Let’s say you’ve embraced the online world. You’re an avid Tweeter, you have tonnes of Facebook friends and love interacting and commenting with bloggers. In short, you have an online following that works.

The trouble is that when you are busy creating and developing your online persona, it can be easy to forget that real life is totally different.

Lately, I’m seeing a lot of mistakes being made when business owners speak at networking events or conferences. Speaking gigs can be much sought after among entrepreneurs. I’ve written about this before.

These gigs are particularly valuable because you can showcase your expertise in front of a captive audience, and if you wow them enough they will tweet salient points from your speech to their collective armies of followers, thus promoting you in the process. In addition, you (and your business) are featured on the event organiser’s website, sometimes for months before an event. It’s powerful free advertising.

However, this can all come undone if you don’t actually deliver. This happens when business owners accept speaking engagements that they simply aren’t ready for. So what should you be aware of?

Have you got the goods?

I’m a big believer in getting out of your comfort zone and stretching yourself. So if you’re scared of public speaking then you should definitely scare yourself from time to time and accept speaking engagements that challenge you. But when you say yes to a speaking gig, you need to deliver. Sure, challenge yourself – but work damn hard to be good at it.

If you don’t, you simply do incredible damage to your reputation. Remember, you don’t want to be the speaker that everyone’s talking about the next day – for all the wrong reasons.

So how can you leave a good impression on your audience?

1. Provide useful information, don’t sell

Obviously, one of the key reasons for you to take on a speaking gig is to get exposure for your business. However, no one wants a sales pitch – especially if they are paying to attend the event. They want useful, practical information, so make sure that your speech is full of tips and ideas they can use. If you spend half of it showing the audience a bunch of slides of the various products and services offered by your business, this is a sure-fire way of losing their interest.

2. Don’t read your speech

I don’t know how else to say this. If you’re going to read your speech, don’t accept the speaking gig. It’s a speaking gig, not a reading gig.

It’s perfectly fine to have notes. And it’s equally fine to refer to them when you’re on stage. This is totally normal. But if you’re going to have your eyes downcast for 30 minutes while you’re reading word for word, then just don’t accept the gig.

You might have the best content in the world. But most people won’t remember it. They’ll just remember that you as “that speaker who read from her notes the whole time”.

If you’re too nervous to do a speech without reading word for word – which is normal if you’re a total newbie – then practice until you can. If you don’t have time to practice, then don’t accept speaking gigs. I don’t say that to be harsh. I’m saving you from embarrassment.

3. Respect your audience

Where possible, tailor your message to your audience. Find out as much as you can about your audience beforehand so that you can tailor your message accordingly. This is your chance to connect with people in the audience, so make the most of it.

Also, ensure that you respect your audience in terms of the time you take. If the audience expects that you’re speaking for 20 minutes, don’t disrespect them by speaking for 40 minutes.

4. What if you are really nervous?

I don’t want to scare you off speaking, particularly if you are a total newbie. And your first few gigs are bound to suffer from some challenges especially if you’re nervous. That’s totally ok. But then you should seek out smaller events, with nurturing and forgiving crowds. Think friends and family, service clubs, local chambers of commerce, local libraries, small lunches.

Once you get some practice, you’ll have more confidence and be able hone your skills so that you can really connect with your audience. You don’t want your very first gig to be a crowd of 100 influential people who will be left with a bad impression of you.

Speaking at events can be a wonderful opportunity for your business. But just make sure that you serve your audience and deliver the goods – or you’ll end up doing untold damage to the reputation you’ve worked so hard to build.