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How to Prepare for Speaking at a Conference

What I’ve learned from 15 years of speaking at various events.

All I remember is saying an emphatic yes—over and over again.

I couldn’t believe my luck: 23-year old me had been asked to be the keynote speaker at a weekend conference. But as months went by and the event got closer, my usual last-minute way of operating in life didn’t pan out. I spent the weekend stressed out, working long hours, and sleeping little, leaving little time to connect with the women at the conference. I vowed that if I was ever given the opportunity again, I would never approach another speaking engagement in that way again.

Now, almost 15 years later, I speak at churches, retreats, and conferences on a regular basis. Along the way, I’ve learned that preparation is key when it comes to speaking at an event. As a woman in ministry, there’s a good chance you, too, will get asked to speak at a gathering. My hope is these preparation tips could help you have a better start than I did.

The Invitation

Perhaps a local church has asked you to speak to their Thursday morning mom’s group. Or your denomination has invited you to be their keynote speaker for a weekend retreat. Maybe a large Christian conference has extended you an offer to give a seminar at their three-day event. It’s normal to feel over-the-moon. You’ve been chosen! But is this a good fit?

Before you say “yes,” request a phone date, and interview the organizers of the event:

  • What are their expectations of you?
  • Do you align with their core theological beliefs, and, if not, is this something you can work around?
  • Are they willing to provide fair compensation for your services?
  • If appropriate, do the travel and lodging arrangements meet your needs?

They must be as good a fit for you as you are for them. Sometimes, this requires not only asking about what they’re willing to provide, but also requesting things for your specific needs.

Years ago, a church asked me to speak on a high school weekend retreat. Although the youth pastor and I spent hours on the phone prior to our time together, it wasn’t until the week before that he updated me on housing accommodations.

“Well, you’ll really get to know some of the girls this weekend,” he said to me, chuckling. “After all, you’ll be one of the cabin leaders. You’ll sleep right there in the bunks with them!”

Five months pregnant, I couldn’t fathom sleeping on a bunk bed with high school girls I didn’t know. I knew I wouldn’t sleep well, nor would I have the physical or emotional space to adequately prepare for and decompress after each of my talks. When I asked him why I wouldn’t have a cabin of my own, as previously mentioned, he informed me that since my husband wasn’t accompanying me on the trip anymore, he figured I wouldn’t want to be by myself.

He figured wrong, but I made it through the weekend, bunk beds and all.

In order to fight for your needs, it’s imperative to know your needs before you accept an invitation to an event. So, rather than do as I did, state what you need ahead of time, be it housing accommodations, monetary compensation, or otherwise. Stick to your guns, and don’t make assumptions about what they may be providing.

The Preparation

Once you’ve accepted the invitation to speak or preach, there are a few things you’ll need to do in order to prepare successfully. First, communicate with the liaison to best understand and meet their expectations. For instance, are they expecting you to teach the Bible through storytelling or by unpacking Scripture, verse by verse? How much do they want technology incorporated, if at all? You’ll also want to discuss how long and, if appropriate, how many times you’ll be expected to speak. Many women’s events incorporate discussion time after a speaking time. If that’s the case, are you expected to formulate the discussion questions? Additionally, find out when conference organizers need items like PowerPoint, discussion questions and/or speaking outlines from you.

It’s also important to get a good understanding of the audience you’ll be speaking to. What ages, life stages, genders, and racial and socioeconomic mix make up the group? Are there any specific stories or prayer requests they can share with you now to help you know the attendees better?

When you have all that information, you can begin your preparations. Discover the process that works best for you. Maybe you dedicate a white board in your office to the event, and scrawl down ideas whenever inspiration hits. Or create a new document on your computer and save it to your desktop; every time you login, you’ll be reminded of the upcoming event. Alternatively, fill a three-ring binder with new paper and pens and begin doodling and creating word bubbles and dreaming of your words for that weekend. Regardless of your method, allow yourself plenty of time.

Once I have all the details in front of me, I sit with it for a while and ruminate. I purposely engage in a couple of afternoons of lectio divina to quiet my soul long enough to hear the Spirit whisper. Before marriage and children, I oftentimes holed up with a girlfriend for a weekend or two prior to the event. This gave me extended writing, prayer, and research time. Now, as a date nears, I get a babysitter for a few days so I can get time away to prepare.

Once you’ve found your direction, figure out what makes you comfortable when you’re speaking. Do you work best from note cards, PowerPoint slides, or a full manuscript? Maybe you work best from note cards with key points and transition sentences. Personally, I’ve found that creating my PowerPoint presentation first helps me organize my thoughts. Once I’ve written my way through the slides, I transfer the highlights to a 3x5 note card that I tape to the front of my Bible. This serves as my cue sheet if I lose my place. Because I generally don’t speak to notes, this process works for me. The key for me is practicing enough that it’s committed to memory.

It’s imperative, especially if you’re just getting started, to practice, practice, practice—as many times as necessary. Time how long it takes to tell the different sections of your talk. Record your voice to hear differences in your speaking voice. Listen to the recording and gently critique yourself. Do you need to slow down? Should you incorporate more “life” into your voice when you read Scripture or quotes?

I can’t give you a magical number for how many times you need to practice or speak your way through a sermon or series of talks, but the more you prepare, the more you’ll gain confidence and feel prepared for your speaking event. Then you can arrive at the conference ready to fly.

Beyond preparing your words, prepare for what you need during the event. Do you need to invite a friend to come along with you, so you have “a person” in the audience? Are you an extrovert who requires extra down time to process through all the excitement, or an introvert who will commit to ample self-care when you’re not “on” during the weekend? How much time with attendees works well for you? Are you interested in meeting as many as possible? Or is it better to meet a small group of people and stick with them throughout the weekend? Whatever you do, be sure to connect and listen to those who’ve taken the time to approach you. You never know where the conversation might lead!

The Speaking

By the time the conference begins, Thomas Edison’s adage of 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration comes to life. Ideally, the only thing left to do at this point is deliver the message God has given you and be present with the people you meet.

I’ve found it’s helpful to stick close to the liaison during the event, especially if it’s a longer weekend event. Let them answer any questions you have, give needed feedback, and communicate issues or needs that arise in your time together.

I also try to be on a first-name basis with the AV tech. Before you take the stage for the first time, do a microphone check. Do you prefer a handheld or a lapel mic? When it comes to slides during your talk, will you have a do-it-yourself clicker, or will the tech follow your cues? If the latter, are there any crucial cues he or she can’t miss?

And, of course, take care with what you wear! For me, chic jeans, a roomy shirt, and jazzy shoes take the cake—mostly because my storytelling body has to have room to move. Ensure that bra straps are tightened, wear a belt if your pants tend to shift, and have your hair out of the way so you’re not tempted to touch it while on stage.

When you’re all done, take your cues from Christ himself: after you’ve sent the crowds away, go away by yourself to pray (Matthew 14:23). It is a gift to be the mouthpiece for God for a weekend, but we can’t pour our words out unless we’re filled up ourselves. So, go and refuel. Relish in the time you have by yourself. Then, take off your shoes, wiggle your squiggly toes around, and say, “Beautiful!” For beautiful, indeed, are the feet of those who bring good news (Romans 10:15).

Cara Meredith is a writer and speaker from Seattle, Washington. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and co-host of Shalom in the City's monthly book club podcast. She holds a Master’s of Theology (Fuller Seminary), and can be found on her blog, Facebook, and Twitter.

March16, 2017 at 8:00 AM

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