How To Give a Good Conference Session

Written by Jen Oleniczak

Tis the season for conferences. American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting and the National Art Education Association National Convention are just two of the big ones, but smaller or more regional conference hashtags are starting to fill twitter feeds. One tweet on how to have a good session caught my eye a few months ago. We spend SO MUCH time thinking about ‘what’ we are going to say – when is the last time we dedicated time to ‘how’ we say it? In the age of TED Talks, epic presentation skills and storytelling rule. How can we infuse that enthusiasm and energy into our conference talks?

Now, I’m sure there are quite a few people saying:

‘The message is what matters – not how people say it!’

I completely disagree.

Let’s be honest – when have you politely stayed in a session that was all show-and-tell and the presenter was just reading from their script? Or  because you wanted to meet the presenter/knew the presenter/were the presenter/couldn’t get to the door without being noticed? This happens – not all the time, but more often than it should. The worst part about it? It can be fixed, so it should happen so much less.

While The Engaging Educator is known for our improv-based education in museums, we also lead Presentation Skills and Storytelling Classes, as well as conduct Private Coaching. That tweet about how to have a good session stuck with me – I haven’t seen a lot of articles on how to prepare for sessions! Because it is something we work with people on, here’s our speaking tips for conferences.

Before the conference….

  1. Practice, Practice, Practice: This is serious. You should be going over your presentation as many times as possible with as many different people as possible. Get feedback. Think about actors and how incredible live theatre is. They practice CONSTANTLY. This isn’t about memorizing things word-for-word; this is getting the flow and knowing your bullet points, your plan and what you want your audience to walk away with.
  2. DO NOT WRITE THINGS WORD FOR WORD: This stands repeating: Do. Not. Write. Things. Word. For. Word. Two things happen when you write word for word – you end up reading your presentation (and at that point, I ask, why didn’t you just write an article or blog post?) or you memorize word for word and then forget a word, which throws everything off. It’s the same idea behind knowing the alphabet – try saying it without singing it and skip the letters D, P, and W. It’s slower because at this point in our lives, the alphabet is memorized by order. When you take out a step in that order, the rest is harder to recall. Same thing with your conference ‘script’.
  3. Think about how to involve your audience: If your audience is made up of superfans, they are there to hear you talk. You could wax poetic about banana bread and they would hang on your every word. Unfortunately, chances are,your audience is not 100% superfan. So how can you keep them interested? Find ways to engage them. Yes – your program/research/thoughts are incredibly interesting. And you should find new and different ways to reach your audience. Have people draw, brainstorm, share, answer questions, create, move – get them involved, and they will remember your session more, versus quietly texting or Facebooking in the back of the room while you talk. Even if it’s giving them 5 minutes to talk to one another about your focus, you’ve broken the monotony of your voice.
  4. Work on your how: The how is just as important as the what. That’s been one of my biggest mottos with EE – how you say things matters A LOT. Your cadence, tone, volume, speed, disfluencies – all of these connect to how you are perceived as a speaker. When you are practicing, use different ways of saying things – do everything with an exclamation point, throw in a bunch of dramatic pauses, over do your gestures, speed up, slow down. Change it up. And while exclamation points may NOT work the whole time, by experimenting you might find times it does work.If you are plagued by disfluencies – essentially anything that breaks up speech – slow down. I notice many adults struggle with what I call ‘grown up’ disfluencies – the extension of words, the insertion of ‘so’ and ‘you know’. Disfluencies exist both because of habit as well as thinking what comes next. Just slow down!

An hour before the conference…

  1. Warm up your voice: Don’t go in cold! If you’ve ever stumbled over words, you should warm up your voice before a presentation. Do a few tongue twisters – say them slowly and over enunciate.
  2. Don’t over practice: If you don’t know it now, you won’t. At this point, you should just be relaxing, doing a quick run through of ideas and enjoying the conference. Check out your room, if possible, and make sure your tech works.
  3. Breathe: Take a few deep breaths. Now take a few more. Even if you aren’t nervous, breathing correctly allows your voice to be rich, deep and resonant versus shrill and pinched. Make sure you are breathing low, meaning your stomach area expands when you take a breath in.

During the conference… 

  1. Breathe!  THIS IS STILL IMPORTANT! If you find yourself getting lost or nervous or going too quickly – take a breath. Now take another! If you look awkward and nervous, your audience focuses on that and then starts feeling awkward and nervous.
  2. Let it go!  This is the time to fail gloriously. Go big or go home. Just do it. Let it go. All the inspirational songs and sayings!All joking aside – there is nothing to do now except rock it out. So do it now, or forever wish you had.


  1. Reflect on what worked and what didn’t:  Think about what was successful and why as well as what didn’t work. Was it you? The audience? The subject? Even if you aren’t making this presentation again, reflection is priceless. 

Any other tips to add? Add them in the comment section below!

Check out for more articles and resources on speaking.

Header image: Audience at MuseumNext Fringe event, Heritage Sells presented 3 keynotes about preserving and presenting heritage outside museum walls and practices. Photo credits: Maarten Jüngen CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, no changes made.

7 thoughts on “How To Give a Good Conference Session”

  1. Hi, I know this post is meant to be helpful, but honestly, I disagree with a lot of the advice given here.

    The BEST thing a presenter can do is to write out a complete script!! The reason for this is that too many speakers run over their allotted time, causing irritation on the part of the audience and the timekeeper, and a rushed, flustered period at the end. You went to the trouble to create your slides. Now go to the trouble to make sure that your remarks are keyed precisely to your slides.

    WRITE OUT YOUR TALK, and read it and time it and read it and time it. And read it and time it. WRITE IT OUT. WORD FOR WORD. If your allotted time is 15 minutes, make sure you can smoothly present it in 13 minutes and 30 seconds.

    Once you’ve written it out and practiced it, you can soften your delivery a little. But writing it out will also keep you from the “disfluencies” referred to in the post. Your written script will have no disfluencies (you wouldn’t write “um” or “y’know”).

    NOTHING is more wearing on an audience than a presenter who is not prepared with a script that is keyed to his or her slides.

    ALWAYS write it out, word for word. ALWAYS,

    1. Hi there-

      Thanks for your comment – I think maybe you misinterpret being fluid and natural with being underprepared. Just like a lot of people think improv is all about being spontaneous, when it actually is flexibility within a structure, knowing your points and rehearsing them makes something natural versus prescribed. I don’t recommend going in underprepared – rather my very first point is about rehearsing. The problem with writing things out word for word is memorization of word order versus intention. Disfluencies will happen the moment you forget your next words. Also, if you memorize word for word, and something happens to throw you off – say a loud noise, a bored face, someone texting, your brain just forgetting where it is – you’ll immediately go into panic mode and all of the little ticks you tried to hide with a scripted presentation will come out, full force. See this video for a horrific example.

      Furthermore, your rushed and flustered comment – a lot of times that happens because people are trying to fit all the scripted words in, versus being natural and speaking to an audience, knowing your points and being in the moment, and actually watching the time. Knowing the longer and shorter version, and being able to adjust is crucial because many people change their pacing when they are nervous.

      In the end, a memorized script, even when practiced word for word, looks like a memorized script. Reading from a memorized script, looks like reading from a memorized script – it’s stale, rehearsed and contrived.

      My suggestions and advice can be taken or disregarded – but I have been a public speaking coach for over 10 years, and we’ve trained easily thousands of people, many who are in academia and have had the memorized, scripted conference session go terrible awry. And many who have the self-awareness to know they not being the best they could be, and focused more on agenda than audience.

  2. Thanks for this Jen! You gave some fantastic tips and pointers. This is a topic I am passionate about, so I thought I would share a few go-to resources. (We can never have too many, right?!)

    1) Anything and everything by Nancy Duarte, but this is a good primer:

    2) Haiku Deck, because if everyone used this gorgeous, simple, elegant app, conferences sessions would suck SO MUCH less:

    3) Potent Presentations Initiative (out of the American Evaluation Association), because if any field knows how to master the bad presentation and/or conference session it’s *my* field– but we’re fixing it:

    Here’s to a great 2016 conference season!


    1. Hi Kate!

      Thanks for sharing these! I think it’s critical for us to keep getting better, so any and all other links are great – I’m always looking for more for EE too!!


  3. I see both points of Jen Oleniczak and artmuseumslibraries. If the presentation is like a TED Talk, -where, for what I’ve seen, presenters usually are not holding on to notes- then memorization/timing is crucial. If, on the other hand, the presentation has the podium or table format, then having everything written down is super helpful to the speaker and generous to the audience. In both instances, fluidity is important, as well as pacing the information, the “delivery”. The speaker also should be able to make a side note and resume the presentation in a natural way. Some humor helps everybody feel relaxed. I enjoyed the article and all the comments!

    1. Hi Lisa!

      Thanks for your comments – I disagree that we have to view ‘podium talks’ as something that can’t be as engaging as TED Talks! Why do they have to be different?

      Here’s another problem with having everything written down, word for word: When you forget – because it’s not an if, it’s a when – when you forget where you are, you have to flip and search through to find the spot. Or you have to repeat what you said to help your brain ‘find’ its place.

      I completely understand a desire to write things out word for word – why not, right? But let’s bring up the field many of us work in – museums. How do we feel about docents leading tours using a script? Pretty adamantly against it. How is this different? Before you say, ‘Well they are speaking to a different audience!’ – think about the audience. Not every reader of even this blog has been completely engaged in every conference session they have ever been to. EVEN IF you aren’t hiding and Facebooking/Tweeting/Texting, you’ve probably been thinking about other things. It’s human nature to daydream, think about dinner, later, what happened this morning, last night, etc. Why not up the ante a bit in conference sessions and get a few more people paying attention?

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