourself in front of the delegates with you giving your presentation, in effect a dry-run in your head. It certainly works for me and when it is time for me to present; I am ‘in the zone’ and ready to give my all.

Confident – Be A First Rate Version Of Yourself As Opposed To A Second Rate Version Of Someone Else

A great quote by Judy Garland and so true. As humans, we are very astute at picking up whether someone else is being genuine and honest. As a speaker it is paramount that you gain the trust of the audience within the first 30 seconds, so be yourself! You’ve been chosen to speak due to your knowledge and experience so give the audience what they want without any airs and graces. As part of my presentations, I often tell audiences about my failures after all, I am only human and we all make mistakes however importantly is what you have learnt from them.

Be Passionate And Engaging

If you have been chosen to speak at a conference you should know your topic inside out and be passionate about it. Delegates are potentially going to have to sit and listen to quite a few speakers and therefore you owe it to them to show your passion. Also engage with them, ask them questions, listen to what they have got to say, let them ask questions and ensure you have given yourself enough time to cover them in your presentation. If you can, use humour and personal anecdotes. Just think about when we were children how we enjoyed a story and also to laugh. We may have grown up a bit however most people still enjoy laughing and the psychologists would suggest that when we laugh and enjoy something we remember it for a longer time. Any topic can be made interesting and fun which helps people remember, it is just that some people think that because it is business we should remain serious to which I say ‘What a load of rubbish’.

Timely – Watch The Clock

Keep to your time slot. There is nothing worse as a speaker who is second or third on to be watching your watch seeing the other speakers over-running and eating into your time so that you have to condense an hour into 35 mins!! Plus if your presentation is prior to a coffee-break or lunch, you owe it to the delegates to finish on time.

Don’t Sell!

There is nothing worse than a sales pitch being given by a conference speaker.  If you have covered all the other previous areas I have mentioned, there should be no need to add a hard sell.  If you have enthused, engaged, imparted relevant knowledge and connected with your audience, the enquiries to work with you in the future will happen.

I hope you have enjoyed reading the above and have got some value from it and whether you are a conference organiser or a speaker, I wish you every success in 2013.
Any comments? Email

ConferenceNews Guest Author

Conference News hosts great guests on its pages. Our Blog section is the collection of the best opinions in the UK and international events industry.

ConferenceNews Guest Author


ConferenceNews Guest Author

Conference News hosts great guests on its pages. Our Blog section is the collection of the best opinions in the UK and international events industry.

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