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I’ve been lucky to have been speaking professionally since 1997 (when I was nearly chased off stage by the audience of teachers for suggesting the model of classrooms segregated by ages was outdated). Along the way, I’ve made my share of mistakes on the circuit.

Here are ten things that I wish I had known when starting out:

Attend as much of the conference as possible.

If your schedule permits it, be there for as much of the event as you can. Even if you have to cover hotel and other costs on your own dime. Clients really appreciate it when you’re up to speed on what’s been presented earlier, so you can tailor your comments to make the day feel more seamless for attendees.

Though it doesn’t happen often, occasionally a speaker before you will use similar material — you’ll want to remove or change that material in your own presentation. By total fluke once, a speaker after me happened to select the same case study I presented and for five minutes basically duplicated what I’d already said. I guess the event organizer thought it would be too awkward for someone to let him know, so he continued and pretty much lost the audience for the remaining hour he had after that.

I also like to stay after my presentation as well. This is prime time to connect individually with attendees who may have been too shy to ask a question in session.

Really, there’s no downside to attending the whole event if you can.

Ask to speak to groups in the same city.

If you’re looking to promote yourself and get more gigs, when you have your first conversation with the organizer ask them if there are any local business groups who they’re connected to that you might be able to speak to (without fee) when you’re in the city. Often there’s a marketing association, Rotary group, or Chamber of Commerce that would be more than happy to host you to present one of your prepared keynotes to their group. They get great value, and more times than not there’s someone there who is connected to a group that has a budget for pro speakers. If nothing else, you can collect business cards to add to your newsletter.

Record your pre-event client calls.

Of course, it goes without saying to always have at least one pre-event call with the event organizer. In that call you’ll confirm details like the time they want you there for an A/V check, how long they want you to speak for, expected attire, and so on. I spend a lot of time with them learning about specifically who’ll be in the audience — main age groupings, gender split, and what their jobs are.

I used to do the calls while trying to take notes, but I’m just not that skilled at it. I always insist on placing the call (as opposed to them calling me) so that I can call with Skype and use the great Call Recorder app to record the conversation. And I do not take notes during the call — I just focus on the conversation. The goal is to extract as much information as you think you’ll need down the road when putting the presentation together.

Don’t hand out copies of your slides.

Almost always, someone will ask for a copy of your slides. I almost never give them out. This is for two main reasons:

  1. Most of my slides are images, not text. A copy of the slides would be meaningless without the commentary.
  2. I use a lot of licenced stock photography and video in my slides. I’ve licenced them for presenting it to a group, not for distributing them to others.

Don’t forget that sometimes people want your PowerPoint/Keynote slides so they can basically give your presentation back at their company. Wouldn’t you rather they hire you to give the presentation, instead of giving them part of what they’d need to do your job? 😉

If they insist on getting a copy, don’t put the slides up on your site. Instead, collect their business card and, when you email them the deck, ask them if they’d like to join your newsletter.

Give them something in exchange for their email address.

Though I don’t usually give out my slide decks, I do prepare a PDF document with some notes on what I presented. It’s often about four or five pages long, contains a summary of some highlights, links to things I presented, and so on.

At the end of my speech, I’ll invite them to drop their business card off on a table near me and will email this document to them and add them to my newsletter mailing list. (Always be sure to disclose that they’ll be signed up to your list in exchange for getting the summary, but that they can unsubscribe with a single click at any time.)

Keep a separate copy of each slide deck.

I used to have one basic deck of slides for each presentation, and I’d customize it and save it as the latest version. But this meant that I couldn’t go back years later and see the exact slides I presented to a client. If you have a main deck, open it then save it as a separate file for that client alone.

Record every single presentation you give.

Though most of my clients and audiences don’t realize it, I record the audio of every presentation I give. That way, if I ever need to go back and hear something, I can.

Besides helpful for listening back to yourself so you can improve, it may also help resolve more difficult situations. One time, a client complained, saying an audience member was offended because she heard me use the racially charged “n”-word; I was able to go back and reassure her I’d actually mumbled the word “figure.”

You don’t need any fancy equipment or hookups to the room’s sound system for this. Just start an audio recording going (I use QuickTime) in the background when you leave your computer on the lectern and let it capture whatever it hears through the mic. Even if you don’t speak at the lectern, it picks up the sound system fine. Then convert it to MP3, put it in that event’s folder, and forget about it until you need it.

Backup, Backup, Backup!

This goes without saying, but it surprises me how few speakers have redundant backups. Just last month, I was keynoting a conference and had to go on stage early because the presenter before me couldn’t boot her computer and she had no accessible backup.

Here are the backup methods I use and recommend:

  • Turn on auto-backups in your presentation software, that way you always have two copies of your slides; in case your computer crashes while saving it, you’ll always have the most recent uncorrupted version.
  • Sign up to Backblaze — it’ll back up everything on your hard disk automatically without you prompting it. It’s only $5 a month. Backblaze is the only system like this I found which can restore a Mac file to a PC and vice versa, if that’s important to you.
  • Before leaving, upload the slides to Dropbox.com or something similar.
  • Finally, if you’re on a Mac, tell Keynote to also save an additional copy as a PowerPoint presentation and upload that to Dropbox.com too.

But backups aren’t just for files — I carry my own backup wireless mic, fresh batteries, and a separate cheap GSM cell phone, so that in the event mine craps out I just have to pop my SIM card into the new phone and I’m back in business again.

Carry a paper introduction at all times.

Every once in a while, the only introduction I get is something like “And now, here’s our next speaker, Tod Maffin.” Ugh.

The introduction you receive prior to taking to the podium is more important than many speakers realize. It’s what establishes credibility in the minds of your audience. A bad introduction can have your audience write you off as a know-nothing before you even utter a single word.

I prepare a separate introduction for each client (the introductions vary and highlight different parts of my career depending on the topic I’m speaking about) and be sure to meet the person giving the introduction. Nowadays, I just give it to them without asking if they already have one. Always better that they use your material than something they’ve come up with on their own.

Have hidden stat and screen-shot slides

Every single one of my slide deck contains slides that almost never see the light of day. They’re charts or stats that back up some point I make in the main presentation, and screen-shots of web sites I mention.

They’re there because every so often, during a Q&A session, someone will want you to elaborate on a point you made. It really blows the audience mind when you can jump to one of these slides to bring up.

It takes some learning in PowerPoint or Keynote to do this, but it’s well worth the effort.

What are some of your lessons learned on the speaking circuit?