How to not stuff up even before you start speaking

So you’ve managed to get yourself a speaking engagement. Great work! Now, how do you make sure you act like a seasoned professional even before you hit the stage?

It’s not just the conference organiser

There are many people involved in staging a conference or an event, and you’ll need to work in well with them. You’ll come across many, if not all of the following depending on the size of the event:

  • Professional Conference Organisers (PCOs)
  • Event Managers
  • Conference committees
  • Venue staff
  • The Event Producer
  • Audio Visual specialists
  • Staging specialists
  • Other speakers
  • The Conference MC

It doesn’t matter how big or small the event is, there is code of etiquette that you should follow in order to be seen as being professional. I’ve seen plenty of ‘pro-speakers’ who don’t follow these basics and end up getting a bad reputation among the ‘support staff’ for being difficult to work with. Although there’s nothing that can be done once a speaker has been booked, the various people involved in running a conference are often involved in planning for a conference as well. Even if you have a great reputation for a speaker, if you’re hard to work with, that reputation can impact you at the time when the conference organisers are compiling their speaker list.


Here is a smattering of comments that I’ve heard during conference planning meetings.

“They’re really great on stage but they never hang around to meet with the delegates.”

“Very hard to work with, we’re always having to chase him at the last minute.”

“Not flexible at all, you’ll have to work around them.”

“He/she has a bad reputation for pulling out at the last minute, especially when they get a better offer…don’t book them, it’s not worth the risk.”

“I’m constantly having to fix her presentation at the last minute. It’s like she’s using us to edit her slides for her.”

“I spoke at an event with him last year and he went 15 minutes over time. It impacted the agenda for the rest of the morning.”

When you’re starting out, you want to be a delight to work with! Don’t worry, the basics are pretty easy.

Don’t be “that guy”

Number one tip. If you’ve accepted a booking, that’s it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a freebie or if you’re being paid for it. That client deserves to know that your booking is solid.


I remember accepting a half-day, speaking/workshop gig for a bicycle store franchise conference. I knew it would be fun, interesting and of-value to the audience. Sometime later, I received a booking enquiry for a four day, multi-city road show for a global technology company. In other words, the MC engagement and I were absolutely perfect for each other. Unfortunately, one of the dates for the road show coincided with the bike store conference. So I had to decline. Half-day speaking fees verses four days. But your reputation is worth more than that, and there will be other opportunities.

You can always check with the original client first. Explain exactly what’s happening and be open and honest about it. If they can help by being flexible, many of them will. But please remind them that they always come first, no matter what.

I know of an entertainer who pulls out or substitutes another person in their place if they get a better offer. Needless to say, all the regular bookers and agents know this and don’t even bother booking them any more.

Be reliable

Do what you say you’re going to do. Be where you need to be. And on time.


If you’re asked to turn up for a sound check at 7:30am, even though you’re not speaking until after morning tea, be there at 7:25! There’ll be a good reason for the early start, and it may not be logical to you. The Audio Visual (AV) team may have already planned to mic-up the panel of speakers who are on stage just before you during the morning tea break and know that they won’t have any time left.

Have your speaking requirements to the team well before-hand. Do you need a whiteboard in addition to your presentation? Ideally, you’ll have let the conference organiser know by email a few weeks before. If you’ve forgotten or decided at the last minute…all is not lost. If you let the organiser or the AV team or the venue know a few hours before, they can usually help you. Asking what’s happened to your whiteboard just before you walk on stage won’t win you any repeat bookings.

Show some empathy

Everyone will be flat out and sorry to say, it’s not all about you. It will definitely be all about you when you are on stage, but at other times, conference organisers, event planners and AV staff will be trying to juggle the cacophony of list items of what is happening now, what’s happening later, what needs to happen and hasn’t, and what’s happened that should have! Although the conference delegate won’t see it, there is usually an ‘emergency’ happening during at least one point in the day. Their success is when they achieve the ‘swan-on-the-lake’ demeanour…it’s all graceful on top, but someone is paddling furiously underneath.


So here are some tips that I use to be aware of this and fit in, as well as offer support (by either helping, or by not being another problem!):

  • When you arrive at the venue (even if it’s the night before), send the conference organiser a text message that you’re there. That’s one item they can check off the list and not have to follow up in the morning.
  • When you arrive for a sound check and to run through your presentation, take a moment to see how calm the AV desk is. If they are sitting ready for you, go up and introduce yourself and follow their instructions and be clear with your brief to them if you have any special requirements (like a video roll or music sting). If they look busy or a little frazzled, look for the show director (often in a jacket while the others are in black shirts), and let them know that you’re there but happy to wait until they are ready. Then get the hell out of their way. They’ll come to you when the disaster has been averted.
  • If you’re on next, but have to disappear for a quick, nervous, toilet break, let someone know. Just so that no one has to look for you. I was MCing one conference where I had to fill for ten minutes as the speaker just ‘disappeared’. The conference organiser ended up finding him in the carpark having a quick breath of ‘fresh air’ and trying to do a deal for his next speaking gig. And, “oh, I didn’t realise that you were running early”, is no excuse.
  • Introduce yourself to the MC if they haven’t approached you. Check the intro they have for you and give them one if you’d prefer to be brought onto stage in a specific way. Simple tip, print your introduction in 14 to 16 point type so that it’s easy to read.
  • Thank people for helping to make you look good. It doesn’t have to be a public appreciation, just go up to the support team after you’ve finished and say it like you mean it.

Pack the good stuff

Whether you have to send your presentation well before the conference, or whether you bring it on a thumb drive with you, here are some simple tips that will help you act like a pro:

  • Have a clean thumb drive with no other files on it other than what’s needed for your presentation. No other backup files, family photos, movies. Just what the AV team needs. I know this seems really logical, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen thumb drives with what could be very confidential or embarrassing files (I’ll leave that one to your imagination), sitting on it for anyone to review or copy.
  • Have two versions of your presentation. One in 4x3 ratio and the other in 16x9 ratio. It’s worth the extra effort beforehand and you’ll ensure that your presentation will display properly no matter what projector/screen combination is set up at the event.
  • Name your presentation file for them, not you. Let’s say you’re presenting at the International Association for Management and Business Operations Service Specialists, also known as IAMABOSS. How many files do you think the AV guys get called IAMABOSS Conf.pptx or something similar? Good for you, useless for them. Name the file so that it’s useful for them. Something like TobyTravanner3pmWed4x3.pptx, assuming you’re speaking at 3:00pm on Wednesday and that this is your 4x3 ratio version. Easy right?
  • Include a folder with any fonts that you use. If the show computer doesn’t have them loaded, the crew won’t have to search the net for them, and bonus, your presentation will display the way you intended.
  • Include a folder with any videos you’ve used and make sure you’ve embedded them into your presentation from that folder. This should mean everything works the way you intended, but if it doesn’t the AV team will be able to re-embed. Or worst case, they’ll be able to play them separately. Remember the swan on the lake?
  • Include a folder with all your images (are you getting the trend here?) just in case something goes wrong.
  • Test your presentation beforehand. During your sound check, ask if you can run through your presentation then. Better to spot something with plenty of time to fix it.

Hang around

If you don’t have to rush off to catch a flight, try to stick around until at least the end of the next break. There will be some delegates who will want to catch up with you to ask questions. The conference organiser will love the extra effort you’re willing to make and those delegates who want to speak with you may even give you some more business.


As always, speak well, have fun, and say hi to your audience for me. ☺


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Toby Travanner - Conference MC, Training Facilitator, Event MC, Business Coach, Corporate MC, Keynote Speaker