In three days last week I shuffled 90,000 steps between more than 30 talks, panels and fireside chats across the many stages of Web Summit 2019. I loved every bit of it. But beyond soaking up the skinny on all things tech, I also enjoyed analysing and unpicking the on-stage performances of executives, politicians and subject matter experts - whether good, bad or downright ugly (mostly good to be fair). Here’s my ten top tips for execs planning a speaker trip to Lisbon next year.
1.    It’s OK to talk about yourself
I’ve spent 15 years advising clients to stop talking about their own companies and take a thought leadership view on bigger picture trends. But things are slightly different here. This is a savvy audience of tech experts familiar with all flavours of Kool-Aid, so if you’re going down the thought leadership route, you’d better lead thought. That means genuinely insightful trends and data to reframe what we thought we knew about a topic (as per the excellent Bruce Stein of aXiomatic on the content opportunity of esports). No 101’s on the benefits of 5G, or ‘corporate sustainability for beginners’, please. Better here to mine your own experiences and experiments, and then link them to the bigger picture, than to lecture a clued-up crowd on sucking eggs.
2.    Leave the waffle to the caterers 
Don’t over-egg your talk with hype and hyperbole – let the audience judge what they want to be impressed by. And refuse a panel if you’ve nothing to add to the topic. It’s a great opportunity for exposure but it can backfire if it’s tangential to your expertise. The best panellists know what they’re talking about through experience. Credible statements, simple language, and data evidence are your friends here.
3.    Train and get trained (like an athlete)
Some execs just don’t have the time to input into / stress-test / refine their content before they get on the ground. But it shows. Panicked late-night rewrites will sound the death knell for an assured, insightful delivery. Let your comms team push you to know your content backwards before you take off, and spend your time on the ground surveying the smorgasbord of exhibiting start-ups instead. Humble namedrops of aspiring entrepreneurs that you’ve just met will go down well with this crowd. 
4.    Don’t fly solo 
There’s nothing wrong with having notes - whether on a panel, fireside chat or solo presentation. It just shows you care. If you’re giving a solo speech, yes natural delivery is best, but unless you have nerves like a bag of wrought iron rivets, it can easily go awry under the hot stage lights. A scripted speech of great content delivered cleanly from an autocue will serve you better than a fumbled and rambling 20 minutes ‘off the cuff’. 
5.    Slides matter less than you’d think...
The web summit crowd is there to see you, not your PowerPoint prowess. It’s just a backdrop for your presence, a canvas – but you’re the artwork on top. Spend 5x the amount of time on refining your own delivery than on producing the deck. Big, bold statements, stats and images work better than any detail. And if it breaks – the show must go on. Nikki Michelsen and Leah Remfry-Peploe of OHNE gave us a masterclass in winging it at the opening ceremony. They delivered their awesome start-up pitch to rapturous applause from 30,000 new fans with no slides after their deck failed to load.
6.    ... but killer video still kills 
Every mum and dad in the audience missing their young family joined me in wiping a tear from our eye on Thursday, when Mike McGee of Framestore treated us to a showreel of their breathtaking work on Paddington, Christopher Robin, and Harry Potter. You’d be hard-pressed to compete with Framestore production quality, but the better videos I saw last week still lifted most presentations.
7.    Moderate your moderator 
The quality of the moderator will make or break your fireside chat or panel. And while I loved the show’s content overall, the moderators did vary in quality. Insist on an experienced hand that will confidently drive the conversation while also listening to the responses to steer the content. And seek to speak to the moderator ahead of the event to agree content and flow. Best of the week for me were CNN’s Hadas Gold and Sara Fischer of Axios.
8.    Ask to be challenged 
Receiving surprise questions is no fun in front of an audience, but neither is watching a respected journo moderator ask a bunch of safe, approved questions with zero edge. The audience will assume you paid for the slot, and that you’re out of touch with the very real issues fuelling tech backlash today. Agree some tougher question areas, and have your comms team help shape your considered response.
9.    That demo had better work 

A tech demo at Web Summit is like trying a soufflé on Masterchef. It rises, you’re a hero, it sinks, you’re screwed. Marc Raibert and Boston Dynamics won the day with the miraculous dog-oid robot, Spot, trotting through the audience to the Centre Stage. By all means demo your product, but test it, practice it and test it again. Then repeat. 
10.    Play with it, have some fun

A panel billed ‘Health in Space’ quickly descended - actually, transcended - into a discussion on the future of sex. Inspired by the expertise of clinical psychologist Marianne Brandon, the moderator and panel went with it, resulting in a fascinating and joyous discussion on the nature of human relationships. Sometimes landing key messages is less important than giving everyone a great experience. After all, what are they more likely to remember?