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Wealth & Investment Management

Conference speaking and how (not) to do it!

Posted by on 02 May 2024
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IMpower incorporating FundForum is about to welcome 300+ expert speakers – the crème de la crème of wealth and investment management around the world. Public speaking is tough, especially when your audience is 1,400+ industry leaders. How does one do it? IMpower regular and former CCO Bill Gourlay, shares the secrets to his success.

After many years of attending and speaking at conferences, I thought it was finally time to share a few ideas about how to approach these events. The final impetus was when, having recently chaired a financial services conference, I found myself with a long list of “why did they do that” ponders around some of the speakers’ behaviour. Please don’t feel that this is an ego trip where I tell you what a fantastic speaker I am, as I’m well aware of my own limitations, but I hope I’ve captured some useful ideas for you to consider before you take to the stage.

1. It is okay to not feel that you are a natural on stage

One of the best presentation coaches that I have ever worked with entitled her course “Presentation Performance”, which was certainly no accident. Her logic was that, unless you are a complete extrovert, you’re not going to be naturally comfortable getting on stage to present to several hundred (or thousand) people. That means you might find it helpful to metaphorically put on a mask and, effectively, play the role of a presenter when you take to the platform. I’m not going to repeat all that “think of them naked” stuff, but building yourself a little routine to get into your presenter persona can be very helpful, which can be as simple as a deep breath followed by always having the same introductory phrase to kick things off.

2. Be aware of your fellow panellists

Those around you may well be experiencing the issues I’ve described in #1, but that may not be superficially obvious. I’ve done panels on a couple of occasions with some very senior individuals, but sensed that something was a little wrong during my preparation calls, eventually discovering that they had never spoken on stage before. You then need to judge how best to support them during the event itself, but being aware that your senior has just become a newbie puts you both in the best possible position to get through it and helps you adopt a much more sympathetic approach. Even for speakers who are experienced there may be work or personal pressures which impact their performance, or things they don’t want to talk about, so it’s best to be aware of that first.

3. Preparation is key

We’ve all heard variations of the “3Ps” and they are entirely relevant here. As I’ve stated above, I have been surprised to find that fellow panellists were highly inexperienced in the past, but I have always found this out in preparation meetings, rather than up on stage with the lights on full beam. Preparation is also essential to ensure that your panel, or you as a presenter, are confident regarding what you want to say. Nothing makes you more uncomfortable than a blank moment in front of an audience, which can be the result of a surprise question, a question that you can’t (or aren’t allowed to) answer, or when the person before you “stole” your answer. Carefully working through your presentation, or understanding what your panellists can/want to say is crucial.

4. Be a swan

One of the worst presentations I have ever seen was by a COO to a hedge fund audience. Things got so bad that at one point a heckler shouted out “next slide!”. However, the presenter had caused their own problems by demonstrating that they didn’t know their own slide deck, making comments like “Oops, that’s not supposed to be there” and “That number doesn’t look right to me”. If you undermine yourself then you’ve lost all credibility and, in the case of a feral audience, you could be in big trouble. Things will go wrong during presentations, but that is where you ride the wave and swim serenely on like a swan, even if under the water (or in your head) things are frantically flapping around. Don’t draw attention to issues, unless you are absolutely sure that you can make a positive of it.

5. Remember to entertain your audience

Whilst I know that most people reading this will be presenting from a business perspective, rather than as professional entertainers, I still think it’s very important to remember to be entertaining. We have all been to boring conferences where you are expected to listen to some pretty dry content for hours on end, and it doesn’t take much to perhaps lighten the tone of your delivery or insert some unusual elements to pique people’s interest. Clearly you have to manage this carefully so that you don’t undermine your key messages, or offend the corporate brand that you are representing, but it’s vital to remember that you are presenting to an audience of humans (who you may, or may not, have decided are naked) who will respond better to an interesting and engaging approach. A monotonous recital of a written speech is unlikely to inspire anyone.

6. Keep your ego on a chain

There is a very fine line between being an excellent conference speaker, and becoming an ego monster. I have seen two very clear examples of individuals who were good speakers but, upon being told this by the conference organisers, became more and more enveloped by their ego over time. The end result of this was an “ego monster” who showboated their way around the stage, stole the limelight from their peers (or in one case the poor junior staff member who they had said would now do the presentation) and became a real turn-off for the audience, fellow participants and conference organisers alike. Unfortunately, they are often the last to realize it, by which time the damage is done.

7. Read the audience

You might, rightly, be grumbling that I didn’t offer a thought on how to assess success on #4 and #5. As ever, you’re there for the audience’s benefit, rather than your own, and they are the ones that you either want to sell to, or at least get your message across to. If they have started to get their iPhones out, are whispering to their neighbour, or have begun to gently snore, then you have lost the room. The important part is to understand this, be aware of why this might be, and work to win back their attention. The hard part is that there could be a number of reasons: you have slipped into hard sell mode; you need to raise the entertainment side of your delivery to improve engagement; you have alienated them by allowing your ego to take over; or perhaps you are over emphasising a particular point. Either way, the listener has the power, and you want their attention, so need to work hard to win them back.

8. Use your time wisely

Conference programmes are governed by time, so the organisers, other speakers and the audience will not thank you if you run over. A large part of this goes back to #3 and the need to be very clear about what you want to say, as well as knowing what proportion of your presentation this makes up. Running out of time and then flicking through the last 30 slides in two minutes with some mumbled commentary doesn’t do anyone any favours. If you’ve spent too long on a particular section, then you probably need to skip ahead whilst there is still time to dedicate sufficient attention to your other key points. If you’re on a panel, then you’re certainly going to look like an ego monster in training if you start stealing air time from your fellow panellists.

9. Don’t be a fly-in

At a recent conference, I saw a panellist ask from the stage, on day two, “well are there any particular regulations troubling this audience?”. Whilst that might seem a reasonable question, the fact that day one of the conference had focused almost entirely on regulations that were troubling this community, meant that this was a horrendous gaffe. Whilst it’s not always possible to be present for the whole of a conference, it is really important to read the agenda, get feedback from other participants, speak to the organisers, and understand what you should be considering in your presentation. If you don’t do this, you may well make yourself look foolish, uninformed and arrogant, which is never a great place to be. Making references to earlier speakers, topics, or statements is a fantastic way to create audience engagement.

10. Take the critique

A successful conference speaker will always seek out feedback on their performance, and it is essential that the feedback they get is constructive criticism. I once saw the new chairman of a financial organisation deliver a horribly stilted speech to their audience, but behind the scenes he was given highly unhelpful fawning feedback. Whilst handing someone a scrap of paper with a score out of ten is possibly a little harsh (yes, I did know someone who habitually did that!) it is important to be honest. We all know that most people are a little uncomfortable on the stage, so sensitive advice is really helpful – unless of course you’ve spotted an ego monster, in which case feel free to throw the chains around them!

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