HOW TO: 10 Tips on Presenting at Conferences

One of my favorite events to attend is BarCamp. They have them all over the world, but I really enjoy the two closest to me – BarCamp Tampa Bay and BarCamp Orlando. They are considered “unconferences” – basically, you register for the event, and the speaking slots are first-come first-served the morning of. If you want to speak, you just show up in the morning and put your name on a slot. I’ve seen everything from great technology presentations to strange sessions where people read the messages being tweeted to them in strange voices.

But the thing I really love is that, for someone looking to get into or hone their speaking skills, it’s a great place to get started. Regional events are great for that – my first public presentation was at the Charlotte Code Camp many years ago. But now that you’ve got a place to speak, how do you get started? Here’s 10 tips I’ve found useful over the years from speaking and attending presentations:

  1. Find a topic you are passionate about – One of the best comments I got from a talk of mine was at the SCNA conference when someone said, “If Cory had any more passion, he’d catch fire”. Your passion helps translate into confidence, and you’ll need lots of that to be a good speaker. You’ll also find your talk tends to write itself when you are passionate.
  2. Know your topic, and know what you don’t know – Unless you are the super-expert, chances are someone in the audience may know things about your topic that you don’t know. So don’t try to fake things you don’t know, or stick things in you don’t understand just to sound better. Talk about the parts you do know. Or else you may find yourself called out on it
  3. Know that you own the stage – Of course, if you do get called out, you have to remember that you own the stage and the interaction. If someone has something that needs to be added to what you said, or a minor correction, then you can decide whether to include it. But don’t let it turn into an argument, or lose control. The phrase, “I didn’t realize that, can I follow up with you right after this?” can be your friend. Your interaction – and control – of the stage can have a big influence on your attendees. Don’t let people take over the stage, but don’t shoot down every little request.
  4. Find out the basics of how people learn topics – One important model I learned early on was the Dreyfus Model of Skills Acquisition. At its core it describes that people need very concrete steps early in the learning of a topic until they have context and understanding to make broader leaps. That means that if you are targeting beginners, you need to be much more explicit about how you define the topic and the steps to understanding. Even if you are targeting experts, it’s not a bad idea to still include a little context, or links to resources for context.
  5. Find out the basics of how people absorb information – In the book Even a Geek Can Speak Joey Asher says to come up with no more than three points to support your topic (or what he calls your “Message Objective”). This is a great rule of thumb. I’ve also found that how your drive into the detail needs to be in a meticulous “onion” fashion. Present the roadmap of the three points. Then have three subpoints for each point and reveal those as you discuss each main point in more detail. In between, show the roadmap again to remind people where you are. In fact, it’s pretty much just like an outline – if a point only has one subpoint, maybe the subpoint needs to be the main point. If a main point has 7 subpoints, you’re trying to cover too much. Simplify, simplify.
  6. Know your talk – My talk is not my slides. My slides are there as back ups to points I’m trying to make. The way I write my talks is to give the talk to myself, and take notes as I talk about what I’m saying where, and what slides and things I need to make my points. I find this is helpful for two reasons. One, I’m having a conversation as I’m writing the talk, so it tends to be more conversational. Second, because basically my whole talk is in the notes of my slides, when I publish the slides, I can turn on notes, and then people who can’t see the video can get the points I was trying to drive home. But let me be clear – do not write your talk in the notes and read those. You should be able to give a reasonable interpretation of your talk without slides at all (except for hands-on talks like coding sessions, generally speaking). But you should know your talk, the transitions and timings. How?
  7. Practice – and record – your talk – The number one piece of advice I got was to record your talk. I have a small Flip UltraHD camera that I carry with me at all times, and use to record my talks. Even if the organizers are recording your talk, record it yourself. It can catch things you aren’t expecting. For example, I had a major problem saying “Actually” all the time in my talks. Watching it on tape reminded me not to do that, and the extent I was doing it. I thought I had it licked until I watched another of my talks which showed that I replaced “Actually” with “So”. I also write notes about what slide I’m transitioning to when I have a specific point I want to make happen with the transition. That helps keep me flowing as well. And when I stumble during practice runs, I can note that.
  8. Be aware of your movements – One of my biggest challenges still is keeping my hands out of my pockets and letting them just hang freely at my sides. My hands feel like they need to always be doing something, and letting them hang feels unnatural. But if you watch yourself on the video, you can see just how distracting your hands can be. The same goes for movements. Don’t pace. Make each move deliberate. I cross the stage to make some points, move closer for others, and move back for yet others. Get away from the back of the podium. Even if you are doing a hands-on coding session, there are points where you are discussing theory or background – get away from the podium.
  9. Every slide shouldn’t be a list – Look at things like Presentation Zen and talks by Lawrence Lessig. Use pictures (make sure you have rights or that they are Creative Common licensed). This doesn’t mean shun all lists. If you are trying to convey information, then it can really help. Ask yourself how each slide is helping drive your point home. But, don’t let your slides overpower your presentation.
  10. Be flexible – Stuff happens during presentations. The slides die. The humorous joke falls flat (Side note: Humor can be very dangerous. Don’t use a funny joke as a cornerstone of some part of your talk if you can’t recover from it failing). Know that sometimes you have to stand on a chair throughout your whole talk (as I had to do at my Agile 2010 talk) or that the projector plug is going to be at the back of the room when your talk is a hands-on coding session (as it was at one of my BarCamp Tampa talks). Your “experts” talk is going to be filled with utter beginners, or vice versa.  Your room that holds 600 people will have 20 people show up because the organizers scheduled your talk during lunch the morning after a giant conference party (as happened with my MIX10 talk). Roll with it.

Perhaps most importantly – get out there and try. Find local events and present something. Record yourself so you can see what worked and what didn’t – and watch the recording. Then keep at it – tweak it, rewrite it, practice it, present it. Pick up books like Presentation Zen and Even a Geek Can Speak. And have fun! Remember – this is a topic you are passionate about and want to share with other people!

Below I’ve embedded some of the presentations I’ve done over the past year. My favorite is the first – a talk I gave on a Tuesday that I found out about on Friday, wrote on the plane to Norway, practiced jet-lagged in my hotel room, and gave in front of an audience who did not speak English as a first language. I’ve also linked a presentation I did at last year’s BarCamp Tampa Bay, and a second talk I did at the XP2010 conference in Norway. Enjoy!

Growing and Fostering Software Craftsmanship from Cory Foy on Vimeo.

Selling Software Craftsmanship in the Enterprise from Cory Foy on Vimeo.

Serious Play: Product Planning and Prioritization using Innovation Games from Cory Foy on Vimeo.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Peter Saddington September 12, 2010, 1:30 pm

    Great article on presentation tips. There is a lot of preparation that needs to go into a successful talk. There are always people that want to ‘pick’ at you and argue. Don’t dismiss them, but don’t let them take over!
    Best to you!

  • Sarah March 31, 2013, 7:31 pm

    Great write up on giving talks, also I didn’t know there was such a thing as BarCamp. As an avid toastmaster I will definitely have to check it out

  • Elizabeth Leib September 27, 2013, 9:19 am

    Thanks Cory, very helpful post, I’ve just tweeted it in advance of #BarCampTampa this Saturday.