How to Give a Good Conference Talk
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:
Topic: what the talk is about and how relevant this is for the audience
Content: the information that you communicate about your topic
Design: the quality of any visual aids (usually a slide deck, if you have one)
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.)
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.
How long do you have to speak?
Do they expect a Q & A period?
Where is the venue? What is its layout? A theater? A classroom? A conference room? (If you can visit the venue beforehand, or see pictures of it, do that. It really helps to be able to visualize the room when you’re rehearsing. Things that might work in one type of room will fail completely in another.)
Can you have a deck?
How many people are in attendance?
How well do they understand English? (Or whatever language you’re speaking…)
What events are before and after your talk? Another talk? Which one? Food? Going home?
What is the audience members’ relationship to the topic? How knowledgeable are they? Are they seasoned conference attendees, or is this rare for them?
Have they paid money to be there?
What is their expectation of learning? What do they hope to come away with?
How is your talk being advertised or promoted? What is the organizer promising – implicitly or explicitly – to attendees?
Tutorial: insert tab X into slot Y
Informational: this is information about topic X you might not know
Conceptual: this is a new way of looking at or thinking about X
Narrative/case study: this is something we did in situation X
What is the scope of what you want them to learn? Are you trying to teach them something incremental, or something revolutionary? Do you want then to nod their heads and say “that’s some useful information I can use,” or are you shooting for “wow, that was mind-blowing!” The latter is riskier – it’s awesome when it works, a disaster when it doesn’t.
What is the point of your deck? Is it the focus of your talk – screencaps or something you will be talking about directly or is it decoration and mood-setting?
What are the technical parameters? Will you be able to use your own laptop? How big is the screen? Will you have a monitor where you can see your deck as you’re giving it? Will you have a remote mouse (hint: bring your own).
Will there be video? (Don’t assume this. I once spoke at an event that had multiple cameras to display me on large screens for the people in the back, but afterwards, it turned out none of the cameras was recording and there was no record of the talk. If you want video, be explicit about this.)
Planning Your Talk
Start early. I know you don’t want to – it’s so much easier to avoid doing it because it can be scary and actually doing it brings you face-to-face with that fear. But the fear isn’t going to go away, it’s just going to get worse with time, so face up to it early.
Give yourself enough prep time. The rule of thumb is that you need one hour of prep for every minute of presentation time. So a 50-minute talk will take over a full-time week of work to put together. This, of course, varies greatly, and you may have a full-fleshed out talk in your head, ready-to-go. But, in general, understand that it’s going to take more time than you think it will.
Write down, in a couple bullet points, the things you want the audience members to come away with. In a perfect world, this is what they learned – this is the future state you want them to get to. These points will guide you while putting together the entire thing. You can “test” your talk against these points.
Write down the major talking points to support those learning points and put them in order – “to tell this story, I need to talk about X, then Y, then Z.” This divides your talk up into sections, which is important. Talks need to progress like a story – there needs to be a build-up, a center section, then a conclusion. A movie separates these with “plot points.” You don’t have plot points; you have section transitions.
Incrementally embellish each section. Treat it as a mini-talk by itself – “to tell this story (section), I need to talk about X, then Y, then Z.”
Don’t edit too much when putting this together. Go nuts. Pretend you have all the time in the world and make it as long as you want. Rehearsal is when you start cutting the thing down, and it’s better to start with too much information than too little.
Don’t be surprised if the content of your talk changes considerably through this process. Not only the specifics but the entire nature and message. This sounds weird, but as you say things out loud and create slides to illustrate it, this has a way of catalyzing things in your own head. You don’t truly understand something until you have to explain it, and the process of explaining it will often make you think differently about it. (See “Rubber Duck Debugging.”) There have been several times when I was mid-way through rehearsals and suddenly realized, “I’ve been thinking about this all wrong…” or “My main point is not that important after all. Rather, this smaller point is really what I should be teaching them…” If this happens, don’t be scared – it’s a gift.
Preparing Your Deck
Transfer your outline to PowerPoint, or whatever. Most all of my talks are very presentation-based, which I realize isn’t true for everyone. But when I’m prepping a deck, I put my outline in PowerPoint, then start developing there.
For goodness sakes, understand how the software works. If you’re using PowerPoint, get a book and do some remedial PowerPoint training. This is stressful enough – don’t make it worse by not understanding what you’re doing.
A practical note: put the file in Dropbox immediately. You don’t want to lose it, and if someone goes wrong, you can retrieve it from Dropbox from any computer. There are several times when I’ve had to download a deck from Dropbox onto the presentation computer at the last minute. (Once, in Lisbon, I actually made a change 15 seconds before I went on, hoping that it replicated fast enough to beat me to the podium. It did.)
Do your title slide and your transitional slides right away, so you have a framework of the talk to work with. You have your sections set now, so you can concentrate on supporting them individually and telling the story around the transitions between sections. Also do the last slide – it should always be your contact information. So you should have the beginning, section headings, and final slide done first, which gives you a framework to embellish.
Don’t worry about design too much. If your slides need a theme, and if you know how to work your presentation software, you can apply it towards the end. (The current trend is away from design – the plainer the better these days, it seems.)
Do not pay attention to any guidelines about how long to talk over a slide. I’ve spent five minutes talking about a slide. I’ve also spent five seconds. I’ll often have a sequence of five slides that I rip through in 15 seconds. It’s not important – your talk matters more than the slides. They are there to support what you’re saying.
Rehearsing Your Talk
Rehearse out loud, by yourself, to an empty room. Yes, you’ll feel stupid. Tough – better to feel stupid by yourself than in front of a group.
Rehearse the entire talk at least 10 times. Yes, that is a lot.
Get a remote clicker. Walk around. Gesture. If your dog doesn’t look at you funny at least once every rehearsal, you’re not moving enough.
Rehearsals have two different flavors:
Exploratory: this is a loose run through, when you stop and adjust slides, change things, etc. You can stop in the middle and edit.
For Time: keep going through, no matter what. This is how you’re going to determine if you’re within the time boundaries.
Don’t always rehearse from the beginning. The goal is to be able to pick up at at any point in the talk and carry through to the finish. So, in addition to doing the entire thing, start ¼ of the way through, ½ of the way through, right at the end, pick a random slide and start from there, etc. If you start from the beginning all the time, then the beginning gets a lot of focus, and the latter part of the talk doesn’t get your full rehearsal attention.
Try to get Presenter View (a PowerPoint thing; Keynote probably has something similar) – you should be able to see the upcoming slide on a separate monitor at all times, with your notes if possible. If not, print the presentation notes out before hand. (Though, honestly, if you have to refer to your notes at all, you probably didn’t rehearse enough.)
You can rehearse from Presenter View, even without a second monitor. Start your slide show, then right click and selected “Show Presenter View.” This will let you rehearse while seeing (1) the next slide, and (2) your notes. Both are really helpful.
If a slide doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. If you’re tripping over a slide, and it just doesn’t sound right, get rid of it – either drop it, or combine it with something else. So long as you have enough time before you have to talk, don’t be afraid to do major surgery. Slides that sound wrong, probably are wrong.
Consider going through your deck and asking yourself this question: “If I was forced at gunpoint to delete three slides, which ones would I delete?” Then ask yourself why, and I either actually delete those slides or rework them. Be prepared to kill your darlings. I know you love that joke, but if it doesn’t fit, get rid of it.
If you’re using notes, don’t write them as if you’re going to read them verbatim. Write bullet points that will just jar your memory of the points you need to cover.
Concentrate on your last section. This is the payoff, and too many times, people rehearse solely from the beginning so by the last section, they’re just trying to get done. Rehearse the last section by itself multiple times.
There’s often a “messy middle” in talks – you start great, and you have the ending nailed, but you wander around in circles aimlessly in the middle (I call it “The Order of the Phoenix Syndrome”). When this happens, maybe find part of your talk that’s stronger and eliminate the aimless part. Often, you keep stuff in your talk because you feel like you have to, and you’re blind to how weak it really is. If it’s not an absolutely critical point, then make a strong point stronger and delete the weak point.
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
Show up early, and make sure AV is fine. Get your presentation up on the screen before anyone shows up, and run through it quickly to make sure it looks right. You do not want surprises (“Where is my custom font?!?!”) right before you talk.
Have a remote clicker. Always. Podiums suck.
The goal is to have the talk feel conversational, not formal. If the talk is small enough, meet as many people as you can before the talk. As the room fills up, go introduce yourself and talk to people. Your goal is to make them feel that they’re in this talk with you, not that you’re giving it and they’re receiving it (even though that’s exactly what’s happening).
Be aware of your audience’s understanding of your language. If they’re not native speakers, then slow down.
If you can, start with some comment about the event or something that just occurred: “I was just talking to Mark in the hall…” This sets people at ease and takes you immediately off-script, so it sets expectations on the conversational tone of what follows.
Don’t read from the presentation. This sucks for a lot of reasons, but mainly because you’re setting yourself up to be super-rehearsed, and if you have to ad lib, it becomes totally obvious that you’re off-script. You should sound at least somewhat off-script all the time.
(Note: I’ve come to understand that this works for me, but this might not work for other people. I know a lot of people that sound rehearsed, and don’t deviate from their script. That’s cool. It’s a style thing.)
Be explicit about the section transitions. “Okay, so I’ve just explained what X was, now I’m going to talk about why X is important.” The audience wants this – they want to know that they’re moving steadily through the talk. They want to mentally organize the content: “What did I learn in that last section? I need to store that away because this is a new section with a new thing to learn.”
Try not to be nervous. I know this sounds like a ridiculous platitude, but here’s why it’s important: if you’re nervous, the audience will be nervous too. They’ll be scared for you, and they’ll subconsciously resent you for it. If you’re relaxed and having a good time, the audience will be too. Remember this: they want to like you. They do not want to see you fail. If you make them feel awkward, it’s harder for them to like you.
If you think of an anecdote, tell it. Remember, you’re not on a strict script here (see note above). Feel free to weave in and out of your rehearsed outline. I don’t think I’ve gotten through a single talk where I didn’t extemporaneously say something that I never rehearsed.
Gesture at the screen. Point at stuff, if appropriate. Look at the screen yourself. You want the audience to feel like this is something you’re looking at together, not that it’s just background information.
Last slide is contact information. Invite people to contact you with questions, or if they want to talk about anything you presented. It has practical value, and it’s a nice, clear way to signal that the talk is done. The audience wants to know when to clap, and they’ll feel comfortable with an explicit cue.
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 break room 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.