Speaking: Two Questions to Ask Before You Give a Talk

If you’ve had a talk proposal accepted or been invited to speak at an event, you’ll usually get a chance to chat with the organizers before you show up to give your talk.

While you probably have a good idea of the topic of your talk (if you don’t, that’s a post for another day!), event organizers can be invaluable in helping you frame a talk that will succeed with their audience. They are on your side and they want you to do great, or they wouldn’t be hosting you at their event.

These are two questions that I always ask the organizers before I speak.

Question 1: Who will be in the audience?

Knowing the basic demographics of the audience is necessary to make sure you’re speaking at the right level and tuning the cultural references and humor for the room. I often speak to audiences of highly technical engineers and to audiences of business folks about the same topics. These are very different talks.

You may already have a good sense of who will be at the event, but getting the organizer to tell you explicitly also tells you which population they are crafting the event to serve. It’s helpful to know who they consider to be the most important people in the room.

Question 2: What does a win for my talk look like to you?

This question prompts the organizers to tell you what they are hoping people in the audience will take away from your talk. Their response gives you more information about how you can successfully fit your talk into the overall event and specific goals.

For example, responses I’ve gotten have ranged from “I want people to feel inspired”, which tells me to emphasize the forward-looking optimistic topics that I plan to talk about, to “I hope they learn one practical trick they can use in their work immediately”, which tells me to focus on clarifying specific techniques, and so on.

The event organizers know their event better than you do, so anything you can learn from them ahead of time will be useful.


  • Jonathan Sidhu

    Very timely. Thanks.

  • http://www.justaprogrammer.net Justin Dearing

    For a regularly meeting (e.g. user group or meetup) the organizers might have a realistic idea of what the audience will be. However, for a conference, isn’t it likely they will only have an idea of who they wish to attract, or who they attracted last year?

    • http://www.hilarymason.com Hilary Mason

      In my experience conference organizers have a pretty good idea of the kind of audience they will have.

  • Melinda Thielbar

    This is a great idea! I will use it shamelessly when scheduling speakers for our events.

  • Joe Orban

    Your speaking points are fundamental but so essential. I’ve seen speakers not know their audience and flop. Your keynote talk recently at ATP was a clear win and an inspiration for my work.

    • http://www.hilarymason.com Hilary Mason

      Thank you.