How to support new conference speakers

Speaking at a conference can be very daunting.

Here’s some advice for anyone supporting new conference speakers.

New speakers are often incredibly nervous on stage. It’s natural – even seasoned conference speakers still get nervous – I still ask myself “Why Do I Do This?” before each talk.

Here are a few tips on how to support new conference speakers.

1. Ask if they would like some help

Never inflict help. Instead ask if your friend/peer/colleagues would like some help and some resources. If they say No, then leave it at that. If they say “Yes”, then point them at your favourite resource for presenters.

My go-to guide that has helped me greatly and I read every single year is The Presentation Coach : Bareknuckle Brilliance For Every Presenter. It’s great.

2. Before the talk do three things

I try to find the conference speaker about 30 minutes before the talk and do three things.

Firstly I encourage them to drink water. Dehydration leads to a dry mouth. This combined with nerves can lead to a stodgy and nervous performance. It’s very easy to skip water as you do last minute presentation changes.

Secondly, I give them words of encouragement and make it clear that they will do great. I listen and help with any logistics like handing out materials, helping people get seated or setting up slides.

Thirdly, I take their mind off their talk by telling a story or a joke – something light hearted that will get them smiling. This works a treat at settling nerves.

3. Leave them alone 5-10 minutes before the talk

Everyone is different but I’ve observed and studied that most people like the 5 to 10 minutes before a talk to get themselves prepared. I like to sit and breathe deeply – walking through my opening sentence or two.

Others do meditation, others read, others tweet, others don’t need this time to prepare.

4. Smile and give feedback

Sit somewhere really visible in the audience and give them visible feedback during their talk.

Smile, nod, laugh – anything that gives them positive feedback that they are doing ok.

They may choose not to look at you, but if they do – make sure your feedback is positive.

And yes, even if they are bombing I’d still give them encouraging signs to continue. It’s entirely possible to recover a presentation even if you start it off badly.

The last thing they want to see if they think they are “bombing” (and it’s very easy to think that even when it’s not true) is you with your head in your hands or with a look of fear on your face.

Support them with very visible clues.

5. Start the round of applause and ask questions

Be the first to start the clapping at the end.

If no one else in the room is asking a question then take the lead by asking a clarifying or thoughtful question. This will ease the presenter in to the questions phase but also make it safer for the audience to ask a question.

6. Speak to them after

Go and see them after.

Congratulate them and ask them how they feel the presentation went. This is probably not the time for feedback on what they did well, or what needs improving.

Just kind words.

7. Give them feedback

As hard as it may be you should give them feedback, if they want it.

Always ask if they would like some feedback and be diplomatic in how you present it. It’s not about crushing them, it’s about giving them constructive advice (or well formed opinions) on how they can improve, if indeed they need to.

Done correctly this can be invaluable.

Thank you to all who have done this for me.