How I rocked my first ever Conference talk

Many suffer from the fear of public speaking (Glossophobia) and it seemed fit that the remedy is to simply face the fear. One of the cornerstones for public speaking and in fact for any task is — preparation, preparation and more preparation.

Step 0: Call for Papers

One of the hardest lessons learnt during the whole process of proposing talks, is to accept rejection with a smile and propose for the next conference. Conferences look for few important characteristics in a proposed talk and more importantly in the speaker as well.

A talk to be lucrative needs to have a unique title, target a broader audience, catering to the overall theme of the conference and definitely with a live demonstration.

Many conferences actively encourage new speakers and new content. However as a speaker it is their responsibility to propose an engaging story for the organizers. Another means of improving your chances is to either provide a youtube video of your previous talk or create a 1–2 minute video of you explaining your proposal. This gives the conference organizers a better understanding of who the speaker is and also the topic that is being proposed.

My Talk

After multiple rejections, my first ever talk was accepted in Index Conference organized by IBM. Many talks were around APIs, Security and cloud and my talk was about basic of API security by building your own token based authentication system.

Outline

The first and most important step was to create an outline of the story to be told. Every talk irrespective of its length, needs to narrate a complete story to be successful. One of the fun things that i learnt during this process is the plotting of a Hero’s Journey.

It describes the various stages of a story with its twists and tales in a successful narration.Obviously, a conference talk cannot capture all the different stages, but it provides an excellent platform to build the outline upon.

Rough outline for my talk — 10 steps to build token based API security

Mindmap

Once we have the outline, the next step was to translate them into the next set of details. It is imperative not to prepare slides or bother about time limits at this point.

Any story can be told in five minutes or in fifty minutes. The story never changes, only the depth of details

A mindmap is the tool of my choice as it helps associate ideas freely without constraints and also allows me to edit and move them around without any restrictions.

Mindmap created using the outline

Know your audience

Irrespective of the topic proposed, it is imperative to tailor the talk for the target audience. Speak to the organizer or look at the previous top talks/videos at that conference, if available. This gives us a good idea of the background, composition of the audience and helps build the story and tailor the level of detail to engage better with the audience.

Introduction

One of greatest inspirations for anyone planning for public speaking are to watch Ted talks and the most captivating aspect of these talks are that they have the best introductions.

Some of the prominent aspects of a TED talk introduction are:

  1. There are no thanks or agenda and the introduction is a quick 2–3 sentences of the main idea.
  2. Quickly establishing a rapport with the audience with a warm greeting.
  3. Always inform the audience on how this presentation will benefit them.
  4. Establish the speaker’s credibility as part of the talk and how you are qualified to speak. This is not a presentation of the speaker’s credentials, rather a means to gain the audience’s trust.

Personally i begin with a short story similar to a parable, to capture the audience’s attention. Most of the audience would have selected your presentation from either an online schedule or printed agenda which also would describe who you are and what you do. Audience are more interested in what you have to say on that topic rather than verifying your credentials or authority on that particular topic.

Structure your content

Human attention span is reducing slowly by the day and it makes the speakers job a little more difficult to keep the content engaging and relevant to the entire audience. It is important to stick with One Main Idea and present the direction of the presentation early.

A few ideas to keep the audience intrigued are to identify with themselves with commonalities and help familiarize how the idea would benefit them. We can also talk through what they are missing out by not utilizing the idea being explained. Helping the audience recognize patterns and familiar concepts help the audience correlate the idea as an area of similarity rather than being alienated.

I also learned a lot from this book during my preparation.

Engage the Audience

“The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.”
― Albert Einstein

Irrespective of the complexity of the subject in discussion, it is important to ensure that the audience is engaged and have a good understanding of the presented content. That can be achieved only by keeping the presentation fresh and interesting. It can be achieved by simply using unusual or startling statistics, evocative visuals or images or even interesting or entertaining quotes.

Meaningful Breaks

It would be ideal if the talks can be 18 minutes or lesser. However, many of these technical talks are usually slotted at 45 minutes to an hour. This allows the audience to gain not just an overview but a slightly more in-depth analysis of the idea being presented.

However, this understandably introduces the fallacy of being too monotonic and lull the audience. Instead break down the talk to 18 minute blocks. There can be a Q&A in between or a demonstration or a video clip — anything. The next block would need to again start almost as a new talk with a mild introduction and content.

Closure & Ending

The most important part of the presentation would be the close or the ending. This is the part where we need to ensure that the audience can gather their thoughts on all the presented material and distill them to actionable takeaways. It is imperative to summarize the key points, have clear call to action, mostly one or two.

The emphasis need to be on restating the key points, rather than re-examining them and it is ideal to avoid any new information at this point. Irrespective of the impending closeness to time limits, conclude the ending in a measured manner and on a positive note.

Slides Preparation

Slides are to be used as a visual aid rather than a tele-prompter

Use slides as a means to keep the audience engaged and evoke the right emotions to the discussion. If there are text on the slide, audience will be reading the text rather than listening to the presentation. If needed have just one or two words on a slide.

If it is of utmost important to have a particular quote or statistic on the slide, make sure that the audience is given at least a few seconds to assimilate that information before proceeding with your talk. This pause can be used for dramatic effect as well.

Your presentation should be completely presentable without a slide deck.

Even while using an enterprise provide slide template, attempt to keep it simple and unique. If given creative freedom, avoid Google slides or online templates and get help to create your own signature presentation style. This helps keep the audience in wonder and also improve your brand identity.

This book by Nancy Duarte is an excellent resource on how to make great slides.

Fleeting Thoughts

One of the key aspects to give a great presentation is to Practice, Practice and more Practice. Try recording yourself speaking the full talk and review to identify places of improvement. Work on the introduction and ending to make it powerful and spontaneous. Practice in front of your family or friends and garner feedback.

Remove unwanted slides and pictures. If the slide does not compliment what is being discussed, remove that slide. It is crucial to keep editing the presentation to its pristine minimum to prevent visual fatigue and information overload.

Being my first talk, as everyone else, i was extremely nervous as well. However, practice gives you the confidence to overcome such hurdles.

Good luck on your next presentation!