The Mystery of Presenting at Tech Conferences Revealed

This article was written after the DotAll Conference 2018. The developer community I refer to is the incredibly supportive Craft CMS community.

The room was full. People were standing at the back. I could see partly tired, partly expectant facial expressions in the audience. It had been 4 years since I had last spoken at a technology conference and I recalled my conclusion: technical presentations are too polarising — half of the audience will lose the thread, while the rest will want more depth and detail.

As I was being introduced, I felt that familiar rush of adrenaline combined with nerves and self-doubt. I took a deep breath, reminding myself that I was as prepared as I could ever be and to just “stick to the script”.

If you don’t read beyond this point, then here is the essence of how to present at technology conferences. Your presentation is a performance that should deliver a clear and meaningful message. Specifically, it should:

  1. Speak To Your Audience — engage them with stories and experiences they can relate to.
  2. Educate Them — give them something new and beneficial to take away from your talk, regardless of their technical ability.
  3. Wow Them — create emotion and excitement so that what you say is memorable.
Ben Croker, DotAll 2018 © Pixel & Tonic

Before we look at each point in detail, I must admit that speaking to large groups of people does not come naturally to me. The days and weeks leading up to a presentation are nerve-racking — I feel an irrational amount of pressure to deliver a sensational presentation, preparing almost obsessively. While I feel very comfortable in one-on-one and small group settings, speaking at a conference has always been and remains incredibly hard work for me.

Fortunately, I have attended enough presentations and gone through the pains of my own enough times to break down the process into a few general principles. I believe the following applies to almost every speaker in every situation.

1. Speak To Your Audience

Audience research is pivotal. Your awareness will govern not only the topic that you present but also the way in which you present it, the level of detail you go into etc. The best way is to have conversations with individuals who are largely representative of your audience. I generally speak at conferences based around a developer community, so I’ll often already know at least a third of the attendees personally. If you don’t have the good fortune of knowing your attendees, you should find a way to connect and converse with them as soon as possible. Ask them questions that will give you the most insight: What are they struggling with? What would they like to learn more about? What would they find fascinating?

Preparing a presentation is never a task that really gets done. It is a creative process that comes to fruition when you utter your first word on stage. I generally begin preparing from the moment I am invited to speak until the day of the presentation. Those few days before a presentation are crucial. This is your opportunity to meet other speakers and attendees in person and gauge the conference’s general atmosphere as well as current trends and topics of interest. This is not the time to rewrite your presentation, but it is an ideal time to set the tone for your opening and closing remarks, tweak a slide here and there, and add some tastefully humorous comments about other speakers or in-jokes about the conference.

Creating rapport with the audience is extremely important. Humour and a sense of light-heartedness help the audience (and you) to relax, so that they are open to what you have to say. However, building suspense is even more important. Creating suspense at the beginning and bringing it to a resolution at the end of your presentation is crucial to keep your audience engaged. Your presentation is a performance after all and you are part educator, part entertainer.

2. Educate Them

Teach your audience something new. Besides the social opportunities that conferences provide — which are hugely valuable and, in my opinion, cannot be overestimated — people generally attend to learn. Leaving a conference wishing you had learned more can be disappointing.

What you share can be simple and practical. It doesn’t have to be anything as profound as a new planet, but should open up new possibilities, whether inspirational or pragmatic. Your audience has, after all, likely spent a significant amount of money and taken a few days off work to be there. Speak about what you do best, what you know inside-out, what you are most passionate about. Don’t bullshit them and don’t pretend to be something you are not. Be genuine, be humble, be you.

3. Wow Them

Captivate your audience: tell them a story, take them on a journey, send them away with a new-found sense of wonder. That magical, child-like feeling when something seemingly impossible becomes suddenly plausible is what you’re after. I’m not suggesting that you perform tricks on stage, but a little bit of magic is exactly what will raise their emotions and leave a lasting impression.

Wowing an audience takes creativity and charisma. It can take the form of telling a compelling story or giving a live demonstration. While live demos can be risky (so have a backup plan just in case), I find that there is nothing more engaging or more interactive which, when done well, can check all the boxes. Whatever your method, it should raise their curiosity, waking them up to your underlying message.

Don’t let all this talk of “wowing” distract you from the fact that your message, above all, is the essence of your presentation. However, your energy is the vehicle for getting that message across to a room full of people. Elicit suspense, wonder and emotional engagement.

Below are some practical tips that I find very helpful when preparing presentations.

Structuring your Presentation

Begin with a strong opening — create suspense by tantalisingly describing the “big idea” that you will reveal during your presentation. Then introduce yourself — keep it brief and personal. Next, use a few key points, each backed by a story, to build your case. Create a climax with your “wow” moment. Finally summarise your message and close strongly.

Slides

Your slides should support what you have to say, not the other way round! Avoid the temptation of jumping the gun and designing slides straight away. It is a waste of time and a distraction to do so until you have a very clear idea of what and how you want to communicate. I generally design slides no sooner than a few weeks prior to a presentation. Although you should research and collect data for them at an earlier stage, don’t make the mistake of building your presentation around your slides.

Research

Researching your subject matter is the groundwork for preparing your presentation. Begin as early as possible by reading, investigating, experimenting and conversing with your peers. Expose yourself to as many real world applications and people in the field as possible. I cannot overstate the importance of having direct conversation. This is the best way to get out of your head and appreciate different perspectives on any given topic — an essential part of building a strong case and delivering a meaningful message.

Practice

Practicing a presentation is easy, we just tend to avoid it. This is a trap. By the time you speak on stage, you should be well-versed in your delivery. Choose your words purposefully, lighten your mood and be animated. You can practice by: visualising yourself going through the presentation; performing it in front of a mirror; recording audio or video of yourself; practicing in front of people (especially those prepared to give constructive criticism). I would recommend doing them all. Each time you go through your presentation you will gain valuable feedback.

Keep it Lean

A bloated presentation is likely to comatose your audience and obscure the focus of your message. It may sound brutal, but you need to cut out any parts of your presentation that don’t directly support the thread of your message — even if they took days to prepare. Practice your pacing so you can move quickly over less important parts and spend more time on those that need emphasis. Time your delivery so that you finish under rather than over your time limit. Less is more. It will also give you a buffer for any technical issues that may occur, ensuring you have enough time to deliver your wow moment and a strong conclusion.

Understand How the Brain Works

Wait, what?! Don’t worry, I only mean you need to understand that how we communicate ideas and concepts is very different from how we receive them. When we explain an idea, we do so using the neocortex, the most recently evolved part of the brain. It can process complex issues and present them using language and reason. On the other hand, when we receive an idea, we do so using the reptilian brain, the oldest part of the brain in evolutionary terms. It filters all incoming messages, generates most of our “fight-or-flight” responses and produces strong, basic emotions. As a result, when you are on stage, you are not presenting to a room full of attentive, logical, reasoning intellects but rather to a group of wary, temperamental yet sentient beings.

This is how Oren Klaff explains it in his excellent book “Pitch Anything”:

As you are pitching your idea, the croc brain of the person sitting across from you isn’t “listening” and thinking, “Hmmm, is this a good deal or not?” Its reaction to your pitch basically goes like this: “Since this is not an emergency, how can I ignore this or spend the least amount of time possible on it?”
This filtering system of the crocodile brain has a very short-sighted view of the world. Anything that is not a crisis it tries to mark as “spam.”
If you got a chance to look at the croc brain’s filtering instructions, it would look something like this:
1. If it’s not dangerous, ignore it.
2. If it’s not new and exciting, ignore it.
3. If it is new, summarize it as quickly as possible — and forget about the details.
And finally there is this specific instruction:
4. Do not send anything up to the neocortex for problem solving unless you have a situation that is really unexpected and out of the ordinary.
These are the basic operating policies and procedures of our brains. No wonder pitching is so difficult.

Final Preparations

For the most part, final preparations go without saying. Nevertheless, I have witnessed speakers at conferences who seem to pay little attention to their physical and mental state on the day. Your final preparations should help ensure that you are well rested, well nourished, well dressed and mentally sharp. Of course, travel, nerves and anxiety will affect your mental state, but that is what mental preparation and mindfulness are for.

In Conclusion

Whereas I used to feel that I had to prove myself in the eyes of my audience, I have come to realise that I can only offer my best — no more, no less. Although presenting at conferences still takes a huge amount of preparation and work, I have become more grounded and self-assured in my intention and what I can offer. There will always be those who like what I say and those who don’t. It reminds me of the great ending to Bob Dylan’s “Talkin’ World War III Blues”:

“Half of the people can be part right all of the time
Some of the people can be all right part of the time
But all of the people can’t be all right all of the time”

Forget about people-pleasing and focus on being genuine and enjoying yourself. The very fact that you have the courage to get up on stage in the first place proves strength of character, a willingness to be wrong and a desire to share your wisdom, which is commendable in itself.