Customizing conference speeches for your audience

Speaking at a conference can be a hit-or-miss event. Next week I will take the stage at Web 2.0 Expo for a three-hour workshop on Web 2.0 Best Practices: expressive HTML, feed syndication, and widgets. Delivering technical content longer than The Godfather is an intimidating yet worthy challenge. I like to tailor my talks for each audience, dive deep when given the opportunity, and connect with new smart people.

Over the past few weeks new conversations have emerged regarding how conferences must change to better suit their audience. As a conference producer, conference speaker, and attendee I have many opinions on running a great show but today’s post will focus on speakers. In this post I will share three speaking tips that keep coming up in my conversations with other speakers in the industry.

  1. Gauge audience skill levels
  2. Prepare more content than needed
  3. Avoid card collectors

Gauge audience skill levels

I like to address audiences with an intermediate to advanced knowledge of web development, content syndication, and widget platforms. I am never quite sure how much my audience already knows and how quickly I can move past the basic bits of knowledge about a particular product or technology. I typically begin a longer presentation with a few technical questions for the audience to set the pace and depth of my talk.

At last year’s Web 2.0 Expo I decided to gauge my audience’s experience with XML and syndication basics by a show of hands. I exposed the following bullet points one-by-one with rising levels of difficulty.

Does this scare you?

  1. & vs. &
  2. 2007-04-17T16:50:00-07:00
  3. HTTP status codes: 200, 304, 410

I was pleasantly surprised by my audience’s reaction to these questions. Only a few people in the audience admitted to not knowing the difference between an escaped and unescaped characters and the ampersand entity reference. A few more were unable to decipher an ISO 8601 date and time. Approximately 10% of the room knew the difference between Found, Not Modified, and Gone HTTP status codes.

Prepare more content than needed

I typically throw out 20% of my presentation based on the skill level of my audience and unforeseen time limitations. Throwing out my carefully-prepared slides was a big mental leap but it allows me to refocus my message on-the-fly to better match the conference, its topics, and its attendees.

Armed with my on-the-fly audience demographics from my earlier questions I may quickly skim over basics on my way to more advanced content. I may skip a topic already over-covered during previous sessions. Quickly flashing more advanced slides on screen on my way to my final presentation slide may also prompt conversations after my talk with more advanced members of the audience curious to hear even more.

I prepared a 10-minute talk for last year’s Web 2.0 Summit. I did not realize the organizers start the timer for your talk when the conference chair takes the stage for introductions, not when you reach the podium. John Battelle provided a nice introduction but my presentation was suddenly cut to 8.5 minutes instead of the prepared 10. I stuck to the basics for the Cx0 crowd and threw out the final 20% of my presentation.

Avoid card collectors

Some conference attendees are business card collectors. They don’t actually engage in conversation or ask questions on site but will come up to the stage to collect a new slip of paper from every session, perhaps for a more itemized expense report or a vast spam database.

After my presentation I like to stick around and answer 1-on-1 questions with session attendees. I place a small stack of business cards on one end of the stage for easy self-service while I continue to engage members of the audience 1-on-1. The conversationalist crowd is a bit thinner and may invite new participants.


Speaker content can and should adapt to the audience. Conference organizers should help their speakers better understand audience composition, but it’s also possible for a speakers to step up and deliver a stellar individual performance.