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What I’ve Learned about Landing and Speaking on Conference Panels


  1. Michael Dorausch says:

    Great info! I laughed at the mention of Brett Tabke coming into the hallway to grab you for a panel, I bet that’s a regular activity for him at conferences.

    Have to admit I don’t include contact info on each slide and I rarely bring business cards, I suppose I could work on that.

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      LOL, I don’t think I’d ever been so terrified in my life (except probably when I had to give my first Powerpoint in Toronto). I still remember who it was that had to cancel last minute too (thanks Tim Mayer!). :)

  2. David Temple says:

    Rae, great insights. This should be on every conference website. “What will they take away from your session that they can actually implement and use to help improve their efforts on the topic.” Indeed the best presentations to me are those that include actionable information, which you’ve alway had in the presentations I’ve seen of yours.

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      Ha, thanks – I try… I certainly don’t get asked back for my generic skills as a “public speaker”. ;-)

  3. Casie Gillette says:

    I love the point about being passionate because that’s definitely what’s made some of my favorite speakers, my favorite speakers. I’ve seen people go up there with a slide deck full of great data and it was so boring I had to do everything in my power to not fall asleep. Other times, I’ve seen people give great presentations that didn’t necessarily contain the best information but the delivery was so good it didn’t matter.

    A tip I would add for after speaking is recognize those who came to your session. Whether they tweeted something you said or just were the person in the front row giving you encouragement, be sure to recognize that.

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      Casie – that can sometimes be hard. I speak at at least 8 conferences a year and am often on multiple panels at each. While I will recognize you on Tuesday if you came up to me after I spoke on Monday – I may not recognize the person at the next conference. I just meet so many people each year and also have a horrible memory. But I do try! :)

  4. Kim Krause Berg says:

    Love the honest, no fluff delivery in this post. I worry all the time about speaking because I learned I’m my best when I’m NOT attached to power point. I don’t make heavy power points and don’t use images much. I’m a story teller. For me a good story that illustrates a lesson or teaches a principle stick in the human mind better. But, since we get less than 15 min. to speak, it’s bullet points and action items. Bookmarked this one. It’s a keeper.

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      Yeah, I’m definitely no Powerpoint aficionado… I find myself in awe sometimes of some of the presentations I see by people who obviously ARE awesome with it!

  5. Elisabeth Osmeloski says:

    There is so much truth in all of this, I don’t even know where to start! But thank you Rae for pretty much nailing it!

    A couple of things I might add, mostly from the conference organizer POV:

    1) specifically, realize that not all events are run the same way; a panel moderator is not always the same person who selects/organizes the panel of speakers – so a moderator may *not* be the one responsible for overlap in speaker presentations and other issues; to combat this, be proactive in asking what the organizers expect of you & do take the lead on contacting fellow panelists & moderator to get on the same page in advance if that’s not done proactively by organizers.

    If you have a problem with a specific moderator (or fellow panelist for that matter), let the conference organizers know – we can’t fix what we don’t know about. That said, we’re not perfect either, so sometimes we’re the ones to get things wrong; fwiw, we usually know when, where & how it went wrong – so we’re constantly trying to fix those issues for the next time, to make sure we deliver on the promise of attendee value and create a good experience for speakers as well.

    We’re also professionals who can listen to constructive criticism & improve ourselves/own bad habits – so be direct and helpful with your feedback so as to not put them in a defensive position; If you really don’t feel comfortable talking directly to the mod or, if they’re one of the event organizers themselves, go to someone else on their team that you know can relay the message appropriately.

    2) Overlap in speaker presentations also happens when people don’t turn in drafts/near final PPTs on deadline & share with their fellow panelists – don’t be that person! As Rae said, be a professional about time management. When you pitch to speak, you are saying you are WILLING to prioritize & spend the time to put together something amazing. Follow through on that & do it – don’t use ‘I’m busy with client work/this project’ as an excuse.

    It’s really unfair to not only to your fellow panelists, but also to those who could have spoken instead /were rejected & were willing to put the time in to crafting a killer presentation.

    3) Avoid Rockstar syndrome at all costs. this happens in pitches all the time, and then when it comes down to crunch time / PPT deadlines – I speak at X, Y, & Z conference, or I gave this presentation at these 10 other events – I. DON’T. CARE. beyond knowing that you’re *comfortable* as a public speaker, knowing your material inside & out & being passionate about the subject is far more important to me.

    Most importantly, I want to know what you’re going to do for MY AUDIENCE, I want to know what new value you’re going to add and I want to know you’re not phoning it in.

    It’s common to also hear – “but you have heard me speak a zillion times before & you know I always deliver a killer presentation at the last minute” –

    Ok, that may actually work out for you by accident – but guess what? even rockstars have off nights, and $hit happens so waiting until the last minute does not always pay off (I should know, I’m really good at procrastination) – and conference organizers might have specific goals they have for the session, we can’t know you’re going to deliver on that unless we see some proof. And every conference has a different type audience.

    Again, the professional courtesy here goes a long way – with our time, your fellow speakers’ time, and the audience’s most valuable time & money spent to be there.

    Finally don’t assume you *should* be accepted as a speaker just because you’re a rockstar & have delivered great things in the past, you still need to be raising the bar yourself.

    It’s also pretty difficult to discover new rockstars if they never are given a shot at performing – and that’s a tough thing to balance when you’re taking a chance on an unknown speaker – but after having one amazing experience with a first time speaker who was excited & diligent about communication, sending PPT outlines & drafts & iterations, and continues to be a very prepared speaker time & again, and the audience responds positively to that, I’ll take that chance again over any ‘rockstar’ who puts in minimal effort.

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      Agreed Elis… I should have clarified that sometimes moderators are simply moderating a panel and were asked to do so after the speakers were picked, etc. I’ll be taking your additional tips into account when I pitch for a session of yours at Advanced. :D

  6. Brian Harnish says:


    This is an awesome post. Even though I have only just begun my speaking career I have learned so much just by listening to and reading blogs like yours. I absolutely agree on 2 very important points – NEVER reuse the same presentation, and always allow something actionable to be taken away from your presentation. Attendees have spent money and time traveling to attend the sessions in question – why not make them as memorable, unique, and actionable as possible? That’s why I will always put in the effort to create a custom made presentation just for that session and conference. For me, there’s no other way to go. And of course, the promoting of the conference and your session should absolutely always be something that you do on your social networks – you’re giving back to those who have graciously given you the opportunity to speak at a major industry event! Do give back generously (but not to the point of annoying your followers, of course).

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      I think presentation reuse was one of the big things that shocked me early on. I mean, I get it – you gave an awesome presentation at SMX, why not use the same one for SES… but bottomline is there is still some attendee overlap. Honestly, I’ve seen one person give the same EXACT presentation, three years in a row, on the same panel, at the same conference. I don’t get how people get away with stuff like that.

  7. Ross Hudgens says:

    Great points Rae. It was awesome having you on my panel at LeadsCon – clearly you have done this before and as this post details, you know what’s ok to do and what simply isn’t.

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      Thanks Ross – was good to finally meet you as in more than passing. It was an interesting panel, that’s for sure. :)

  8. Michael Martin says:


    SOOooo thats why you won’t have me on your SEO Site Clinic panels again – JK ;)

  9. streetlevel says:

    This is a great walk through of the basics of public speaking!

  10. Peggy Duncan says:

    Great advice. Here are 2 more tips. I had to text a panelist to ask him to put his cell phone away. Told him his audience was more important. And I’ve been distracted by panelists who worked on their presentations while waiting their turn…yep, up front and on stage.

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      I am guilty of looking at my phone – and based on who I speak with, many of my fellow panelists are too. In most cases, what I see is folks checking Twitter (myself included) seeing what questions and comments folks from the audience are tweeting. But I see how someone could take it as we’re not focusing on the session. I guess that’s something I need to keep in mind at the next show!

      • Elisabeth Osmeloski says:

        Actually, this is a habit we’re proactively working on breaking at SMX – we don’t like to see the panel doing it either (I am guilty of forgetting to remind my panels at West) – and I go back & forth on whether we as mods should be following the twitter streams & checking the Q&A as it comes in – but honestly, I think it’s more important to actively listen to your fellow speakers.

  11. Spot on, Rae! Fantastic advice, well written. Thanks :-)

  12. Michelle says:

    Is it ok to expect the conference to cover your transportation and accommodation?

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      Michelle, this answer varies a lot depending on the type of conference, the reasons behind you speaking and your visibility profile. I.e. I’ve seen conferences do it a variety of ways. In order to get your accommodations covered, the conference organizer usually needs to see you as a “draw”. So, if you could be replaced with another speaker and the lack of you specifically being the speaker will have zero effect on ticket sales, you likely won’t find your accommodations covered. If the answer is “will you as a specific person put additional butts in seats” is no, then you’ll have a hard time getting those expenses covered – especially if your presence there gets you “paid” relatively. I.e. if being a speaker gets you business, then you are compensated for your travel expenses, just not directly by the conference. If you’re speaking at an event where “new business” is not a potential benefit or at a smaller event where you won’t have a lot of exposure, then a speaking fee and/or accomodations and travel is much more likely. In my experience.

  13. James Strock says:

    Terrific post, thanks for sharing your wisdom and experience. Like so much wisdom, much of it is known to people in the field, but may not be gathered together so effectively and with an eye toward the underlying rationale. The bottom line is about serving your audience. Period. From that it all flows….

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