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Tips For First Time Speakers

emmabostian profile image Emma Bostian ✨ ・5 min read

I just received my first conference talk acceptance, and after the excitement died down a bit the nerves kicked in. I've spoken at local meetups before, but the idea that I'll be standing in front of over 1,000 people delivering a talk kicked my anxiety into overdrive.

So, I turned to the community for their tips on giving a successful conference talk! Below, I've compiled some of my favorite responses from the community.

Preparation

A good conference talks starts with diligent preparation.


Memorizing your talk is important, however you don't want to sound as if you're reading from a script. So it's important to memorize just the key points of your talk. This way, you'll sound prepared without sounding rehearsed.
One of the quickest and easiest ways to keep your audience engaged is by having a lot of slides with a small amount of content on each. When you put too much content on a slide, the audience forgets to listen to you and instead focuses on reading the slide. Thus, having many slides not only keeps the audience engaged, but keeps the pace of your talk moving.
Doing a practice run for a smaller audience is always a great idea. This way you can get all of your nerves out before the big day. This also gives you the chance to get feedback. What are the things that went well? What could be improved? Now is the time to ask.

Circling back to memorizing your talk, one of the best ways to ensure your talk flows and has a thesis is by writing a script. What things do you really want to say during this talk? Scripts can also help you find the flaws or gaps within your content. And once you have your script, you can memorize a few key phrases or bullet points from it, but you don't necessarily need to have the whole thing down.

Additionally, you can bring your script or outline up on stage with you as re-assurance. It's important not to fidget with the papers, however, as this can be extremely distracting.


Starting with a story is a great hook to grab the attention of your audience. It will allow them to immerse themselves in the content matter. When you jump straight in to technical details, you lose the audience (except those already familiar with the subject matter). So take the time to find a relatable story.
Forget to mention a small detail? No big deal! Your audience wasn't even aware that you missed it! Just keep going.

Technical Details


Live coding is a great way to engage your audience, but can also quickly go south. Although I have seen some great live coding, it's extremely easy for something to go wrong and screw up your confidence. Including coding screen shots or GIFs is a great way to provide the security of working code while still giving the audience a look into your process.
You might not think you'll need a bottle of water up on stage, but it's better to be safe than sorry. More often than not you'll get some nerves up there so it's best to have some water by your side. Not only can water help if you suffer from dry mouth, but it can also provide a short little break when you need to reset your mind.
Wearing a comfortable outfit will be key to your success. If you aren't comfortable with what you're wearing, it will distract you from delivering your best talk.

Cadence


Pausing between sentences or phrases is important because it allows the audience to digest the last pieces of information. When you skip from one statement to the next without a break, it can be extremely hard for audience members to process the information.
Sometimes your talk will finish much quicker than you anticipated, so it's totally fine to prepare some extra content which will provide additional benefit. Just don't rush through the main content to get to the auxiliary content.
The time will fly much more quickly on stage than you anticipate. You are your greatest naysayer, so don't fret if you make a grammar mistake or stumble on your words a bit. The audience most likely won't notice all these little mistakes.
By nature, you will always speak more quickly than you think you will. Thus, it's important to be mindful of how quickly you're speaking and take breaks in between key phrases. You can even find a friendly face or two in the audience to look to for reassurance.

Mindset


The audience is your biggest supporter. They want you to succeed! So don't focus if you stumble a little bit, keep going! They're rooting for you.
No matter how seasoned you are as a speaker, you will most likely get nervous before a talk. Take that nervous energy and use it to your advantage!
If you aren't enjoying your talk, neither will the audience. So it's important to showcase your enthusiasm for the subject matter. And never self-depreciate! You have nothing to apologize for.
If you're looking for a good segue into your talk, praising the speaker before you is a great way to appear modest and perhaps shake some of the nerves you have walking on stage.
If you take your audience on a learning journey with you, your message will be much more effective. Why are you passionate about this subject? What do you want audience members to walk away knowing?
Never, under any circumstances, should you make jokes at the expense of another person or group of people. While jokes are one way to connect with your audience, shaming someone can quickly lead the audience to disrespect you and disengage from your content.
All it takes is one person to walk away from your talk having learned something to call it a success. You don't need to convince or impress an entire audience. If you make an impact on one person, that's all it takes.
Your audience is the most important part of your talk. Remember that their time is valuable. They paid to be at this conference and hear you speak. So it's important to respect their time.
Whether you're speaking to 50, or 500 people doesn't make that big of a difference. Just remember the tips above and you'll nail your first conference talk!

Resources

Things Experienced Speakers Wish They'd Known
How To Prep A Talk
An Introvert's Guide To Public Speaking
Public Speaking As A Developer

Posted on by:

emmabostian profile

Emma Bostian ✨

@emmabostian

Software Engineer, bibliophile, & cat mom

Discussion

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So many awesome things in this post!

I was fortunate enough that my office payed for coaching hours, and a lot of the things i learned and practiced are also outlined here.

While everyone will probably attack their presentations differently, i like to think that the slides are an extension of my presentation. They are there to help me get my message through.

I´d like to add that if you do have a very busy slide that cannot be simplified, maybe it´s a graph of sorts. You can use the ever so important black screen. Say, if you want to draw the audience attention away from the busy slide while you deep dive into something related, just turn the screen black.

 

#1 Thing not on this list - DO NOT DEPEND ON INTERNET ACCESS!
I've seen countless talks derailed by slow or non-existent Internet connections. (Coincidentally the last talk I gave the Wifi was down for everyone). Don't use slides that are only online, and if you need a "live" server interaction mock the server locally or pre-record a screen cap.

The First Rule of Live Coding: Don't Live Code.  (A rule I don't always follow)

 

I witnessed presentations that went through this.

I'll try to make it never happen to me.

Thanks for sharing your experience Rich!

 

I am really thankful for this sharing @emmawedekind .

I am preparing myself to write and speak, and your tips are gold! You hunt the information that you need - a inspiring way of being.

Following you is one of my best internet social acts :)

 
 

Great advice! The thing that's helped me most is easier said than done: Know what you're talking about. Knowing what you're talking about can bail you out of demo fails, you'll appear more confident, interactions with the audience will go more smoothly, and I just flat out enjoy the talk more.

 

Thank you so much for presenting all these pieces of advice. Now I know where to look at if I plan to start giving talks!

 

Such great advice!!! Keep us posted on your talk and good luck! My favorite part of speaking is the end when you get to chat with people. It is so awesome to see people connect with what you are saying ❤️️

I would also highly recommend watching How to Talk to Developers by Ben Orenstein which has a ton of good advice and it very entertaining

This Tech Done Right podcast episode with Saron Yitbarek also has some solid advice about handling slide transitions.

 

"Being nervous doesn’t go away. Use that energy to fuel your talk and engage your audience."

I hate this one, the idea of "nervous energy". I don't experience nervousness as energy, it's a suppressant and I shut down.

 

I feel the same way, unfortunately!

 

1st off... felicitations! Speaking is fun, and so insightful - for both audience and speakers in my books. As someone who came from music, and having seen many many stages, I have a few items that I always keep in mind. Allow me to add a few, random as they may be:

I always do a tech walk through (before the open). which means a few things:

  1. I always check room lighting. This will always impact the visibility of your presentation.
  2. I take a look at the screen - size and position. Ppl tend to also forget to ask if it's going to be 4:3 or 16:9. Good to know
  3. I always like to meet the a/v persons in charge. They have complete say on how you will sound and know the their tech stack in case you have a particular request. I also thank them as much as I can too.

Someone mentioned being comfy - agreed. This also brings me to some dress details

  1. try to wear as little jewelry as needed. Taking off your lanyard will also mean taking off a chain if you have one, or anything dangling. These sounds can be picked up by quality mics. They may not make all the sounds during your talk, but can ruin a recording.
  2. Take a look at the setting background. This is so that you don't blend in too much. Meaning, if your stage bg is white, wearing white might not be best for a video recording.

Re: slides.

  1. I also check them during my tech walk through because: contrast & content. I check the screen to see how the lighting will affect the contrast of my content. I in fact create 2 versions of a slide. and will check to see how either look. At which point, I can decide which one to use and make global changes to colors.

  2. Live coding?. as others mentioned: ⚠️ proceed w/ caution. my only recommendation would be to take this on like a cooking show: everything is already made. Meaning, have your commented code ready to go, pre checked for errors, and simply comment it out when you're ready to run it. I saw Ilya Grigorik do this, and it was perfect.

here are some miscellaneous bits:

Try to create multiple backups of your deck. Locally, cloud, and a USB - just in case things go south.

Maybe invest in a $10 HDMI cable, so you can do some runs in your hotel - by plugging into your hotel flat screen. I have mine with me at all times + it comes in handy for some Netflix and chill later. ;)

Hit the rest room prior to your talk. ;)

someone talked about mentioning other speakers, I try to do this all the time when their content might possibly support mine or vice versa. Great way for audience to connect dots, and also acknowledge other speakers and their work.

Anyhow, hope this all made sense. Best of luck.

PS - sorry about the length. Had a cancelled meeting and wanted to chime in. ;)

 
 
 

Well Done! A well-compiled list. You are always helpful.

 
 

Thanks a lot. Never given a talk but planning this year at least one. This is going to be super useful.

 
 

This is great! I love bite-size (or tweet-size) advice; thanks for picking these out!

I hope your talk goes well!

 
 
 

It's really very helpful for me, You done great job @emmawedekind