9 Lessons Learned From Speaking at Swarm Conf

We assume that being a great speaker is a talent that someone is born with. I couldn’t disagree more. Public speaking is a craft you can learn and get better at over time – just like marketing, writing or community building.

I’m still to this day absolutely terrified of public speaking. I have a host of fears – some fairly rational and others plain irrational.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve leaned into that fear as I really want to improve as a public speaker. So when I had the opportunity to give a keynote – and the closing keynote at that- at Swarm Conf, a community management conference in Sydney, Australia last month, I was both excited and also really terrified.


While I still have a lot to learn, I thought I’d share how I prepared for this talk as well as the lessons I learned along the way.

1. Preparing a keynote ALWAYS takes longer than you think it will.
One of the biggest misconceptions I used to have is that you can spend a couple of hours designing some slides and simply walk on stage to give your presentation. Now, I cringe when I hear people say that they do this because I know their talk isn’t going to be as concise and good as it could be.

As a general rule of thumb, for every minute you are on stage, you should spend an hour preparing. So, in the case of my 30 minute keynote, I probably spent about 30-40 hours working on it. That goes from outline and brainstorming to working on slides and rehearsing over and over again.

I could have easily spent another 30 hours working on that talk. There are world class speakers, like Brene Brown, that spend 6 months perfecting a 10 minute TED talk.

2. Take a break between finishing your talk outline and working on your slides.
I am a huge fan of outlining. I do an outline for pretty much anything I write from sales pages to community posts and of course presentations. Writing an outline helps to gather your ideas and talking points in a more succinct manner.

One thing I’ve started to do more is to put my outline on hold for a few hours to even a few days after I finish it. My first draft always sucks. The only way to see what is good is to see what stands the test of being left for a few days. Then, when I revisit it, I know what to leave in, what I need to revise and what wasn’t important or interesting enough to keep.

3. Listen and learn from your favorite public speakers, but don’t just copy their style.
I made a point to listen and re-listen to talks from a handful public speakers that I admired. I studied and took notes about the things I liked about the talks. Everything from the type of talk and stage presence to their hand gestures and how they designed their slides.

Some of the speakers I really look up to and listened to were Scott Stratten, Derek Sivers, Brene Brown, Mr. Money Mustache, Gary Vaynerchuk, and Tina Roth Eisenberg.

4. Use tons of visuals in your slides to enhance your presentation.

70% of my slides contained a full-length image or screenshot. And, another 20% of my slides were basically one or two lines of text for emphasis.

Your slides should complement your presentation not be your entire presentation. Nobody wants to see a speaker just read from their slides on stage. It is boring. Not to mention, anyone listening can just snap a photo of each of your slides for later.

5. Having more slides is usually a really good thing. 
One side effect of a very visual slide deck is you’ll have a lot of slides. I had almost 60 slides for a 30 minute presentation. You might think that’s too many, but it actually provides a pace that keeps people more engaged in you the speaker and the overall narrative you are sharing.

They aren’t frantically copying text on all of the slides. So, they have the time to really listen and hear the full presentation. It is a powerful weapon you can use to create interest and really sink home points for interest.

The more I practiced my talk, the more visual my slides became. I removed more and more of the text that was simply a “crutch” and replaced it with much more visual imagery that helped sink my core points home.

6. Incorporate humor in your presentation but test them out on friends first.
Another tool that I used was humor. I knew my audience was particularly fond of cat memes so I used that to my advantage and I incorporated that into my talk in strategic places to keep people from dozing off.

All the #streetart #murals #muralsofinstagram

A post shared by Jessica Malnik (@jmalnik) on

Total coincidence. I spotted this cat mural walking around Sydney the day before my talk. 

Of course, using humor can have downsides. I recommend running all of your jokes by several people who will give you critical feedback. There is nothing more awkward than a bad joke in the middle of a talk. This should go without saying but avoid off-color jokes or jokes about politics, religion and taboo topics.

7. There’s no such thing as too much practice.
I did two things. First, I recorded myself practicing my talk, and then forced myself to listen back to it. Yes, it is painful, but it really helped me be more objective and spot things – like extra umms or weird pauses- that I might not have picked up otherwise.

I also reached out and practiced my talk in front of a few friends that I knew would listen and be wiling to give honest feedback.

8. Being nervous before your talk can be a good thing.
I tend to get really nervous before I give a talk. As long as you don’t let your nerves paralyze you, having some butterflies in your stomach can keep you sharper. Not to mention, it probably means that you care a lot about the talk you are about to give and have spent a lot of time on it.

9. I didn’t realize how much organizing events would help when preparing this talk.
All of these things were invaluable, but the thing that helped me even more than any of this is the fact that I’ve co-organized and managed several conferences. Through that, I’ve had a hand in selecting, vetting and helping speakers prepare their presentations. I didn’t realize how many things I picked up and absorbed by proxy through this process.

These are just a few of things that I learned from sharing this keynote. If you have presented at a conference, what’s some tips you’ve learned?