How to Be an Engaging Speaker with a Memorable Talk at a Conference [Interview]

John Becker

Editorial Content Associate, 15+ Years of Content Marketing Expertise and Teaching

How to Be an Engaging Speaker with a Memorable Talk at a Conference [Interview] Blog Feature

Published on July 18th, 2019

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Experts usually agree that public speaking is among the most widely-held fears. However, speaking and presenting at conferences is also an important professional experience — a chance to grow your personal brand, represent your company, and share your hard-won insights and expertise.

In addition to being the author of THE LATEST, our thrice-weekly newsletter, IMPACT Director of Web and Interactive Content Liz Murphy has spoken at INBOUND and at many other conferences and events.

She’s also set to speak again this year at IMPACT Live:

Screen Shot 2019-07-18 at 1.35.29 PM

So, I invited her to sit down with me to discuss how she prepares for being a speaker at a conference, why you shouldn't gesture from your stomach, and why feeling nervous before giving a talk is a good thing.

John Becker: It's safe to say that many people would rather jump out of an airplane or share a bed with snakes than speak in front of a large audience. Most people are terrified of public speaking. Are you?

Liz Murphy: Here's the funny thing. I love getting on stage and being up in front of an audience. I always joke that I'm an only child, so my love language is: “Tell me I'm pretty and give me attention.” But the real reason is that I love teaching and speaking with the purpose to educate — to break down big, scary concepts and ideas into accessible lessons and actions. It's just something I've always naturally loved doing.

That said, before I get on stage, I am always nervous to some degree. Every single time. 

People will come up to me and say, "You're going to do a great job." And I’ll say, "Oh yeah, I know, it's going to be wonderful. It's going to be great." But, on the inside, I’m seizing with panic.

It's interesting that people think a metric of success, whether you're talking about public speaking or anything else, is not to be nervous going into it. Like, you’ll just have this unerring confidence in what you're about to do. 

But think about all of the big things we do in life — whether that's getting married or taking a big test. Even if we know we've prepared and we've done all the right things, you're always going to feel nervous. 

So, I think feeling nervous before you go on stage is totally normal. It's just adrenaline, it's you getting pumped up. 

If you have the space to do so, pop in your earphones and find your big pump-up song and listen to it right before you go onstage. I know Tony Robbins does that, and he jumps on a mini-trampoline and then literally runs out on onstage.

I think everybody needs to find that thing that helps them get in the headspace. But, be nervous. It's fine. The key is to recognize it, accept it, and don't let it consume you. Don't let it stop you. 

JB: When you know that you're going to speak when do you begin preparing? What does that process look like?

LM: For me, there's active preparation and there's passive preparation. Passive preparation is what happens immediately after I've either volunteered myself to speak, or when I've been told, "Hey, you're going to be in this lineup." That's really for me when preparation begins.

I would say the exception to that is in the case of speaking pitches. If I'm pitching a talk, then I'll probably do a little more work beforehand. 

Because, as soon as the thought of speaking enters my mind, my brain immediately launches into processing ideas — both consciously and unconsciously — as I go about my day-to-day. So, I’ll be eating dinner, while my brain works like a little computer to passively think about what openings might work best, examples of whatever I’m talking about I may want to include, and so on.

But in terms of when that talk actually comes together, it starts the moment I've made the decision, or I've been told that I will do a talk.

I always start by asking myself, “Through this talk, what problem am I trying to solve?” 

I think sometimes we get focused on ideas that make us say, “Oh, this topic has the right buzzwords and sounds like it would be a great talk." But, what I really try to focus on is the underlying problem that topic is designed to solve. 

Then I really try to dive deeply into the “who” — meaning, who is the person or audience I am trying to help solve this problem? Why do they, specifically, care about this problem, and what are they looking for from me to help them solve it?

That's actually something I've gotten from Marcus Sheridan, who says, "Before you create a talk, or really even think about your script or your slide deck, you need to decide what one thing you want them to say when they walk out of that room." I really try to focus in on that.

Once I feel like I've landed on the problem I'm solving, who I'm solving it for, and my “one thing,” then the talk kind of builds itself from there.

JB: Do you ever bring other people into that process?

LM: Yes and no. There have definitely been times where a talk has only been as good as it was because I worked with people to rip it apart and put it back together again. But I do like to do some of it in private, on my own. 

I don't usually rehearse in front of people. The final form — when I'm throwing it all out there, when I'm doing the storytelling, when I'm putting in the funny stuff, when I'm really going all in on the performative piece of it — that's something I usually just let happen on the stage.

I think there always has to be a moment where you say, “These are the times where I allow for collaboration, and this is the line I draw where I bring it back to me and make it my own.”

It's like that old joke, "What's a camel? It's a horse designed by a committee." 

Ultimately, the most effective talks are going to be the ones that are uniquely your own. You definitely want to bring people into the process, so you can make sure you’re covering what you need to cover — the substance is really important

But at some point you need to make sure that you are the owner of your talk.

JB: What to you is an ideal length of a presentation if you're speaking at a conference or something like that?

LM: That's a tricky question. I've given very, very short talks, in the 10- to 15-minute range. I've given talks in the 45-minutes to an hour range. I’ve also given talks somewhere in between those ranges. Admittedly, I enjoy a little bit of a longer block, where I don’t feel too rushed and I can allow the energy of a room to dictate some of the pacing. 

But, it's always a fun challenge to have the shorter blocks, when you have to tell an amazing story in nine to 12 minutes. I had to do that last year at IMPACT Live. I definitely went over time by a couple of minutes, but it was one of the biggest challenges I've ever had, and it was really fun.

JB: How do you plan to pace your talk — to know it’s not going to be too long or too short?

LM: There are two ways that you really attack that. First, you scope out your talk based on the time that you've been given. Then there is the actual pacing of how long it takes you to get through what you're doing.

Going back to year at IMPACT Live, I had a 10-minute spot to talk about "Why pillar content is the future of content strategy and how it's working for IMPACT." 

In my head, I'm saying, "I'm so excited to talk about this topic, but I've given this talk a thousand times and it is 35 to 40 minutes," because many people don't understand what pillar content is or why it exists. The foundation of the topic deals with very technical stuff like search engine optimization, as well as how search trends and tech has evolved over time. 

So, being a professional, I started to panic. I had no idea how I was going to give an effective, action-oriented talk on such a dense topic… in 10 minutes. 

Then, once the dry-heaving subsided, I asked myself, “What's the most important thing I could tell them in this short amount of time that will make the most difference?”

That's what you really need to do. When you have these big meaty topics you need to decide, what is the thing that the audience really needs from you the most? 

In my case, it was explaining why we even have pillar content to begin with, and then here are a few do's and don'ts for beginners. (I also included a few results as examples of those do's and don’ts.)

By asking myself, “OK, this is that big broad topic but what are the problems that I'm actually going to solve? What's the most valuable thing that I could be talking about?” That really helped me narrow down the scope.

You have to be ruthless about what you put in your talk, especially when it comes to time constraints. You have to stop thinking about what you want to talk about and think about what the audience needs to hear. 

Then it's just about getting really good with yourself about knowing how much time a talk will take. It's going to take some trial and error but, I promise you, you'll get more confident as you go on. 

One of the things I have learned over and over again is that when you practice a script it's always going to be longer when you actually do it. When I was practicing that pillar content talk I was clocking in at about seven minutes. Then, when I actually performed it — when the stories were all in there — it was more like 12 minutes.

JB: I like hearing that, because I think so often we hear, "Oh you're going to be nervous and you're going to speak much more quickly when you are onstage." I think that it can actually go the other way, too. So, your advice is really practical.

LM: Oh, yeah. I remember the moment I realized onstage that I had gone over at IMPACT Live. I was mortified, but I pushed through to the end of my talk. And then, when I got off-stage, I realized something. Nobody noticed. They're like, "Oh, you ran over? OK." 

That’s not always going to be the case, and I’m not suggesting anyone flouts time restrictions they’ve been given as a speaker. But stuff like that will happen, and you’ll get better and avoiding those moments or managing them when they do occasionally occur, as you continue to practice.

JB: Can you talk to me about your suggestions for producing a slide deck? Are there best practices you want to share?

LM: Yes. The first thing I am going to say is, again, another piece of advice that I got from Marcus [Sheridan]. In addition to having a “one thing” for your entire presentation, he recommends that every slide has a “one thing.” This is the one thing you're going to talk about on each slide. 

I really love that idea, because it means every slide is a single idea. It's singularly focused. Too often, I go to talks, and slides are crammed with multiple ideas, lists, and massive swaths of data. It’s confusing and distracting, and I hate it.

I don't know where I developed that pet peeve — maybe I got it from college or sitting through terrible company presentations over the past 15 years.

Regardless, the biggest piece of advice I give to people about creating a presentation is that your slide deck isn't a script. It shouldn't be so busy and filled with words that the people are looking at that instead of listening to you. It should always be complementary to your talk.

I saw Tamsen Webster, who calls herself the "Idea Whisperer," at INBOUND a few years ago. She said one of her favorite things to do is, whenever she has a moment in her talk where she wants all eyes on her, she'll actually insert a black blank slide. So all attention goes to her.

For my talks, specifically, I would say you can usually get 50% to 60% of what I'm teaching you from the slides alone. Because, I’m of the belief that no one should be able to look at your slide deck and get your entire talk out of it.

JB: Can you talk to me about stage familiarity? I imagine in many cases you don't have the opportunity to do a real dress rehearsal. But are there any tips that you could give about feeling comfortable regarding the clicker, the stage, the lighting, etc.?

LM: Again, be okay with being nervous. It's a little bit of “faking it until to you make it.” 

I hate to say this, but audiences can smell fear. Your audience wants to like you, but when you walk out on stage and communicate through your posture, your eyes, and your expression, “Hey, I don’t belong here,” you completely undermine that. If that's the message you're sending with your body language (even if you don't intend to), you're immediately going to put off your audience.

But if you go out there and make eye contact — which is actually one of the hardest things to do, because depending on where you are you may not be able to see your audience, but just look like you're making eye contact — then you look like you belong there.

Last year at IMPACT Live, we were at Infinity Hall in Hartford, and I could see maybe the first two rows, but nothing beyond that. But still, subtly and quickly, I skimmed the room as I walked out (with a smile), as if I could see every single face in the audience. Like I belonged up there. Like it was my home. 

Was I scared on the inside? Sure. A little bit. But I was more excited than anything else, and so I focused on that feeling, instead of any lingering fear.

One thing that has helped me is this quote I heard from somewhere that I can’t remember. But it's always stuck with me. Instead of focusing on having stage presence, instead “own the energy of an entire room.”

That mindset really helps me, because I am able to mentally say, “This is my house, and I live here!” like I’m Diana Ross, and it carries through in the energy I project to the audience.

The other thing I would say is that you have to avoid being too much of a wanderer and a fidgeter. Don't plant yourself on one awkward corner of the stage and never move. Move around. Talk to people. If you're telling a story just move your body and be part of it. 

This is a lot easier, however, if you're really solid on the script or outline you have made, so you need to start there, before you think about movement.

One of the tricks I use to get comfortable with the substance of a talk is I will actually record myself doing it and then I'll just listen to myself. It's kind of like learning a song. I'm not trying to learn the notes, or the melody, or the pacing, I'm just focusing on learning the lyrics, so to speak. 

Then, by the time I’m up on stage, I’m having fun with what I’m doing. I’m riffing. I’m taking my talk that extra mile. But there’s always a line between natural, engaging movement and looking like a cartoon on stage.

JB: You're right that there is a balance between natural movement that feels animated and expressive and the back and forth pacing that some people do, which is just as bad as sitting stiffly.

LM: The way I always describe it is, move around but make sure whenever you're moving to a different spot on the stage you are purposefully moving and walking somewhere.

Otherwise, plant your feet. You'll get more comfortable with it. The funny thing is that people tend to feel more stiff when they're trying to be a certain way. It's kind of like with writing. The tip I usually give people is please try to sound like yourself. Just be yourself onstage. 

Not everybody's a perfect performer onstage or has perfect body movement. You’ll learn your quirks over time, and don’t be afraid to ask for feedback from others. 

One of the things I used to do is something called "talking from your belly,” where I just kept my upper arms glued to the side of my body, while making gestures with my forearms around the middle of my body, when I was making a point. Finally, my dear friend Melanie Spring, who is a speaker trainer, said, "Liz, can you please stop talking from your stomach?" 

I had no idea I was doing it until she mentioned it. And, as I’ve continued to speak, I’ve developed a much better awareness of my body and become more purposeful in my movements.

You'll pick up on little things like that. It's not anything that anybody in your audience is really going to care about. It's something you just get better at with time. You just start becoming more aware.

JB: Can you tell us anything about what you're going to talk about IMPACT Live 2019?

LM: I don't want to let the cat out of the bag just yet. What I will say about my talk is that it's related to something I really have been focusing on this year. And that’s answering the question of, “What is it that separates mediocre content from great content?” 

What are the universal things that we can be doing in the digital sales and marketing content that we create every single day that will, not only make us completely and utterly unforgettable to our audience, but also make money? 

Just imagine if we could reverse engineer the process of creating content that not only brings home the bacon but also makes it so whenever somebody has a problem about something specific they think, "I've got to go talk to that person."

That's really where my head's been at the past year, and really what I'm thinking about as I prepare my talk. I think my talk is about 25 minutes. So, a little more of me onstage this year, which is kind of exciting.

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