How Speaker Coaching Can Level-Up a Conference

A Recap of the 2019 Women in Analytics Conference

There was a new conference emerging in an industry with which I do some business, so I reached out a few months ago to the organizers to offer some speaker coaching. While it is understood speakers apply to conferences and are chosen because they are experienced with relevant messages, some folks that have interesting things to say may not be as polished. At least this is my point of view, having coached ten years of TEDx talks, where people are chosen for a great idea – not because they are a polished presenter.

The response I got from the organizer was, “We don’t need speaker coaching. Our speakers don’t need coaching. And furthermore, if you want to have exposure to our audience, here’s a sponsorship package for $12,000 that is still available.”

They sort of missed my point. No, they really missed my point. Perhaps I needed to make the point differently; I realize that.

But my intent was in helping their conference level-up their diversity of gender, age, experience, backgrounds by supporting folks with great ideas that may have not hit their radar as seasoned speakers. I really didn’t care much about meeting their attendees as none of them are really in my target market anyway. And if they knew that about me, they wouldn’t have replied with a sales pitch for a $12,000 sponsorship. Especially for a conference that now only advertises that white men are speaking on the main stage and no minorities at all in any breakout (hello, it is 2019).

I reached out to this conference because last year when I reached out to Rehgan Avon, the founder of Women in Analytics, another new conference, her response was exactly the opposite. She said, “How much coaching can we leverage for our speakers? And when can we start?”

Our first year (2018) was so successful working with her speakers that we returned as a partner to coach again this year (2019). The 2019 conference took place last week. There were 26 different speakers and all but one took advantage of some level of coaching. About half engaged in full content / storytelling and the other half engaged for help in polishing their talk, slides and delivery.

Rehgan’s goal in starting this conference was to allow only women from the data and analytics to have a stage, a voice and opportunity to be heard. (Men were welcome to attend and did.) Her experience was that they were not featured at other conferences, where men dominated the agendas. But she knew they had as much to share as their male counterparts. She began the event as a college senior in 2016 at The Ohio State University in front of 60 people. She brought it to the larger community in 2018 to 400 people, and last week to 700 people from dozens of states and three continents.

Rehgan is now a conference organizer, in addition to being a data scientist and a fierce advocate for women. She will say one of the distinguishing features of WIA is that they do offer speaker coaching, specifically for the reason I hoped for and she embraced: to provide the time, space and development for experts to bring their insights to life, especially those that haven’t done so before.

The Speaker Coaching Ripple Effect

Rehgan’s passion to choose a diversity of speakers and support them in several meaningful ways has a five-fold ripple effect.

  1. Preparation matters. Each of the speakers, all women from data and analytics, brought their “better selves” to the conference, providing a superior experience for the 700 attendees.
  2. More development is possible. They were all video recorded (including the small breakouts) so they can watch their performance and improve even more, should they choose.
  3. The conference got better. The audience saw the “leveling up” of presentations, which will only set a higher standard as Rehgan and her team make selections for next year’s speakers. This will help the conference attract more experienced talent, which she will continue to balance with younger, new entrants to the industry.
  4. Leadership will cascade at work. The speakers’ improvements will carry back to their 26 different workplaces where they will be better presenters, armed with better tools and more confidence.
  5. Leadership will cascade in the industry. These women will likely be more confident to apply for more industry speaking roles, especially at conferences they may have not considered in the past. They will continue to assure diversity of voices are heard in many events to come.

The bottom line: A few hours of support each for a few dozen women can go a very long way. Here’s to visionaries like Rehgan Avon, who supported her speakers in a manner that will not only distinguish her conference, but all of the speakers who presented at it.

And most importantly, for an industry (tech) that is desperate for diverse voices, may these opportunities cascade to many more women with great ideas who haven’t been given the chance to take to the stage. Yet.

Bonus: For those folks in the space of translating data and analytic insights to business partners, this panel discussion from WIA is for you! I was honored to have been asked to host it with Mai AlOwaish, Jennifer Brett, Ph.D. and Jennifer Heider (Shal).

Can we help you level-up your industry conference or internal event? Learn about our executive communication and speaker coaching services. Or contact us for details.


Ruth Milligan Articulation Executive Communication CoachRuth Milligan is the Founder, Managing Director and an Executive Coach and Trainer with Articulation. She is perhaps best known as one of the original curators for any TEDx event (the license program for TED). Since 2009, Ruth has selected and coached over 200 speakers who have taken the TEDxColumbus stage. She is often tapped as an expert in the TED-style of speaking and has authored a class on how to be a TEDx speaker coach. Connect with Ruth.