10 tips for speaking at conferences

With PyTennessee coming up, I thought I might share some tips about speaking in the hopes that it might help any of the presenters who might be nervous or excited.

These are things that I've learned about making the speaking process easier and also things I've noticed as an audience member.

This is advice I would have loved to have had at my disposal years ago before I took my first leap into public technical speaking. I still have to remind myself of most of this advice every time because, in my mind, I'm still am awkward speaker, even though I love doing it.

Have your presentation ready ASAP

Working on your presentation the night before your talk is a recipe for failure, unless you're one of those really rare people that can wing a presentation without preparation.

Just go on the assumption that you're not one of those people.

If you're not feeling comfortable with the slides, or don't have a dry run or two under your belt at least three days beforehand, take the extra time and work on it a bit more.


HDMI to VGA, DisplayPort to VGA, DisplayPort to HDMI. It's preferable to have all three of these at your disposal, but at Coderfaire this summer, I needed DisplayPort to HDMI.

The HDMI cable was hidden, and I tried DisplayPort to HDMI -> HDMI to VGA and that failed miserably, and I was lucky to notice the HDMI cable before the talk started.

Relax and have fun

If you are new at speaking, try to remember to breathe easily, have a bottle of water for when you become parched, and that everyone is there because they want to listen to your presentation. They are not forced to be there, so relax and imagine that you are amongst friends (because you really are).

Whether you are speaking at a conference, or are considering speaking at a conference, the whole point is to have fun doing it. If you take it too seriosuly, you'll end up with a dry presentation that people might easily forget. Remember, they may have come to learn about your topic, but they will remember you.

Be self-deprecating

This actually accomplishes two goals. It helps you relax (see previous point), and it helps the audience relax, and that will set the tone for your entire presentation.

I really don't like when a presenter stands up and goes through a litany of self-accolades when I could easily find that information on their blog or LinkedIn profile. It's best to be honest and say you're nervous, or joke that you don't have any idea what you're doing.

Make it personal by sharing an embarrassing fact about yourself, speak about your family, or something silly that your pet hamster did. If the audience feels even a small personal connection with you, they will be much more comfortable asking questions at the end, or approaching you in the hallways afterwards.

Speak up and show your passion

You submitted your talk because you are excited to share your knowledge with your peers. Let that come through while you speak. If you speak in low, monotonous tones, or mumble, the audience will slowly lose interest and start checking their phones or browse the web.

Speak with the authority that you already have about the subject. Everyone there wants to learn from you.

Slow down

Many speakers vastly underestimate how fast the time will go when you're finally in front of that projection screen and start talking. Your natural nervousness and passion about your material will automatically make you want to speak faster than you expect.

Less is more

When it comes to slide decks, you want as little on each slide as possible. If you are new to speaking, you might be tempted to cram as much useful information about your current topic on each slide as you can, but all this does is confuse the audience.

You don't want them squinting, trying to read code, or copy, while you are speaking because it's hard to focus on both. If they are struggling to make sense of the messy slide, then they might miss a subtle point you are trying to make.

So think about how you can put the least amount of text on the slide instead of the most.

Assume there is no wifi

This is especially true at the Nashville School of Law, and it actually tripped me up the first time I spoke at Coderfaire. I was giving a presentation specifically about managing cloud resources, and made the assumption that I would be able to walk my audience through setting up a Hadoop cluster on AWS and running a map/reduce job on email.

Much to my chagrin, 10 minutes into my presentation, the wifi was completely overwhelmed and I didn't have the slides to back up the live demo.

Which leads me into...

A slide for every subject

There's a reason that the audience wants to have access to your slides after the presentation. If you have slides that represent all the major points you are presenting on, it can be a touchstone for the audience members to remember specific details of your talk.

Even if you are going to spend 10 minutes showing people how to do something in the CLI, have a few slides that you can touch on while you cover the material.

Say thank you and please

Y'know, all that stuff your mom tried to teach you when you were five? It really does matter. Thank your audience for taking the time to attend your talk and try to make them feel welcome.

When you are done with your talk, politely ask them to review your presentation fairly and honestly, and perhaps share thoughts about it on social media with the appropriate identifiers.