Whether 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.
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.
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?
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