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Cover image for Confessions of a Conference Speaker

Confessions of a Conference Speaker

laurieontech profile image Laurie ・8 min read

Last time, I wrote about my insights on being a conference attendee. That list was concise! This one is going to be a bit longer.

I spoke at my first conference in 2017. I spoke at a few more in 2018. But everyone says conference speakers have their break out year, and this was mine. I applied everywhere, got lots of non-selections, and plenty of acceptances! I turned down a few but I agreed to speak at almost all of them...perhaps too many.

However, the process of constantly speaking and working on my talks left me with lots of advice. A lot of which was given to me by fellow speakers! Different tech leads to different talks, so not all of these points will apply to you. But I haven't seen a lot of these things written down. So this is me doing that.

People don't read abstracts

Early on I received feedback that a talk I'd given wasn't what an attendee expected to learn and that frustrated them. My first reaction was to be annoyed. The talk title was clear enough, but the abstract even more so. It wasn't my fault they assumed I'd cover stuff I didn't plan to!

But, it turns out it was. Oftentimes abstracts on talks aren't readily available, so attendees select talks based on the title. And there are lots of different ways to read something short and succinct like a title. So what do you do?

Begin every talk with a brief overview of what attendees can expect to learn. Mention what level the talk is geared at. And maybe even give them an out! At a multitrack conference, there are lots of options, it'd be a shame to have an unhappy audience member.

Ask the audience questions!

Early on in my speaking career, a 15-minute talk felt like an eternity! Now I regularly give talks that clock in at an hour or more. But realistically, that's a long time for attendees to sit and listen. Talks that feel like a lecture are going to be tough to pay attention to.

One of my favorite tricks for keeping attendees attention and letting them engage with the material is to ask them questions. Sometimes the question is informational and helps me tailor my talk. Something like: How many of you use this tech?

Other times, the questions are interactive and fun. Things like: Give me a variable name? or What color theme should I use?

Stages are different than rooms

There are so many different locations you can give a talk, but in my mind they break out into two major categories: Stages vs. rooms.

When I'm on a stage I'm using a mic, lights in my eyes, the projector screen is really large and I'm a level removed from the audience. I find these environments a bit more anxiety-inducing. But my biggest takeaway is that I can't gauge the audience as well. I'm likely to have fewer pauses and casual commentary as a result so I have to be a lot more aware of pacing.

In a room, I expect that my talk is going to feel a lot different than how I practiced because it will be tailored to the audience. I'll ask more questions, go into more stories, probably make more jokes. It can be casual because I can course-correct based on audience reaction.

Live coding is amazing

I was incredibly intimidated to try live coding. I assumed it was only for super-smart people. But it's been one of my favorite things to do. I use quokka.js in VS Code, and occasionally CodeSandbox.

Live coding is dynamic so it prompts people to pay attention. It's different every time so you never feel stale. You can tailor the content to the audience instead of skipping over slides. And it's ok to make mistakes! The audience will help you debug, but in the worst-case scenario, you move on.

One potential hiccup with live coding is internet stability at conferences. Always have a backup. That way, you're set no matter what. Maybe you can even use it to skip over your mistake!

Always have pockets!

Even the coolest Britney Spears era microphones have battery packs. Plan accordingly! Pants are cool. Dresses are too, but make sure they have pockets or a belt. And remember that mic packs are heavy, you might want that belt either way.

Another important key to mics is placement. Do you have long hair? A scarf? Dangly earrings? Make sure there is a place you can put the mic where all that stuff won't interfere.

Slides are secondary

It's all too easy to go down the rabbit hole of creating your slide deck. Color themes, memes, diagrams, pictures, etc! But the reality is that slides are secondary. Focus on the story of your talk. Use high-quality examples and content that's geared towards the right audience.

Focusing on the content of your talk is the priority. That doesn't mean to ignore your slides! They should complement what you're saying and not distract from listening to you.

That being said, color contrast and large fonts are key. Don't forget about accessibility for your audience. Especially considering how variable room sizes and screens are.

Tech Checks are Key

I gave 19 talks this year. And on my 16th I had to change all of my theming and font size because the setup in the room was totally different from anything I'd run into thus far! This is not an anomaly. Always do a tech check.

There are a number of things to check on. Can your slides be seen from the back of the room? How is saturation affecting your color contrast? Do you have any dongles you need? Is the mirroring set up so you can see presenter notes if you need them? Does the mic work? Does it work with your outfit?

Author info on every slide

Put your twitter handle or name on every single slide. I used to think this was self-promotional, but I quickly realized the necessity. It's good to do this for a couple of different reasons.

  1. If someone takes a screenshot it's immediately clear what the original source was.

  2. Attendees won't remember your twitter, or even your name, from the very beginning of your talk and they may be live-tweeting excerpts! Give them some help.

A great way to do this is to edit your master slide templates. Just remember to check the color of your font if you're changing backgrounds from dark to light within your presentation.

The audience is rooting for you

People come to conferences and attend your talk with the hope of getting value for their time. But that's what is important to remember. They WANT to have chosen a good talk. They WANT you to succeed!

Being a speaker can be nervewracking for any number of reasons. There is so much prep that goes into it. Not every talk will go perfectly. But it helps to remember that the audience is rooting for you. This is especially true with those live coding mistakes. They'll enjoy helping out :)

Q&A isn't required

Some people ask for questions at the end of their talk. And that can be a wonderful thing to do. Q&A sessions are challenging, but when done well they can be just as informative as the talk itself!

That being said, it's not a requirement. I often don't like to make the entire audience stay and listen to questions. I invite those that have them to come up and ask me individually. It's pretty informal so others that are curious can listen in. This has the added benefit of cutting down on questions that are really just comments. Those tend to serve no one but the asker.

The talk before lunch

Can I let you in on a secret? The talk before lunch is a tough spot to be in. Everyone is angling to get in line before the masses descend. Plus, they may be distracted because they're hungry.

Keep this in mind. It's probably not the worst thing in the world to try and end 5 minutes early. You can even use this as a chance to ask your audience what they'd prefer! Q&A? Or early release for lunch?

This is also a good time to mention that knowing your talks well enough to have wiggle room is incredibly helpful. You can remove a story at slide 10, or give an extra example at slide 18, etc. Being able to do this helps you adjust in a number of different scenarios.

Travel is really hard

Don't underestimate how hard it is to be away from home for long stretches and the toll travel takes on your body. This goes in both directions. You likely don't want to fly in and out for a conference and only be on the ground for 24 hours. Conversely, doing 4 conferences in one month is bound to leave you exhausted.

The downside is that conferences don't all run CFPs at the same time. And they run so far ahead of time that you can't always make an informed decision about what else will be going on in your life.

My advice is to ease into it gradually. Unless you have a really good reason, try not to do more than two conferences a month, maybe even one. Stay local or in the same timezone as much as you can. And recognize that it's ok to turn down an opportunity. Even if it's one you would have dreamed to have just last year.

Speaking at conferences tends to result in speaking at more conferences

This is why conference speakers tend to talk about a "breakout year". When you're in front of a number of different audiences you start to gather all of the things conference organizers like to see. You have more videos, more talks, more attendees and conference organizers know who you are, you get better and better each time.

And that results in more acceptances! Maybe even some invitations. This is where my note about travel becomes really important. When you've grown used to not being accepted it becomes natural to say yes to every opportunity. But before you know it, you'll be overbooked and exhausted.

Start setting criteria for when a conference makes sense to speak at. Is it a community that you're involved in? Is it a topic that you're particularly passionate about? Does the location and timing make sense? Will it have an impact on other aspects of your career?

I'm not as good an attendee when I speak

This is a confession I thought about excluding, but I felt it necessary to be honest. Speaking at a conference is incredibly draining. You're "on" in front of a room full of people for about 60 minutes. That doesn't include questions and conversations afterward. You are likely participating in a speaker dinner, attendee event, etc. It's a lot.

My reality is that I don't attend nearly as many talks when I'm speaking at a conference. I try not to attend a talk right before mine and often I need a break directly following (or I'm still caught in conversations). I might spend more time in my room prepping, or possibly getting some other work done. I may need more quiet time. It just depends.

I try and interact with people as much as possible. Meeting people at conferences is wonderful. But it's important to note the limitations.

Discussion

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missamarakay profile image
Amara Graham

I did a talk recently where all my slides were high quality pictures of metaphors and things that help me remember certain terms. Multiple people came up to me after saying that was the best talk on the most complex topic. I had ~2 slides with actual text, but they were all links to different resources and my contact info.

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laurieontech profile image
Laurie Author

That sounds so cool!

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missamarakay profile image
Amara Graham

Great strategy for someone who hates slides 🤣

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andrewbrown profile image
Andrew Brown 🇨🇦

What's an abstract?

For me slides are everything. For a 20min talk, I'll have 40 slides.

I'll also have 10 additional slides and I'll purposely leave some low hanging fruit in the talk so that people will ask an obvious question and then I can pull up a Q&A slide. If no one asks me questions then, I can ask the questions I thought would have been asked and answer them. It fills up that Q&A for that shy audience.

I never do live demos, and being to enough talks they appear to slow down the talk. Instead, I just lift screenshots of the steps, this helps keep pace.

I've asked attendees where I should put my contact information, The last slide in the right corner.
If you can fit a handle on every slide sounds great.

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laurieontech profile image
Laurie Author

Slides are important in terms of how it relates to the content of your talk, but getting hung up on colors and design at the expense of content is something I try to avoid.

And to each their own on live demos. I think it depends a lot on the code/demo.

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andrewbrown profile image
Andrew Brown 🇨🇦

What is an abstract?

I just throw my slides together as fast as I can.

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laurieontech profile image
Laurie Author

Abstract is a description of your talk. Often something you include when submitting your talk to a conference and it tends to be included on the conference website.

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andrewbrown profile image
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eppak profile image
Alessandro Cappellozza

Hello, nice post ;)
You mentioned that you had 19 talks in the past year, all 19 on the same subject or all different? I ask because i had some talk too in the last year and prepare a hour talk took me several time to prepare.

Thanks

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laurieontech profile image
Laurie Author

I think it was ~6 different talks, not counting the different length versions (i.e. I gave my devops talk for a 45 min timeslot, 1 hour and 1:15)

It takes a bunch of time to prepare! Reuse your stuff because it'll improve every time!

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eppak profile image
Alessandro Cappellozza

Thank you for your reply, and (if i may ask), how many time it take a 1 hour talk preparation? Every time i have the anxiety to make a hour talk and not enough material to speak the entire time, so i prepare a 2 hours talk and talk like a machine gun ;)

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laurieontech profile image
Laurie Author

That varies a ton. If it's based on existing blog posts or egghead videos I'm done that time is shorter (maybe 30 or so hours of prep?) but other talks can take much longer.

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eppak profile image
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marcysutton profile image
Marcy Sutton

Don't forget about accessibility for your audience.

I would add that it's extremely important to explain what's on the screen for people with vision impairments. It can also help those in the back of the room, and on the off-chance that the recorded video pans over to you and your slides never come back (happened to me in my first JSConf talk). It's awful to have a punchline embedded in a GIF or image, and you're left out of the joke if you can't see it.

I also wrote this piece on writing winning abstracts particularly for accessibility talks, which I'd heard "don't get accepted to mainstream conferences" yet my speaking career showed otherwise. Perhaps it could help some of your readers: marcysutton.com/writing-winning-ta...

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laurieontech profile image
Laurie Author

Absolutely! Lindsey Kopacz wrote a great post on accessible conference talks earlier this week.

dev.to/lkopacz/10-ways-to-help-acc...

And I always love your abstract blog post. May have read it a handful of times...

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azzenabidi profile image
Azzen Abidi

Thanks Laurie for sharing! I loved the twitter handle trick :) I am going back to giving talks in a couple of months after two years hiatus and your post is what I am exactly looking for.

One thing I learned in the early years when I started is the importance of storytelling and humor to make long technical talks digestible. I am curious though, how do you balance scripting and spontaneous interactions to make sure you don't exceed the time limit? Also how do you organize your talk practice sessions?

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laurieontech profile image
Laurie Author

The more flexible I can be with what I include the easier it is to be spontaneous. Live coding helps a lot. But understanding how long each section is goes a long way.

My practice sessions start with full run through s. Once I feel confident in flow and timing I’ll use other means to practice. If I’m live coding I often make those snippets egghead videos. If I have a long story or analogy I write those into a blog post. That way I don’t need to run it for a full hour but I still gain confidence in the material.

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gklijs profile image
Gerard Klijs

Thanks, some good points in there. I just had my first conference talk, and today spoke at an internal knowledge share I was invited to, with another one planned next month.
The time between being accepted and speaking can be between a few weeks and a few months, so I can imagine not having to many in a month can be a puzzle.
How do you think about submitting a proposal when the technical part is not finished or you didn't even start on it. Do you mention it not being complete in the proposal, or sell it said it was done?

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laurieontech profile image
Laurie Author

I don't normally find that it matters? You're talking about technical content. Whether you're done or not doesn't mean your learnings aren't valuable.

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ldex profile image
Laurent Duveau

Great post!
I would add this advice:
Please speakers, do not stay inside the speakers room for most of the day...

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laurieontech profile image
Laurie Author

That one is admittedly really hard. It's not because we want to hide away. It's normally because we're tweaking a talk in silence or need to finish other work.

But it should not be the default for sure.

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tcgronk profile image
Tess

awesome!

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vickilanger profile image
Vicki (she/her)

I love the suggestion to have your twitter handle on all slides. That would make it easier, as an attendee, to tag you and give credit.

I‘ll have to add this to my slides for the cfp I’m working on

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vitalyliber profile image
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theweeappshop profile image
Tony Ross

Excellent post and great advice, Laurie. Thanks for doing this.

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sonyarianto profile image
Sony AK

nice insights for speakers

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makahernandez profile image
María Hernández

Thanks for sharing your insights!

Any additional recommendation for those who are just starting their journey as speakers?

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laurieontech profile image
Laurie Author

Talk to other speakers and attendees. Get their feedback and recommendations! Give talks multiple times and keep improving them.

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laurieontech profile image
Laurie Author

That's ok! Every speaker is different and other things might work for you :)

Thanks and to you as well.