Over the years, I’ve lost count of how many workshops, talks, and webinars I’ve delivered and attended.
What always strikes me is that every ELT professional brings such a unique perspective to the industry. There are so many diverse teaching contexts and experiences. Sharing them with the world is essential for progress.
In this blog post, I’ll share my top tips for delivering a successful conference workshop, webinar, or talk.
Know your stuff
It goes without saying that you should talk about something you know well.
I remember attending a meeting at Education Scotland. One of my colleagues was updating the team on a project they were working on. They were amazing. The presentation just flowed without the need for visuals.
Afterwards, I commented on how well they’d delivered the update. Their response was to shrug and say, "I just talked about my job."
So, just talk about your job! It’s a topic you know well because you do it every day.
Share your passion
Andy Cowle is one of the most engaging presenters I’ve ever seen. He’s delivered teacher training sessions for numerous ELT organizations over the years.
When I asked him for his top tip on public speaking, he said this:
"It has to be something you care about."
That comment was a critical incident for me in terms of public speaking. It was the moment I realized I had to share what I love most about teaching with the world.
If you’re speaking about a subject that bores you to tears, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get enthusiastic about it. Choose something that makes you sing and it will make you glow!
Use engaging visuals
I recently received this feedback:
"Thanks for an interesting and visually stimulating presentation—often it's one or the other but rarely both."
—Helen Morfydd, National Centre for Learning Welsh
Visuals are so important for conveying meaning and keeping participants engaged. They’re also invaluable in reminding you what you want to talk about. Consider using them to tell a story, to serve as speaking prompts, or to base an activity on.
For example, I like to use this image I drew of marigolds to have participants share ways to create a positive classroom atmosphere. Using annotation tools or Post-it notes, attendees add their ideas. It’s cheerful, fun, and a bit different.
It’s also a great way to remove the need for text. Using a lot of words on a slide can be overwhelming and distracting. Participants may read the text rather than listening to the presentation.
Some of the most memorable workshops I’ve attended have involved interactive tasks. I still remember Johanna Stirling demonstrating various spelling activities at IATEFL way back circa 2009. The rest of the sessions are long forgotten!
Including activities for participants will not only make your session memorable, but it will also take the spotlight off of you. Plus, every audience is full of participants with great ideas and a wealth of experience. Give them an opportunity to share their knowledge and get involved.
Interaction is especially important during online sessions. In a face-to-face session, people are more likely to make the effort to stay focused. It would be socially inappropriate to stand up, walk out, or start doing a bit of work.
In an online session, it’s all too easy to turn off screens and microphones. If there’s no interaction, there’s no reason for participants not to start checking their emails!
Add interactive tasks such as discussion questions and idea sharing as often as possible.
Talking to yourself or a supportive friend is invaluable when it comes to delivering a successful presentation.
Practicing your session helps you to put the words into your muscle memory and ensure that your timing is spot on.
Before talks at a conference, I like to get my laptop (or phone) out and use it to display the slides. I’ll then stand up and time myself. If I have activities that I need to draw, I’ll rehearse those in my notepad.
This boosts my confidence and, in some cases, has made the live session feel like I’m on autopilot, as I knew it so well.
Online sessions don’t need to be memorized so thoroughly since you can always refer to notes or use presenter view to remind you of the next section, but it can still be handy to have a quick read through before logging on.
Watching others can be a great way to develop as a public speaker. When you see someone you think is awesome, think about what it is that makes them so engaging.
One of the most inspiring speakers I know is Chia Suan Chong. She talks a lot about Intercultural Communication Skills and presents the ELTons every year. She has a welcoming presence and a permanent smile. She uses a lot of stories, visuals, and activities to make her sessions appealing and interactive.
I also always make time to see Harry Waters. He has an infectious energy and a laid-back manner, which makes people feel relaxed. In his webinars, he uses some magical technique (OBS Project) to make words float next to his head rather than using the share-screen function to display slides.
Public speaking can be nerve-racking. Even experienced speakers get nervous before, during, and after a session.
It’s completely normal.
Someone once told me that instead of getting anxious about a presentation, it’s better to reframe the emotion to excitement. This shift in mindset helps me to view pre-session nerves from a more positive perspective.
Staying positive is crucial for confidence. It’s important to remember that 99% of the people attending the session want to see you doing well, and they expect you to do well.
Bhavna Gupta talks about the ELT community being full of marigolds. These are delightful, orange flowers. They are also known as "companion plants" because they help all their neighboring plants to grow.
When you’re preparing for your session, visualize a room (or screen) full of marigolds. They’re all there to support you.
What are your top conference speaking tips? Do any ELT speakers spring to mind as particularly inspiring? What makes them stand out?