Last Minute Speaking – Steps to Success

This week I got asked to speak at a conference last minute. At first I thought it was a month away, totally doable. Then I realized the conference was in a week. Would you be ready to speak on a topic in a week? I thought I could be, though sadly the day of this conference I am away on vacation. But that got me thinking, how would one prepare for a conference speech in a week?

There are a few tips, a few fun quips, and lots of caffeine to be consumed in the next few paragraphs, so hold on. This isn’t an easy task to accomplish but with these tips you should be able to tackle giving a speech in a few days, making a week seem like a cakewalk.

Initial Ideas

This is going to be the hardest and most rewarding part of all of this. Just sit down with a piece of paper or a whiteboard (what I prefer.) Write down everything you think about on the topic, just keep writing. Don’t put it in order; just write until you are exhausted of ideas.

From that list come up with your major talking points. Do some research on recent presentations on the same topic. Look on SlideShare and look into old conference CDs or archives. The key here is not to copy other’s ideas or slides. Expand, update, but do not copy!

Using Old Material

I asked a co-worker, a seasoned speaker and keynoter, Will Critchlow, for his thoughts on the topic and there was one point we agreed on wholeheartedly. Don’t re-use decks unless you are confident the audience won’t have seen them before. My original thought was to use this as a last resort, and that is still true, but Will is right, it’s really only a good idea if you are sure the audience hasn’t seen that deck before.

No one likes seeing the same presentation five times over the course of two years. I’ve seen this myself and while some things do stay the same, there are always new ideas, theories and examples to use. Even your screen shots will date themselves over time. Update!

Working with Others

Often if you find yourself preparing a last minute presentation it will be because you are filling in for someone who is unable to make their speaking engagement. If you are forced to use someone else’s presentation — practice! Tweak and make it your own, and be sure that you are comfortable with the information. Will even said: Don’t skip the practice. Unless you are literally called out of the audience (“is there a presenter in the house?”) you should have time to do a run through at least.

If you can get away with it don’t make others write your deck for you, it’s like making a bad situation worse. Sometimes it happens when you fill in for others, but it isn’t the best situation. No one thinks just like you, and the presentation won’t flow as well if you don’t make it yourself. Who knows what random LOLcat you’ll get … that awkward pause is never cool in a presentation.

Writing the Deck

Tip from Will: Have Rand Fishkin write your deck (You’re thinking “yeah right,” I know, but it happened to Will); or better yet, write them like Rand does. He not only writes great decks but they are really easy to present. Keeping presentations simple and direct to the point will help you flow through the topic easily and keep the audience with you.

Need extra presentation fodder? Use Twitter for content. I first saw Chris Winfield do this a few years ago. Just go on Twitter and ask a line of questions. Keep screen shots of the good answers and call those people out. After the presentation give away the deck and link to their profiles. You’ll not only be getting them some new followers and credit for having awesome brains, you get the traffic from them possibly retweeting your post and of course you get the presentation material.

Another way to get presentation material is to ask for an interview from an industry thought leader. This is harder with a short time period, but if you can grab someone on the phone for a few minutes to give their thoughts on a few well-crafted questions, you have quotes that are perfect for directed slides making your point.

Last Minute Final Thoughts

Almost all of us tweak just before the conference anyway, and some of the best write the week before, so breathe.

PubCon Las Vegas

Getting your thoughts in order is the hardest thing. Once that happens, just keep the slides simple and try to keep away from what has been said before. Present information in a different way (new analogies are awesome) and give real life examples if you can. All of this will make for a highly tweetable and impactful presentation. But even with these points in mind, remember this from Will:

Don’t accept unless you can add value. I’ve said yes in the past to help people out and ended up doing both them and myself a disservice. If you can pull it out of the bag last minute, do. If you can’t, don’t.


Kate Morris is an SEO consultant at Distilled Consulting and frequent PubCon speaker. Read Kate Morris’ full PubCon speaker biography here.