Advice for conference speakers

I was recently asked for some advice by someone starting out at conference speaking. I'm no expert, but I've had a bit of a crash-course in this over the last couple of years, so here's my advice:
  • Make sure you have your session timed-out to last exactly 1 hour, with an additional 15 minutes of bonus content in case nerves make you burn through your slides too fast (as I did!). Similarly, make sure that you've covered all your main points by 45 minutes in, in case you run out of time.
  • Have your slides on your laptop, on a USB stick and on dropbox / gmail / somewhere on the internet. Plan for complete technical malfunction! Test your your presentation / content on multiple computers just in case.
  • If possible, find out what the resolution of the projector is before designing your presentation. If not, assume 800x600.
  • People expect a humorous session with plenty of jokes (you can try to tailor these to the content/audience of your talk, so, at FOTB, jokes at the expense of Adobe, the competition and/or yourself will do well). Visual jokes, silly cat pictures from google images and youtube videos are also a cheap way to score some laughs and get people on your side.
  • Move about the stage a bit and try to be as animated and enthusiastic as your personality allows. Smile!
  • Make sure your slides are well designed with nice images and clear diagrams, and just enough text to sign-post what you are talking about (no long passages of text). Use a big, legible font and avoid clich├ęs like clip art and default PowerPoint themes.
  • People want to see things moving around, so have videos and/or interactive demos as a big part of your presentation. Videos with a music soundtrack pretty much ALWAYS get a round of applause, even if they are a 2 minute loop of paint drying.
  • People want to see code, but keep it to big, readable code "quotes" (e.g. speedX = Math.sin(angle) * speed) rather than huge blocks of code. I don't advise attempts to live-code anything! It is bound to either go wrong or take longer than you think, and attendees generally aren't that wowed by it or regard it as a good use of their time. Producing a nice diagram showing how your classes are organised is way better than randomly clicking through the package structure in Eclipse.
  • Rehearse like crazy before the event so that you know what you are saying off by heart, but don't worry about saying it all exactly how you had it written. In fact, I'm pretty sure that you'll assimilate the content better by saying it in a different way each time. You should never read off a script, you should just have some bullet points to remind you what's happening.
  • Don't underestimate how much content you can pack into an hour. Some Flash on the Beach Elevator Pitchers (who have just 3 minutes on stage each) manage to cover almost as much information as speakers with a full hour - this is NOT an exaggeration.
  • Focus on takeaways, not blowing your own trumpet. Not that I think you would, but avoid long self-aggrandising speeches about the history of your company or how your got into the industry, etc. Only the very best speakers can pull this kind of stuff off, even then they can still come off seeming a bit arrogant / self-obsessed. Instead pack your talk with "takeaways" - nuggets of information or inspiration that will actually be useful to the audience in their day-to-day work / life.
  • Don't assume anyone knows what you're talking about. For example, don't just fire straight into statements like "TDD allows us to deploy an agile methodology, focussing on stand-up meetings and UAT, which increases our client's ROI while reducing our overheads". Explain in plain English what you are talking about. Most ideas are way simpler than experts make them sound.
  • If you really want to leave an impression, try focussing on ideas that will change the way the audience sees the world! Easy, right? ;)
  • It can be hard to make technical session seem interesting, so perhaps emphasise real-world application of technical topics.
  • Finally, to reiterate: focus on spreading good ideas that the audience won't have heard before and that will make them better at what they do.
I hope this is useful to someone. Speaking at conferences, user-groups and universities can be quite scary, but it can also be quite rewarding, and I'd advise anyone to at least give it a try. The Flash on the Beach Elevator Pitch is a great place to get started - email to apply. There are 20 slots each year so it's surprisingly easy to get a slot! I'd love to hear anyone else's tips too - leave a comment!


Keith Peters said…
I would add that your presentation doesn't end when you get off stage. If your talk was any good, there will probably be a few people coming up to you to ask questions when you are done, and likely coming up to you later during the conference. I was accused more than once of being arrogant and brushing people off, which totally shocked me. So since then I've made an extra effort to be open and have a conversation with anyone who approaches me as a speaker.
Peter Elst said…
Here are a couple of things I've picked up over the years:

- Make sure you have a backup plan when your internet connection fails. A local server works well or even a video of your example as a last result.

- Rehearsing your talk is great but just knowing the topic extremely well is better. It lets you tweak the talk based on your audience.

- Find a balance in how technical you get, can always go more in depth into specifics based on audience questions. If you do it right away in your talk you risk losing some people.

- Don't promise to release code if you're not ready with it, had this happen a few times and you have to deal with lots of email from annoyed attendees :)
Unknown said…
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Stray said…
Thanks Iain - and everybody who chipped in with comments too. Great advice.

Keith - that's really interesting that people thought you were brushing them off. I'm guessing you're just totally wigging out on adrenaline and feeling the post-exposure shyness - something I know affects me. I suppose we need to keep in mind that others can't see that internal state...!

(Apologies for deleted comment - I'd forgotten that I was signed in to my kid's calendar when I posted - duh!)
marc thiele said…
Maybe the one or other point is already hit, but better double it than not having it:

- Ian mentions already: Do not put too much text on your slides. Give keywords or main phrases and talk about and explain the rest.

- Breathe, breathe, breathe: Don't forget to relax on stage. That prevents yourself from getting too nervous and from rushing thru your slides. After a thought is finished, make a full stop – breathe - go on …

- Step away from your notebook: Try not to sit/stay behind your desk and hold the table. It will stand without your help. Better move around.

- Give credits for what is not from you. If you use images, text/quotes, code, snippets etc. from other ppl, let the audience know. This gives respect to the work of them and pluspoint for you

- Don't try to copy someone. Be yourself. People will love you for what you do and who your are and not for being someone else.