How to Give a Good Conference Talk

By Deane Barker • Posted on April 17, 2014

I give sessions at a fair amount of conferences. I hope that I do it well, and feedback has been generally positive over the years.

Some years ago, a colleague asked me for some advice, and I wrote down some notes. From then (sometime in 2014) until now, I’ve added to these notes, and I continue to edit and expand this post. I feel like I learn something new with every presentation I deliver.

Now, understand that I give a very specific type of conference presentation, which is 30-50 minutes and always based around a presentation deck (a Power Point). This might not fit for everyone. Some of you might be doing a short speech unsupported by any visuals. If so, pick and choose from the sections below.

Also, I don’t offer this list as hard-and-fast rules, nor do I think it’s the only way to do it. This is simply what works for me. I concede that other people may have entirely different ways of doing it.

Generally speaking, a good conference talk is a combination of four things – all of which you want to get right:

  1. Topic: what the talk is about and how relevant this is for the audience

  2. Content: the information that you communicate about your topic

  3. Design: the quality of any visual aids (usually a slide deck, if you have one)

  4. Delivery: how well you personally communicate the content of your talk

These aspects are all listed in their “distance” from the actual moment of the talk. You have to have a topic first, probably weeks (or months) in advance. Then you develop the content for that topic. As your content comes together, you can put a design on visual elements. You will practice your delivery right up to the date of the talk, and you can modify your delivery in the middle of the talk, if you need to respond to the audience tone or reaction in real-time.

Put another way, by the time the talk comes around, your topic is set in stone, while your delivery – on the other end of the spectrum – can change from minute to minute.

Here are my notes, edited slightly to make for a better blog post. If you’re staring down a conference presentation, I hope they help you. (And, in the true spirit of PowerPoint, these are in the form of bullet points, because that’s how I wrote them down originally.)

Contents

Questions to Ask the Organizers

The answers to these questions will help you, either explicitly or implicitly. The idea here is that it’s good to get as much background info as you can, because whether you’re aware of it or not, it will influence your talk as you put it together.

Planning Your Talk

Preparing Your Deck

Rehearsing Your Talk

It’s worth saying here that during the period of rehearsals, you’re gonna start getting nervous. You’ll think forward to when you have to give the talk, and you’ll get a really bad feeling in your stomach about it. This is normal.

For me, there’s only one way around this: more rehearsing. I know that everyone is different, but I promise you this one thing: when you’re giving the actual talk, you will never regret that extra run-through you did.

Also – and again this is my experience – your nerves will likely calm down the closer you get to the talk. I’ve found that even when I was really nervous a few weeks out, the actual day of the talk, I was super calm. It’s a classic case of fear of the unknown. Once you show up at the event, see the room, and talk to some people, the whole thing will seem less scary. To date, I have never been more nervous at the moment of the talk than I was during rehearsals. For me, “peak fear” happens a week or two before the actual performance.

Giving The Actual Talk

If you want some more good tips, take a look at this: 11 Top Tips for a Successful Technical Presentation. In particular, read the comments there – lots of great stuff submitted in the comments. It’s also worth noting that Scott Hanselman is the presenting style that I really try to emulate: he’s so wonderfully relaxed when he talks that you feel like you’re in it with him, rather than being lectured to.

If I could replicate one talk (in vibe and style, not so much content), it would be this one: It’s not what you read, it’s what you ignore. That’s Scott at WebStock 2012 in New Zealand. It’s fantastic. It helps that Scott has spoken at my company, sitting at my breakroom table. It’s easy to like someone when they do that for you. (Postscript: I also met Scott in Vegas at Episerver’s Ascend conference in March 2017. Still a hell of a nice guy.)

One parting thought –

It’s easy to look at people like Scott and be amazed and think you’ll never measure up. But understand that Scott gives conference talks for a living. Many other people do too. And many of the ones who don’t, are still giving the same talk over and over. It’s easy to kill a talk when you’ve given it many times, so you know the high points, you know the timing, you know how the audience is going to react, and you’ve dropped all the stuff that didn’t work.

You’re simply not going to get this on a one-off talk that you’re doing for both the first and the last time. I don’t say this to be negative, but just to set your expectations. If you don’t kill like Scott Hanselman the first time you give a talk, that’s okay.

Like I said above, always remember that the audience wants to like you. If you manage to convey some valuable information and don’t give them a reason to dislike you, then you’re probably doing better than most.

This is item #44 in a sequence of 353 items.

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