7 things I've learned to make conference speaking easier

7 min readPublished June 16, 2019Updated May 02, 2022

In February 2018, I decided that I wanted to do more community engagement and public speaking. I gave my first conference talk a few months later in May 2018. Since that time, I’ve given 7 talks, appeared on 2 podcasts, and did a radio interview. I’ve learned a ton about what makes a good talk and how to come up with content, but I’ve also learned some of the nitty gritty good-to-knows that can make the conference speaking experience 100 times easier.

Responding to CFPs

I’ve noticed that a lot of people think that in order to respond to a CFP (call for proposal), you have to have your talk written and ready to give. That’s not true. A proposal is just that, a proposal for your talk idea.

1. Don’t write the whole talk before you submit a proposal.

In order to create a successful proposal, I think you need more than just an abstract written but you don’t need a finished talk. When I submit a proposal, I don’t have 40 minutes of content written and haven’t thought about slides yet.

My first step is to create a mind map to get all of my ideas into a visual format. I map out any and every idea of things to discuss in my talk. Then I organize these a little bit to see if I should narrow the focus of my talk topic or broaden it. Once I’ve validated to myself that I have enough content for a 40-minute talk, I use my mind map to prepare the content that helps me write a proposal.

Before I submit for a CFP, I write out the following

  • Audience - Who do I want to speak to? Who will get the most out of my talk?
  • Outcomes - What will my audience walk away from my talk knowing? Having learned? Thinking about? Inspired to do?
  • Outline - Using my mind map, I make a rough estimate of the flow of my talk. The outline will change as I write the talk, but this is helpful to think about organization and timing.
  • Description - Using the outline, I describe what the talk will be about and don’t worry about word count.
  • Abstract - I use the description to write the abstract that I want to be seen on the conference website. I pay attention to word count, sentence length, and clearly communicated takeaways.
  • Title - Finally, I come up with a clear, descriptive title that communicates to attendees what the talk is about and why it's valuable to them.

When responding to CFPs, the last two bullets are usually what you need to complete the proposal. However, sometimes they’re more involved and in those cases, you’ve already thought through everything else.

Creating your slides

Creating slides is often the most intimidating part of a talk, especially when you are a new speaker. Do you use Keynote or Google Slides or Powerpoint? What theme do you use? Do you make your own theme? How many words do you put on a slide? How many slides are too many? Too few? There is so much to think about when creating your slides. Here are a few things I’ve learned that make a big difference.

2. Use master slides.

When I start creating slides, I use the default black text/white background. I get all of my thoughts into the deck and try really hard to focus on content. If I think of pictures or colors that I want on particular slides, I make myself a note but try not to style any of the slides individually. This is because I want to use master slides.

Master slides are like a slide layout template. If you make a change to the master slide, all slides using that master will be updated to reflect the change. You can create as many different master slides as you want with different layouts, fonts, colors, etc.

By using master slides, when its the day of your presentation and you have a case of the butterflies (or pterodactyls depending on how nervous you are…) and you notice that the header of all of your slides is cut off on the projector during your tech check, you’ll only need to make the change in one place as opposed to all 150 slides. All of the presentation software I know of (Keynote, Google Slides, Powerpoint, etc) has the concept of master slides.

3. Design your slides with accessibility in mind

When you’re a conference speaker, you share responsibility for the accessibility of your talk. Hopefully, the conference has provided you with a microphone and has provided seating in a way that’s accessible for people with various needs, but your slides are your responsibility. When you are designing your slides, make sure you are considering text size of your content (its ok to split a bulleted list onto multiple slides) and contrast when you are picking your theme colors (as a general rule of thumb, dark text on a light background is most visible on the majority of projector/lighting setups). And as tempting as animations are, consider folks who may find them distracting or triggering and make sure they’re used in a way that adds to your content.

I’m not an expert when it comes to accessibility and its something I’m always learning more about, but if you design your slides with it in mind then you ensure that as many people as possible are able to walk away from your talk with all of your valuable ideas.

4. Include your social media handles on every slide.

Make sure to include your name and social media info on every slide (this is where master slides make things really easy 😉). This is helpful in two major ways. One, you help out people who are tweeting your talk so they have your handle readily available to include in their tweets. And two, when people take pictures of your slides, it makes sure that you are correctly attributed for your content.

5. Write out your speaker notes in your presentation.

As you are preparing your talk, write out the content into your speaker notes. This will help if you get a case of stage fright and can’t remember what you were supposed to say next. But it also helps because when you share your slides later, everyone will have access to what you were saying on the slide that's just a picture of a turtle 🐢. And if you are a person who likes to blog, they have the added benefit of being ready to be turned into a blog post as soon as you’ve finished.

Practicing your talk

The general rule of thumb is to plan to spend 1 hour preparing your talk for every minute you’ll be speaking. E.g for a 40-minute talk, plan to spend 40 hours preparing it. This includes writing, slides, and practice. But how do you make your practice time high-value?

6. Do a real practice run through.

We all have strategies we use when we practice—maybe it's in the mirror or to our pets (I’ve lost count of how many times my dog Prudence has heard my talk on Empowering Early Career Developers). But regardless, the highest value way to practice is in a real-world setting in front of real humans. Find a group of friends or coworkers who have 30 minutes to spare and will let you practice your talk with them. Plug in your computer and stand while you deliver the talk. Think of it as your dress rehearsal. It will show you the weak spots in your talk and the places where you’re most comfortable and can ad-lib or move around and engage with your audience. When you’re done, make sure to ask for their feedback. They may help you re-order that sticky spot in your slides or give you a better idea for a diagram or illustration.

The day before your talk

The day of your talk, it's normal to be nervous. We all get nervous. So I’ve found that the day before is the best time to do all the last-minute prep, because I’ll never remember as soon as the nerves hit.

7. Upload your slides ahead of time and schedule a tweet to share them before your talk

Some people find it really helpful to follow along with your slides while you talk and reading your presenter notes can be helpful for a variety of accessibility reasons. This is something I always forget to do on the day of, so I find it helpful to upload your slides ahead of time and prepare to share them with your audience before your talk. You can use Tweetdeck or some other social media tool to schedule a post to go out prior to your talk with a link so that on the day of, you only have to worry about delivering your amazing ideas 💪.

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