What You Need to Know About Speaking at Conferences

Like many people, I've spent much of my life being terrified of public speaking.

My fears were stoked by anxiety-inducing experiences from middle and high school where I was thrust in front of an unkind class of my peers against my will, being told to read aloud from a book report I'd probably hastily written the night before. The teacher would ask for volunteers to speak and I'd slink down in my seat, doing my best impression of someone cooly bored (note: I am not, nor have I ever been cool). The second I heard my name, my hands would get shaky and a heavy weight would settle in somewhere deep in my stomach. After the dead man's walk to the front of the room, I'd stand in front of the class, red-faced, nervously rolling my feet outward onto the edges of my shoes and back in. How did my limbs work again? Everything felt like it was in the wrong place, not sitting right against my torso. And then I had to actually speak. My voice quavered, I quietly sped through what I'd written, tripping over words and pausing only when the last bit of air had been forced out of my lungs.

That is to say: it wasn't good. 

Thankfully putting myself in these positions as an adult weren't nearly as bad. It takes a lot of practice to feel comfortable in front of a group of people and to leave people feeling educated/entertained, but I really believe that with enough practice everyone can be a great speaker.

Getting Started

The first couple times I spoke were at local user groups and barcamps. I was familiar with most of the people in my small audiences which added to the air of casualness. The open format made me feel less authoritarian standing in front of a group of people, which helped. My experiences with those first two talks served as good training wheels for the larger events that I wanted to speak at eventually.

Finding speaking opportunities

Talk Ideas

"I don't know enough to speak, I'm not an expert on anything." I hear variations on this pretty regularly. I think everyone feels this way before they speak for the first time. Looking at conference lineups and seeing the people you respect speaking can make you feel out of place and lacking the expertise to present. Remember that everyone started somewhere: once upon a time they were first-time speakers, too. They weren't always perceived as experts.

Many conferences are going out of their way to let people know they're looking for speakers of all experience and knowledge levels, which is great. 

Coming up with ideas

Most of my talk ideas stem from lively conversations over random observations I've made. A good rule of thumb is if a bunch of people have more questions than answers (or more feels than facts), it'll make an interesting talk. People want to learn something new from a talk, even if it's just a different perspective on a long-standing issue.

I've heard many people say that they'll choose something they want to learn to create a talk around. Then they'll spend the time learning it and have the advantage of having the fresh knowledge and experiences of a beginner so they know what might trip other people up. Take notes while you're learning something new. How did you expect something to work? Did it work differently? How would you compare it to something similar that you know well? Channel your learning into a story.

Expertise and Abstracts

An abstract is the information about your presentation that you'll send in during a call for proposals (CFP) for a conference. Some people also call these papers.

Abstracts are complicated beasts. No matter how amazing your talk actually is, your abstract is what will likely get you accepted or rejected. Most conferences I've been involved with (and from what I hear from other organizers) judge based on the following criteria in this order:

  • Talk title and abstract
  • Showcased knowledge of the subject (blog posts, open source work, on-the-job experience)
  • Previous speaking experience
  • Person's relationship to the community, conference, or organizers

So if you haven't spoken before or aren't well known for your involvement in this area, it's important to have a killer abstract and to start making your knowledge of the subject visible through blog posts, tweets, open source work, etc.

Titling your talk

As my friend Brad says, naming things is hard. The title of your talk is what should immediately grab people and get them interested. It should be short, memorable, and give them an idea of what they're in for. I tend to name my talks after I've written the abstract because the tone and language I use in the abstract colors the way it should be titled.

Writing the Abstract

Abstracts should give you the mile-high view of your talk. What are the interesting topics that will be covered? Why is it interesting or controversial? What will the take-aways be? The first couple sentences may be the only thing a reviewer will read, so you should start out with something compelling.

Every conference has a slightly different requirement for the format of an abstract. Some call for a couple paragraphs, some a full paper. Others call for an outline in addition to the abstract or a list of objectives that will be achieved through your talk.   If you have a conference in mind while creating this abstract, check to see what format they are looking for before you begin.

Rejected abstracts

Your talk will likely get rejected at a bunch of conferences at first. Don't take this personally! Keep in mind that most conferences get between 4 and 5 times more proposals than they have speaking slots. Your talk won't be right for every conference or for every audience and that's just fine.

If your talk gets rejected, you may be able to reach out to the organizers to find out why so you can improve for next time. Thank them for reading your proposal and giving you an opportunity to submit, whether or not they are able to give you any feedback.

Additionally, ask friends who are in your potential audience how to improve it. Ask "would you be interested in seeing this talk? What would make this talk more interesting for you?". You may need to go through a few revisions before you find one that sticks.

Speaker Bio & Picture

Conferences will likely ask for your speaker bio and a picture at the same time you submit your proposal. 

For many people, the bio is harder to write than the abstract. How do you write about yourself and make it sound interesting? I highly recommend having someone who knows you well either write this for you (offer to write theirs for them!) or give you ideas of what to include. Your bio should tell people what is unique about you: where do you work? What have you focused on in your career? What have you done that is unusual? Depending on the type of conference you may also want to include some personal details like unusual hobbies or a fun fact about you.

The picture is less difficult. It should be an unobscured shot of your face and be appropriate for the event. I personally like using the same picture I am using as my avatar on twitter + github because people are likely to recognize it. You should have access to the high resolution original (depending on the conference, they may be printing it in a program or projecting it onto a screen during the conference) as well as a few standard-use sizes. I like to keep a folder that includes the original along with various sizes (100x100, 200x200, 300x300) so I can send off whatever they prefer.

If you don't have any recent or appropriate pictures, ask a friend to take a few for you. Natural lighting is best, but an indoor area with good lighting works, too.

Before Creating Your Talk

Once your talk has been accepted, get as much information from the conference organizers/track chairs as possible. Here is a list of basic questions I ask for every talk:

  • Audience
    • How many people will be in the audience?
    • What is the experience level of the audience?
    • Will there be a sign language or foreign language interpreter? Do I need to keep anything in mind for that?
  • Room
    • What kind of room is it?
    • What is the configuration of the room?
    • Is there a stage? How big is it?
    • What is on the stage (podium, table, stool)?
    • If the talk is being video recorded, am I discouraged from moving around the stage?
    • Will water be provided for me on stage or should I bring a bottle up with me?
    • Will the room be well lit or dark?
  • Technology
    • What resolution is the projector?
    • Are there any color issues with the projector?
    • Will a power adapter for my laptop be provided?
    • Will a projector dongle for my laptop be provided?
    • Will there be wifi? Is there a separate access point for presenters?
    • What kind of mic will I have (handheld wired/wireless, podium, lapel)? Have you had issues in the past with people being unable to hear a speaker?
    • Will there be a monitor for me to view my slides, or just my computer on a podium?
    • Will there be a timer?
  • Content
    • Have you had any issues with speakers in the past? Anything I should keep in mind?
    • Can I see a copy of your code of conduct and speaker guidelines?
    • Is swearing allowed in my talk or slides?
    • What day and time is my talk?

Preparing Your Talk

Before I start preparing my talk, I look at the conference's past presentation videos to get a feel for what they're expecting. I sometimes give the same talk at different conferences, but I'll tweak it to fit the audience.

Additionally, if I'm not familiar with the audience I'll talk to the organizers to get a better idea of the knowledge level and demographic make-up. This is especially important if you are giving a talk to an audience that may not share your language or culture. You want to make sure that your talk is appropriate for the audience and that nothing you do or say will be in violation of the conference's code of conduct.

If you're giving a talk in a place whose dominant language or culture is not your own, I would also recommend finding someone who fits into that group to review your talk and slides to avoid things that would be inappropriate or not understood by the audience.


I start by opening up my abstract and starting an outline. I want to make sure that I'm going to cover everything that's mentioned in my abstract so people feel like they learned everything they expected to from my talk. I divide the outline into three areas.

1. Intro

The intro should cover a little bit about yourself (less than 30 seconds, don't be obnoxious). After that, speak to why this topic is important, why you are the right person to speak about it, and give a short teaser of the points you'll be covering.

2. Exposition

The exposition is the meat of your talk. Each major point in your talk should have supporting information to prove or demonstrate that point. If I have a list of points, I will try to make sure that I am covering information in the same structure. For instance, if the first two points have a description of the point, a story, and a demonstration, I will try to make the third point fit the same format if appropriate.

3. Conclusion

The conclusion should quickly recap what was covered in the exposition, any calls to action (what you expect the audience to do with this newly learned information), and a thank you. 


After I have a solid outline, I begin writing my talk as if it's a blog post. This helps me make sure that the talk will have a story arc, enough supporting information to get my points across, and I will know what I'll be saying in each section within the exposition. Additionally, this helps me make sure that things are in a logical order with smooth transitions between them.

Note: many people try to add humor into their talks, which is very hard to do well. If you want to do this, be sure to avoid self-deprecation (nothing is more uncomfortable than wathing someone you don't know put themselves down) as well as inside jokes or obscure references. Don't leave your audience feeling like they missed something.

Slide Deck Content

As soon as I am comfortable with my draft, I start breaking it down into slides. I err on the side of a ton of slides with very few words on each. Each slide should be able to read in a second or two by the audience, so avoid walls of text or bullet points. The slides are just there to support what you're saying, not the convey the message itself - that's your job!

For major points of interest, I may put more words on the slide to reinforce what I'm saying. The ideas on these slides should also be short enough to be tweetable.

If you're using an application like Keynote, it'll allow you to nest slides which I highly recommend. Nesting them for each major point in my exposition just like I would if they were an outline allows me to quickly and easily see the structure of my talk via my slides as well as rearrange groups as needed.

Slide Deck Design

I would highly recommend not using one of the default Keynote/PowerPoint themes. Sure, some of them aren't super terrible, but everyone uses them. Your slides should be unique to your talk and you don't want any part of it to come off as boring.

You can create your own Keynote theme very easily, and I highly recommend it. While you're at it, be sure to take some time and configure your presenter display for Keynote. You'll probably end up tweaking this a few times before you have it set up the way that works best for you.

Zack Holman is known for his awesome slide decks, especially in that he's a developer, not a designer. It goes to show that following some basic design principles, anyone can have interesting, eye-catching slides that add something to their talk. He wrote a post with some basic guidelines that I highly recommend. My favorite tip he suggests is to make text bigger. Like, gigantic. Make it as big as possible, at least 90pt.

Slide Design galleries:

Typefaces and type inspiration:

Color and palette ideas:


The last talk I gave, I practiced sitting alone in front of my computer a few times a week. I practiced walking home from work. I recited my talk in my head twice on the bus from Madison to Chicago. I practiced in my hotel room the few nights before the talk. I even gave the talk to my cats.

That is to say, I practiced a lot.

I like to know my material forward and backward. I practice and practice until I need very little in the way of presenter notes at all. It's important to me to not worry about forgetting something key to my point on stage.


Practicing alone will help eliminate as many problems as possible before you're ready to practice in front of people.

Try recording yourself (audio as well as video) so you can find the places that you say "um", "like", or otherwise uncomfortably pause. Those are the areas you'll need to focus on most.

You can always speak slower. Take a full breath between thoughts and think about your talk as if it's a conversation. You want to give people a moment to let a thought sink in before proceeding to the next.

Practice your talk all the way through. If you screw up halfway in, just keep going. You don't want to have practiced the beginning half of your presentation more than the end.

Once you start feeling comfortable with your delivery, start focusing on your pacing. Make sure you are within a couple minutes of your talk time.

Rehearsing with an audience

This is when things start to feel real. Schedule time with friends, colleagues, and coworkers to give your presentation to them. Before the last talk I gave, I practiced with a group of friends that were in the same demographic as my audience over a Google Hangout.

Let people know that you are giving a talk at a conference and you want help improving the presentation.

Write down questions that people ask at the end of your presentation; this will give you an idea of areas you didn't go into enough detail for the audience so you can go back and flesh out those areas.

Make sure you ask them for constructive feedback. For many, it's easier to get this anonymously. Setup a google form and ask people to tell you three good things about your talk as well as three things you could improve upon.

Dry run

If you're able to give your talk to a user group or similar-sized audience before you have to give your talk "for real", do it. User groups are almost always looking for speakers. Try to schedule speaking at a user group as soon as your talk has been accepted so you can give it preferably a couple weeks before the conference. This gives you a deadline to have a solid talk completed by while still providing you time to make changes based on their suggestions and your experience giving the talk live.

Remember that this is a dress rehearsal, so try to replicate the circumstances you'll have at the conference as much as possible. Ask people to hold their questions until the end if the conference talk is structured that way. Use the same laptop and any other presentation tools you'll be using. You want to find all of the bugs now and not when you're at the conference.

When you've finished, let people know that you are giving this talk at a conference and you'd like constructive feedback to make it better. Provide them the link to your anonymized google form from earlier.

Where to put everything

For the Talk

If your laptop dies before your talk, what will you do? If you have a backup copy of your talk in a few places (such as a flash drive, Dropbox, or your email), you can recover pretty quickly with the help of a loaned machine. Similarly, if you use written notes, make sure you have a backup of those stored in a different place than your master copy. It'd be terrible if you lost your bag with *both* sets of your notes in it.

For the Audience

I try to make it easy for people to find all of the info related to my talks, so I generally create a post for each talk that includes any pertinent information, plus tweets, audio/video, the abstract, and any other related stuff. This way I can give people one link to everything. It also serves as a nice history that I might not have access to otherwise.

  • SpeakerDeck - export your slides as PDF and upload them. Include any links in the notes section so people don't have to copy them by hand from your slides.
  • SpeakerRate - allows people to rate your talk and give you feedback.
  • Lanyrd - tracks what conferences you are attending and speaking at.

Other Resources

A lot of other speakers have put together information on getting started and improving yourself as a speaker. Here's a random smattering of things I and some friends have found useful.

Blog posts and Articles


Video, Audio

Mailing Lists, irc, and Other Speaker Support

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