How to be the unicorn of the technical conference circuit By Nigel Oseland, Toastmasters International 

How to be the unicorn of the technical conference circuit

By Nigel Oseland, Toastmasters International 

Some of the most challenging talks to deliver are technical talks. There’s important information to convey, that in itself may not be very ‘sexy’ and yet the audience needs to hear it and absorb it – without falling asleep!

I love going to conferences, dare I say I am a conference junkie, hence I attend and speak at around 10 conferences each year. The conferences I go to are usually academic or technical in nature where the speakers present their latest research, ideas and innovations. 

In my experience, there are two types of technical speaker: 1. those with fantastic content but poor delivery, and 2. those that present well but have poor content. 

Speakers with good content who can also communicate it in an interesting and engaging manner are the unicorns of the conference circuit – that is they are rare and magical beasts. 

So, here are my top tips for a terrific technical talk: 

  1. Begin (and end) with a bang – Conferences especially can be quite busy with delegates moving between sessions or discussing previous speakers. So, hook your audience from the start and grab their attention; make them want to stay and listen. 

Why not open your presentation with a question, anecdote or provocative statement (ideally relating to your research or the conference theme)? Above all, be confident, bold, passionate and be audible! Project your voice to attract attention, don’t mumble or apologise or make some private joke that only a few understand. 

Introduce yourself, your credentials, and your interests/purpose. Quite often the audience doesn’t catch the introduction by the chair or, at larger conferences, confuse speakers and their subject, so display your contact details on screen (at the start and end).  Also, briefly introduce your fellow researchers and department, without overtly boasting or making it a sales pitch. 

Use the first minute to share your passion and personality to gain the audience’s trust. 

Psychologists have demonstrated the “serial position effect” in which people tend to recall better the first and last things they hear. So, also end on a high. Let the audience know you’ve finished by summing up, finishing with a poignant quote or leaving them with a call to action. Practice your speech and specifically your opening and closing.

2. Hit the right pitch – Get to know your audience by listening to previous presentations or finding out more about participants from the conference website or organisers. This will enable you to pitch the right level of technical detail and understanding: Too little and you lose credibility, too much and you lose the audience or appear arrogant. 

When presenting data, don’t get too bogged down by all the details and caveats – you can offer more details in the question and answer period or refer people to your paper, book, website or blog.

Offer your personal insights and experience on the research and try to say something new that’s not already in the paper, as the delegates may have already read the paper, or the research may have moved on (some conferences require papers submitted 12 months ahead of the event). 

Don’t just fly in and present your work in isolation.  Refer to previous speakers and links between your research and theirs.

3. Stand out from the crowd – Technical conferences tend to have between 10 and possibly 30 or more speakers on one day. The opening to your speech will attract their attention but to maintain it you will need to be engaging and possibly entertaining.

Inject energy through your passion for the subject, consider your vocal variety; changing the volume and pitch. Humour will also help keep your audience engaged – but only offer amusing anecdotes or observations relevant to your topic, not random jokes. 

And don’t hide behind the lectern! Come forward and use the stage area. Consider your body language, eye contact and movement across the stage which can all help with audience engagement. 

4. Avoid ‘speaker crimes’ – In my opinion there are two main speaker crimes at technical conferences: 

  1. Over-use and over-reliance on tables and charts. Speakers sometimes present figures that cannot easily be read, I often hear speakers say “you can’t read this table but …” – no buts, just don’t show it or show the relevant part only. 

Often the charts are complicated but due to lack of time, the speaker does not explain the axis or the data points and the information is lost. Try to simplify your slides, just present the relevant material to your point, and always leave the audience wanting more.

2. Don’t turn your back to audience and read off the projection. Ideally, there will be a monitor in front of you which you can refer to if needed, or even better, practice and know your presentation off by heart. 

But the worst crime is presenters reading their speeches, or worse reading their papers. Audiences do not like being read to and would prefer to read the paper by themselves. 

Likewise, do not read your slides, especially bullet points. Some of us find it insulting as people can usually read quicker than someone can speak and if we read the slides then what is the point of the presenter being there! If you do use bullet points, attempt to make each one a memorable phrase or a soundbite. The audience may include the press or Twitter users who are looking for choice phrases to broadcast beyond the conference. 

5. Be prepared – Surprisingly often, speakers turn up minutes before their presentation. As a consequence, they may not know how to use the audio-visual technology and they spend their all-important opening asking the chair or the AV technician how to advance slides. You will also miss out on being fitted with a lapel mic and so be tethered to the lectern. 


Arrive a little early and speak to the technician and the chair. Ideally, you’ll have confirmed the timing in advance of the conference but double-check with the chair as programmes change/slip. Remember to leave time for questions and establish whether that is within or outside your time allowance. It’s always worthwhile giving the chair a question to ask you in advance; audiences usually require a question before warming up and it can be embarrassing if the chair wraps up before a question is asked. Also provide the chair with some interesting information they can use in an introduction – many will simply read your official bio, so offer them a hook.

There is an old speakers’ adage; “it’s not what you say but what the audience remembers that counts”. Practice the above pointers to gain confidence in speaking and ensure your audience enjoys and remembers you.  Be a unicorn! 


Nigel Oseland is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit www.toastmasters.org

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