Life lesson 1 How to prepare a conference talk – living and learning

I’m on the train heading home after the wonderful Bradford home birth conference organised by University of Bradford Midwifery Society.   It’s been a great day with a combination of established speakers and fresh new voices. This was an occasion when I feel I didn’t get my talk quite right. So, I’m reflecting now on what I’ve learned over 25 years of public speaking but didn’t fully put into practice today. And I’ll share a few tips with you, based on these thoughts. I’ll finish up with a few notes on my preparation for today and I’ll write a separate blog summary of intended (or useful?) messages for today’s delegates.

Preparing a conference talk

Study the programme and be clear what contribution you and others are being asked to make – You may well need to check with the organisers what they are looking for and want to avoid. It may make good sense to check with other speakers what they will be covering. It doesn’t matter if there is some overlap as it can help to familiarise people with key material, but it may help you prioritise.

Make a plan and identify two or three key messages – Ask yourself as you develop the talk, Are the points clear? Are they well made? It’s entirely up to you how much you flag up in a formal introduction what your talk will cover, but it’s probably helpful to summarise the key messages before you finish.

Less is more – know how many minutes to you have been allocated to speak. Work out, and check with the organisers, how long you will speak for and how long you will allocate for questions and discussion with the delegates.

Connect with the delegates – interactive communication is better than a monologue. Share something of yourself. It might be something personal about your life or career, or a story about a particular insight or favourite quotation and why it means a lot to you. Today, Mary Nolan, shared a quote from a 17th century midwife and read the quote showing us how the rhythm reflected the rhythm of labour and contractions that come and then pass. If you give a little of yourself, the delegates will give back. Ask some questions as you go, and make sure to allow time at the end for discussion. Unless you know the perspectives, interests and concerns of those you’re talking to, you may not give them what they really want to know or to explore.

Find your own voice – what are you and your contribution all about? Are you an educator or teacher? Are you a practitioner sharing your practice? Are you a lobbyist? Are you there to tell your own story, perhaps as a service user?  Are you a representative of women, there to communicate a range of experiences or concerns? Maybe you’ve been invited to provide an objective set of information impartially? How much do you want to influence, how much to inform? How much to entertain? How much do you want people to question their own thinking and behaviour? Do you want to stir up an emotional reaction?

Make the case – One of the things we do as part of NCT Voices training for service user representatives on maternity services liaison committees (MSLCs) is encourage them to identify a change they want to see realised and make the case for change. Why is it important? Who would benefit and how? What do local women and families say? What formal evidence is there? What could we do differently? Would it be cost-effective? These kinds of questions might enable you to plan your talk, depending on its purpose.

Avoid the pitfalls presenting evidence – I’ll stick to a few points here, as a whole text book could be written on this alone.

  • If presenting quantitative findings, make sure you know what all the numbers relate to and what they mean. If you don’t know, ask someone who does. Many colleagues and contacts will help a friend willingly or support a new contact who asks for help.
  • Don’t go into more detail than necessary just because you find the data fascinating. Think about your key points and what is mission-critical. Think about what the audience needs to know. Let them know if there a place they can look up the detail afterwards.
  • Don’t feel that you have to do all the work. Introduce a few ideas and maybe encourage people to check-out a key review, or audit report.
  • It’s not acceptable to make claims, e.g. about cause and effect, and not cite a reference.
  • Avoid jargon. Make sure to use language most of the audience will understand.
  • Don’t assume much prior knowledge. It is important to be inclusive, so explain concepts briefly to carry as many people with you as possible.
  • Make sure you state the more important points. If you are very familiar with something, you may overlook to mention key points of methodology that sets a study apart.
  • Don’t read out every number shown on a slide. Often the trends can be seen at a glance and the detail can be followed up by those who need it. Add a source for everything, and a date of publication. That shows you know your stuff and others can fact-check if they want to.

Experiment with humour – Any speaker who can make an audience laugh will feel good and get a great reception. Some people and some subjects lend themselves better to laughs than others, which is why I say experiment. What it takes is being relaxed and appearing spontaneous. Practise spontaneity at home. If it’s not your thing, or you can’t pull it off, forget it. Don’t be smug. People who laugh at their own jokes more than the audience do, don’t make a good impression. The idea is to be sincere and likeable; the witty person others want to know. The more you relax and manage to be yourself, the more likely you are to succeed with the humour thing.

Practice giving your talk out loud – This will demonstrate how long it’s going to take. If you spend a few seconds longer on each slide than anticipated, the talk will over-run. Practice will enable you to hone the vital points to make and ditch the rest. You don’t need to repeat yourself. Work out how to be succinct and to segue fluently on to the next point or following slide. In my experience, practice makes perfect. Each run through tends to show where some minor adjustment can be made. Your aim is to be fluent and have oomph. Have you make our key points clearly? Do you need to shift the focus or emphasis?

Ask a friend for feedback – It can be galling to take tips after you have worked hard to come up with something profound and original, but better to bomb with one friend than with a roomful of blank faces at the event. Joking aside, it’s more about polishing so that the whole shines brightly and leaves the audience wanting more.

My performance today

Well, I broke a fair few of my rules. I should have done more research on the other speakers and the needs of the delegates. The title I had been given was Putting evidence into practice and promoting choice.  I changed my talk at the last minute, shifting the emphasis too far towards sharing the evidence and doing too little on ‘into practice’. I didn’t do a full run through because of the late changes. I didn’t interact enough or leave time for discussion. Thankfully, two lovely midwives did talk with me at the tea break abut questions they had, which gives me useful ideas. Not my best day at the office, though it could have been worse. See my linked blog on Home birth: putting evidence into practice and promoting choice.

2 thoughts on “Life lesson 1 How to prepare a conference talk – living and learning

  1. If that was you having a bad day in the office, I can’t wait to see you having a good one! Presentation was fantastic – demonstrating as always not only your knowledge, but your passion and drive. Your information on the evidence was fantastic, having someone talk it through and share their take on it and what it means to them is massively helpful when thinking about how to put it in to practice. This is especially so for students – many of whom were in the audience – who are still negating that pathway between theory, evidence, and practice. You did us proud, and we are very grateful, Kate x


    1. Dear Kate, Thank you so much. I’m pleased it was OK. You organised a wonderful conference. The range of speakers and quality of contributions was quite extraordinary. I hope that my blog on home birth covers some of the more practical stuff. Have you read bornstoppy’s blog about home birth in Bradford? I can’t locate it now, but do go to Her blog of 15th Feb is a must read. Mary


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