Things Experienced Speakers Wish They'd KnownTips For First-Time Conference Speakers
Congratulations, you’ve been accepted to speak at a conference!
But once the initial euphoria wears off, you might find the impostor syndrome starting to set in. What if I’m not good enough? Do I know enough about this topic? What if the audience hates me?
That’s me right now. I’m currently preparing my first ever conference talk for ReactFest 2018, which I was encouraged to apply to by the excellent folk at ReactJS Girls London. Having gained quite a few new followers on Twitter after my talk was announced, I thought I’d canvas a bit for helpful hints for a first time speaker. I figured a few people might respond.
People who have spoken at tech conferences: what's one thing you wish you'd known before your first talk?— Sophie Koonin (@type__error) January 22, 2018
(RT for reach please?)
Just a few.
I got so many fantastic tips and suggestions—including some from experienced speakers like Sarah Drasner, Dan Abramov and Anjuan Simmons — that one user suggested I turn it into a blog post. So here it is. (Thanks to @sayzlim for the suggestion!)
These tips have come from the tech community, but I think the majority of them can apply to any public speaking event.
Preparing your talk: Slides and content
You’ve got the outline of your talk that you submitted to the Call for Papers, but how do you turn it into a full talk? Whether your talk is full-length or a shorter lightning talk, it can be quite stressful when you’re deciding what should go in and what you should leave out.
Find someone with speaking experience to help you put together your talk. The organisers of ReactFest put me in touch with a lovely volunteer who offered to give me some pointers. Find a friend, mentor or colleague with experience of giving conference talks, and ask if they will help you out.
One thing that came up repeatedly on Twitter was the concept of storytelling. Rather than just listing ideas or treating the talk like a tutorial, you want to tell a story. This makes the talk so much more engaging, and more likely to be remembered.
Share a story, not a series of facts. Took me far too long to figure that one out.— Mark Dalgleish (@markdalgleish) January 23, 2018
It helps if you have one idea to center your talk around. Like in Inception movie, what’s the one thing you want to put in their heads? This helps you decide what to cut (and you might have to cut things when you realize you’re running over the day before the talk).— Dan Abramov (@dan_abramov) January 23, 2018
When it comes to putting a deck together, most people tend to use Google Slides, Keynote or PowerPoint, but tech folks might also like to try out Reveal.JS, which lets you write fully responsive slides in HTML or Markdown (perfect for code snippets!). I used it for a talk I gave at a meetup, and had the entire talk hosted on GitHub Pages just in case I had to use someone else’s computer (which, in the end, I did!).
Once you’ve got the content nailed, you can focus on the design. Don’t worry about being too fancy — you want your audience to focus on what you are saying rather than what’s on the slides. Too many words on the slides will distract the audience, as will too many animated gifs! You can always create another version of your deck with more details on for sharing afterwards, as suggested by @henrihelvetica.
Take all those points off the slide and move to speaker notes, replace with cat* picture that represents that section.— John Wards (@johnwards) January 23, 2018
People will focus on you rather than reading ahead and becoming bored.
*other options are available
Keep your slide theme nice and simple, and consider whether the theme you have chosen will be easily readable from the back of the room with a crappy projector. Put your name and Twitter handle (if you have one) at the bottom of every slide because people will forget it if you only put it at the beginning (thanks @claireinez).
If you’re putting code in your slides, don’t go overboard. Sometimes it’s inevitable — for example if you’re talking about how a particular tool or library works —but as @alexmcpherson suggests, it’s best to keep them short, 8–10 lines of code maximum. You can always share a repo or a CodePen link with your audience afterwards.
The less code (or other technical jargon) you show, the better. Talk about the important concepts and why they matter, as succinctly as possible, and then put your full code samples online (URL given during the presentation).— Mark Jaquith (@markjaquith) January 23, 2018
Practice makes perfect
Something that came up over and over again: rehearse your talk! Do it on your own, give it to your cat, make your colleagues listen to it and get their feedback. I got my fiancé to listen to my talk about redux-saga, and even though he didn’t know the content, he gave me some really helpful feedback about how I was delivering the talk. Your manner of delivery is just as important as what you’re saying.
Local developer meetups can be a fantastic place to try out your talk before the conference and gather some feedback/see how it lands — a bit like how comedians try out new material in smaller venues before festivals and tours.
Rehearse three times:— Jani Eväkallio (@jevakallio) January 22, 2018
- First alone
- Second with supportive audience (partner, friends, colleagues)
- Finally, a smaller local meetup
By the conference you'll know your timings & punchlines by heart and have ironed out any kinks, so you can focus on having fun
Rehearsing your talk will also help you to get a feel for how long it takes to run. Your talk will be strictly timeboxed, so make sure you get your key points across in the time that you have.
If you haven’t practiced you will run over. My first talk at a local meetup was supposed to be 30 minutes, I only got through half of the slides. This is solved by practice: actually rehearse the whole talk (to an empty room, then to an audience).— Dan Abramov (@dan_abramov) January 22, 2018
Don’t be tempted to script out your entire talk, as it’ll come across as a bit robotic (plus put a whole lot more pressure on you to learn it). Instead, become familiar with the key points of your talk and deliver those in a more improvised, natural way.
Technology isn’t always your friend
Make sure your talk works offline — you never know what’s going to happen. I’ve been to a tech conference before with no wifi or sockets for power. As @naomi_freeman suggests: “Don’t trust the wifi. Download any online content BEFORE travelling.”
test your talk in Airplane mode— Scott Hanselman (@shanselman) January 24, 2018
Dan Abramov suggests having a backup of the slides online that will run on someone else’s laptop. Google Slides can be run from anywhere if you share the link, or you can host your Reveal.JS talk somewhere like GitHub Pages. Make sure you are comfortable giving your talk without prompts, as you might not be able to access your speaker notes.
If you can, find out beforehand what the setup will be like at the conference. The projector they are using, the size of the room and the equipment available will all affect things like font size, colour scheme and audio.
Whether the projector is DVI/VGA/HDMI etc. Whether it's 4:3 or 16:9. Whether the room is light or dark (should I use light slides or dark ones).— Paul Bone (@Paul_Bone) January 23, 2018
Bring all of the dongles, bring your own clicker (usb) , plan for no presenter notes, always email yourself a pdf backup version— Cynthia Savard (@CynthiaSavard) January 23, 2018
Don’t assume the organisers will provide the adaptor you need to connect your laptop! Bring it yourself just to be safe (and label it with your name so nobody steals it).
To demo or not to demo?
This was a bit of a divisive one — should you have a live demo in your talk?
Demos won’t work— Khang Hoang (@khanght) January 23, 2018
Mine worked tho— Dan Abramov (@dan_abramov) January 23, 2018
A demo can be a fantastic way of, well, demonstrating a technical concept. But there’s always a risk that something will go wrong on the night — whether it’s down to nerves, technical issues or just plain bad luck. You can avoid this by making a recording of it beforehand that you can play to the audience and narrate what you’re doing. Or have a working copy that you can check out from Git in case of emergency (thanks to Laura Wilson for that tip).
make 'em work offline and have a backup screen recording of it in action— Sarah Drasner (@sarah_edo) January 22, 2018
In some cases screen captures might even be better than live demos:
Yes, I don't recommend any live coding in your first one. No reason to add one more thing to be nervous about. And I've seen Sarah's recordings, they work great for talks! She can describe what's going on without having to type at the same time.— Kyle Shevlin (@kyleshevlin) January 22, 2018
And as @fforres points out, don’t rely on your audience to be sensible — if your demo involves live input from the audience, be warned, people might send in something rude!
On the day
The dress code at tech conferences can be pretty casual, but if you’re wearing a dress, make sure it has pockets as you’ll need to attach a mic battery pack! @knitcodemonkey says: “Wear something with a collar and a waistband for the mic. Wear comfy shoes.”
Bring a water bottle and don’t forget to drink from it to keep your voice happy.
Take off your lanyard or any heavy jewellery before you go on, because microphones will pick up the sound of it rattling around.
Make sure your laptop is ready for the talk: close all other programs, have the slides up and ready, and turn all notifications off. Put your laptop on airplane mode if you can. If you have a smart watch or phone on you, don’t forget to silence that as well.
The lanyard bit is 100%! Add jewelry to that.— Henri Helvetica ✨👩🏾🚀✨ 🚀 (@HenriHelvetica) January 23, 2018
Btw, ✈️ mode AND shut off wifi.
Someone who loved my talk was kindly tweeting non stop about it and I kept getting notifications on my watch - I actually thought it was an emergency 🚨.
And turn the notifications off! Otherwise you risk exposing private messages hopping on the screen during the talk 😛— Dan Abramov (@dan_abramov) January 23, 2018
As you’re about to go on, you might feel the nerves. The audience is waiting! Take a deep breath and try to radiate confidence, even if it doesn’t come naturally to you. The audience won’t know you’re faking confidence (and soon you won’t be). You know your stuff, you love your topic, you’ve rehearsed it time and time again — you are ready. Enjoy it.
Peak scary is ten seconds before the talk. I didn’t anticipate it to be this scary. But once you get into your element (by talking about things you care about) the fear goes away completely, it even becomes fun. At least it did for me.— Dan Abramov (@dan_abramov) January 22, 2018
Projecting confidence is as good as having it. Even if you are not 100% happy with your talk, nobody knows what it was supposed to look like, so just rock your stuff and don't apologise for a thing— Jani Eväkallio (@jevakallio) January 22, 2018
Be aware you might not be able to see anyone in the audience…
One thing I didn't know and really surprised me is that you probably will not be able to see anything, the lights pointing at the stage will most likely almost blind you 🙁— Sara Vieira (@NikkitaFTW) January 23, 2018
And you are going to rock!
Move around a bit, rather than standing still behind the podium. It can be tempting to just keep talking — don’t forget to pause now and again.
Breathe.— Sarah Drasner (@sarah_edo) January 22, 2018
Plan out when you're going to pause during your talk. "Letting it land" is really important for the audience. It also keeps you from rambling at light speed (a habit I still have to unlearn for each and every talk)— David East (@_davideast) January 23, 2018
Whenever you get nervous just take a pause. Breathe. Drink some water. It’s empowering to realize you can even make an awkward pause and everyone will just sit silently because you control the room 😎— Dan Abramov (@dan_abramov) January 23, 2018
Be mindful how you address the audience — don’t just fall back on “guys” considering your audience is likely to be a mix of genders (thanks @fforres). Jokes are a fantastic way of lightening the mood and keeping the audience engaged, but avoid any risqué/potentially inappropriate jokes.
Risque' jokes are a *really* bad idea in a public presentation.— The Man In The Cotton Mask (@fuzzychef) January 23, 2018
Don’t be put off if you make a mistake! If you leave something out or stumble over something, nobody will know. Keep going!
You'll notice your own "mistakes" 100 times more than anyone else. But no one else knows what you were planning to say. So if you take a breath and keep going, probably no one else will know there was even a blip. Also, bring extra clothes. I spilled coffee😂— Amanda Stockwell (@MandaLaceyS) January 23, 2018
Prep! Whatever the content, prep till you can wake up in the middle of the night and do the talk from memory— Santosh Hari #BlackLivesMatter 😷 (@_s_hari) January 23, 2018
And don’t forget the most important thing:
Everyone's rooting for you— Justin Fagnani (@justinfagnani) January 22, 2018
The audience is on your side. They want you to succeed.— Damian Brady 🥑 #BLM (@damovisa) January 23, 2018
If you enjoy yourself (and your topic) then other people will enjoy the talk. Enthusiasm is viral. People remember good talks. People forget bad talks. People really remember and hate on *nasty* (sexist, racist etc) talks; never be worse than yourself just to be memorable.— Jon Skeet (@jonskeet) January 22, 2018
You’re at the conference because you love your topic, and so does everyone else there. You’re all on the same team. As @tlakomy assures me: “It’s going to be okay”.
Sarah Drasner recommends not taking questions during your first talk:
Best answer I ever gave to a “why would you do it this way” was “why not? Seemed like a good place to start. Next question?” I don’t know why it took me so long to learn it— Fernanda Foertter (@hpcprogrammer) January 23, 2018
That said, it’s a personal choice — if you feel comfortable (and time allows it) you can take as many questions as you want. An excellent tip from @bradwaynemartin: always repeat the questions back to the audience, as the microphone won’t pick them up.
But if anyone does challenge any decisions you made, you can fire this straight back:
oh! a better one: don't take questions your first time. I don't recommend it because you get done with the tada! and then it just kind of tapers off from there. plus the best questions aren't performative, they're the ones that happen off the stage face to face— Sarah Drasner (@sarah_edo) January 22, 2018
To all first-time or aspiring speakers: you’ve got this!.
If you’re looking to get into the world of conference speaking, a great place to start is local developer meetups (if you can’t find one, start one!). You might even start by giving talks at work to your colleagues. The more you do it, and the more feedback you gather, the more comfortable you’ll become.
I also recommend taking a look at Jo Francetti’s guide to Public Speaking For Beginners and Emily Webber’s list of things that speakers need from conference organisers.
Thank you to everyone who contributed to the enormous Twitter thread that led to the creation of this post. If I have forgotten to credit anyone, or you would prefer not to be included, please get in touch.