Congrats, you’re giving a conference talk! So…. where do you start?

Great! You got a conference proposal accepted. Now you need to survive the talk. We’ll assume you’re already developed an idea, submitted a proposal, and written a description.

The outline

First, draft an outline. Don’t skip this step. It’s really tempting, but it will help you organize your thoughts and ensure you have a clear beginning, middle, and end to your talk.

If you can, try telling a story. Personally, I like to use this outline, fill it with bullet points, and use it as the basis of my talk. I dislike using scripts because I find that no matter how well I’ve memorized them, once I get on stage (and stare out at the audience), I have a tendency to forget parts. If I have an overall outline, it makes it easier for me to remember the broad points I need to remember when giving a talk and I can present more freely.

For reference, here’s the basic talk outline I use (my examples are in italics below each section):

Start with a goal: What is the one (or short list) of takeaways that you want your audience to have after listening to your presentation? Reference this goal throughout your outline. Everything you talk about should tie back to this goal.

At the end of this blog post, I want you (the audience) to feel comfortable and prepared to give a conference talk.

Next, think about structuring your talk.

Grab Attention: How can you draw your audience in? Think about audience participation. How can you engage your audience in your talk?

I started one presentation with a round of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, complete with sound cues. Another presentation I opened with a corny dad joke to get the audience’s attention. (Do you want to hear a joke about UDP? You might not get it, but I don’t care.)

Think about Q&A. Do you mind interruptions or would you rather have the audience save questions for the end? Plan to let your audience know at the beginning. Ask your practice audience for questions, and think of questions you’re likely to get. Plan how to answer them.

Introduction: Tell your audience what you’re going to talk about and why you’re a credible speaker on this topic.

I’m here to talk about surviving your first conference talk and share the lessons I’ve learned, having given talks to audiences of 1300+ people, reviewed conference proposals, and watched innumerable conference presentations, both good and bad.

First Key Point: Describe your first point, and any supporting facts or figures you want to remember.

In order to write your talk, you need to write an outline first, in order to organize your thoughts.

Second Key Point: Describe your second point, and any supporting facts or figures you want to remember.

Next, you need to create slides to enhance your presentation.

Third Key Point: Describe your third point, and any supporting facts or figures you want to remember.

Now, practice, practice, practice.

Conclusion: Review the key points you’ve pointed out, reinforce your takeaway (think of the goal you originally set), and include a ‘call to action’. Tell the audience what you want them to do after this talk (be specific).

Once you’ve written your outline, created your slides, and practiced, you should feel comfortable and prepared to give a conference talk. Run through a few tips for surviving and prepping the day of the talk and you’re ready to go! Go out and write your talk. You’re going to be great.

This outline doesn’t necessarily need to contain every single point you plan on making. It just needs to contain enough information to jog your memory when you’re reviewing it.

Making slides

Next, create slides (if necessary). Here’s my quick rules for slides:

  • Avoid too much text on your slides. Any time you have text on your slides, your audience will read it, and you’ll lose their attention. Recognize that and limit the texts to very important key points.
  • Simple is better. Keep transitions, animations, fonts, and colors muted. Your audience should be thinking about your content, and not about the design of your slides. Make them professional, and standard, and then don’t worry about it.
  • Finally, save them on a flashdrive, send them to yourself via email (in powerpoint and in pdf format), and to the conference organizers in the format they requested. Print a copy and bring them with you. You want as many back up copies as possible. Assume with presentation technology that anything which can go wrong, will go wrong.
  • Personally, I prefer to avoid slides if at all possible (for example if I’m giving a talk on soft skills), or keep my slides only to a few images (if slides are necessary to show certain diagrams) and one final slide with the key takeaways listed. I find that this helps me focus on my material and to keep the audience focused on me, rather than on my slides.

Practice makes perfect

Practice, practice, practice. No matter how much you’ve practiced, it’s not enough (I like to run through my talk at least once a day in the week or two leading up to the conference). Go through it again. Practice in front of the mirror, in front of a friend, or, if you’re really brave, record yourself. Listen to yourself speaking out loud, and get used to it. You’ll start to hear the flows in your talk, you’ll notice the key points, and and you’ll probably develop a better way to structure your talk. Let that happen. This is a good thing.

If someone tells you that you sound ‘rehearsed’, it’s generally because you sound scripted or stilted. That means you haven’t practiced enough. Go practice more. Do so enough that your presentation feels natural and that you can talk about your topic as though you’re having a conversation (with your 300+ closest friends). You’re done when you can close your eyes and feel comfortable talking through any of your slides (or your talk if you don’t have slides) individually without looking at them. If you have a live demo, TEST IT (repeatedly).

Work on your stage presence. Make eye contact with your audience (or different points in your practice room) and make sure to look around (try not to stare down any individuals). Stand up straight, avoid hunching or hiding behind a podium, and keep your gestures open (don’t cross your arms).

Practice hand gestures and movements which emphasize the points you’re making. Try to avoid wandering aimlessly or swaying back and forth. Make your movements deliberate so that the audience is focused on what you’re saying, not on your movement. I like to pick specific points where I’ll move across the stage to emphasize a point I’m making.

Practice again. For the last talk I gave, I spent 3 hours the night before the talk, repeatedly giving my speech to the bathroom mirror until I felt completely comfortable and confident in what I was saying, even though I’d already been practicing daily. I know that public speaking makes me nervous and it always kicks in when I step up in front of a large audience. That means I need to know my speech so well that I can say it in my sleep (or when I’m really nervous).

You’re ready to go…now what?

On the day of the presentation:

  1. Show up early. Check out the room set up, get comfortable, and if possible, test your AV setup. Bring your own adapters, power cables, and printed out slides/notes.
  2. As you become more comfortable with speaking, begin to tailor your presentations to your audience. Talk to individuals in the audience (but don’t focus on any one individual for more than 5–10 seconds). Remember to pause, take a breath, and punctuate your talk with silence. It will help you and your audience recover and focus.
  3. Remember that your audience wants you to succeed. No one wants to go to a bad presentation. They are rooting for you. Remember the old adage about picturing your audience in their underwear? I prefer to envision my audience applauding my talk. At this point, there’s little preparation which you can do, so relax, take a deep breath and picture your success. I know it sounds cheesy, but envisioning a successful talk helps me calm my nerves and focus.

After the presentation is over, think about whether or not you want to share your materials. If so, have a copy of your slides/materials you’re willing to share. Then, think about submitting your talk to other conferences!

Finally, ask for feedback (specific positive and negative feedback). The more feedback you get, the faster you will improve. I always find someone (usually another speaker or someone I know) for feedback after a presentation. I’ll specifically bug them for constructive feedback because I know it will improve my presentation skills.

Now give yourself a chance to relax! You did it!

Still looking for guidance? Check out these resources:

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