Steve Grunwell

Open-source contributor, speaker, and electronics tinkerer

An empty, auditorium-style lecture hall

Quick Tips for New Speakers

I’m not a professional speaker by any stretch of the imagination, but I do tend to make it to a non-negligible number of conferences each year, where I get up on stage for 45 minutes to an hour at a time and try to help people.

Lately, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to newer conference speakers, and trying to offer what little advice I feel qualified enough to give. This post aims to sum up some of the more common points.

1. Don’t wear your badge while you’re on stage

At conferences, we’re typically given a badge that we’re expected to wear throughout the conference. Not only does it help ensure that only ticketed attendees are attending sessions, but it also serves as an identifier — often including your company, hometown, and/or social media handles.

When you’re speaking, the name badge becomes a distraction. People in the audience can’t read it from where they’re sitting, and there’s a good likelihood your name and/or picture are already prominently displayed in the room (either in your slides or on signage). There’s no reason to wear the name badge on stage, especially if it’s obscuring a company or brand that you’re dressed to represent.

If the presentation is being recorded or otherwise picked up by microphones (for example, there’s a PA system to amplify the speaker), a name badge can also be a source of unwanted interference. Rather than risk scratchy audio, it’s best to ditch the badge until you get off of the stage.

2. Alway submit more than one talk

Most conferences I submit to are looking for at least one talk per speaker; if travel and/or accommodations are covered by the conference, it’s especially attractive to organizers if they can pay for one speaker and get two talks. Other conferences may only be looking for a single talk but would like to have options.

This recommendation will typically depend on the conference organizers, but as a general rule I try to submit three proposals for every one speaking slot I’m looking to fill. Applying to a conference that typically asks speakers to give two talks? I’ll probably submit a minimum of six proposals.

There’s no hard-and-fast number, but I’d rather not limit myself to only a few talks, especially when dealing with more technical topics, as there will likely be multiple talks being submitted for popular topics. One of my greatest fears is submitting a talk about a library or framework, only to have the author of that framework submit a talk on the same topic; who’s better to speak about using the library, me or the person who literally wrote and maintains it?

3. Come prepared

Generally, I try to have my slides finalized and rehearsed at least once or twice about a week ahead of the conference. It doesn’t always work out (especially if I’m preparing multiple talks), but my slides will always be complete — and often posted online — before I leave my house for the conference.

Meanwhile, I’ve encountered speakers who wait until days or even hours before their talk to start preparing, and then have the audacity to brag about it. Pulling a talk out of your ass at the last minute is not cool. It’s disrespectful to your audience, the organizers, and to the other speakers. Remember: there were likely speakers who were turned away so you could procrastinate and then BS your way through a talk. Please don’t be that speaker!

4. Be respectful of others’ time

Along with being prepared, make sure that you’re ready to go as soon as your time starts, and out of the way as soon as it ends. As soon as the previous presenter has unhooked, you should be ready — with the appropriate adapters — to connect your computer.

I’ve given talks where the speaker before me showed up just minutes before their talk was scheduled to begin, had connectivity issues, then threw off the schedule for the room for the rest of the day. This particular conference had very short windows between sessions, and the speaker proceeded to give his entire talk (including a live demo), forcing me to fly through mine to help get the room back on time.

Delays will happen. Connectivity issues will come up. These are natural parts of getting on stage, but when it does happen please recognize that it’s disrespectful to both attendees and other speakers to give an unabridged talk in a shortened window of time; if your lack of preparation shortens the time you have to speak, then you should actively be ready to cut content + demos to make up for it.

5. Repeat questions before answering them

This is something that I still trip up on all the time, but it’s generally a good habit to repeat a question from the audience before offering your answer.

For talks that are being recorded, this is often the only way the question will make it into the recording, as the audience isn’t typically mic’d. Repeating the question also helps other attendees who might be across the room get context before you dive into your answer.

While repeating the question, try to distill it into its simplest terms. Audience members — especially more technically-inclined individuals like developers — often bury the real question in unnecessary details. You don’t need to repeat everything the audience member said, but try to get to the underlying question as best you can.

For example, consider the following typical question:

I’ve been a software developer for nearly twenty years, and have spent the last four or five working with WordPress. It seems like there are a lot of plugins out that try to solve the same problem, so what kind of strategies do you use to find the most effective ones for each project?

This can be distilled into:

The question was “how do you determine the best plugin when there are multiple options available?” Well, I’d typically…

The one scenario where repeating the question might not be necessary would be a large auditorium setting, where audience questions are asked (and recorded) via microphone. If in doubt, check with the room moderators ahead of time.

6. Take advantage of DND

Before plugging in your laptop, take a moment to close down anything on your screen/workspaces that you might not want everyone in the audience to see; computers can show some funky things while trying to figure out a new display, and the last thing you want is a sensitive email or browser tab being presented to a room full of people.

Most computers these day ship with “Do Not Disturb” (DND) modes, which will silence notifications. In macOS, this is is accomplished through the “Notification Center” in the top-right corner of the screen; for Windows users, you’ll want to look for “Quiet Hours” in the Action Center. These settings will ensure that emails, Slack messages, and any other notifications are silenced while you’re on stage. Go ahead and activate DND on your phone, too — it’s hard to focus on your talk when your Twitter notifications about your talk are blowing up.

7. Be present

Finally, try to resist the urge to hide out in your hotel room or spend all of the time you’re not speaking buried in a laptop.

As a speaker, many of the attendees look up to you; after all, your badge literally identifies you as an expert whom others are paying to hear speak! As such, you also have an implicit role as a conference ambassador: the organizers have selected you to help make attendees feel welcome, comfortable, and as though their fees have been well-spent.

You’re also often at the conference representing your company, team, or project. It’s fine to have a few drinks at the after-party, but if you’re loud, obnoxious, or rude to people, you’re creating a negative association with your organization and creating a bad conference experience for those around you.

As much as you’re able, try to be present and available to attendees at the conference. Stick around after your talk to answer questions. Strike up conversations with new people. Try to attend any after parties or social events — the more you can lead by example, the more fulfilling your conference experience will be!


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