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Tips for Your First Tech Talk

Fen Slattery
Accessibility lead and front end engineer. they/them
・5 min read

As someone who's given a bunch of talks at tech events, I get asked a lot by new speakers for advice. I've found there are lots of helpful resources for how to construct a talk, but not a lot for actually delivering the talk you worked so hard to write.

I've gathered some of my best tips on how to give talks below! These apply whether you're giving a super short lightning talk at a local meetup, or an hour-long in-depth technical talk at an international conference, or anything in between.

How the heck do I make slides that look good?

I prefer Deckset if I want minimalist slides that have code, and I'd like that code to automatically have syntax highlighting. Deckset is pretty cheap ($29, and 50% off for students and teachers) and available for MacOS. You write your content out in Markdown, and slides are generated automatically! It's especially great for folks who don't want to fiddle with the appearance of their slides, and for devs who prefer to write in their editor of choice. There's a lot of preset themes, but you can also customize them to your liking.

If I want to customize my slides a bit more, in some way that I can't do with Markdown and Deckset, I prefer Google Slides. I'll also use Google Slides if I know I'll be presenting using someone else's computer, as Deckset slides can only be exported as pdfs. I use Slides Carnival for fancy (free!) premade slide themes, or make my own if I've got the time.

It's important to make sure your slides are accessible to your audience, too! Your slides need to be readable by your audience, and look good no matter the lighting situation in the room. Emily Gorcenski has written a great guide on how to create accessible slides, including guidelines about colors, font sizes, and word count per slide.

How do I make sure people share my talk?

I'm a huge believer in the power of live-tweeting talks, aka posting about the talk you're watching in real-time on Twitter. Make it as easy as possible for your audience to live-tweet you, by sharing your Twitter handle on at least an early slide, if not on every slide. This will make it easier for attendees to attribute your ideas to you, and you'll get notifications about their posts. Also, if there's a hashtag for the event you're speaking at, be sure to remind attendees of it early on it your talk. (The event organizers will also appreciate you helping to build their brand!) Jess Unrein has written a helpful post on how to live-tweet as an audience member, and also how to make your talk more live-tweetable.

Before your talk, post your slides somewhere online and either provide a link to it at the beginning of your talk. This will make your talk more accessible, allow people to follow along on their phone/laptop, and will make it easier for attendees to share your slides with others. I recommend using Google Slides, Slideshare, and Speaker Deck as places to share your slides.

I use Tweetdeck to schedule a tweet for the time when my talk is scheduled to begin, usually something like:

My talk [title of talk] at [conference hashtag] is starting now! My slides are available here, follow along! [link to slides]

How can I make sure that everyone can understand me during the talk?

If a microphone is made available to you, always use it! Even if the room is small, even if you don't want to have to hold the mic, even if you think you can talk loud enough, always use a microphone. It's there to make your talk accessible to everyone in the audience. Don't assume that everyone can hear you just fine without it, and don't make your audience members out themselves as someone with limited hearing in order to get you to use the mic. Also, if there's live-captioning at the event, the microphone (or a second one) is used as part of the live-captioning system.

If there's no microphone available, be sure to talk loudly and clearly, and enunciate the words you say. If possible, practice speaking a few sentences in the space ahead of time, and have someone walk throughout the audience area and tell you if you're loud enough. At the beginning of your talk, encourage the audience to let you know if you're speaking too quietly.

When you're communicating with the event organizers beforehand, be sure to ask if a microphone will be available. Definitely mention to them that it's important to you for accessibility reasons!

How do I help my audience learn more?

I really recommend including some "helpful links" or "resources for learning more" somewhere related to your talk, like in a thread on Twitter, in the description of your slides wherever you've shared them publicly, or as a page on your personal website. This allows your audience to dive in and learn more right away, as well as introducing them to other experts and work they may not be familiar with.

For new speakers, if you have the option to not take audience questions, don't take audience questions! Unless you have a small, kind audience, questions can be very overwhelming and frustrating. At some tech events, people like to ask "gotcha" questions to test how much you know and make themselves look good, or just share their opinion with no question. These kinds of audience questions, in my experience, are more commonly asked of members of marginalized groups in tech, and don't really help anyone.

Instead, at the end of your talk, encourage your audience to ask you questions on email, Twitter, or later in the halls of the conference if you feel comfortable. I love getting asked questions on Twitter, as I can share the answer with lots of folks, including people who weren't at my talk. It also gives me time to think about my answer and research it, if I want.

If you do feel comfortable taking questions, remember that it's always okay to say that you don't know the answer to a question. I like to say, "I'm not sure! You should research it and then email me the answer, so I know!" It empowers the audience to do some learning and become experts, and it also still positions you as an expert who would like to learn more.

What questions do you have about speaking at tech events? Ask me in the comments!

My fav resources about giving talks at tech events

Some of my work about tech events and speaking

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