6 tips to nail your conference speech, from Colin James [Video]

Person holding nails between their teethBeing asked to give a workshop or presentation at a conference is a fantastic opportunity. What a great way to get you and your message more widely known in your industry!

So if you’re invited to speak at a conference, what specific steps can you take to make the most of the event?

Well, to help you nail your talk, try the 6 tips in this 2-minute video by Colin James:

Colin’s tips are:

  1. Shun slides at first
  2. Start strong
  3. Count your points
  4. Share your passion
  5. Make eye contact
  6. Close like you start

You’ll also find these topics at the end of this post:

Let’s look at each of the 6 tips in more detail


1. Shun slides at firstScroll to Contents ↑

Colin’s first tip is to have a blank screen when you walk on and start speaking. As he puts it:

“This compels people in the audience to look at you”
Colin James – at 0:19

That gives you 2 benefits:

Mind you, this tip contrasts with what speaker-coach Laura Foley recently proposed. Laura’s suggestion was to show a looping slide before you start your talk.

You’ll want to stand out as much as you can

I find that contrast interesting. At a conference, I suppose there are so many speakers (back-to-back), which means you’ll want to stand out as much as you can.

And, given that almost all speakers use slides, not using any visuals at first might get you noticed more than if you just added a looping slide.

Which option do you think’s better? By all means have your say in the comments.


2. Start strongScroll to Contents ↑

If you forgive the pun, I strongly agree with Colin here! To start your talk, he suggests you choose from these 4 options:

A few years ago, I described 3 ways to start strong (including sharing a story or a statistic). So as you might guess, I’m a big fan of this technique.

What’s the benefit of starting strong? As Colin says, you’ll grab people:

“You immediately grab their attention
– by not following convention
Colin James – at 0:49

Frankly, starting strongly’s so unusual!

Again, that makes you stand out from all the other presenters. Plus, it’s a great way to help people remember what you say, because (frankly), starting strongly’s so unusual! (As a result, it’s also more likely that people’ll share your message (or that they’ll share your slides) with their network, spreading your presentation much further.)

As an example of one way to start strongly, check out this 15-second clip showing the opening of Jamie Oliver’s talk at TED, where you’ll see him cite a startling statistic:


3. Count your pointsScroll to Contents ↑

To explain this tip, Colin says:

“When you set out your content,
always give it a number”
Colin James – at 0:57

For instance, he even does that for the title of his video:

6 Shortcuts to Nail Your Speech…

I strongly suggest you use this tip, too, and so I’ve written about it several times before. For instance, it’s one of the 4 elements in what I call “ABCD” headlines (where the “D” stands for Digit or number).

Colin adds:

“The moment you give a number, people then
have a framework in their mind to follow”
Colin James – at 1:13

…one of the key ways to make your talk easy to understand…

Giving people a structure or framework’s one of the key ways to make your talk easy to understand (and remember). And by making your talk easy for your audience, you make them far more likely to absorb, share, and even enjoy it!

For more on this tip (and its 3 benefits), see my post on enumerating your points. (You’ll also find links there to other presentation coaches who recommend doing this.)

I often use a related tip too: Coin an acronym to neatly sum up your key message. (For example, I suggest videomakers should follow the “ASPECT” acronym.)

Compared to simply counting your points, a short acronym gives you 4 benefits:

Actually, you don’t need to choose between either counting your points or using an acronym. Instead, you can get the benefits of both techniques by saying something like:

“This strategy has 3 pillars
and the acronym ‘ACE’ can
help you remember them”


4. Share your passionScroll to Contents ↑

About emotion, Colin has this to say:

“If you are going to be in front of an audience,
you need to be emotionally engaging”
Colin James – at 1:28

And emotion is contagious. In fact, author Seth Godin once said:

“Communication is the transfer of emotion”
Seth Godin

Think about that for a moment: If you’re truly communicating, you’re spreading your feelings about your topic to your audience. (And that sure beats just speaking “about” your topic itself.)

Your audience needs to be ready to receive the emotion

For this to work, just remember your audience needs to be ready to receive the emotion you send out. So I suggest you start gently, and build your passion as you speak. We’ll come back to that in a moment.

Meanwhile, let’s touch on a couple of contrasting attitudes you could take to your energy on stage (and then a couple of questions you might wonder about):

  • As Colin notes, if you drone on while staring at your notes (or your slides) – heaven forbid – you’ll bore your audience to tears. So don’t do that!
  • Instead, show your passion for your topic. Some of it’ll rub off on your audience. And people love that feeling! (After all, in one very real sense, passion is love.)

Mind you, if you’re like me, 2 questions spring to mind:

  • How can you show your passion, when you’re stressed by the big speaking gig?
  • How much passion should you show?

In terms of how to show passion when you’re stressed, I’d say it’s all about relaxing: Both being as relaxed as you can when you start, and knowing you’ll relax more as you get into your groove.

Start off positive but not overly passionate

In terms of how much passion to show, I think the best approach is to match your audience. In other words, I suggest you start off positive but not overly passionate, and as relaxed as you can – without using a drug!

So (unless your audience is extremely hyped up), it’s a bad idea to start your talk like this fabled Republican did in this 20-second video:

As you go on, you’ll start to get into your groove and relax more. And your audience’ll start to warm up to you (as a human being, just like them) and to your message (as something of value to them).

So as you relax, your passion’ll shine through more. And as people warm up, they’ll be ready for it.


5. Make eye contactScroll to Contents ↑

To connect with and engage your audience, it really helps if you make eye contact with people, as Colin suggests.

But – especially with a big audience – that can be tough for 3 reasons:

  • Your stress levels will be higher, so your eyes will tend to flit around the room.
  • Most people’ll be so far away that you might struggle to even see their eyes.
  • The lights might be low – yet there might even be spotlights shining in your eyes!

Here are 4 tips you can use to reduce those effects:

  • Use the same techniques to help you relax as I mentioned in the section about sharing your passion.
  • Pick out some specific people (from all over your audience), and just look at their faces (one at a time) rather than their eyes. (At a distance, no one can tell you’re not looking into their eyes.)
  • Focus on a few people who’re close by, so you can make solid eye contact with them (especially until you get more into your groove). This 1-minute video from presentation coach Jim Endicott shows how that can work really well for you:

    Jim described a technique he calls “Look, Lock and Move”, where you look across the room, lock eye contact with someone, then move towards them as you address your next point directly to them. (Looking across the room also helps you see better, if bright lights are shining in your eyes from the back of the room.) Notice how he mentioned blacking out your slide, too, which was Colin’s 1st point of course. (Jim was speaking at the Presentation Summit in the US.)

  • If the lights are too low for eye contact, Colin suggests you ask the venue’s technician to turn them up. But it’s not clear if he meant to do that before your talk, or during it. If you ask them, I strongly suggest you do that beforehand – to avoid disrupting your talk by asking about lighting.


6. Close like you startScroll to Contents ↑

Have you ever seen a speaker who returned to their opening at the end of their talk? What did you think? (I remember a couple of speakers I saw do that, and I was absolutely transfixed by them!)

It’s a classic way to close, because it’s so engaging. Yet it’s rarely used at conferences. So, like with Colin’s other tips, it’ll help you stand way out.

For your audience, it’s very psychologically satisfying if your talk comes full circle. And that means it’ll tend to generate more “buzz” – meaning great audience feedback, with people also sharing your message on social media.

I highly recom­mend you end with a “call-back”

As a result, you’re much more likely to be invited to speak at more conferences. So I highly recommend you end with a “call-back” to the start of your talk, as Colin suggests.

Like to see an example? Well, below is presentation coach Conor Neill using a call-back in his TEDx talk:

Opening (<20 seconds)

Close (10 seconds)


Over to youScroll to Contents ↑

There you have it then – 6 tips for nailing your conference presentation. As a reminder, Colin’s tips are:

  1. Shun slides at first
  2. Start strong
  3. Count your points
  4. Share your passion
  5. Make eye contact
  6. Close like you start

As he puts it:

“…follow [those tips] and you’ll have powerful,
engaging presentations at your conferences”
Colin James – at 1:21

Ever seen a conference speaker use any of these techniques? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments.


Related postsScroll to Contents ↑

Want more? Check out these 6 radical tips for using slides so you stand out, instead of blending in. (In that post, you’ll find tips like how many words to put on your slides – as suggested by experts like Nancy Duarte and Garr Reynolds.)

And see these solid techniques for promoting your talk – before, during, and after the conference. (You’ll get specific ideas for hashtags you can use on social media to promote your talk, and lots more tips.)

See also:


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