Careers advice: public speaking for planners

Written by: Jez Abbott
Published on: 11 May 2015

Carol Clarke

Should you accept an invitation to speak at a planning event or put yourself forward as a speaker at a conference? If you’re invited to speak at an event, such as Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) seminar, first and foremost take it as a compliment. You are clearly well regarded in your field.

Before you accept. Ensure you have a full brief from the organiser regarding what is expected from you, your presentation, what is provided at the venue and what you need to bring.

Be clear who your likely audience is, local authority planners, private-sector planning consultants or community leaders, and whether you can invite interested parties or colleagues.

Establish who the other speakers are, to avoid duplication of topics, and if possible facilitate complementary themes (although it is likely the organiser has already thought this through).

Ensure your diary is clear and you have sufficient time in the run up to the event to prepare your presentation.

The preparation. If you have a tendency to get nervous in the run up to an event try and harness that nervous energy. I consider being nervous is a sign you care, want to do well and impress. So try and use this to your benefit.

Knowledge and preparation will ultimately give you confidence, so if your subject is the community infrastructure levy, for example, know it to the best of your ability.

Undertake a test run to the venue, to ensure you know how long it will take you to get there.

Practice, practice, practice, in front of others if possible, maybe planning colleagues.

Ensure you can adhere to the time allotted to you. Whether you feel more comfortable reading from a scripted piece or just from notes, knowing where to pause and breathe will help you relax and avoid losing your flow.

Know your audience, ask the event organiser for the acceptance list prior to the event - this also allows you to see if you will have any allies on the day, such as a former planning colleague or a professor from your town planning MSc.

Be early on the day and try and chat to people before the event to relax and take your mind off the presentation.

The presentation. Confidence is expressed in your outward persona, for example your posture, how you walk, whether you make eye contact or not before you even open your mouth.

Wear something you are comfortable in, sitting and standing.

Ensure you know how to use the technical equipment and who to go to if it fails; be primed with a Plan B if a technical failure occurs, be professional, carry on but maybe refer the attendees to the hard copy they have been provided with.

Avoid over complicating the imagery, such as data or graphs on planning application stats. If using PowerPoint, think it through – continually clicking a button to introduce the next point on you presentation on the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) may distract from your presentation. 

Try and include graphics if the presentation is text heavy, and if you are comfortable try and open with a light-hearted comment.

Be receptive to the audience, try to use intonation in your voice to express what you are saying and indeed the audience’s attention while regaling them with your top tips on how to win planning appeals.

Clutching paper notes in a nervous state of mind may lead to shaky-hand syndrome, so if there is no lectern take a clipboard to secure your notes; wedge this against your forearm and hip – this keeps your arm steady and nobody is any the wiser.

Try to breathe normally.

The Q&A session. Try to put yourself in the audience’s position. If you were going to an event to hear your subject matter, what questions may arise from your topic?

Prepare - speak to your planning colleagues before the event and ask them what questions they might ask if they were attending.

If there is a question you cannot answer try and open it up to the floor for comment, if not simply undertake to come back to the person after the event with the answer.

Good luck.

Carol Clarke is a senior associate planner at Peter Brett Associates