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Last updated on 2/18/22

Speak at a conference

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Conference audiences can be rather large (around 200 people) and therefore be one of the most stressful public speaking experiences.

👩🏻 (Laurène): I had the opportunity to do a TEDx talk a few years ago, and I really believe that, to this day, that was the most stressful thing in my life.

The stress comes from several things:

  • The audience is large: everyone’s looking at you.

  • The stage has no separation between yourself and the audience: you’re all alone.

  • It’s directed and often filmed. You have to keep to the time allowed and avoid saying silly things.

  • You’ve generally learnt your text by heart – you mustn’t forget it.

In short, you tell yourself you can’t make a mistake, and that’s what puts you under enormous pressure.

👩🏻 (Laurène): I was afraid of lots of things incidental to my presentation itself: fear of falling while getting on stage, fear of getting tangled up in the microphone lead, fear of my voice being hoarse, of needing to drink, of coughing and not being able to stop …

It’s really about the fear of other people watching and judging you.

To overcome stress, it is useful to understand that it's normal and the lack of it isn’t necessarily a good thing either. If you don’t get stressed, ask yourself some questions.

Put yourself in the situation

It's impossible to eliminate stress altogether. Play on it so that it carries you along and doesn’t paralyse you.

Recycle the energy in your body

You'll never stop your heart from racing before going on stage. Accept it and tell yourself that it's part of the game and happening because you're going to say something important (or great, beautiful, profound, etc.)

Transform your physical symptoms of nervousness into positive energy, into excitement!

To help you understand how to do this, watch Amy Cuddy’s talk below (and watch it each time that you are preparing to face a stressful situation):

To sum up: before your presentation, don’t stick yourself in a corner waiting your turn. If possible, try to be on your own for a few minutes before entering the room. Raise your arms skywards, in what Amy calls “winning poses”.

This type of pose lowers your level of cortisol (the stress hormone) and increases your self-confidence. It’s a fact of science. 😉

If you have a bit more time, 15 to 20 minutes, you can do other exercises that will have the benefit of reinforcing the effectiveness of the “winning poses”:

  • Still on your own, walk quickly and dynamically around the room. This will circulate energy through your body and wake you up, which will improve your concentration.

  • Lean against a wall with your hands apart and at head level. Stretch one leg out behind you, and keep the other closer to the wall with the knee slightly bent. Push against the wall as if you want to move it. This will free up the stress that’s built up in your body by directing it against an object outside yourself. Push strongly, while breathing through your mouth. Repeat this four or five times.

With your hands spread out and level with your head, push both hands against a wall, with one leg stretched behind you and the other leg bent closer to the wall.
With your hands spread out and level with your head, push both hands against a wall, with one leg stretched behind you and the other leg bent closer to the wall.

Keep the “winning poses” for the end: raise your arms in a V for victory just before you go on stage (when you’re alone), while thinking about the good you want to do, that it’s going to be a brilliant experience and that you’ll be proud once it’s over.

Finally, while walking to your place on the stage, mentally repeat your first sentence, your tagline to yourself. That will reassure you because at that moment you can feel as though you’ve forgotten everything, that you no longer know your text.

Repeating the first sentence to yourself is easy to do and calming. Once you’ve said your first sentence aloud, the stress symptoms will already have diminished a bit, and you’ll be able to carry on with the rest of your talk.

Do elocution exercises

Another very common stress symptom, which can interfere with your elocution, is having a dry mouth.

Dry mouth syndrome is embarrassing:

  • For you because it's unusual, distracting, stressful and makes you self-conscious.

  • For the audience, as when they hear the sounds of a dry mouth, they perceive your stress and share it. Instead of captivating the audience, you make them uneasy.

Similarly, stress can alter your ability to articulate well. To remedy this, do a simple exercise a few minutes before you go on:

  1. Place your tongue between your upper and lower teeth;

  2. Close your teeth till you hold it firmly (obviously, without hurting yourself);

  3. Say the first sentences of your talk aloud, while keeping your tongue between your teeth.

  4. Try to keep it as intelligible as possible: if somebody was facing you, they’d have to be able to understand what you are saying. This set up (which might seem to you a bit grotesque and ridiculous) will force you to articulate well in order to be understood.

  5. Release your tongue and now speak normally. Your elocution is much more fluent and clear.

If you do this exercise just before going on stage, you will be pleased to see that you speak smoothly and without stumbling.

Occupy space

Make the stage your territory

How should one stand when speaking at a conference?

In the great majority of cases, a speaker is standing up in front of the audience. They need to pay attention to how they stand, so as not to give a bad impression to the audience.

  • Don’t put your hands behind your back.

  • Don’t fold your arms.

  • Don’t put your hands on your hips.

  • Don’t put your hands in your pockets.

  • Don’t stand on one leg.

  • Don’t stretch out your arms.

  • Don’t bow your head with your eyes to the ground.

Instead, opt for a neutral, but strong posture: stand straight, your legs apart to the width of your hips and your head held high.

OK, but what do I do with my hands then?

Indeed, you can’t stand with your arms hanging down. You need to gesture.

Should I walk about on the stage?

Yes, you can. But not all the time.

Walk during transitions, between two parts of your talk. And, while you’re walking, don’t speak at the same time: that will allow you to mark the transition.

Also, in order to help them follow you, don’t forget to look at the audience using the W method.

“Contrary to what you might think, the gaze of your audience will stabilise you.”

Prendre la parole en public [Public speaking], Bernard Blein

Make yourself heard and understood

Think back to the previous chapters. During your presentation, you need to take care with your elocution:

  • The rhythm of your speech should be sustained, but not too fast.

  • The important words should be marked, emphasized.

With a talk, you have an advantage over other public speaking situations, because you generally know your text, by heart making it easier to emphasize words and adopt a suitable pace.

Then, it’s enough to speak well into the microphone. If you don’t have a lapel mic, you will hold one in your hand. It’s not always obvious how to do this, as you’re not used to it.

On the other hand, stress may pose a problem if you are shaking. Moreover, it can be tiring to hold the microphone (it’s always heavier than you think), especially if your talk is fairly long.

However, luckily there are tricks.

How should you hold the microphone?

“Hold it in your fist, as you would hold a hammer.”

Prendre la parole en public [Public speaking], Bernard Blein

Keep it close to your mouth:

  • Support the microphone with your chin; you will have the right distance and something to rest it on.

And if you are shaking a lot:

  • Support your forearm of the hand holding the microphone against your chest, placing the microphone two or three centimeters below your mouth.

If you’re holding a remote control in the other hand, you will have both hands full and unable to hold a sheet of paper which is just as well! Otherwise, you’d read it and lose the audience, or amplify your trembling hands – both would be bad situations.

If you find it reassuring, help yourself by using a slideshow to keep the thread of your talk.

Cope with the unexpected

For example, you could encounter a technical problem: the sound, the lighting, the projector, or the computer (if you have one) could stop working.

That’s why you should always arrive at the hall as early as possible to check out everything with the technical team before the audience arrives.

Arrive ahead of time and talk to the technical manager about any technical aspects of your presentation
Arrive ahead of time and talk to the technical manager about any technical aspects of your presentation.

The key person to find at that moment is the premises manager. This is very useful and allows you:

  • To give them the USB key for your slideshow: that way you’re sure of having the latest version.

  • To test the video projector, microphone, remote control etc.

  • To understand how your lighting and the sound connection socket will work, how to switch the microphone on and off etc.

However, even with all the preparation in the world, there can be unexpected problems:

What do I do if I have a memory lapse?

Memory lapses happen and aren't necessarily serious, as they can be imperceptible. If you talk calmly and pause between your sentences, the audience won’t perceive a three-second pause as being a memory lapse.

If you go blank, take a few seconds and take a breath for the time it takes to get back on track. But, be aware that even if the memory lapse lasts longer, the audience won’t turn against you.

The audience isn’t waiting for you to trip up: they're listening to you and interested in what you’re saying. They won’t throw rotten eggs if you have a memory lapse. The audience, just like you, is human. Out of empathy, they’ll often try to encourage you, maybe even applaud you. Don't misinterpret sudden facial expressions of keen interest as harsh judgment – it's likely to be a sign that your audience is invested in your success. Take a breath, retrieve the mind map of your talk and catch hold of another branch. It’s not a problem if you’ve skipped a few sentences.

What do I do if my voice goes squeaky?

If your voice goes hoarse, don’t make a mountain out of a molehill, it happens. Move the microphone away from you for a moment, cough or clear your throat, then excuse yourself and take up the thread of your talk again.

What do I do if, at the end of my talk, someone asks me a question that I can’t answer?

You don’t know everything, and you can’t have a ready answer for every question you might be asked. Don’t blame yourself and, above all, don’t try to embroider, lie or improvise.

Take your time, listen and analyse the question; then, if you don’t know the answer, be honest and sincere and don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” And, it’s even better to say something like:

Quite honestly, you’ve asked me a tricky question and I need to think about it before I can give you an answer. Come see me at the end and I’ll be delighted to discuss it with you.

Decoding the charisma of great speakers

Steve Jobs – Announcing the launch of the iPhone in 2007

Steve Jobs was a great orator, and this is an excellent example of his skill in action.

Thanks to the previous chapters, you should be able to identify what makes him such a powerful orator. Watch this legendary talk and use it to analyze the strong points in this talk and, why not, try to replicate them.

Here are two other talks we recommend you watch.

The first will reassure introverts about their ability to speak in public; the second will show you how to use storytelling for teaching:

Susan Cain – "The power of introverts"

Tyler DeWitt – "Hey science teachers -- Make it fun!"

Let’s recap!

  • Stress is a natural and unavoidable response. It is better to learn to deal with it by transforming the physical signs of nervousness into positive energy:

    • Increase your self-confidence by practicing "winning poses."

    • Do elocution exercises and stay well hydrated in order to speak clearly and fluently.

  • Turn the stage or podium into your playground:

    • Stand up straight, with your legs hip-width apart, and hold your head high.

    • Make gestures that support what you are saying, walk around during the transitions, but do not speak simultaneously.

    • Look at the audience using the W method.

    • Hold the microphone close to your mouth by resting it against your chin.

  • Deal with surprises through preparation and by putting things in perspective, so the big day is less daunting!

And there you have it -- you now have the keys to speaking at a conference. Join me in the next chapter to learn about the good practices for presenting a lesson to a class!

Example of certificate of achievement
Example of certificate of achievement