Speaking at conferences - the truth

Alone in the arenaWhether you’re invited or have submitted a pitch to speak at a conference it’s the same on the day. You have a mass of faces in front of you. You are alone in the arena and the lions are pacing back and forth, tongues salivating. The be-tunicked and be-toga-ed are watching, a smile on their lips, ready to be entertained, but their thumbs are ready…

An exaggeration, perhaps, but speakers are expected to perform and to be as nifty as the retarius, secutor or (even) gladiatrix.

Sometimes people who are expert in their field are not happy to speak to an audience which is a shame as they may the very people we’d like to hear from. Now, I like standing up in front of people and talking my head off, but that’s not enough. I still agonise about whether I’ve got too much or too little material or if I’m pitching it at the right level for the audience.

In a suit

Suited up!

During my business career, I gave talks to audiences from 6 up to a 1,000 and I recently spoke about alternative history at the Romantic Novelists’ Association. Now I’m starting to prepare for a session on social media for the Historical Novel Society in September. So here are a few ideas…

Dare to do it
Nobody is going to eat you (It’s against the law.) and quite a lot of people would like to hear from you. Obviously, you need to know the subject area and that in itself breeds confidence. Say yes. Once booked, you’re unlikely to backslide.

Agree the topic and scope with the organiser
Amazing how many talks I’ve been to where the topics differed from the title on the programme. The most notable one was at the 2014 London Book Fair! I chatted to the speaker afterwards and found she’d been given the wrong briefing.

Start gathering your ideas early
The longer lead time, the better. You could come across some terrific new research, or meet a new person to consult, or a find new way of presentation if you have a few months. Unlikely, if you leave it until the week before.

Write it all out
You’re probably not going to read it verbatim, but composing your talk in your head and tapping it into your computer means that the thoughts go through your brain and hopefully stick there and possibly mature. When you’re ready, you can transfer the meat of your talk to postcards, memory or whatever aide-memoire you use.

Use slides/pictures/objects/maps/charts, but…
I like images, so perhaps I’m biased. Regular readers know I always have illustrations in every blog post; they break up the narrative and give readers a chance to absorb what I’ve written. They may even  be amused. So it is with talks. If you have spellbinders like Lindsey Davis or David Nobbs, there is no need. But for us lesser mortals, while we engage, we are not in that class.

StuckAnd here’s the ‘but’…

Do not depend on images and slides or you could be stuck like a cat up a tree with no firefighter to rescue you. If the technology fails, you must still be able to give your talk.

Take a breath
Aim to speak slightly slower than normal – everybody except the complete expert speaks faster out of nervousness. And if you get lost or befogged during your talk, pause, take a breath, glance at your notes to gather yourself together. You’ll soon recover because you’ve practiced this damn talk so many times, you know exactly where you are.

And answer questions nicely
You haven’t finished yet. Look and smile at the questioner even if you think they resemble the tough interrogator from the local vigiles cohort in ancient Rome. While there will be some nit-pickers, you may be surprised by how supportive some of the questions are. And lastly, don’t  try to fluff an answer. If you don’t know, offer to find out and email them later.

Thank you for reading – I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

Thoughts, anybody? Or any questions?


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO. The fourth book, AURELIA, is now out.

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8 comments to Speaking at conferences – the truth

  • Lots of sensible advice, Alison. I find the most boring talks are the ones where the speaker reads everything off her sheaf of papers, including the ‘Good evening’ etc. The content might be fascinating but I’m almost asleep. It sounds so much better if you can stand up and spout it – maybe have a few key points on a handful of index cards as a safety valve. Like you, I love giving talks, but I do carefully plan and rehearse, and then when I get up, only about 50% of what I’d planned comes out of my mouth. But that makes it more spontaneous.

    And the most important tip – if you can make them laugh at the very beginning they will sit back and relax and go with you on your journey.

    • Alison

      Oh, yes, the first laugh. Good point, Denise! That’s a real break-point and definitely warms the audience to you.

  • As always from Alison – Sound Sense! And there’s no substitute for dry runs – plenty of them!

    • Alison

      Thanks, Antoine. Yes, practice makes perfect – an ‘old but gold’ saying. If you have knowledge or good arguments behind you, they often save the odd fluffed moment.

  • Great good sense, Alison. Like an earlier commenter, I’d also add ‘make them laugh’. It sounds less like a lecture, even when it is one.

    • Alison

      Thank you, Carol. Yes, being entertaining is always the best way and I think as a speaker, it helps you relax. A little.

  • All good points Alison and could I add a couple of things: stick to the timings! It can throw a whole schedule out if one speaker goes over time, causing problems for the organiser (I know from events I’ve organised!) and also eating into other speakers’ time or the delegates’ lunch/coffee breaks which is just downright selfish. I’d also say that I do write my talks out because I’m liable to forget things if I don’t, but there are ways of reading without mumbling and shuffling into your papers – just do whatever works for you. Great post!

    • Alison

      Timings! The fraught one, indeed. I’ve never yet used all my material I’ve prepared in any talk I’ve given. 😉

      I agree it’s the height of bad manners to over-run your spot at a conference or joint event, or if speaking as a member of a panel.

      As novelists, we should be mistresses/masters of pace, but as we all know, sometimes it goes to pot. I mark up the parts of my talk that I can skip if I’m behind. and put a big red cross on my notes to mark a quarter, half and three-quarters of the way through my talk. I’m a picture person…