Tips for Conference Speakers

I’ve been speaking at conferences for almost 20 years now. My first conference appearance was in 1996, about Perl, CGI, and the Apache Web Server. 20 years on, I still have a moment of panic, when I get on stage, and realize that I have no idea what I’m going to say. Somehow, however, it (almost) always seems to work out ok.

While I’m not quite the caliber of folks like Kathy Sierra or  Damian Conway when it comes to holding a audience’s attention, only one person went to sleep the last time I gave a talk, and it was the last slot of the last day of a three-day event, so I think I’m probably doing something right.

Here’s a few tips that I’ve gathered over the years.

1) Slides are cue cards, not a transcript of your presentation

You don’t want your audience reading the slides while you speak. Slides are cue cards for you, and, possibly, for the audience to take home and remind themselves of what you say. Find a presentation format that lets you keep your detailed notes hidden, and make your slides eye-catching, but not text-heavy. Funny pictures help, but they’re not required. You want people looking at, and listening to, you, not reading prose on the screen.

2) One slide per minute

This is very individual, of course, but I try to always have one slide per minute of the presentation. Some points will take longer than others, but having the same slide up for ages gets people bored, and they tune out. The slide change gets people’s attention, but only very briefly. Too many slide transitions, and people think they’re missing something.

3) Repeat the question. Every question.

I am very hard of hearing. I find it very hard to hear your question. I assume I’m not the only one, and so repeating the question from the podium helps everyone in the audience who didn’t hear what was asked. And if there’s a recording, it ensures that the folks watching at home can hear the question, which is almost certainly off-mic. It also ensures that I’ve understood the question correctly – if I repeat the question incorrectly, you’re going to tell me that I didn’t understand. Finally, it shows each asker that you respect their voice, and are taking their question seriously.

4) Find an ally in the audience

There’s almost always someone in the audience who knows the topic better than I do. Identify then at the beginning of the talk, mention them by name from the stage, and warn them that you’re going to defer questions to them. This shows respect for them, and also gets you off of the hook for the questions that you don’t know how to answer. Sometimes, people show up to talks to show that they know more than the speaker. Sometimes they’re there to support you. Sometimes, they’re just trying to find a place to hang out and catch up on their email. In any of these cases, letting them know that you’re going to defer a few questions to them can avoid embarrassment later.

It’s ok to not have all the answers. Know where to send people for answers.

5) Test your examples

People will look at your slides afterwards, and try the examples. If they’re wrong, the rest of your presentation is wrong, also. Make triple sure that everything works as advertised.

6) Have bonus slides

You’re going to judge the time wrong. You’ll run over, or you’ll run short. Identify the optional parts of your talk, and put them in the bonus slides section. If you run out of time, no big deal. If you run out of content, they’re there for you and save that awkward 10 minutes where you’re trying to figure out what to say.

If you know for certain that you can’t fill the time, be sure to mention this at the start of the talk, so that people can plan accordingly. But try not to do that. These people have come to your talk when they could be doing any number of other things. It’s disrespectful to waste their time.

7) Have a simple URL for your slides

Every presentation I’ve ever given, someone asks where they can get the slides. Make a short URL, and put it on the first and last slides. All of my presentations are at   Sites like Slideshare are awesome, but the URLs are hard to remember. Use a short URL generator to make a short, memorable URL that can be written down in 3 seconds or less. Also, put it on your blog, on Twitter, and on the conference website, because people will realize as they leave the room that they don’t remember the URL. Or your name. Or what you said.

8) Have fun

If you aren’t having fun in your presentation, neither will anyone else. And then they’ll check email, check Facebook, and go to sleep.  If the presentation isn’t something that you’re passionate enough about to make it enjoyable, you probably should find something else to talk about.