What Do I Really Need to Know About Speaking at Conferences?

Advice from The Sherwins for May 2018

Conference Shoes


Hello Sherwins!

I’ve finally gotten to the point in my career where I’m starting to get asked to speak at conferences. In fact, I’m giving my first talk in a month! I know you two do a lot of these things. Any advice you want to pass along, besides the basics?

H in Miami


Hey there, H! Congratulations on the speaking gigs. We love it, and we hope you do too. We usually try to keep the advice column funny and short, but conferences are no laughing matter, and they’re frequently longer than you planned for. Pull up a folding chair.

We’ve spoken at conferences all over the world. They’re exhilarating and stressful and sublime. We love them for all of the best things that they can be. Some folks loathe them and exhibit a lot of bad behavior because of that, so we’ve put together a column so that this doesn’t happen to you. Our goal: Good conferences for everyone.

Note: Anything marked with (true story) is something we’ve seen with our own eyes.


Have cool shoes

If you’re going to be up on stage, wear cool shoes. We know plenty of people who roll through 90% of their lives in skinny jeans and startup hoodies, and they’ll saunter onstage in dog-chewed sneakers (true story). But from our perspective, conferences don’t happen every day. Why not spice things up a little? Give the people in the first three rows something to look at. Cool shoes means that you always have something to talk about. At the very least, consider having conference shoelaces (true story).

Have standards

They say that only people with money can have standards, but that’s only the case if people let that go unchallenged. Before you accept a speaking invite, ask yourself a few questions. Do I believe in and support this organization’s message? If it’s important to me, do they have a code of conduct? Are they being inclusive? How’s the accessibility factor at the space? Am I okay being associated with the other speakers and other companies at the event?

If you don’t like something about a conference, let them know why before feeling like you need to politely decline. Seriously, if there’s a jerk speaking or if there’s a horrible sponsor, you do not have to attend and you do not have to be silent about it (true story). It is always your choice. Don’t be bullied with potential exposure, access, clients, or money. Yes, speaking at certain conferences is an honor, but as we said in a previous column: "Do not put your soul in a drawer, not even for a day."

Do they pay their speakers? If not, are you okay with spending money to speak at this conference—that’s what speaking “for free” is, let’s be clear. Besides, conferences are not reliable places to find new gigs. Every hour you’re at a conference is an hour you aren’t making money. If you’re a freelancer or you own your own company, those hours add up. Mind your bottom line, or you could spend months trying to recoup your expenses (true story).

Side note to organizers: Do whatever you can to pay your speakers, even if it’s just transportation, lodging, and a couple of box lunches. If you’re waiting for companies to consistently cover their employees’ attendance, then you’re going to be waiting a long, long time. We’ve seen a conference or two give speakers the option to waive their fee, especially if their company is covering them or if they simply aren’t able to accept a fee directly. We know a few speakers who structure their schedule so that they can speak “for free” once a year. But these are rare instances. Pay people to speak at your event. If you don’t, you’re creating a space where the only voices being heard are the ones that can afford to be there on their own dime. Right now, there’s not a single corner of our industry that can afford to exclude people.

Have a contract

Don’t speak without a contract, and make sure you read it. Do you have to vet your talk with your company or with the conference organizers (true stories, both)? Are you okay with the conference recording it? Redistributing it? Taking your slides and selling them back to attendees without giving you any of the profit (true story)? Do they have a noncompete clause asking you not to give a talk in the same town during that time (true story)? Conferences are expensive to run, and what they cannot pay for in cash they pay for in content. If your content is exclusive to that event, then you are trading it for something. Is it potential work? More followers through social media? More profit for the conference organizer? Don’t give any of that away by accident.

Have a plan

Practice your talk. Have your slides done before you fly. Proofread your slides. Bring extra batteries and dongles and snacks. Bring an extra copy of your presentation. Don’t change your talk at the last minute. Don’t tell people at your talk you wrote it on the plane. Don’t miss your deadlines, don’t miss your tech check, and don’t be late to your own talk. Don’t go over your time. Wear your nametag when you aren’t on stage. (Every single one of these is a true story.)

Have a heart

We try really hard not to be jerks onstage (or off). We’re intentional about our language and our visuals. But anyone who’s heard us talk can tell you that despite all of that, we’re still straightforward and direct. You can talk about politics, about uncomfortable things, and you can ask for action and change. But remember that you’re at a conference; the people in the audience are probably already on your side. (If they aren’t, the organizers should warn you.) Most of your audience is smart, confident, and eager to learn from you.

Have standards (part two)

People will have a chance to personally ask you about your talk, so don’t get caught unprepared. Don’t put anything in your talk that you can’t back up. Don’t lie. Don’t steal content from other people (true, true, and true). Don’t shout from the stage that you’re hiring like you’re announcing that everyone’s drinks are on the house (ugh, gross and true). Relatedly, don’t show up to your talk drunk—unless you were expressly asked to do so, and if that's the case, what conference is that?

Have a point

If you get asked to give what we call a “portfolio talk”—you know, the ones where they want you to talk about your achievements and current projects and stuff—proceed with caution. Sure, your audience will sit through a 45-minute slideshow of your greatest hits from the past five years, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to like it (so many true stories). What lessons did you learn that you can pass along? What are the through lines in your work? How have your principles and passions evolved? What are you still struggling with? Do you know why?

For every other kind of talk, ask yourself what you want people to think about during your talk. When you’re done speaking, what’s the next thing you want them to do? (Other than follow you on Insta and pay you lots of money.)

“Inspirational” talks are all the rage right now, but to what end? What do you want people to be inspired to do? Be fearless? Think big? Stand up? Live your best life? (all true stories) Those all sound great, but soon, almost everyone you inspired is going to be heading home in a cramped airplane seat with a packet of stale pretzels. What then? “Be fearless” is cold comfort on Monday morning, no matter how open your office floor plan is. Give your audience at least one thing that’s tangible, something more than just thinking. Quite frankly, if you can’t give people that, you should rethink your talk.

Have a minute

Both of us used to play in bands, and the unspoken rule at a gig is that you watch all of the other bands, even if you’ve seen them ten times already (true story). While we’re on the topic, do everyone a favor, including yourself, and don’t give the same talk twice. The moment you’re unable to see the adjustments you need to make for this particular audience, the very second you can no longer refine your point of view—you should stop. Talk about something else. It feels like a good idea: Write a great talk and deliver it a bunch of times. It feels like money in the bank. Effortless. We’ve been in those audiences, friend. You get tired. You get lazy, or worse, cocky. You lose the spark, and before you know it, the talk is outdated and you look out of touch (sadly, a frequent and true story).

But, back to bands. Those gigs are still our guiding principle, so whenever it’s possible, we watch the other speakers. Some conferences run several days, so it might not be feasible to see everyone, but make an attempt if you can.

Sure, sure, some day you’ll be rich and famous, an untouchable lion in the industry with nothing else to learn, and you’ll fly first-class to deliver a keynote and then fly right back to your mansion (true story)… but until that day comes, consider the community. That’s what a conference is, really, and organizers picked you to be a voice. Go shake some hands. Represent. This is a great chance to soak up content from the best minds in your field and actually talk to them about it.

If socializing is difficult for you, be strategic about how you participate. You don’t need to go dancing with the entire research team from Germany if live tweeting a few talks is more your speed (true story on the dancing, and we highly recommend it).

And definitely follow-up with people after the conference. Send thank you notes and emails. Follow people on social media. If you had a good experience, let people know, even if it’s a tiny thank you note in the mail. There’s never going to be a time when humans are finished saying thank you.

Have fun and have faith in yourself

Everyone says this, and we’re no exception.

You’re there for a reason. Everyone who’s made it somewhere in their careers did so through an uncomfortable mix of skill, preparation, passion, and serendipity… but if you only had one of those things, you wouldn’t be here at all. Imposter syndrome is real and powerful, so if you can’t believe in yourself, at least give the organizers the benefit of the doubt.

Now get out there and be your amazing self. Conferences happen all over the world, from Milwaukee to Moscow to Melbourne. Every one is a little bit different, each with its own quirks and wrinkles. But all of them are trying to make things better. And each time you accept an invitation and put on a nametag, you’re a part of that.

We’ll be watching you… you and your very cool shoes.

All best,
The Sherwins

Sign up for our mailing list and get our monthly advice column, along with updates about our new book Turning People Into Teams: Rituals and Routines That Redesign How We Work out in October from Berrett-Koehler:


Send questions to questions (at) askthesherwins (daht) com. All questions become the property of Ask The Sherwins, LLC and may be edited. Our advice shouldn't be construed as a replacement for the appropriate legal or professional counsel. This advice will shuffle along on June 1, 2018.