Fifteen Protips for Conference Speakers

— July 18, 2011 at 13:26 PDT

Do you dream of someday speaking at a technical conference? Have you spoken at a conference but felt like your journey to the podium wasn't as smooth as it might have been? Well here are a couple tips to make things go smoothly and endear you to your conference organizers.

I'm writing this from the perspective of a conference organizer where my main focus is the technical program. I've run into a lot of these issues when putting together Golden Gate Ruby Conference, and also seen things from the other side when speaking at other conferences.

A lot of this list is about not being a problem for the conference organizers. I hope that doesn't come off as too negative, but I figure most speakers don't realize the potential impact of seemingly little things. Making things easier for the organizers makes for a better conference for everyone, and your presentation will be even more awesome.

  1. Respect your conference organizer's time. Organizing a conference is far more work than you realize, and for small, regional conferences it's usually volunteer work. Managing the program is extra fun because dealing with a bunch of speakers makes herding cats look as easy as napping on the beach. There are speakers I'll never have speak at my conference again because they are too hard to manage, even though they are awesome on stage. A good organizer will respect your time, and you should do the same in return.

  2. Respond to all emails promptly. Read the whole email, and answer every question asked of you. This may seem like kid's stuff, but you'd be amazed at how many times I email a speaker and they never reply, reply without answering important questions, or miss the point of the email entirely. Then I have to send another email or two. Multiply that by a dozen or two speakers and you can see how that can create a lot of extra work. (also see #1)

  3. Get a good headshot. Any conference will probably want a photo of you for the website. Some confs want "professional" (i.e. boring) photos, while others like shots that show more personality, so maybe you want to have more than one handy. Either way, you want a photo that shows your face well.

  4. Have someone else write your bio. Most confs want a short bio of you for the website/program. Most people hate writing those things about themselves, so get someone who knows you to write one for you. Remember, this isn't a resume to get a job. The point is to tell people why they should care about what you have to say.

  5. Don't announce that you are speaking until after the conference does. Alright, some conferences won't care about this at all, but most will want to manage their own publicity and control the timing of announcements. And sometimes speakers aren't all informed at the same time whether their talk was accepted, so making your own announcement can confuse things.

  6. Do announce you are speaking! Once you know it's cool to announce, do it! Conferences love the publicity, and you will too. Tweet it, blog it, Facebook it...

  7. Proactively communicate any special requirements you may have for your talk, scheduling, etc. It's usually simple to deal with requests if they come early enough, but can be impossible if they come the day of the conference. Things that might require special attention:

    • you can only speak on one of the days of a two-day conference
    • you need an uncommon connector for your laptop
    • you need the house lighting dimmed during your talk
    • you will have extra people on stage who also need microphones
    • you need a table on stage with power strips for your science experiment
    • you need a wireless microphone so you can stroll around the audience
    • you need a bar stool because you can't stand for 45 minutes
    • you need wheelchair access to the stage
    • your talk requires network access
    • you need a lot of network bandwidth for your talk
  8. Prepare your talk in advance. You don't want to be that guy who gets up on stage and says, "Sorry I didn't have time to prepare my talk, so I'm just winging it." Hundreds of people are giving you their valuable time to see your talk. The least you can do is respect them enough to prepare in advance. You're also better off preparing your talk before the conference starts. Take it from someone who spent most of a RailsConf working on his talk instead of seeing other talks and enjoying the conference.

  9. Have awesome, readable slides. You can read up on how to make readable, attention-grabbing slides that effectively support your presentation. Please do. You can start with Shane Becker's Better Presentation Slides lightning talk from GoGaRuCo 2010 (at the 45:05 timecode).

  10. Send your slides to the organizer. PDF is usually a good common denominator format, but including the original helps if your presentation has builds, video, etc. Sending multiple formats is great to cover all your bases. Some confs ask for your slides in advance, but that seems far less common these days when you don't have an A/V team running your slides for you, so don't forget to email your slides when you're done with your talk. Even if you are posting your own slides online, send the PDF/originals to the conf as well so they don't have to find them online to get them.

  11. Practice your talk. Run through it several times. Do it facing yourself in a mirror. If you can video yourself and watch it, that's really helpful too. If you don't have a lot of experience speaking, try out your talk with coworkers or friends who can give good feedback. And don't be afraid to modify your talk based on feedback - that's why they do previews for theatrical productions.

  12. Get some sleep. Don't stay up to all hours partying the night before your talk. Nobody wants to be that guy who drunkenly fell off a fire escape and has to wear giant sunglasses to hide the black eye. You want to show up on time, rested, and raring to go.

  13. Don't flake out. There's nothing worse than not showing up. Canceling at the last minute is nearly as bad. If you think it's likely you'll have to cancel, don't commit to doing it. If something comes up and you can't make it, let the conference know as soon as you can.

  14. Look your best. For many conferences (GoGaRuCo included) wearing jeans and a geek t-shirt is great, while others want something a bit more formal. But even if you just do jeans and a t-shirt, you want something that you feel great wearing. A good rule of thumb is to dress one level up from how you'd dress as an attendee. Also, take off your conference badge when on stage - it's distracting and looks bad.

  15. Have fun! Odds are you aren't getting paid to speak, so you might as well enjoy yourself! Seriously, you'll do a better job and be a more effective speaker if you are enjoying what you're doing.

5 commentsconference, presentation

  1. Matt Sears2011-07-18 18:22:34

    Great post, thanks for sharing. From the perspective of a conference organizer, it would be interesting to get your thoughts/tips on conference proposals as well.

  2. Martin Radhose2011-07-19 00:31:09

    Don't forget 50/50 rule when preparing your talk. 50% fun, jokes, stories / 50% value. Keeps your audience engaged.

  3. Joel Tosi2011-07-19 07:08:42

    I think one major point is missing - don't try and cover too much. Keep your presentations focused. I try and focus on 3 or 4 main points and let everything else build up or support it / put it in context, etc. Having this simple focus also helps engage the audience. Attendees are going to be flooded with information, no reason to flood them in just one hour.

  4. Conor Neill2011-08-05 00:55:41

    Fantastic perspective. As a speaker at various conferences, I cringe when I think of the times when I have not fully lived up to your list of tips ;-)

    I agree with Joel. The worst speech (after the totally unprepared "I'll just be me" speech) is the brain dump of everything. A great speech has one central theme and the speaker makes it relevant to the audience.

  5. Barbara Gavin2011-08-08 09:49:33

    As one of the conference organizers mentioned in this post, I must say that I agree with each of Josh's points.

    The thing to remember is that we (the conference organizer) is the only person besides you (the speaker) who is as deeply invested in the success of the talk.

    We don't ask for photos and bios because we have nothing else to do. We don't push back when the session description is generic and non-specific because we are shrews. We do this to make your session (and the entire conference) as powerful and valuable as we can.

    In my five years with Pearson, I have been lucky to work with an amazing group of speakers and authors, who have enabled me to present conferences we can all be proud of.

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