Here are the preparation steps I used to successfully deliver my first conference talk in the hopes that you might gain some insight from my journey.
This article is long and more of a way for me to unpack an unforgettable first conference as a speaker than an instructional piece, but first time conference speakers will likely glean insight from it.
This article will focus mostly on the actual practice and refining of the talk and not the process of writing the abstract, creating a central goal / takeaway, building out slides, or designing compelling slides. These are all things I spent a significant amount of work on, but I want to focus instead on the more performance-related aspects of presenting.
The talk was titled “Technical Debt Must Die” and was a combination of a persuasive and informative talk on Technical Debt and delivered at the exceptionally well-run CodeMash 2020 conference in Sandusky, Ohio.
Incidentally, I am thankful to CodeMash for taking a chance on me as a new speaker.
The talk’s abstract is pictured below for those curious:
By the time I had given my talk, it was the 16th time I ran through the presentation in various iterations over the course of 4 months.
The first 8 practice runs occurred every other week or so as I was building out the deck. In the earliest ones, I simply looked at my laptop screen and spoke extemporaneously about the topic.
This might sound a little silly, but the purpose of this was to find the core of the speech – find the things that resonated with me as I said them and focus on those things.
It also allowed me to focus on flow from slide to slide to make the experience smooth and seamless. Often I’d add, remove, or reorder slides to see what would work best.
CodeMash also paired me with two very seasoned speakers who each gave me a half hour of their time to ask questions and get their thoughts on things like nerves, humor, and launching into my presentation. While these unveiled no Earth-shattering truths, being able to confirm that I was on the right path was valuable.
During this time I also focused heavily on the introduction by focusing on an anecdotal story from a medical form that ends with a bit of a visual joke involving a nurse unhappy that I listed “technical debt” as a potential job-related health complication.
While this introduction served to warm up the audience, it was actually added just to help me get into the groove and get comfortable quickly.
Frequently in practice I’d stumble on the introduction, and so whenever that happened, I restarted it. I practiced the introduction probably 5 times more than the full presentation as a result of this, just because I knew getting into the flow of the talk would be critical.
After I was fairly happy with the overall shape of the talk, my practices got a lot more formal. Instead of looking at my laptop screen, I’d stand and look at the TV, which presented my slides to me.
This allowed me to see how well my knee and feet would hold up for a 60 minute talk, since I have weakness in both areas making it hard for me to stand still. I tried using a knee brace and my old folding cane I used ages ago. Ultimately, I found that if I walked around in a small area, the pain was minor and my knee didn’t have issues.
Once I was comfortable with the talk and the changes between each talk became more and more minor, I switched from looking at my slides on the TV in front of me to having my laptop open with the slides on it in my peripheral vision.
After a few repetitions of this, I was able to easily give my talk without seeing the slides – only stealing glances at the screen to ensure it was on the slide I thought it was.
Halfway through my preparation process, I got the following pieces of information:
- My talk was scheduled for 8 AM, the first slot, on the first day of the full conference
- My talk was slated for the largest available room
- Pluralsight would be recording my conference session and putting it on their website for anyone to view
As a direct result of these pieces of news, I upped my intensity on preparing to present, since I knew the reach would be larger and longer-lasting.
I also upped the energy level that I used while preparing the talk, given the early hour. This also made me introduce more rapid slide changes and interesting contextual images such as this gem:
With the news of the large room and Pluralsight recording, I started to feel some signs of impostor syndrome at entering a realm of public speaking beyond my workplace or local user groups.
Then Julie Lerman happened.
I affectionately refer to Julie as the “High Queen of Entity Framework”. She is what I would easily call the leading source for quality materials if you want to learn anything about Entity Framework. She is the name you think of, and as a long time .NET developer and Microsoft fan, that’s a pretty big deal in my eyes.
Julie needed some community feedback on concepts related to technical debt and so I privately sent her some of my thoughts, along with a link to one of the main articles I wrote while fleshing out this talk.
Some number of weeks later, I woke up to find that Julie had presented a keynote with a slide with my name on it and a link to my article.
It was exceptionally flattering, but more importantly, it crushed any thoughts that my ideas were not worth sharing.
By conference week, I was in a slide freeze. I was no longer re-ordering any slides and only made slight tweaks for visual contrast and image placement based on what I observed at the conference center.
Every night I would do a single runthrough of my slides and then relax (or vice versa) in order to keep myself fresh and ready.
These practices were the best that I had. My energy and excitement were present, and I felt very passionate about the topic. Each one of those practice talks was one I would have been happy to present.
Despite being ready, I still had fears at how well I would do in front of a large crowd or hearing my voice echo under a mic for the first time.
These were not unfounded fears. Back in 2012, I was surprised at church with an award for service in various areas and was called on stage to receive it. I was honored, but clearly uncomfortable by the lights and sea of chairs. As a joke, the system later would print out my name tag with a noted allergy: “Allergic to Public Awards”.
I decided to combat this by agreeing to a short “lightning talk” in the main auditorium. This was a low pressure or expectations talk in a large room where I’d be dealing with lights, a raised platform, and a mic.
I prepared that speech and practiced it for a few days before giving it. I typically practiced it either before and after my main talk practice or just a solid series of dedicated runthroughs on the topic.
By the time of the talk, I was ready to give it.
Some amazing event staff emceed and ran audio for the event, and they helped me get set up and oriented.
I stood and waited for the presenter for me to end, I battled those nerves and fears, but then something happened. I stood and I felt the stillness of a large room and saw it as just a room and just a stage, and just me giving a repeat practice of my talk, only with people listening.
I prayed briefly, and I laughed as my watch notified me that Julie Lerman had liked a tweet about getting ready for lightning talks, reminding me that impostor syndrome was just a lie the brain looked for ways to tell you.
I got up there, and I gave a very good talk, despite a momentary hiccup with the clicker (I pressed the backwards button instead of the forwards button, which made the correct button stop working until the booth fixed it).
And you know what? I was fine. The lapel mic was unobtrusive, and I was just sharing energy and passion about something with others.
Oh, and my lightning talk was partially on impostor syndrome.
The night before my main talk, I was happy. I knew that I could talk in front of a large room and with a mic. All that left was making sure that I was prepared in case of disaster.
I made a backup copy of my slides and did a final runthrough of my deck. As usual, I cleared out the prior values and used PowerPoint’s recording feature to record timings for each individual slide so that I can see where my time is going.
Only this time I used the result to build a “Blue Screen Of Death Cheat Sheet” that contained the major slides in order, along with the time into the talk each section would occur.
If my machine or the video projection died unexpectedly, I could use this sheet to continue going on, if only without video.
Additionally, I noted the 20 and 10 minute warning points in the talk so that the proctor’s warning indicators wouldn’t panic me.
I also took the opportunity to go into the room and take in the sea of empty chairs and adjust mentally to the room and the sights I was going to see.
In retrospect, I think that doing this and getting comfortable with the room was one of my greatest keys to success – other than relentless preparation and iteration.
I woke up early after a night of tossing and turning thinking about everything that I needed to remember to set up before the talk. I think I had only 3 hours of actual sleep, but I got dressed and ate a light breakfast, plus restrained myself on the caffeine.
Once there, I made sure:
- My WiFi was off (I had no demos or online content)
- My volume was muted
- My clicker (a gift from my wife) was on and functioning properly
- My wireless mouse was ready in case my clicker had issues
- My tablet with the slide show was present (and muted) to swap to on laptop issues
- My BSOD cheat sheet was situated in a spot I could reach it in case everything fell apart
- My phone was off
- My laptop was presenting the starting slide
The videographer helped me with the lapel mic and was very nice to work with. We tested everything and I adjusted to the sound of the speakers, and then all was ready to go.
And then I waited and took in the room, quietly getting used to it and calming myself, thinking of it as a “show and tell” of my latest practice runs.
People trickled in and I was flattered to see some faces from my local .NET user group sit in the first row to show support and encouragement.
And then, the clock struck 8 and I gave the talk – just like I practiced.
Maybe not quite just like I practiced. People continued to pour in and pretty soon the staff was wheeling in additional chairs in several batches.
Things were okay, but then the gremlins showed up.
When I hit my clicker, the slides would seem to move forward two at a time, throwing off my well-timed and rehearsed introduction – you know, the one designed to keep me from getting flustered.
I immediately switched to the mouse, and it kept happening. After a few more slides I figured it out.
The problem is a little ironic: For a guy who thinks a lot about testing and quality, my rehearsal “tests” were different than my final live “production” run in one simple aspect: I was not recording timings on my slides.
Because I wasn’t doing this, PowerPoint respected the setting saying to auto-advance the slide deck. Since my timing was pretty close to the recorded timing, PowerPoint would auto-advance based on timing and then get my click signal and advance again.
Thankfully, this was easy to rectify. I stopped the presentation, cleared out timings, and then got back into the swing of things.
Various interference occasionally caused commands to move on to the next slide to be missed and need to be repeated, but otherwise all was well.
I finished on time and people loved it. I got a lot of positive feedback on twitter and in person. Some of my favorites:
- “I learned a lot this week, but your talk is the thing I’m most likely to put into practice”
- “If everything at this conference is this awesome, it’s going to be unbelievable”
- “That was amazing. You NEED to do more conference talks”
CodeMash had an exceptionally talented visual note taker in the session with me and despite not knowing much about code or technical debt, she did a fantastic job. The conference gifted the result to me and I now have a priceless memento of my first conference presentation ever.
As an introvert, giving a talk is draining. I needed to go away and think about everything and just unpack and unwind.
I skipped the next session, called my wife, changed clothes, and just laid down on the hotel bed for awhile until I was ready to wander back to the conference.
The rest of the day my thoughts went back to the talk and I was easily distracted, but the conference ended its day with a party in the hotel’s water park.
While everyone else used water slides or the wave pool and drank and socialized, I sat on my own in the indoor / outdoor hot tub in the early January rain at 11 PM and reflected on an amazing and unforgettable first conference talk and first time at CodeMash.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.