A Short Guide To Public Speaking (for Tech Conferences)

Hello there, fellow developer!

If you are reading this article, then probably you are having an idea to give a talk or you are getting prepared to give one.

This is great!

I am participating in community events for 4 years already as a speaker, an MC (master of ceremonies) and a review board member. Last year I even was volunteering as a board member projector remote control at OdessaJS.

I know how frustrating and scary public speaking can be. Also, I know what conference organizers and the audience want from a speaker.

Public speaking is hard!

It becomes easier with practice, but it is essentially a hard skill.

Here is a short guide you can use to prepare for your talks and make them better.
There are 2 goals of this guide:


It’s scary!

Oh yes, I know how you feel. Last year I’ve given almost 30 talks in total, but I am still nervous every time I need to talk in front of people. Even online. Even sitting in front of my laptop in pants in my cosy appartment.

If you are an introvert — multiply it by three.
This very activity — standing in front of a crowd (even when it’s 4 people) and trying to put your thoughts in order does not feel right.

You know the truth?
You will always be nervous speaking in front of a group of strangers.

Do you know the secret?
You need to learn to deal with that nervousness.

Here is a set of questions you may be asking yourself. Those questions raise anxiety level almost instantly. Ley’s cover them one by one.

Am I good enough?

Short answer: Yes, you are.

Everyone in this world has a unique and interesting experience. Everyone can tell stories. You do not need to be a top-notch expert to give an interesting, thought-provoking, inspirational talk.

Pick a topic you are genuinely interested in and turn it into a story — that’s 80% of success already.

And yes, I mean it — if you are excited by the topic and you can talk about it in a logical and comprehensible manner, that’s 80% of your success.

What do I do with anxiety? Will it go away?

As my practice shows, you will always be nervous at the very beginning of the talk. But if you can stop the internal dialog asking all those questions and get into the flow, you will stop noticing it.

Lifehack #1: Create a first step ritual.

As usual, the most important thing is to make a first step.

It’s a good idea to prepare an opening — a short introduction explaining what you are going to talk about (more on that in the Setting Expectations section).

Lifehack #2: Use Power Poses before going on the stage.
They do work, I promise. I was skeptical as well, until I tried.
Here is a great introduction to power poses and how they affect you.

Lifehack #3: Emulate the environment beforehand.
If you are giving a talk at the conference, give a similar talk on a meetup, in your company or to people you know and trust.

Also, there are some rituals you can employ Before The Stage.

In general, just practice more and try different approaches — you will figure out your own tiny secrets which put you in a flow mode immediately.

What if my idea or topic is obvious?

The best way to deal with a hypothesis is to test it. Usually, conferences have CFPs (Call For Papers) and sometimes even topic reviews.

Do not ignore those things, as they are basically an early feedback on your talk idea.

Also, do you know what is the easiest way to test your topic?
Ask your friends whether they want to hear it!

What if my expertise is questioned?

We all do not want to be impostors. I generally share Seth Godin’s opinion on that topic.

The truth here is that people usually do not care, if you are expressive and passionate about your topic and you take a humble position.

There may be a case that someone had a bad day and want to prove you are wrong. If they ask a hard question which you do not know the answer for — just be honest and straightforward, say “I am sorry, I do not know. Thank you for a good question!

What if I fail?

As stated above, the hard truth is that people don’t care.

It is usually good enough if people can get a couple of interesting ideas and meet other nice people at the conference. This is why there is a lineup of speakers. Your organizers got you covered!

Also, we all fail from time to time. This is a very human activity — to make failures and learn from it. We call it “experience”.

What if something will go wrong during the talk?

If you will ever organize a conference you will learn one thing — everything will go wrong during the conference.
But in most cases, people won’t notice it.

If you have some troubles during the talk, ask a technician or an MC for help. If you are uncomfortable to be on the stage with things failing, just plan ahead.
Think about an outroa 30 seconds anecdote or story to keep audience distracted until things get fixed — and use it in case of “emergency”.

And yes, it is ok to have a cheatsheet.

The Topic

One of the biggest concerns, when you are going to give a talk, is a topic. You need to figure out what is the main idea you want to show and how much details you need to give.

How do I choose a proper topic?

There are two main universal criteria for choosing a good topic:

That’s it. No more magic here.
Once again — you do not need to be an expert on that topic.

Also, I need to tell you about mediocre topics. Those are topics which everyone can find in documentation.

For example, “How to setup webpack” is probably not a good choice. But “How to setup webpack in a novel way” is a good choice :)

See the difference?

Usually, it’s advised to just focus on a single main idea and several supporting points.

Skip details and give more examples so that people can grasp the main idea.

It’s better to be short and concise than to be too explicit and overtime.

Meetups vs Conferences

There is a subtle difference between meetups and conferences you need to know.

You want to present at the meetup when you have some hands-on advice, a practice to share or a controversial topic to cover.

You want to present at the conference when you have a novel idea, a non-conventional approach or fancy experiment results.

But also, you want to speak at the conference to highlight an important problem or to pose a complicated question.

Entertainment vs Lecturing

There is one fact most unexperienced speakers miss all the time:

Public speaking at the conference is an entertainment!

Your role as a public speaker is to inspire people and get them on a journey with you. The way you do it is by telling a fascinating story.

A conference talk is not the best way to learn new practices or dive into details.

Here is the most important advice I can give to make your audience happy:

Do not turn your talk into a lecture or a report.


To make the onstage experience great for all people involved, you as a public speaker need to make some homework.

It is possible that you will give an impromptu speech one day, but it is highly unlikely that you will do that at a conference or a meetup.


The most important thing you need to concentrate on is your story.

To make a good story, focus on basic storytelling:

Storytelling is a deep and fascinating topic. It is basically a foundation for influencing people. I would not dive deeper, but there are some references in Getting Better section.

Slides design

Slides are usually the secondary media at the conferences. You can totally give a great talk without slides.

I think this is the second fact most unexperienced speakers miss:

The story is more important than your slides!

Slides create a visual cue for your audience, which makes it much easier for the brain to digest and structure the information it gets. There’s actually some science behind it, but I will not dive into that.

As you will definitely give your slides a higher priority, let’s cover this topic in more details :)

It’s important to remember some guidelines to create good slides for the conference:

It’s always a good idea to check your slides a day before your talk on a real screen and projector.

Here is one more lifehack for checking how your slides will look like from an inferior spot:

This will roughly demonstrate how your slides will be perceived by someone from the back row.

If you want to dive a bit deeper, I propose to watch this talk on creating great slides for tech conferences.


As usual, there is almost never enough time for preparing, not even speaking of polishing.

I like the idea of “better done than perfect” and I have seen a lot of good talks where people skip some preparation and polishing steps. But it is still a good idea to make your talk a bit better.

There are two aspects you want to nail down to reach higher quality level:

If there is a speakers board, it will focus on timing and presentation technique during final rehearsal. Be prepared and it’s gonna be alright!


Ok, it’s time to act and show your best! You probably will feel excited and be nervous. It’s alright!

Let’s cover what you can do to make the experience better.

Before the stage

Here are some ideas of what you want to do before going to the stage:

Setting Expectations

Ok, you are on stage in front of hundreds of people. Now what? How do you start?
Here is a set of steps you can take to get rolling:


You start presenting and made the first step. Great!
Now, there are some techniques to keep your audience attentive and engaged.


Great talks always come along with some interactivity. The easiest option is to ask questions and let people raise their hands for answers.

And there are some mistakes novice speakers make.

Getting Better

Public speaking is a huge topic. You may get this impression by reading this “short guide” :)

But trust me, it’s just a tip of the iceberg.

If you really want to master the art of public speaking, here are some additional resources for your to consider:

And last but not least — find a talk mentor! Some conferences have community programmes where more experienced speakers and board members help you with the talk.
Ask your organizers.

Happy presenting and have fun!

Originally published at metadevelopment.io blogon November 25, 2017.



Software Engineer by day, Founder at Metadevelopment.io (https://mtdv.io) by night.

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