May 20, 2015 in My thoughts

How to give good conference

I go to about 3 or 4 conferences a year and I’m always keen to get the most value out of them. To this end, I always do a bit of post-conference reflection (I can’t help it, I’m a coach!), and I can always see ways in which people could get loads more value out of the conference. Looking at my Evernote folder packed full of conference reflections, I thought I would share some of them here. (If anything sounds snarky or judgemental, it isn’t meant to be and I know that it is easy to be the expert on speaking at conferences when I’m sat in the audience!).


For Speakers

  • Please, please make sure that your talk is what you said it would be. I know that we often have to submit the overview months in advance but people will choose (a) whether to attend the conference at all, and (b) which sessions to attend on the basis of the session descriptions. Your talk has to do what it says on the tin. If I’m using slides for a conference presentation, I always use my session description as my title slide so that is what people see as they arrive for the session; it helps to focus me on delivering what I promised!
  • Don’t sell. This applies to you, your organisation, and any services or products you offer. If you’re good, we’ll be interested in them anyway. Most people don’t like to pay to listen to a sales pitch.
  • Stick to time. I know it is hard to look at a slide pack and guess how long the session will be, but that’s another useful benefit of rehearsing.
  • Be engaging. We all have different presentation styles and varying levels of comfort with being on stage but if you don’t make an effort to be interesting and engaging then you will lose peoples’ attention.
  • Don’t just talk at people for 90 minutes. Get us involved or standing or talking in some way. My personal preference is not to have to massage the person next to me, dance, or stand on a chair but I know that we all have different preferences. Giving people something to discuss and then harvesting and sharing that learning can be very engaging if done well.
  • Don’t just say ‘research says’; it is lazy and over-use of that phrase diminishes your credibility in my eyes rather than enhancing it. If you can find a way of citing the references and mentioning the study and the conclusions you are drawing, then you get extra bonus points from me.
  • Don’t use the neuroscience sandwich (i.e. mention neuro- / amygdala / synapses / dopamine – then something unrelated that you want us to believe – and then hijack / firing / something else neuro-related)) and assume that it will lend credibility to the thing in the middle. It won’t. I think we have learned (and will continue to learn) lots of really helpful things from neuroscience but I also believe it is being massively hyped and is just about to reach ‘the trough of disillusionment’ in the hype cycle. (If you’re not familiar with the hype cycle, have a look at the Gartner hype cycle)
  • Be honest. I learn a lot from listening to the real experiences of projects. When preparing to share experiences from a project, I know how easy it is to post-rationalise and kid ourselves that we meant to do it in those phases and it was a straight line to success. I learn so much more from the people who stand at the front and share their experiences of the cock-ups, the false-starts, the confidence wobbles, as well as the successes.
  • If you want to really stand out as a conference speaker, make it all about us (the audience) and nothing about you. Ruthlessly edit your presentation so that you focus on doing what you said you would, and take out anything and everything that doesn’t support that.
  • If you take responsibility for doing what you say you’ll do, and doing it well, then I’ll take responsibility for making good session choices, giving you my undivided attention, and learning loads.



For exhibitors

  • I have only manned an exhibition stand twice in my life and, despite being a sociable person, I will confess that it is my idea of hell. Some of you seem to take to it like a duck to water. Some of you seem as uncomfortable as I would be, and it shows. If you sit at the back of your stand looking at your phone or engaging in conversations with your colleagues, then fewer people will come to see you.
  • Stands that have cupcakes, neck massages, cupcakes, free notebooks, or cupcakes will do well. Stands that look interesting will draw people in. (Note: cupcakes aren’t essential, but….)
  • I will stop by your stand if I can see what you’re offering and I’m interested. If you smile, I will probably stop and chat anyway. If you smile and have cupcakes, I will definitely stop and chat.
  • Lots of exhibitors go into heavy sales mode as soon as approached. If you ask me questions about what I need and why I’m interested in your company then you already stand out right from the get go.


For attendees

  • We can sometimes fall into the trap of wanting our learning to be done for us, but we need to take responsibility for our own learning experiences. Be clear about what you want to get from the conference and do whatever you need to do to get that.
  • Put a lot of effort into choosing which sessions to attend; not every session is right for everybody and it depends what you’re looking for.
  • I think learning from a conference is a little bit (but not exactly!) like 70:20:10 where the 10 is what you heard said on stage. You will learn loads from chatting to other attendees, asking questions of the speakers (before, during, and after their sessions), talking to exhibitors, drinking coffee with people, going to tweetups in the pub, going to fringe events, engaging on social media, and making time to reflect on the whole thing.



I think we’ll do OK If we’re clear on what we want from a conference, we all take responsibility for getting what we need, and we all remember that speakers/exhibitors/attendees are people too.


  1. May 21, 2015 at 8:05 am


    Good stuff Ian – appreciate you sharing this. Scott Berkun has written two excellent posts on related subjects. Here’s one for speakers: and another for conference organisers: I hope these are useful for you and your readers.

    Cheers – Doug

    1. May 21, 2015 at 8:47 am

      Ian Pettigrew

      Hi Doug, thanks for the comments and for sharing the Scott Berkun posts – lots of great insights in there! Thanks, Ian

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