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Thibaut Andrieu
Thibaut Andrieu

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Preparing Your First Talk at a Conference

Here you are. You have submitted your call for paper and, by a combination of circumstances, it has been accepted. Now you really have to do it, Congratulation 😊

I've done a few conferences now, internal to my company and during public events. I'll give you some hints to prepare yourself for this stressful but awesome experience.

How to Speak

If you have to watch one video about public talk, it would be MIT's professor Patrick Winston's How to Speak talk

I'll try to summarize the main ideas here.

Prepare your Introduction

During the first few minutes, the public is processing your voice. The public's brain needs to adapt to your tone and speed. So he is not really attentive to what you are saying. Better not saying important information here.
Start with some stories about yourself, to create empathy. Nothing polemic, as the public is naturally defensive at this stage. For the same reasons, it's generally not a good idea to start with a joke.

Always state the problem before explaining the solution

Then, smoothly transition to your subject. Do not rush to the core of your talk too early. At the end of the introduction, the public should have understood what you are going to talk about, and why he is here, but should not have learned anything new.

Loop Back

If possible, try to loop back during your talk. If you mention something during the introduction, it's good if you could mention it again later.
This principle is similar to Chekhov's gun. Like a vaccine, it makes the idea more impacting the second time. And it shows that your talk is consistent, and not just a linear succession of ideas.

Prepare your Conclusion

Work on your conclusion as much as on your introduction. Do not end up with a "Thank You" slide. This slide will stay there for a long time, during all the questions, and doesn't give any information.

Prefer a slide stating What's next ? What actions do your audience have to take now ? What are the key ideas that your audience should remember ?

You have too many slides with too many texts

If you didn't remove at least 1/3 of the initial slides, you did it wrong. YOU are the main characters. You are not here to explain your slides, slides are just a decor.

Furthermore, the Human brain can process only one channel at a time. While the public is busy reading your slides, he cannot listen to you. And most of the time, he would prefer you to shut up while he is reading πŸ˜‰

Time is running faster for your public

5 second seems like an eternity when you forgot your word. 5 seconds is just one deep breath for the public.

If you plan to take a pause, after an impactful statement, for example, count in your head: "1, 2, 3, 4, 5" to create a true pause.

If you forgot your word, don't panic. The public won't even notice this pause was not intentional.

Rehearsal, Rehearsal, Rehearsal

The first attempt of anything we do is just crap. So, let's do this crap at home without anyone to see us. Repeat in front of your camera, and review yourself.

Learn the first few minutes by heart. Once you are "in the flow", it is easier to talk, but during the first few minutes, it is really hard to improvise.

Once you are happy with what you did, repeat once or twice, to ensure you have the exact same timing and exact same content. It takes at least 4, 5 or 6 attempts before converging to something stable. If you don't manage to handle twice the same content while repeating at home, you have absolutely no idea what it will give in front of the public, with the stress and pressure.

Do not repeat exactly at the same place each time. Something fun happened to me while repeating my last talk. I used to repeat in my kitchen. I did a final rehearsal in front of my cats in the living room. And I was completely disoriented. My subconscious learned the talk in my kitchen, with that table, that oven, that microwave, etc... and being in another environment destabilized me. So better not let your subconscious focus on the environment, but on your talk.

Rehearsal is the key point of successful conference. Do it in front of a camera, in front of a friend or a colleague, but do it, review it and improve it.

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