A Short Guide To Public Speaking (for Tech Conferences)

Hello there, fellow developer!
If you are reading this article, then probably you are having an idea to give a talk or you are getting prepared to give one.

This is great!

I am participating in community events for 4 years already as a speaker, an MC (master of ceremonies) and a review board member. Last year I even was volunteering as a board member projector remote control at OdessaJS.

I know how frustrating and scary public speaking can be. Also, I know what conference organizers and the audience want from a speaker.

Public speaking is hard!

It becomes easier with practice, but it is essentially a hard skill.

Here is a short guide you can use to prepare for your talks and make them better.
There are 2 goals of this guide:

  1. To make it easier for you to give a talk.
  2. To make your talk delightful for the audience.

  1. Preparations
  2. Homework
  3. Showtime!
  4. Getting Better

Preparations

It's scary!

Oh yes, I know how you feel. Last year I've given almost 30 talks in total, but I am still nervous every time I need to talk in front of people. Even online. Even sitting in front of my laptop in pants in my cosy appartment.

If you are an inrovert - multiply it by three.
This very activity - standing in front of a crowd (even when it's 4 people) and trying to put your thoughts in order does not feel right.

You know the truth?
You will always be nervous speaking in front of a group of strangers.

Do you know the secret?
You need to learn to deal with that nervousness.

Here is a set of questions you may be asking yourself. Those questions raise anxiety level almost instantly. Ley's cover them one by one.

Am I good enough?

Short answer: Yes, you are.

Everyone in this world has a unique and interesting experience. Everyone can tell stories. You do not need to be a top-notch expert to give an interesting, thought-provoking, inspirational talk.

Pick a topic you are genuinely interested in and turn it into a story - that's 80% of success already.

And yes, I mean it - if you are excited by the topic and you can talk about it in a logical and comprehensible manner, that's 80% of your success.

What do I do with anxiety? Will it go away?

As my practice shows, you will always be nervous at the very beginning of the talk. But if you can stop the internal dialog asking all those questions and get into the flow, you will stop noticing it.

Lifehack #1: Create a first step ritual.

As usual, the most important thing is to make a first step.

It's a good idea to prepare an opening - a short introduction explaining what you are going to talk about (more on that in the Setting Expectations section).

Lifehack #2: Use Power Poses before going on the stage.
They do work, I promise. I was skeptical as well, until I tried.
Here is a great introduction to power poses and how they affect you.

Lifehack #3: Emulate the environment beforehand.
If you are giving a talk at the conference, give a similar talk on a meetup, in your company or to people you know and trust.
Also, there are some rituals you can employ Before The Stage.

In general, just practice more and try different approaches - you will figure out your own tiny secrets which put you in a flow mode immediately.

What if my idea or topic is obvious?

The best way to deal with a hypothesis is to test it.
Usually, conferences have CFPs (Call For Papers) and sometimes even topic reviews.
Do not ignore those things, as they are basically an early feedback on your talk idea.

Also, do you know what is the easiest way to test your topic?
Ask your friends whether they want to hear it!

What if my expertise is questioned?

We all do not want to be impostors. I generally share Seth Godin's opinion on that topic.

The truth here is that people usually do not care, if you are expressive and passionate about your topic and you take a humble position.

There may be a case that someone had a bad day and want to prove you are wrong. If they ask a hard question which you do not know the answer for - just be honest and straightforward, say "I am sorry, I do not know. Thank you for a good question!"

What if I fail?

As stated above, the hard truth is that people don't care.

It is usually good enough if people can get a couple of interesting ideas and meet other nice people at the conference. This is why there is a lineup of speakers. Your organizers got you covered!

Also, we all fail from time to time. This is a very human activity - to make failures and learn from it. We call it "experience".

What if something will go wrong during the talk?

If you will ever organize a conference you will learn one thing - everything will go wrong during the conference.
But in most cases, people won't notice it.

If you have some troubles during the talk, ask a technician or an MC for help. If you are uncomfortable to be on the stage with things failing, just plan ahead.
Think about an outro - a 30 seconds anecdote or story to keep audience distracted until things get fixed - and use it in case of "emergency".

And yes, it is ok to have a cheatsheet.

My Topic

One of the biggest concerns, when you are going to give a talk, is a topic. You need to figure out what is the main idea you want to show and how much details you need to give.

How do I choose a proper topic?

There are two main universal criteria for choosing a good topic:

  1. It's exciting for you personally.
  2. You are comfortable speaking about it with a friend over coffee.

That's it. No more magic here.
Once again - you do not need to be an expert on that topic.

Also, I need to tell you about mediocre topics.
Those are topics which everyone can find in documentation.
For example, "How to setup webpack" is probably not a good choice. But "How to setup webpack in a novel way" is a good choice :)
See the difference?

How much info is enough?

Usually, it's advised to just focus on a single main idea and several supporting points.

Skip details and give more examples so that people can grasp the main idea.

It's better to be short and concise than to be too explicit and overtime.

Meetups vs Conferences

There is a subtle difference between meetups and conferences you need to know.

  1. Meetups are more about practices and learning.
  2. Conferences are more about inspiration and networking.

You want to present at the meetup when you have some hands-on advice, a practice to share or a controversial topic to cover.

You want to present at the conference when you have a novel idea, a non-conventional approach or fancy experiment results.

But also, you want to speak at the conference to highlight an important problem or to pose a complicated question.

Entertainment vs Lecturing

There is one fact most unexperienced speakers miss all the time:

Public speaking at the conference is an entertainment!

Your role as a public speaker is to inspire people and get them on a journey with you. The way you do it is by telling a fascinating story.

A conference talk is not the best way to learn new practices or dive into details.

Here is the most important advice I can give to make your audience happy:

Do not turn your talk into a lecture or a report.

Homework

To make the onstage experience great for all people involved, you as a public speaker need to make some homework.

It is possible that you will give an impromptu speech one day, but it is highly unlikely that you will do that at a conference or a meetup.

Storytelling

The most important thing you need to concentrate on is your story.

To make a good story, focus on basic storytelling:

  • Figure out who you gonna tell the story to (your audience profile).
  • Create a basic plot (exposition, turning point, falling action. See here).
  • Use cultural references (basically memes).
  • Give your story some "white space" (chapters and breaks).
  • It's very important to pay attention to timing of your story.

Storytelling is a deep and fascinating topic. It is basically a foundation for influencing people. I would not dive deeper, but there are some references in Getting Better section.

Slides design

Slides are usually the secondary media at the conferences. You can totally give a great talk without slides.

I think this is the second fact most unexperienced speakers miss:

The story is more important than your slides!

Slides create a visual cue for your audience, which makes it much easier for the brain to digest and structure the information it gets. There's actually some science behind it, but I will not dive into that.

As you will definitely give your slides a higher priority, let's cover this topic in more details :)

It's important to remember some guidelines to create good slides for the conference:

  1. Skip the text which you gonna talk about. Leave just some cues.
    You are the center of attention. Slides are secondary. People won't read the text on the slides - it's just a distraction.
    Take any youtube video from a popular blogger as an example.

  2. Do not make your slides with an online audience in mind.
    Your audience is live. You should provide great experience for those people who are sitting in the conference hall. If you want to make a nice experience for people online - make a webinar!

  3. Mind contrast and light.
    Projectors and computer screens are quite different in how they render and mix colors. Try using most contrast and vivid combination.

  4. Remember about back rows.
    Yes, there are people at the back of the hall who will listen to your talk :)
    They probably won't see the lower third part of your slides - you can put some non-essential info there.
    Also, make your font size BIGGER, so that it is readable from behind.

  5. Do not put all your code in the slides.
    Once again - people won't read it.
    If you absolutely must show the code, make sure it has keyword highlighting and that you focus on the essential parts.

It's always a good idea to check your slides a day before your talk on a real screen and projector.

Here is one more lifehack for checking how your slides will look like from an inferior spot:

  1. Open your slides on a tablet.
  2. Put the brightness down.
  3. Take a tablet with one hand.
  4. Stretch your hand forward.
  5. Cover the lower third with another hand.

This will roughly demonstrate how your slides will be perceived by someone from the back row.

If you want to dive a bit deeper, I propose to watch this talk on creating great slides for tech conferences.

Polishing

As usual, there is almost never enough time for preparing, not even speaking of polishing.

I like the idea of "better done than perfect" and I have seen a lot of good talks where people skip some preparation and polishing steps. But it is still a good idea to make your talk a bit better.

There are two aspects you want to nail down to reach higher quality level:

  1. Timing.
    Timing is the most painful point for the conference orgs. A single speaker being off time can shift the whole schedule and make people reorganise the event on the fly.
    Also, you definitely do not want to be someone standing between people and food, making them late for a lunch :)
    Make sure you are fitting your time slot. Double-check it. Make an online rehearsal.
    It's better to spend less time talking than to be off time.

  2. Rehearsal and feedback.
    You are not giving a talk to the void. You will have some goals, e.g. inspire people to action, provoke some thoughts, show new ideas, etc.
    It's a good idea to have several rehearsals to get feedback on your talk to make sure you can achieve what you want.
    In the minimal scenario, consider having two of your friends or colleagues to listen to your story. One of them will focus on your presentation technique, the other one will focus on the content of the story.

If there is a speakers board, it will focus on timing and presentation technique during final rehearsal. Be prepared and it's gonna be alright!

Showtime!

Ok, it's time to act and show your best!
You probably will feel excited and be nervous. It's alright!
Let's cover what you can do to make the experience better.

Before the stage

Here are some ideas of what you want to do before going to the stage:

  • Scout the room.
    Get familiar with the environment. It helps your body to feel a bit more safe and relaxed during the actual talk.
    • Go to the room and check the stage out. Get on the stage and look over the seat rows.
    • Check the lighting and the screen position.
    • Check how your slides look like.
    • Check whether the venue has speaker monitors and timers.
  • Turn off your phone.
    You do not want to be distracted in the middle of your talk.
  • Where is your water?
    You probably will need a bottle of water. A bottle of water is a strategical tool:
    • You can make a pause by sipping it.
    • You can restore your voice in the middle of your exciting story.
    • You can make a water bottle a part of your first step ritual.
  • Check the mic.
    • Make sure your breath is not heard through the mic.
    • You may need a pocket to put the mic base station in.
    • If you are using gestures a lot, make sure the wire won't be a distraction.

Setting Expectations

Ok, you are on stage in front of hundreds of people. Now what? How do you start?
Here is a set of steps you can take to get rolling:

  1. Prepare people for activity.
    If you will have any interactivity during your talk (which is always a good idea), make sure to "heat up" the audience. Ask some unexpected questions to capture people's attention.
    I usually use some socks/footwear topic:
    • Who wears red socks today?
    • Who wears two different socks today? Hmm, seems it's just me...
    • Who wears socks at all today?
  2. Show and explain the talk plan.
    It will be very nice of you if you prepare people for what will happen next. Basically, you can answer this questions:
    • How many topics will be covered?
    • What is the sequence of the talk?
    • Will there be code to read?
    • Will there be examples which need attention?
  3. Explain Q&A/Interactivity.
    If you are planning to engage people during the talk, state if upfront.
    If you have some fancy interactive tool people can use during the talk (like poll or Q&A app) - do mention it.
    When I am talking at meetups, I prefer people to ask questions during my talk. I always say it explicitly at the very beginning.
  4. Pose a question.
    A good way to raise the interest right from the start is to pose a question for the audience. Basically, ask the question which everyone should be able to answer after you present your idea.

Acting

You start presenting and made the first step. Great!
Now, there are some techniques to keep your audience attentive and engaged.

  1. Use your voice and body language.
    You can assist story flow with your voice and body language.
    It feels like an art of magic the first time you start consciously using your body to tell the story!
    The secret here is variance - change the pace, tone and volume of your voice. Move your body to highlight chapters. Use gestures.
    If you have absolutely no clue what I am talking about, watch this great video.

  2. Make pauses.
    Pauses are essential to let people digest the information.
    No one wants to sit in the room for thirty minutes with intense focus on the stage.
    You can use memes, short gifs or your strategical water bottle to make pauses in your story.

  3. Make visual contact with people.
    Yeah, this one is hard. Do you look everyone in the eyes? Do you scan the audience?
    Here is a trick: find two-three people in the audience who actively listens to what you are saying - they nod, or change they facial expression when they have a question. Look at those people from time to time. And try not to stare at a single person :)
    Also, having a friend in the audience helps at the very beginning.

Interactivity

Great talks always come along with some interactivity. The easiest option is to ask questions and let people raise their hands for answers.

And there are some mistakes novice speakers make.

  1. Do not assume expertise.
    You should try to explain your topic focusing on least required expertise level. It is very uncomfortable for people to watch a talk they cannot understand.
    Here is a good example of what "assuming expertise" looks like.

  2. Do not ask "Who knows" questions.
    This questions usually is very frustrating for those people who do not know the topic. Or for those just assumes they do not know the topic.
    The best advice here is to avoid those questions. If you are asking the question to assess whether you need to explain some details - just go on and explain those details!

  3. Ask binary questions.
    It's not a good idea to wait for a mic to be passed to the middle of the room in the middle of the talk.
    Don't do that.
    Just ask binary questions with "yes/no" answers, so that people can just raise their hands and signal the answer.

  4. Be creative!
    There are various approaches to interactivity. Spend some time figuring out what you can weave into your story and make the experience delightful for your audience.

Getting Better

Public speaking is a huge topic.
You may get this impression by reading this "short guide" :)
But trust me, it's just a tip of the iceberg.

If you really want to master the art of public speaking, here are some additional resources for your to consider:

  1. Speaking.io
    An great introduction to public speaking. Read it to get a different viewpoint on the topic and get other precious advice.

  2. Things Not to Say on Tech Conferences.
    A good introduction to inclusive language for tech speakers.

  3. Introduction to Public Speaking on Coursera.
    A great course covering some basics of public speaking. Highly recommended.

  4. Resonate.
    A great guide to storytelling with some vivid examples of great public speakers and their talks.

  5. The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking
    A must-read guide for everyone inspired by TED talks.

  6. Speaker cheatsheet (in Russian).
    A bunch of advice on what to consider as public speaker. Nuanced and detailed.

  7. Watch exemplar talks and watch the speaker techniques:

And last but not least - find a talk mentor!
Some conferences have community programmes where more experienced speakers and board members help you with the talk.
Ask your organizers.

Happy presenting and have fun!