How to Speak at a Conference

Photo from

Photo from Hiddedevries

Would you like to see something really embarassing? This is a link to my first ever conference presentation. It was seven glorious minutes of learning experience. I share it as proof that we all start somewhere. Even if that somewhere is reading off a piece of paper and trying to prevent your voice from shaking.

How to get your first shot at a conference slot?

Submit a Proposal

Start small. Apply to do a 7 min. lightning talk, poster presentation, or 20 min. talk etc. Smaller local conferences are a great place to start – work your way up to the international ones. Make your proposal brief but detailed and engaging. Try to attend a conference prior to submitting your proposal; it will be it easier for you to conceptialize what you’ll be doing. And now for a sneaky trick: often you can submit a proposal of something you’d like to study but haven’t yet. Usually when your proposal is accepted you’ll have a number of months to prepare your presentation.

Kick-ass Slides

It’s important to have a slide show so your audience has a place to look other than at YOU. This will make your presentation more interesting (if your slides are good) and may help you contend with the battle against stage fright. Check out Jesse Desjardin’s You Suck at Powerpoint for ideas on the aesthetics of great slides, and Nancy Durante’s book Resonate to make your message… well, resonate.

Dress for Success

If you look good, you’ll feel good. Do everything you can to feel confident when you’re up in front of numerous strangers. Also, a polished professional appearance will bias the audience in your favour.


I used the print-out of my speech as a crutch. If at all possible, don’t do that. Practice your presentation enough times that you know it inside and out. Join Toastmasters, entertain your friends. Whatever it takes. In time, you won’t need the entire speech. In fact, if your slides are well done they will prompt you about your next speaking topic. They’ll help you stay on track.

Worst case? Put key points on cue cards.

Listen to Great Speakers

Attend conferences and webinars. Watch TED Talks. Learn from the masters. Take notes on what they do right, and emulate these things.

Cut Yourself Some Slack

You have to start somewhere. As long as you keep trying, and keep learning, you’re bound to become a decent public speaker. (Malcolm Gladwell says you only need 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert.) Remember: you’re your own worst critic, and the audience is not against you – they’re on your side.


Conferences are a natural place for networking to happen. If you’re feeling bold, tell people if you’re going to an upcoming conference – and plan on meeting them there. (For example: this summer I’m presenting at the CLA Conference – please say hi!)

Bring business cards! Inform people that you’ll be available afterwards if they’d like to discuss things with you further. Take a look at these tips for more ideas.

Good Luck!

Remind yourself that you’re there to learn and improve. We all start somewhere, and it is a humbling experience to try something new. Give it your best shot, and do an even better job next time!


2 thoughts on “How to Speak at a Conference

  1. Pingback: Ten Reasons You Should Become a Librarian | library joy

  2. Pingback: Endgame! | Journey of a Creative Playful Explorer

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