Speaking from Experience: How to Be a More Confident and Competent Presenter


18-year-old me getting a bit choked up as I deliver my final address as state president of the 
Illinois Association of Student Councils to about 1000 people at the convention closing banquet.


What have you learned from your more than 30 years of keynote speaking and workshop facilitation?

That was the question a graduate student recently asked when interviewing me for one of his classes. Poor guy. That one question became the basis of our entire interview.

After it concluded, I reflected a bit more and decided that sharing my key responses might be of value to others looking to be a more effective presenter. Not a week goes by that someone doesn't publish a post on this topic, so ample advice is available online if what I share below doesn't speak to you.


I believe the greatest gift we bring to a keynote, workshop, or webinar is our complete presence. To me, preparing to present is all about preparing to be present, a topic I've written about before. Each of us has different requirements in order to feel we can be 100% present during a speaking engagement. For me it begins with only accepting opportunities to speak on topics for which I have both content expertise and personal passion.  Doing so increases the likelihood I won't feel handcuffed to my notes, outline, or slides during the actual talk, and it also minimizes the potential need I may feel to script my comments in too detailed a fashion.


Participants' time is valuable. Selecting sessions from the long list at a conference can be daunting. While it may provide a temporary ego boost to see your workshop room fill to capacity, no one wins if you've written sexy marketing copy that attracts people to hear a presentation that ultimately doesn't quite match what was promoted. When we write a session description, we enter into a contract with those who attend based on it.  We must provide information to help people decide "yes, this is for me." We need to deliver what was promised, not pull a bait and switch.


It might be my theatre background that causes me to think in smaller increments (think scenes, acts, etc.) but I have always designed keynote speeches and workshops as bundles of intentionally sequenced short content segments.  Doing so means reducing all the things you could address into the most compelling and concentrated content.  The right key points will be catalysts for lively participant conversations ... with themselves and with each other.

Short bursts of concentrated content mean you can spend less time on your soapbox and more time involving participants in the sandbox of exploring your content and how they might apply it. Think lecturette, not lecture.  For every 5-10 minutes of me talking, I try to build in 10-20 minutes of peer-peer exchange. Those who prefer to passively sit and listen for an entire 90-minute session block won't be happy.  But if you were clear in your original session description about the program design, they hopefully have self-selected to attend another workshop.
Part of our role as speakers is to be the wayfinding system for participants as they move through these various short content segments that collectively form the longer presentation. We can intentionally provide signals that help people enter into and exit from any particular segment of a presentation, as well as thoughtfully weave individual portions together to create a seamless and coherent whole.  We must offer sufficient comments that can serve as a "content GPS" for participants' learning.

As presenters we deliver to (or help surface from) participants a lot of content. We can help them make the most powerful connections and application of the content by ensuring we address (and involve them in addressing) the so what? and now what?  questions for key points: Why is this important? What relevance might it have for specific situations? What actions might people now want to take? Content won't lead to any meaningful change if participants can't clearly understand and see the connections to themselves and/or their work.

When you have (1) command of your content and (2) the format options for each section of your presentation, you can more capably adjust both in real-time based on the ever-changing conditions of time available, learner needs and interests, and audience size. Preparing to be present means being ready to deliver both more and less content that you originally envision, slightly different content based on participants' knowledge level and interests, and alternative teaching techniques or interactive formats based on the size of your audience.

Yowsa!  That is a lot of preparation. Yes, it is, so that's why it is even more critical to only accept the chance to talk on content for which you already have pretty strong expertise and familiarity: it lets you spend more time anticipating and preparing for these real-time adjustments that enhance the quality and value of the learning experience you are delivering. You can't do that comfortably when you are most concerned about the content you are covering.


No matter how much you prepare, at some point you will encounter a situation which rattles you:  a fixed seat auditorium when you were expecting full rounds, 40 minutes for your keynote when you were told you'd have 60, an audience of 20 when you had designed for 100, and many, many more.  In general, I try not to inflict my angst on the audience as I don't want them being anxious about the session that is going to unfold.   But in some cases, making them collaborators in a potential redesign of your content and/or format may be the best way to create comfort for all involved.  Either way, no one benefits from a presenter who spends a lot of time complaining about what he could have done in more perfect conditions. Our job is to create the most compelling learning experience we can in the conditions we find ourselves.

My second year in graduate school I attended a conference on values and ethics where one of the keynote speakers sat during her entire 60-minute talk, read the entire time from prepared remarks, made little eye contact with the audience, and did not engage us at all.  It was one of the most powerful learning experiences I have ever had.  While technically she did so much wrong in terms of delivery and technique, she did everything right in terms of crafting amazing content into a compelling narrative featuring precise and carefully chosen language that she delivered with 100% presence and complete confidence and comfort.

So-called speaking "rules" are meant to be broken when they don't work for you: the right number of words to have on your slides, the right way to engage an audience, the right way to command the room for a keynote, et al. That doesn't mean we should dismiss them without consideration. The general concept behind much of this advice is sound.

But the days when I have received the most heartfelt responses to a keynote or a workshop presentation almost always have been when me, my faults, my fears, my soul, and 100% of my authenticity at that moment showed up on full display.  As one of my favorite authors, Parker Palmer, so eloquently said long ago: "Good teaching comes not from technique, but from the integrity of the teacher."