Earlier this evening, I was a guest on NoCapes, a new web series about sharing advice and encouraging folks to engage in the PHP community. It’s a great initiative, you should check it out. There’s also a video of my interview up as well.
But as we begin The Autumn of a Thousand Conferences, I thought I’d follow up by taking a moment and write up some tips on speaking. Bear in mind, I only began a couple years ago so this is just what works for me. I try to focus on the more practical and less glamorous bits of the speaking experience so you know what to expect.
Ultimately, the #1 rule is this: speakers are the same as any other type of performer. It isn’t about talent, it isn’t about luck, it’s about work and practice. So, don’t beat yourself up if you’re not amazing at first and don’t expect to be well respected until you pay your dues.
I would also ask yourself what is more important. Personally, I’d rather be known for being a good engineer than a great speaker. That said, speaking has helped me make some amazing friends and grown my career considerably. You can (and probably should) try it as well.
- It’s cliché but starting off small: user groups, local meetups, etc. When submitting to a bigger conference, mention your experience. Include links to joind.in, reviews, etc.
- Just like any type of writing, you’re going to get rejected. A lot. Even when you’ve got some talks under your belt, you’re still going to get rejected on a regular basis.
- If you have no recorded experience, a 2 minute demo of you covering a small topic can make a huge difference. Many conferences are trying to add new speakers but they’re also risk adverse, so show that you know your stuff.
- If you’re submitting to a conference that requires traveling, always submit multiple talks (at least 3, maybe more). If they’re going to pay for a flight and hotel, they’re probably going to want 2 or more talks from you.
- If you’re attending a conference you’d like to speak at, rock it hard at the uncon and then tell the organizers you’re going to submit next year. They’ll remember you. Some conferences even give away guaranteed speaker slots to the best uncon speakers of the year.
- It’s perfectly okay to submit talks you haven’t written yet, provided you have time to write them. Shoot in a few ideas and let the organizers sort out which ones are good. Likewise, don’t be afraid to reuse talks at other conferences.
- It’s okay to pick subjects you need to do further research into. In fact, it’s often a great motivator to do so. Just don’t pick subjects you know absolutely zero about, people expect some experience or credentials from their speakers (unless your talk is “How I Stumbled Through Putting X into Production” which is also valid as an intro tutorial).
- Sad to say but it’s still often about who you know. Find out who the influential speakers or groups in your area are and go out of your way to meet them. 90% of them will already want to help.
- It’s all about getting that first talk. Once you have that done, you can use it to get the second and the third and…
- Start writing with lots of time. Literally, at least a month out.
- The #1 tip: If you have bullet lists, break each bullet point up into an individual slide.
- If you do have lots of text on the same slide, use the appear animation to stagger the lines. Otherwise, people will read ahead and not listen to you (or worse, become bored).
- There is no right number of slides. I’ve seen great speakers use anywhere from 20 slides to 280 slides for 45 minute slots.
- Don’t start writing slides at the beginning of the talk, skip to the cool technical part you want to talk about. Get that section right and then build the rest of the talk around that.
- When writing, I often sketch out 30-60 seconds of talking, then backtrack and create the slides for that. Then I do that part again with the slides, adjust or scrap, then write the next 30-60 seconds of talking. Repeat until done.
- It’s good to have an About Me intro but keep it under 45 seconds.
- Anticipate the questions your audience will have at any given moment in a talk and then address them immediately. If you don’t, they’ll stop listening to what you’re saying until its question time while they mule this over or wait for you to address it.
- Don’t ever be afraid to rewrite but don’t make major rewrites in the days leading up to the conference, you will forget and goof them.
- Your talk doesn’t need to have a story, but build it like one. It should have a lead-in, build up, a climax and a resolution. Emotion has a place, even in technical talks.
- If you’re having trouble finding a voice, pick speakers you like and imitate them until you find one that feels comfortable. That’ll put you in the right area, then refine it until you find yours. This doesn’t have to be a technical speaker: in fact, I’d recommend stand-up comedians. That’s not to say it has to be funny, but these are folks with the stagecraft to keep audience enraptured for hours with almost nothing but talking. You can learn a lot from them.
- Gimmicks can lend spice to a talk but don’t over use them.
- The only good animation is the “appear” animation. Don’t use animated slide transitions and don’t let meme GIFs loop indefinitely.
- Don’t do live demos. These are high risk, high reward propositions. If it goes smoothly and it’s genuinely impressive, you might look amazing. That said, almost every live demo will crash and burn horribly. Including yours.
- If you do go this route, remember: it will also likely take more than network communication to genuinely impress the audience.
- Likewise, live coding is a universally bad idea. Even if it goes perfectly (and it won’t), the speed at which you can deliver is severely reduced. Even amazing developers are boring after 30 minutes of typing at a podium.
- Instead, consider making a screen recording and embedding it in your presentation. This can fail too but the odds are much lower. You can also speed this up, pause it, rewind it, etc and it leaves you more free to talk and manage your time without fear.
- Never count on an internet connection. No, not even with speaker-only wifi. No, not even tethering on your phone. Never. Count. On. Internet.
The Weeks Before Your Talk
- Practice. Practice Practice practice.
- Always back up your presentation twice: a USB stick that you carry with you and and online (email, Google Drive, Dropbox). Don’t forget the additional dependencies like fonts, movies, etc.
- Always ask about the project connection beforehand. Be prepared. When in doubt, prepare for VGA. The only place this might not be true is development offices: many are populated exclusively by Mac users and may not have a VGA adapter on hand.
- If you’re a Mac user, bring your own connectors. Many conferences have them, but many don’t or have a limited supply.
- Don’t get drunk the night before your talk. Seriously, be a professional. Conference culture features a lot of drinking but attendees paid good money to see you speak so don’t show up with a hangover. Even if you’re in the afternoon slot, save the booze for the post-talk celebration.
- Even a cheap remote is worth its weight in gold. Seriously, don’t get on stage without a remote, it’s incredibly freeing.
- When practicing, don’t just stare at your monitor since this will become a bad habit when you present. I once suggested giving your talk to a stuffed animal since you can make eye contact with it; silly as it sounds, an elePHPant makes a great reviewer.
- Controlling your body language is important. Practice your talk standing up and work hard on creating a firm posture: it looks good to the audience but more importantly, it keeps you calm and projects your voice. Fidgeting will make you nervous, unsteady and distract the audience.
- You’re going to be standing for almost an hour and talking, which can be a surprisingly physical strain. Practice so you’re ready for this. A lot of the exhaustion can be bad breathing techniques, which you can work on.
- When practicing, you’ll often go over time a few minutes. That’s usually okay. When giving your talk, you’ll probably speed up a bit or not backtrack as much in practice, so it’s going to go quicker. Eventually, you’ll find out what that magic number is and be able to plan accordingly.
- Until then, prep carefully, don’t plan too much material and think about your pacing and what you can cut or extend if necessary. Always build in an escape hatch or two.
- Practice more!
The Day of Your Talk
- Sleep well. Have a decent breakfast, nothing too crazy.
- Practice your entire talk the morning of the conference if time allows.
- Resist the temptation to tweak anything else with your slides, it’ll just disturb your practice. It’s time, you have to play it as it lies.
- Dress accordingly: Comfortable shoes are a must. Think about how you’ll look in the room: If it’s dim or darkened, don’t wear all black since you’ll look like a floating head. If you’re standing in front of a colored backdrop, don’t wear something that blends in (like a red shirt in front of red stage curtains).
- Show up early. If your conference has a room monitor or an assigned volunteer for you, check in with them, learn the their name. If the crap hits the fan, these folks can save your bacon.
- Always attend sound check if you can. Find these problems early.
- See if you can get a peek at the room or stage first. Pace it, see how it feels. Set your laptop up somewhere and see if you can see your slides comfortably.
- It might be worth skipping the talk in the slot ahead of yours and find a quiet corner to review yours slides right before. This helped me a lot when I was starting out.
- Not to sound like your parents on a car trip, but use the bathroom first. Yes, even if you don’t think you have to.
- If this is your first talk, it almost seems tradition that you’re going to come down with a cold right before hand. Take something with minimal side effects (acetaminophen or paracetamol) or suck a cough drop. If you’re congested, nose spray is the best thing but it doesn’t kick in until 5-10 minutes later so don’t use it just before going on stage. Whatever you’ve got to do, do it.
- Hand-mics take training to use well, so skip them in favor of anything else if possible. Face mics or lapel mics are the best but even a fixed podium mic can be better.
The Moments Beforehand
- Once the previous speaker is totally done, wait for them to clear the podium and then setup ASAP. If the speaker is taking a little while and is answering private questions, give them a minute before heading to the podium. They’ll usually see you standing there with your bag and take the hint, but if they don’t, it’s okay to ask politely if you can go ahead and setup.
- Soundcheck everything real quick and check the space. Check you can see your laptop clearly from where you want to stand. Check your remote batteries.
- Silence your phone and dump it in your bag. Otherwise, you’re going to get a tweet storm during the talk and folks will start tweeting at you, just to troll you.
- If you’re feeling good, maybe do some pre-show audience particpation. Talk to folks in the first row, goof off a bit. I used to play nyan.cat on the big screen to loosen everyone up.
- Breathe and relax. These are often the scarest moments but it’s going to be okay.
Giving Your Talk
- The number one thing new speakers goof is looking at the big screen. Look at your laptop. Look at the stage monitor. Look at the audience. Never, ever look at the big screen. Yes, I know it’s big and shiny. Don’t look at it. You’ll twist and turn, ignore your audience, etc. It’s bad.
- Likewise, don’t use your laser pointer. If there’s something on a slide you want to highlight, add that to your slides as an arrow or highlight or fade out surrounding text. Laser pointers tremble, distract and can even make the audience vaguely nauseous.
- Don’t go too fast. You’re likely going to freak out a bit the first time and go too fast. I’m infamous for doing this from the early days of my career. Time dilates on stage, what feels like an eternity on stage will often prove to only be a bare second on the video playback. Speak clearly, relax.
- Most room monitors will give you a signal at important time intervals: usually 15, 10, 5 and 1 minutes to go. Give them a little nod or thumbs up to confirm you saw. Don’t freak out at the signal. Trust in your training, hold your ground and hold your pace.
- In tech, it’s common to see folks poking at their phones or laptops while you’re speaking. It’s not disrepect or boredom, we’re just multitasking geeks. Often those folks poking at their phones are sending out awesome tweets about you.
- Look at the audience when speaking. Consider all parts of the room. Pick a few faces here and there and rotate between them every couple of minutes. Don’t go creepy-stare-face but look for friends or people into it, use them for support.
- Consider the local culture. At the risk of stereotyping, crowds have different vibes depending on where you go: the British laugh a lot, even when you’re not telling a joke so plan for it. The Dutch are more restrained but don’t do audience participation. Adapt accordingly.
- Always repeat the question, both to ensure you understand it, for the recording and for others in the room. This is a hard one to remember but it reflects well on your polish.
- Check your room monitor for how much time is allowed for questions (if any). If there’s no room monitor, check the time discreetly.
- The knowledge level in the room can vary enormously. Even beginner questions deserve your respect. Never use your position to denigrate someone.
- There’s a chance you’re going to get “pointed” questions, which are often not questions but argumentative attendees or someone looking to take a whack at you. These often come with elaborate backstories or a particular tone or a “don’t you think…”.
- Don’t ever take the bait on these, the moment you become angered, you’ve lost control of the situation. Instead, try to answer factually and commonly. Always take the high road. Often, there’s a veiled barb or underlying question, it can be helpful to address that head on. If you can’t resolve the question directly, offer to talk to the attendee afterwards. “Hmm, well, come talk to me afterwards” can get you out of almost any sticky situation.
- If you get a really advanced or tricky question that you don’t know the answer to, don’t BS it. People can smell it and someone might call you on it. Again, you can get really far with: “Hmm, that’s a good one, I’m not sure. Come talk to me afterwards and we’ll see if we can figure it out.” If someone from the audience calls out an answer, always be supportive and thank them if it sounds legit: “Oh, good one, that might work”.
After Your Talk
- Say thank you, point folks to your joind.in link again with your final slide.
- Remember to switch off your mic!
- People are going to come up to the podium to ask more questions. Say hi, be inviting and polite to them.
- While you’re doing the private questions and riding the endorphin rush, pack up your stuff and clear the podium ASAP. The other speaker will likely be fidgeting and ready to get setup almost immediately. Take the remaining questions off to the side or out in the hall.
- Double check you’ve got everything (I always forget my remote’s sheath) and leave the mic for the next person or hand it over to the room monitor.
- Handle all of the private questions before disappearing. If someone is taking up too much time, politely give them a hint or just give a gentle acknowledgement to the next person in line. Try to at least hear everyone fairly quickly, since folks will often head off to the next talk. You can always make an agreement to meet again later with folks who have larger issues. Triage.
- Have business cards within easy reach.
- Don’t just leave the conference now that your talk is done. Stick around, meet folks, answer questions. Part of the experience people pay for is getting to hob nob with speakers, network and talk to you in hallways and socials. Remember, that’s what you were flown in for. Be professional. Hiding out to relax for a slot after your talk is okay but blowing the conference immediately after your talk is prima donna BS.
Social Media Followup
- Post your slides to Slideshare/Speakerdeck/Wherever and tweet them on the event’s hashtag. It’s acceptable to do this via the joind.in page so you often get more feedback.
- Odds are, you won’t be happy with your performance. That’s okay. It means you still have potential to become a better speaker. Honestly, I’ve had talks I felt were bombs that the audience was still satisfied with. The ultimate metric here is how you feel about things and if you communicated your message.
- Don’t freak out and start checking your reviews immediately. Give it some time and let a few trickle in. Take them seriously, try to improve whatever folks mention. Don’t post defensive comments.
- Likewise, reviews tend to be dominated by folks who either loved your talk or hated it. Rarely do you get both camps under one roof, so keep it in mind. Often a bad talk on joind.in simply gets the “crickets” treatment (though as a new speaker you’ll often have smaller rooms and thus fewer reviews). If you had a well attended talk but got noticeably fewer reviews than other talks at the conference… you may have some soul searching to do.
- Vicious reviews can happen. They’re designed to hurt the most but sometimes they contain an element of truth. Take something constructive away if you can, but ultimately, screw those haters.
Hanging Out in Hallways
- Once you’ve given your talk, folks will randomly ask you questions all the time. Handle them with respect (unless you’re, you know, using the bathroom or something).
- Many conferences have separate badges for speakers. These typically draw attention to you and people want to ask what you’re speaking about, etc. This can be great for networking or breaking the ice but you can also just flip the badge around backwards if you’d like to have a normal conversation.
- You’ll get more technical questions at the social so be ready. Also, a fair number of people will just want to come up and meet you, shake your hand, etc. Always be willing to interrupt what you’re doing and shake someone’s hand because it’s going to happen.
- Don’t hang out with just the cool speaker crowd, make an effort to meet random folks. Also, treat everyone with respect and assume they’re smarter than you; you never know when someone you casually met is actually hugely famous (this has happened to be a few times).
- If someone is monopolizing your time or making you feel uncomfortable, you can always excuse yourself to get another drink or take a bathroom break. (I’ve only had to do this twice in practice so if I’ve ever done this at a conference, please don’t think I was avoiding you).
- Folks will often offer to treat you to free drinks, so be gracious but judicious in accepting. Being a speaker doesn’t entitle you to anything.
- Take the time to find and thank the organizers. They work hard and do appreciate this.
- Okay, now you can get a little drunk.
The Less Than Glamorous Tips
- Your nose might start running during the talk. If so, take the time to turn away from the mic and wipe it. Nothing is worse than a speaker with the sniffles, especially with a face mic.
- Bringing tissues, cough drops and even nose spray is often a very good idea. Always keep an open tissue in your back pocket or on the podium. Cough drops are also a surprisingly good ice breaker with other speakers.
- Stage lights can be blinding. They’ll also make your eyes water and your nose run even more. Try to get used to them during sound check since this is the only way you can practice, short of staring into the heat of a thousand suns. Before the talk, when people are filing in, take note of where they start to sit. This way, if you really do become blinded, you can still pretend to make eye contact with the audience.
- Con Flu is a real thing and you’re going to be shaking a lot of hands. Washing yours regularly might reduce your chances of getting sick afterwards.