I give an obnoxious number of conference talks–and I have done so for years. In the last year alone, I’ve been a speaker at over a dozen conferences, including AWS re:Invent, Oracle CodeOne, LatencyConf, and several DevOps Days. So many people have asked questions about my presentation preparation process that I decided to record my thoughts, methodology, and tools somewhere for posterity. Perhaps they can help you.
It turns out that the secret to giving a good conference talk is to give a lot of crappy conference talks first. The following are things I learned through sometimes painful experience. Learn from my mistakes rather than making them yourself!
Make your slide deck borderline useless without the accompanying presentation
First, you need to organize what you say, and create the slide deck. If you try to wing it, there’s a great chance that your mind will go blank while staring at a hundred people who are all waiting expectantly for you to dispense wisdom. It’s not a great feeling.
Think of the slide deck as the guitar playing that accompanies your singing. If you have so many words on a slide that the audience can get the gist of your presentation without you there to narrate it, you haven’t built a presentation; you turned reading a report into performance art.
The audience has a choice with every slide you show them: they can read what you wrote, or they can listen to what you say. The more text you put on the slide, the less likely the audience members are to pay attention to your voice. There are of course edge cases and other exceptions, but it’s important to remember that every slide presents the audience with that choice.
Let’s say I have a slide that’s there to prompt me to talk about something called “tagging.” I could put the word “tagging” on the slide, I could give a list of bullet points… or I could put a big picture of a wolf wearing a tracking collar. I bias for visuals over words.
Include your Twitter handle on every slide
Presumably, you are not giving conference talks so that you can wallow in obscurity. You want people to know where to find you.
Maybe you think that it’s appropriate to include the Twitter ID or other contact info on the first or last page. However, you never know which slide will wind up being passed around online. (Guess how I know.)
If you’re not a Twitter person, put something else on the slide – every slide! – that guides people to where you prefer to engage with them. A (very) short URL is a solid choice.
Decide whether presenter notes help or hinder
Some people never use presenter notes. Others rely upon them heavily. Personally, I opt for having the first few slides written out to cover what I’m going to say. I find that relaxes me for the rest of the talk, regardless of how the talk introduction goes, the emcee mispronounces my name, the fire alarm goes off as people are getting seated. If the first few sentences are written down, I can get (back) on track.
That said, there’s a trick that I swear by: I duplicate my title slide. The first one has no presenter notes; the second one does. This serves two purposes.
- Whenever you plug a computer into a projector, the A/V default is to mirror the display. You can turn that off, but you may be distracted during the rest of the setup, such as having the A/V person wire you for the microphone. If your presenter notes are on-screen, people are now reading the thing you’re about to say to them. It spoils the intro.
- Also, it lets me test my wireless presenter (colloquially known as “the doohickey that advances my slide when I push the button”). I can toggle back and forth between the first two slides, and while what’s on the projector doesn’t change, the presenter notes do.
Use a custom slide deck theme
Pay a few hundred bucks to a designer to have a custom theme designed for your slides. That gives you an existing set of fonts, color palettes, and slide templates that let you mock up a slide deck a lot faster than doing it from scratch every time.
Custom? Sure. It builds a personal brand identity. Everyone’s seen the default themes built into every presentation software in existence; people are tired of white background with black Helvetica text staring back at them. It makes an otherwise visually unappetizing presentation “pop;” with the added bonus that you don’t have to think about what theme to use every time you set out to build a new deck.
Don’t blow the intro
Once the conference session starts, you’ve got roughly 45 seconds during which people are going to decide whether to listen to your talk or tune out and stare at their phones. At least one person is reading this article from a conference talk that they’re not paying attention to.
Most speakers waste that golden time on introducing themselves: who they are, where they work, what they’ve done. Don’t do that.
Nobody cares who you are. They care what you have to say.
And by saying, “I began my career at…” you miss a golden opportunity to start off your talk with a bang.
I’ve taken to doing “cold opens” to my talks. I relate a story (“In the beginning, there was nothing. And it was billed as CapEx. And there was still nothing, but we knew exactly how much it cost…”), recite a quick rhyme (“Mary had a little Lambda / S3 its source of truth / and every time that Lambda ran / her bill went through the roof”), or otherwise hook the audience into listening to what I’ve got to say. There is time later in the talk to talk about me; I generally do so either five minutes in, or at the end of the talk.
The itch to start with a “who I am” intro often is motivated by the quiet voice whispering into all of our ears when we’re presenting, the one that whispers that we’re giant impostors who don’t deserve to be on the stage. We try to justify our participation to our audiences, and to ourselves, but it is unnecessary. The fact that we’re there speaking is proof enough that we’ve got something to say.
Assume that your conference projector is crappy
There are, of course, good conference projectors, but that is the exception rather than the rule. Assume the worst, and all of your surprises become pleasant.
Light backgrounds, dark text, high contrast is the way to go. If you build a dark-themed presentation with light text, it looks spectacular on the expensive TV in your office upon which you practice. But it will be borderline unreadable on the state-of-the-art projector from 1992 used at the conference venue. Projectors generally display dark colors by turning off the dark pixels; they throwing a lot less light onto the screen.
To that end, if you include a live demo in your talk, make sure that the terminal, code editor, or web page theme is set similarly. My terminal is generally set to Solarized Dark, but I invert it to Solarized Light during presentations. I do this so often that I hotkeyed the switch between light and dark themes into both vim and iTerm2.
Test the A/V setup early
And I do mean early.
Three hours before your talk, there are no emergencies; there are only curiosities. That’s enough time to get an adapter delivered from Amazon Prime Now, convert your slide deck to another format, borrow someone else’s computer and make sure that the fonts you need are there, etc. You give a much better introduction to your talk when you’re not starting ten minutes late due to technology issues with a rising sense of fear and panic.
Check the mirror before you go on stage
Don’t forget to make sure that you’ve visited the restroom, tucked your shirt in / out, buttoned / unbuttoned a jacket, and most importantly take off your conference badge. Nobody will be able to read your badge from the audience, it’s visually distracting, and it can brush against some kinds of microphones and sound terrible. That said, after your talk be sure to put your badge back on; “I gave a talk so you don’t need my badge to know who I am” doesn’t present very well socially.
Triple-check the podium afterwards
So far, I’ve lost two wireless presenters, an expensive charging brick, and three adapters by leaving them behind after a presentation. The adrenaline rush is massive, and people want to talk to you about the amazing presentation you just gave–but take a minute to grab your gear before you leave the podium. Trust me; you’ll kick yourself if you don’t do a last-minute check.
These are the ways I handle giving conference talks. Ideally they’ll be helpful to you; if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out and ask–I’d love to hear how other folks tackle the sometimes mystical world of giving conference talks.