How to Survive A Tech Conference as A Speaker
“I always figure it out on my own, I just need to panic first.” (Internet wisdom)
I joined the Angular community just before the COVID-19 pandemic started. While I definitely profited from all the international meetups that suddenly became available, I totally lacked in-person exchange and networking. When an invitation to a “real world” conference came in, I got excited and panicked at the same time. If you feel the same — this story is for you.
Before the conference
- Leave the doubts about the topic aside: It is too late anyway. If you’ve got invited to the conference, you are good enough. Full stop. Your goal now is not to worry about your topic choice but to make it most valuable for the audience. You can do so not only by talking about something brand new, but also by providing a new perspective or comparison of existing concepts (a lot of illustrations) or by deep-diving into some specific topic (share the link to your code). Since the audience at the conference is usually heterogeneous, your talk will be too advanced for some participants and too simple for others at the same time, so no need to worry too much about it. In terms of story-telling, however, you might want to start simple, adding some complexity on the following slides.
- Polish the beginning and transitions: while I rehearse the whole talk a couple of times, I usually pay closer attention to the beginning of it. The reason is simple — when entering the stage I get into the zombie-like state due to my nervousness (at least it feels like this). Knowing the first couple of sentences by heart helps me to endure the initial stress till I can concentrate on my text again. It is quite likely that you and your topic will be introduced by the mc, so you can integrate it into your intro, too. Another part of my presentation that I practice more often are the transitions between the slides to keep my talk smooth.
- Make your presentation and code available while presenting: You can put the link to your presentation on the slides so that the participants can go back and check something in case they missed it. Make it user-friendly because it will be typed in manually or provide a QR code. The same goes for the link to your code examples.
- Mind the recording of your talk: To add another nice-to-have feature to your talk you can greet not only the present audience but also anyone who will watch the recording of your talk later. If the time zone or day or location matter for your talk, address it explicitly so that your remote/online audience gets the context. You can even use the fact that your talk is being recorded for a couple of jokes — “in case it is too boring for you, you can watch it at the 1,5 speed right now” or “no worries, we will cut this out”.
- Know the settings: Before my first in-person conference I didn’t even know how to dress appropriately. So I watched some recordings of the previous editions to learn more about the style of the participants, the amount of memes in the presentations, and the general tone of voice. Additionally, I’ve learned about the stage settings (screen, podium, general arrangement) so that when I was there it came not as surprising as it could be. However, do not rely upon it too much — remember, you cannot plan everything. In case you do, any diversion of the assumed settings might additionally stress you.
- Prepare your tools: Not only your talk but also your tools need to be prepared. Sure, the conference team will get you an adapter or a clicker in case you forget yours but it will give you an extra cup of anxiety. Practice your talk with your tools — if you are not comfortable using a clicker, don’t use it! In case you need your presentation notes displayed on the additional screen, you need to request it or to learn how to deal with the situation when the notes are not visible.
- Pre-record coding: Life-coding is a powerful tool. If it works. To avoid the whole bunch of negative feelings when hastily debugging your app you can just pre-record this part. Downside: you will need to switch from your presentation to the video and back (shaky hands, small buttons, you know).
- Practice with a timer: the conference team will certainly thank you if you help to keep the conference on schedule. Once you have your text, practice it with a timer. Another idea that I’m going to try out next time is to add time marks to your notes so that you instantly know if you are running out of time. E.g. if you know that by the time you finish the 10th slide you should have 2 minutes left but the timer shows T-2,5 you can take a deep breath and tell an additional joke. If you plan to talk freely, it is helpful to know if you speak quicker or slower under stress. Some people tend to speed up (probably to end this stressful situation as fast as possible), some people search for words and repeat themselves so it takes longer than usual. If you know what kind of speaker under stress you are, you can adjust your talk length accordingly.
- Get some mentoring: The internet is full of amazing courses on public speaking and storytelling. For example, Women Developer Academy is a free offer from Google that addresses female IT professionals who want to land more speaking opportunities, improve their public speaking skills and build their confidence and network.
At the conference
- Dry-run if possible: This tip is self-explanatory. If you have this chance, check if you need an adapter, if your notes are visible, or the text is readable from the speaker’s distance (I am a short-sighted person, it does matter for me) once you arrive at the conference venue.
- Connect to emcee/team: Attending an in-person conference for the first time probably means that you don’t know anyone (yet/personally) which contributes to the overall anxiety. Being surrounded by nice and friendly people helps to conquer it. It is way easier to come up to the stage If you’ve chitchatted with the emcee before. Connecting to some members of the conference team gives you the sense of belonging, so that it’s no longer “me, them and the audience” but rather “our conference”.
- Connect to fellow speakers: My next tip goes in a similar direction, but brings additional value: talk to fellow speakers. Besides feeling less lonely and insecure you might learn that they are also nervous and have some doubts regarding their topics. This is valid for “big names”, too. This way you learn that it is not “superstars and -what-am-I-even-doing-here” but “fellow speakers”.
- Observe and apply. It is comforting to know, where and by whom the microphone wiring is done or how you will enter and leave the stage. You can learn these things by observing the previous speakers. Pay attention to the logistics and it will reduce your stress when you are about to start your astronaut journey to outer space.
During your talk
- It’s ok to be nervous. I’ve been talking a lot about how to keep calm on the stage. However, people totally understand that you are nervous when standing in front of an audience. Who wouldn’t be? So being a bit nervous does not make you a failure, but rather more authentic and relatable.
- Get used to the timer: I used to practice my talks without looking at the timer (I just forget about it or the phone screen goes off). It was a bad surprise for me during the talk once I realised that I was facing the timer on the stage all the time. Seeing the count down felt like I was standing in front of a bomb. Lessons learned: get used to the timer.
- Questions with no answers: First of all — it is ok not to know everything. It is ok to admit it. It is ok to ask the audience if someone has an answer. It is ok to deliver the answer later. And it is ok to say when you prefer to be asked — any time or at the end of the talk.
Of course, there are much more tips and tricks for delivering a great talk. In this story, I concentrated on my personal experience as a first time in-person tech conference speaker. As you may have noticed, the preparation part is the most important one (hence more suggestions there). However, my overreaching mantra is that the whole thing looks much better from the outside than it feels from the inside. While I feel the agony of anxiety during the performance, people tell me afterward that I just appeared “a little bit nervous at the beginning”. After all, these are just some 10–20–30 minutes of your life.
Do you have something to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
Now that you’ve read this article and learned a thing or two (or ten!), let’s kick things up another notch!
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- Expert panels and Q&A sessions with the speakers
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