What I Learned to Wear & Ask When Speaking at Technology Conferences

Rosemary Wang
Aug 17 · 7 min read

What do I consider when getting on a stage at a technology conference? There are many written records of what to wear, ask, and more but I decided to record my personal approach.

Considering this was a post patiently sitting in my drafts for quite some time, I edited and published it. It’s not my most technical post but we’ll get back to regular content soon!

A dress, a projector screen, and a microphone.
A dress, a projector screen, and a microphone.
Attire, Screen Considerations, & How Microphones Mess with Me

What to Wear

Clothing and attire will always get some form of judgment. Women’s clothing in particular can be subject to feedback. Once, I received criticism that my shirt was too tight (it was a conference shirt in women’s sizing so…). The next time, I wore a blazer and was told I looked like a salesperson. What I have discovered is that there is no winning — I’m either too professional or too casual! Omitting my response to that feedback, when I pack and dress for a conference talk, I personally tend to focus on one thing: practicality.

I ask myself the following four questions:

  1. What’s my brand?
  2. Can I move in it?
  3. Will I be sitting on a high-top chair or standing on a really high stage?
  4. What microphone am I using?

Brand

The first point about brand is going to depend on the person. There are many people with awesome conference outfits and wear them to stay on-brand. It works really well and it doesn’t exclude dresses, shirts, or jumpsuits. Hair and makeup? Go for it. Shoes? Whatever you’re comfortable in, including heels if you want. Sparkling belt? I want a picture of it. At the end of the day, I say you do you! Personally, I end up choosing my attire based on the microphone (wait for the section) but I haven’t ruled out a signature accessory to highlight my brand. I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

Movement

My second consideration about movement depends on the situation. When I am emceeing or at a workshop, I find myself running on and off the stage or between participants. As a result, I tend to favor comfortable shoes and clothing with a little more room. I always bring a jacket because it’s cold at conferences but I make sure I can take it on and off easily. Speaking of jackets, when I’m on stage, it tends to be rather warm thanks to the lights so I don’t often wear them. Layers are my friends.

High-Tops or Stages

I learned about the high-top chair or stage situation from a more experienced public speaker. In my first panel, the moderator mentioned to us not to wear dresses or skirts. She did caveat this with “if they are maxi dresses or floor-length skirts, they should be fine”. I hadn’t thought about this until I realized that when I climb on a really high stage or onto a high-top chair, the physics of it left me in danger of exposure if I had a knee-length dress or skirt. Clothing rides up, of course, and while I hope none of the attendees to my talk would take offense to it, I just don’t feel comfortable with it.

Microphones

Microphones are the occasional bane of my public speaking. I usually ask the event organizers what kind of microphone they’ll be using. Once I get an answer, it helps me figure out what I need. If I don’t get an answer, I dress generic enough to cover the fussiest case (the lavalier, specifically). There are two types of microphones I come across:

  1. Handheld. This microphone is meant to be held in hand or clipped onto a podium.
  2. Lavalier. This microphone has a heavy unit (battery pack, etc.) and either a clip-on mini microphone for my collar or a wired headset that drapes over my ears.
A handheld microphone and a lavalier with two battery packs and a headset.
A handheld microphone and a lavalier with two battery packs and a headset.
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ATHandheldBlue.png, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lavalier_mikrofon.jpg

That’s right. There are even variants in microphones. Handhelds are pretty self-explanatory. It’s the lavalier that messes with my wardrobe the most. If I find out that I am going to be mic’d via lavalier, a few thoughts cross my mind:

  • No glasses. I found this out the hard way when they mic’d me with a headset and the edge dug into my head from the glasses.
  • Avoid the updo if I plan on taking the headset on and off. As much as I love to wear my hair up on stage, when I have to mess with a headset, I end up redoing my hair.
  • A neckline that isn’t too low-cut to be dragged down by a clip-on and has a sturdy elastic. Conference shirts actually don’t work as well because the neckline sits really far up my neck and it messes with the microphone picking up my voice. Button-ups are probably ideal but I don’t wear too many of them.
  • Pockets or belt. I slide the battery pack into my pockets if they are big enough. Sometimes those battery backs don’t have clips on them so I tend to wear pockets. Other times, I will risk it and wear pants with good elastic or a belt so they don’t get dragged down by the heavy pack. I have worn a skirt once but I checked it could withstand a giant hair-clip on the edge. Similarly, I was able to wear a longer dress with a wide belt that did fine with the battery pack.

The Talk

Preparing the content of the talk is usually straightforward. However, I tend to forget some nuances that I should include for attendees. Before I get on stage, I always:

  • Make sure I have a slide with my name and contact information at the beginning.
  • Ask the conference if they are collecting my slides. If not, I take the time before the presentation to upload an initial draft, generate a URL, and insert it into my presentation. If I need to make changes and re-upload, at least I always have the link for attendees to reference right then and there.
  • Include an ending slide with my contact information and link to presentation, if applicable.
  • Shorten URLs, especially at workshops. It takes less time for someone to type a shorter URL.
  • Number the slides. It helps at the end when there are questions about specific slides.
  • Update with larger font. A high school teacher told me to include a font size of 20 or larger. They also suggested no more than five words per line and five lines per slide. I actually kept these suggestions in mind and they have served me well over the years. Plus, even I have difficulty reading text on a screen if it isn’t large enough.
  • Check the colors. Blue and green fonts generally project better and can be more accessible for color-coding situations. I moved away from black backgrounds on slides because when I present on a TV, there is often some kind of glare from overhead lighting. Dark text on white provides additional contrast on projector screens as well.

I don’t use speaker notes, mostly because I don’t generally favor them. However, if you do like using speaker notes, keep these things in mind:

  • Ask the event if there is a second screen to project your speaker notes.
  • Expect that something may go wrong and they may cut out the notes.

Live Demo

Live demonstrations can be quite fickle and intimidating. I’ve been doing more of them recently and in spite of their nerve-wracking nature, they are a lot easier to prepare than slides! I used to use tools to automate my command typing for me, especially because I wasn’t confident I remembered the sequence of commands. Some of the ones I used include:

Over time, I realized that they were hindering more than helping me. I spent more time making the scripts work than actually typing the commands on stage, which I did remember for myself. Plus, some demo automation crashed on me and I ended up copying and pasting commands anyway. I no longer use demo automation.

Regardless of demo automation or typing directly, I record a back-up video because conference Wi-Fi is notoriously unstable. If the live demo doesn’t work as intended, I can revert to the video and attendees still get value. Before I get on stage or even record my back-up video, I always increase the font size on my terminal. It can be pretty difficult to see code being typed on screens, so I make it larger.

Last Steps Before the Stage

While most venues have equipment and adapters, I always bring my emergency bag of equipment. Just in case, the kit includes:

  • Clicker for switching slides
  • HDMI adapter
  • Power adapter for my laptop

The audio-visual engineer in the room will generally debrief me on stage logistics. I usually ask the following, mostly because I had trouble with the stage logistics in the past:

  1. What range on stage is in frame or ideal lighting for the camera? This is something I did not realize during my first talk, when I walked to a part of the room that the camera could not follow. There was another time where part of the stage was in shadow and the recording team let me know I had to stand in front of a line for ideal lighting.
  2. Will there be time and a microphone for questions? If there isn’t a microphone for questions, always repeat the question and then answer it. This is especially important for recordings, since the camera microphone may not pick up the questions.

After all of this, I check to make sure I have a water bottle available and I’m ready to go.

In Summary

While some of these points seem very detailed, they end up being the small nuances to make me more comfortable as a speaker. I can’t say I’m an expert public speaker but I do it enough that I run through this checklist each time. At the end of the day, I think preparing to speak publicly is about finding ways to make yourself comfortable and interacting with a broader technology community!

Rosemary Wang

Written by

dev advocate @hashicorp. explorer of infrastructure-as-code. enthusiast of cloud. formerly @thoughtworks. curious traveller & foodie.

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