During the enterJS conference 2023, I gave my second conference talk ever. Afterward, a lot of people asked how I got into speaking and what it was like for me to prepare. So I decided to write down some of the tips that I follow while preparing. I do not consider myself a naturally gifted speaker — therefore, I believe that putting in the work beforehand is necessary for eventually giving a successful talk.
This article does not focus on creating good content, but rather on the act of speaking itself. So here are my tips for that:
- Be careful when submitting your topic
- Craft good slides
- Find your personal style
- Write a script
- Practice, practice, practice
1. Be careful when submitting your topic
A lot of time passes between your topic submission and the actual talk. In my case, there was a three-month period between submission and the conference, but that can easily extend up to half a year. This causes several issues.
If you have to submit an Abstract for your talk, don’t make it too specific. Avoid talking about granular content points. Instead, paint a broader picture of what your audience will learn from your talk. This way, you have more flexibility when actually designing and rehearsing the presentation. You will definitely end up repeatedly dumping entire sections and redoing others, so this would create a discrepancy between what you promised and what you deliver. I also strongly recommend to not change the Abstract after its submission. Often conference organizers will refuse to do so anyway, and it is also unfair to future attendees. Under-promise and over-deliver, never the opposite.
2. Craft good slides
This topic is done to death, but here is my word of warning: If you include code in your presentation, then make it big. Really big, unreasonably big. And then make it even bigger. There is no easier way to fully lose your audience than talking about some tiny code snippet that no one can read. Besides, if you feel the need to put a big wall of code onto one slide, then this is a good indicator that you could benefit from some restructuring.
3. Find your personal style
You can find plenty of conference talks online that are extremely entertaining by themselves, regardless of your interest in their contents. These speakers captivate their audiences — by being funny, engaging and entertaining. However, they are also not you. Keep in mind that selection bias plays a big role here: The majority of actual conference talks do not have TED-level quality. They are not supposed to. They are supposed to be informative and interesting, but not necessarily entertaining. And that is okay.
There is nothing more awkward than speakers trying to force themselves to be funny by putting memes on their slides or by reading out an overwhelming amount of pre-scripted jokes. Especially when you are nervous, this will rarely work out. Instead, focus on your strengths. If you are a good storyteller, tell a story. If you are good at explaining complex topics in a structured and methodical way, then do that. And if you are good at making people laugh, make people laugh. But do not try to be someone you are not.
4. Write a script
This might be a controversial one: I personally had good experiences with writing a fully fleshed-out script during an early part of your preparation. The key is not to write an essay or an article, but to choose a tone that you feel comfortable speaking in. In the same language that you would use to talk to an interested coworker about your topic. Consider the following example:
I want to let that sink in for a moment, because we developers are sometimes really spoiled by technological progress. We are not just talking about “red flower”-kind of prompts. But about specifics, about positioning, about adjectives, about cultural references. And the results look really amazing.
My advice is to use short sentences with a rather simple structure. Especially when I speak in German, I try to avoid situations where the prefix of a verb is moved to the end of the sentence (“Darüber denke ich nach”). You also see a light use of rhetorical devices, such as the enumeration. Do not open a list of such devices, but instead use them intuitively. If you are not sure whether a sentence sounds natural, read it out loud (to a friend). If it sounds weird, it is weird.
To me, the script is not meant to be learned by heart. Instead, I read it a couple of times and then start transforming my main arguments into bullet points. If there is some particularly good simile or reference I wrote, then I keep them in the compressed notes. The same applies to transitions between slides.
The background is that during early practice sessions, I often had the issue that my attempts were varying heavily in how much I talked about specific points. Consequently, the effective time was very hard to measure and the quality of the talk did not improve that much during practice. A script allows you to mentally fix certain points through the act of writing them down, and then focus on improving the rest.
5. Practice, practice, practice
Once you have your slides and notes ready, start practicing. Since you most likely (if you are reading this) prepare for such a presentation after your day job, start early. I usually start 1 – 2 months before with this practicing phase. Yes, this seems excessive, but it allows me to regularly practice and not guilt-shame myself if life gets in the way of the schedule.
In the beginning, you will naturally remember some parts of your script and follow them. However, with each iteration, a less rigid framework will develop, with some phrases being somewhat fixed every time you practice, and some gaps that you are able to spontaneously fill out. The key is to learn which gaps you can fill out proficiently and where you stumble. The more you familiarize yourself with your material, the better your mode of presentation will become — especially when it comes to rhythm, emphasizes and intonation.
When creating the presentation, you will also tremendously underestimate the time you need. Therefore, practicing will also put your timing on track, so that you can achieve a comfortable time that is within the requirements.
Similarly to how I advocated for teaching, I strongly believe that speaking in “public” is beneficial in many ways. Especially regional conferences present a good opportunity since their audiences are often smaller. Alternatively, if you opt for a larger conference, choose a specific niche that you are interested in that is not already well-covered in their program. Organizers are usually keeping their eyes open for interesting submissions that are a little off the beaten track.