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What I wish someone told me about speaking at tech conferences

tlakomy profile image Tomasz Łakomy Updated on ・5 min read

You might be familiar with the following scenario.

You've been a developer for a while and you've learned quite a lot along the way. Travelled to a couple of tech conferences, saw a number of tech talks and one day you think - "I can probably do that". This is what I personally thought at the beginning of 2017.

The good news is that this is true - you CAN do that.

The bad news: it's not easy.

Getting there in the first place

Okay, so you've decided that you'd like to speak at the next ReactVueConf Łódź or any conference for that matter. Unfortunately this is only half of the story - you need to submit your talk and most importantly - have it accepted by the CFP committee.

Do not give up.

It's highly unlikely that you will get accepted by the first conference you submit your talk to. Or the fifth.

Start with local community events. They're easier to get to than major conferences and you'll get your first experiences as a public speaker in a more comfortable setting. Those kinds of events are often recorded, which is a valuable addition to your CFP. In addition, give a talk at a knowledge sharing event at work. Next up - speaking at a conference.

At this stage, you most likely want to apply to as many events as you can (but don't send a CSS Grid talk proposal to a .NET conference). Be prepared to receive lots of "unfortunately your talk was not selected for X" emails. Or no feedback at all.

Keep on rocking. Read this article about writing a successful conference proposal. Reach out to your friends and/or colleagues for feedback. I personally would be glad to review and offer feedback on your future proposals.

One day you'll get a "your talk was accepted for X conf" email.

Yay!

What do I do now?

Well, you did have slides and everything prepared well in advance before you submitted your talk, correct?

You probably didn't, so let's get to work.

An idea

Similar to the movie "Inception", think about a single idea, thought, sentence you want your listeners to take away from the talk. No, you don't need to become a philosopher overnight. A good practice is to try describe your own talk in 5 words or less.

Preparing your slides

One of the best advices I've heard was:

People can either listen to you or read your slides. They won't do both

Think about that when preparing your content. If you're going to have code on your slides, make sure it's the least amount of code necessary to convey the same meaning.

Slides are not there to contain the content of your talk either. You might not even need words to begin with. After all, the attendees came to listen to you, not to read. Use contrasting colors, make sure that people in the back can see your content.

Having 100 slides is much better than having 10. If you want to show a couple of bullet points (for example - when listing features of the brand new framework you've created) show them one by one. Make sure it's obvious to viewers which item you're currently describing.

Make sure to have your social media handle on every slide (not only on the first one). Putting it in the bottom left/right corner is usually a good practice.

If you can do comedy well, throwing a couple of jokes is going to make your talk more enjoyable to the audience. But for the love of all that is holy - don't try to make your talk funny by throwing a bucket of GIFs at it.

It never works. There's nothing more awkward than a speaker waiting for attendees to get the joke in the hilarious GIF they've decided to add to the slide.

DEMO

Oh well, you're one of those people.

You're brave (or foolish) enough to do a live demo/coding at a talk. While live demos can transform a mediocre talk into something greater, proceed with caution.

Three pieces of advice:

  1. Practice a lot, and then some. Doing live demos is a different game than going through slides and you need to be prepared.
  2. Make sure that your demo works online, offline, upside down, underwater and in IE3. I'm only half joking. Do not assume that you will have Internet connection on stage. Localhost is like your childhood dog, it'll always be there for you.
  3. Have backups. If your demo breaks on stage, revert to showing the video of the same thing in action. Shit happens, but a smooth recovery can save the talk.

Practice

Seriously, practice. A lot. Out loud.

A common mistake people make is going through the talk only in their head. I hate to break it down to you, but your inner voice is much more articulated than you are. This is extra true if you're not giving the talk in your native language.

Buy a cheap clicker (you know, the slide switcher thingy), connect your laptop to a TV (optional), stand up (not optional) and practice out loud.

If you screw something up, do not stop. You won't get to repeat the whole talk on stage so having those prep sessions at home will make you well prepared to any mishap that might happen on stage.

After you did that a couple of times and you feel prepared, ask someone to be your audience and make sure that they give you feedback. Do not take "it went really well, nothing to add" as an answer. They're trying to be nice, there's always something to improve. If you feel comfortable with that, record the talk yourself and be your own audience.

You belong there

Once you get accepted to speak at a conference, seeing your name next to all those superstars might make you anxious. Weird thoughts may appear in your head.

Those people are industry veterans, and I'm an impostor. I don't want to do that anymore.

Don't listen to that voice. If your talk piqued the interest of the conference organisers - you belong there. I am personally yet to meet an asshole conference speaker and during the speakers' dinner and other activities you're quite likely to feel welcome and accepted.

If you'd like to be on stage - you deserve that.

Keep on rockin'.

Posted on Feb 6 by:

tlakomy profile

Tomasz Łakomy

@tlakomy

Senior Frontend Engineer at OLX Group. Tech speaker, egghead.io instructor, jQuery evangelist.

Discussion

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When I was doing conf talks, I carried an HDMI cable as part of my kit so I could hook my laptop to my hotel TV and practice. My biggest problem was I was an incessant fiddler, so I was always making changes.

If I could give any advice... Deck freeze two days before your talk. No more changes unless something is factually wrong. You need time to go through your talk as it will appear on stage at least 3 times.

Last, shoot for going over by 5 minutes in your practices. You will talk faster on stage. :-)

 

Excellent points, particularly the one on "they can listen to you or read your slides". When confronted with a wall of text, we are conditioned by education & training to try to figure it out. Less text / scannable text = more focus on the presenter.

 

Thanks, that's helpful.
A bit unexpected about the GIFs. =) I like them myself.
Didn't know you could get a clicker for the laptop.

 

I think I wasn't clear enough in the post - what I mean is that GIFs can work well, but you shouldn't use them as a substitute of content.

If you feel that your talk needs something, adding more GIFs is not likely to be the answer

 

My company has Logitech R500 or R800 clickers in every conference room. The R500 can be had for 40USD some places and the R800 is still under 100. I'm sure cheaper options are available but I really like these -- they work really well from a pretty good distance and feel good in the hand. The R800 has a programmable timer that vibrates to help keep your pacing during longer presentations.

Generally, they come with a USB dongle and work like a keyboard with a few very specific keys that make PowerPoint do the right things. If you aren't using PowerPoint, be ready for compatibility issues. A lot of these things are built on the assumption that people only use Microsoft products.

 

LOVE the article, great advice and references for more ... my advice (in addition to the awesome information in this article) ...

  1. I always take everything out of my pockets. Standing there, moving something around in your pants can be VERY distracting.
  2. I use Google Slides ... ALWAYS have a copy of the deck (maybe two, keep a copy on a flash drive); had the internet connection fail.
  3. Make sure you have the proper video connections; almost forgot to bring something to connect. Double check with the conference to see what they support HDMI, 15-PIN, or more.
  4. If you are early into the presenting realm and get accepted ask if there are experienced speakers that have been accepted that can mentor. I often find myself reviewing recordings of talks for new speakers.
 

I can very much relate to that "You belong there" section. The impostor feeling is very hard. And I feel nervous when the organizer says next is your talk as compared to actually speaking on stage. But ya the Ruby community is very welcoming.

 

Which one do you prefer when watching movies at home? With subtitles or without?