Software Developer

Preparing Conference Talk Delivery

Conference Talk Preparation Series šŸ”—

  1. Sharing Past Conference Proposals
  2. Building Conference Talk Content
  3. Preparing Conference Talk Delivery

A conference accepted my proposal and I’ve built a slide deck. I still have a lot to do before hitting the stage!

Practice šŸ”—

At this point, I have a continual routine to get more familiar and comfortable with the material. It’s also an opportunity to exercise the content on a continuous basis. The editing process isn’t over here. However, it’s more constrained and specific. I may be toying with the layout of a specific slide. Fighting with exactly the right word to describe a concept. Determining how to best highlight one aspect of what I’m saying.

I get the hint to make those targeted edits through practicing. I close the door to my office, stand up, and deliver the talk to an empty room. No more than once a day, and not every day, starting about a month out from the conference. And I time it, just like before.

A spreadsheet keeping track of how long sections of my presentation are taking when practicing.

I keep track of those times. That helps me reflect on knowing if I’m struggling to get through one section and need to tighten it up. It helps me know if I’m giving each section its appropriate focus. And looking back over the last few practices, it helps me see where I’ve gotten into a comfortable groove.

Each practice will have a bit of variation, because I don’t follow an exact script. Over time, I’ll see that I’m being more consistent in how long each area is taking (plus/minus 10 seconds or so per section). That tells me that I’m able to repeatedly deliver.

The stage is a different experience, but this preparation lets me draw from all the practice. It’s not like I black out or go on auto-pilot mode, but I’m able to leverage all that work on stage. No one else in the audience knows what I’m going to say next as well as me, and that gives me comfort. People may be smarter than me. People may be more familiar with the topic. No one is going to say it the same way as I am right now, and that gives me confidence.

For the talk from the spreadsheet above, I logged 20 practice sessions.

Practice šŸ”—

I find other places to practice separated from my slides. When I would commute to work, I would practice (in my head) on the train ride in or back from work. I practice the full talk or sections while on walks. Some times, I run through ideas for my intro or conclusion as I’m drifting off to sleep.

I tell myself I want to be able to deliver my talk without the help of the slides. In case the power goes out and I need to entertain everyone in the dark, or outside, I can. Note that almost happened at RubyConf Mini 2022, when my laptop wouldn’t connect to the projector.

When Iā€™m practicing, I tell myself I need to prepare enough to give my talk without any slides or notes. I practice on walks, away from my material. I practice looking the other direction (checking occasionally to make sure Iā€™m clicking to the right slide). In those moments on stage, I was wondering if my preparation would become necessary. Would I have to give my full talk without any slides?

Thanks Drew Bragg for unflinchingly handing me his laptop from the front row, letting me git clone the repo that has my slides on it. I ran the presentation from his computer, having never used it before.

Even without that dramatic scenario coming to light, practicing without slides helps me. I’m not tied to my slides. I don’t need to read them. I can focus on the audience.

Practice šŸ”—

I find a real audience before the conference to practice with. Most times, that ends up being at work. There are also local meetup groups I could request to speak at. I could gather a group of friends.

My main goal is to give me the experience of delivering the talk for other people. It can help me know what beats might get laughs (rare, but I try). I might be able to see where people are more or less interested. I’ll admit, that’s hard for me to focus on while I’m also delivering the talk. It’s to help me get more comfortable.

It’s also a natural place for feedback, if you want it. Feedback can be very helpful and very dangerous. You’re putting yourself out there and are being vulnerable. You may not like, or want, the feedback. That’s something you need to decide for yourself. I consider the feedback I get, but I do not incorporate all of it. That doesn’t mean it’s bad - it may be objectively right. But if I can’t find a way to incorporate it in a way that makes me comfortable on stage, I ignore it. If it takes away from my goals of what I want the presentation to deliver, I leave it be. I’ve given it the time and consideration, and thoughtfully chosen to do something else. That’s hard to do, but I’ve gotten better at it, as I’ve gotten more comfortable knowing what my style is on stage.

Final Preparation šŸ”—

I store my slides in a GitHub repo, even while I’m developing it. That repo is public, which has the added benefit of being shareable, should I need to use another computer. I prefer using Keynote to any online tools, but that does limit the ease of access. Something new, given my RubyConf Mini issue, is to have a buddy with the slide deck on their laptop PRIOR. That may be a conference organizer. That way it’s already set up, and I can confirm it looks exactly how I want. I use custom fonts and colors, and I want to make sure those get installed and are available too.

Going back to RubyConf Mini, I was very relieved to use Drew’s computer, but it wasn’t the experience I wanted it to be. We were installing it live on stage. I didn’t have the time (or foresight) to install the fonts and colors I built the deck with. It’s a touch that only I could have noticed, and didn’t take away too much (I hope) from the experience. But it was still frustrating. It wasn’t the exact visual presentation I had spent the time preparing for the audience.

I build a page on my website about each of my talks now. At the end of the presentation, I share that link. That can provide information about the talk. I include the proposal, the slides, code examples, and related blog posts. Some times I put details about the slides themselves, like photo credits and fonts used.

Once I’m confident they won’t change, I publish my slides for the audience to access. I use Speaker Deck to host my slides.

Packing šŸ”—

Here are some things I bring to a conference in service of the talk. Even if I’m not speaking, I carry these with me, in case another speaker could use them. So, if you’re at a conference I’m at and you’re looking for one of these, come find me!

  • A button-up shirt - I wear these shirts so the wire of the lav mic can hide inside the shirt. Then I don’t hit it if I’m waving my hands around or something.
  • Water bottle - Water is good. You should drink some before and during the talk…but not too much.
  • Clear plastic cup - I usually take this from my hotel room. I may not want to fumble with taking the cap on and off my water bottle, so I pour some water in the cup on stage.
  • Slide advancer - I like to walk a bit away from the podium in a small box. Holding this gives me the freedom to do that without needing to hop back to the computer to get to the next slide.
  • Extra batteries - It’d be a real shame if I couldn’t advance the slides from my fancy slide advancer because I used up the batteries with all my practicing.
  • Laptop power cable - Especially if you practice with your laptop plugged in, give the talk with your laptop plugged in. You don’t want some unexpected power saver setting surprising you on stage.
  • A/V connection or cables - The venue or organizers may say they’ll have some, and you may need to use them, but better to have one of your own in case.
  • Throat lozenges - I put one in my mouth about an hour before I’m on stage, whether I need it or not.

At The Conference šŸ”—

I find the room I’m speaking in well before my time. Ideally a day before. At the very least, it resolves the immediate stress of needing to know where to go. I also ask to plug in my computer and make sure it works. This is a great chance to meet the A/V team that’ll be helping you. I introduce myself and ask their names. I ask them if there’s anything I can do to make their jobs easier. I let them know if I’m playing any audio on my computer. I tell them I’m likely to walk around (a little) on stage, and ask if that’s any concern for them.

I go to the slide that has the smallest font, or most dense visuals on it, and then run (ok, walk) to the back of the room. I ensure it looks legible to me.

That is the only time I would consider making any changes to my slides, content, or delivery this late. Anything else would be detrimental to the experience. I’ve already practiced so much with it another way I do not feel comfortable making any other changes.

It may turn out there’s a giant chandelier that obscures some of the projection. It’s probably a good idea to take that into account for your audience.

If the schedule allows, I also see a talk in that room before my session. I sit in the back.

I practice the night before, by myself, in my hotel room. And only once. That rule still applies. Other speakers may form groups to do a run through or practice. I’m happy to attend those and support others, but it doesn’t work for me to practice that way. It’s a lot of energy for me to speak in front of a crowd, so I save it for the stage.

Day Of šŸ”—

As hard as it is, I try not to think too much about my talk before I give it. I’ve already practiced dozens of times. At this point, it is as good as it’s going to be. This is easier said than done, but the goal is to not focus on it.

Be mindful of the schedule. Is there a short break before the talk? If so, then I stay in that room for the prior session, even if there’s somewhere else I’d rather be. Whether there’s a long or short break before, plan on people opening the door(s) and coming in late. That makes it less surprising when it happens.

If given the choice, I do not take questions from the large group. I’m happy to talk to anyone and everyone afterwards individually. I let the audience know where I’ll be right after the talk. That’s usually right next to the stage, but again, I’m mindful of the schedule. Is there’s another talk right after? I want to cede that space to the next speaker to not interrupt their preparation.

After you’re done, listen to your body. Do you need to go disappear and be by yourself? Do that! Do you need the affirmation of others? Find someone in the audience and go talk to them! You did it! Think about the special dessert you’ll get at dinner to celebrate, even if that’s alone in your hotel room.