Advice for first-time speakers

conferencesspeakingfirst timer Sat 12 November 2016

This is the fourth in a series of posts about giving a tech talk. My primary goal for this series has been encouraging people who've never given a talk, so for this post I asked a number of experienced speakers what advice they had for first-time speakers.

Damian Conway (DCONWAY) said:

Three things:

Rik Signes (RJBS):

Pick a topic that you care about and that the audience can benefit from. There are many different goals to aim for, but a great one is, "the audience will leave here knowing just where they want to use the thing you explained, and knowing how, and excited to do so".

Slides are for demonstrations, or other things that keep the audience looking at something interesting. They are not cue cards to you, the speaker.

If you are not funny, don't tell jokes. You don't have to be funny.

You do have to engage with the room. You don't want to sound like you're reading something out loud and pretending that nobody is in the room. Talk to the audience and look at them.

Nobody wants to hear about your pet project per se. They want to see code they can use or solutions they can steal or problem solving techniques they can learn from. The transaction of a technical talk is: the audience gives you their time, you give them something of value to them.

Sawyer X (XSAWYERX):

It may look like regular speakers know what they're doing. We don't. I can think of no more than five people who actually feel confident and comfortable giving talks at conferences. I'm definitely not one of them.

I suggest finding something you enjoy, something you're passionate about. Find a fun angle for it. Give a lightning talk or a 20 minute talk at a conference. Practice over and over and over until you are comfortable. Practice it with someone, ask for comments, watch their expressions. Cut down the slides to the minimum. No one listens to you if they have text to read. They will first read the text, then look at you and listen. Send your slides to people with simple notes of what you're going to say - see what they think. Revise, improve, practice.

Find your voice. I enjoy making people laugh. It takes the edge off and I feel like the audience has a good experience out of it and listens better.

A few quick tips: Hands out of your pockets, no live demos (99.9% of them fail live), and pace yourself. You will likely be very nervous the first you get on - and that's okay. I still get nervous every time I give a talk.

Here's a hidden gem: Start your first talk by saying "This is my first talk" — the audience will be cheering you along! :)

One additional trick I use is speaking loudly to help myself gain confidence. It works.

Paul Fenwick (PJF):

I'd recommend giving a talk at your local user-group. They're always thirsty for talks, the people are usually friendly and supportive, and if you tell them that you're preparing for a conference talk they won't think it odd if you ask for suggestions and improvements at the end. It'll also give you a chance to practice in front of a live audience, and most people find it easier to practice in front of a few dozen people at a user-group than a few hundred or thousand at a conference :)

One of the most reliable ways to give a good talk is to be passionate about the material. Humans naturally respond to the emotions of others, so if you seem excited, or angry, or curious about something, your audience will be much more interested as well. That's also why I try to stuff lots of pictures into my talks -- they can evoke an emotional response that helps to hold the audience's attention.

Stevan Little (STEVAN):

Just do it!

Everyone has to start somewhere and in particular the Perl community is very tolerant and welcoming to first time speakers, it really is quite a safe place to do this (in my opinion anyway).

John Anderson (GENEHACK):

JFDI! 8^)

That's Just Friggin' Do It, for those of you unfamiliar with that particular acronym.

Personally, speaking has been a great thing for me, and I think it's something everybody should try at least once. I've met people I probably otherwise wouldn't have had a chance to, had employment opportunities that (maybe) I wouldn't have had access to, and have learned more than I would have otherwise. And I only felt like I was going to die of embarrassment, like ... three, maybe four times total? (I'm mostly kidding about that part. You won't actually die. You might wish you could, but the feeling passes quickly).

When you're speaking, one important thing to keep in mind is this: when you're giving that talk, everybody there in the audience is wanting you to give a good talk. They're there to see a good talk, and they want you to deliver for them. Nobody is there rooting for you to fail, or looking to trip you up or anything like that. The whole room wants you to be a success. (Apologies to the friend that shared this observation with me, because I don't recall which friend it was, otherwise I would credit you... 8^/)

VM Brasseur (@vmbrasseur):

Yes, you DO have something to talk about. No, you do NOT have to be the preeminent expert on the subject. All you need are three things:

You can do this. I know you can. Feel free to reach out to me if you need help.

Curtis Poe (OVID):

A conference is far different from a work or local user group talk. You probably don't know your audience and this can be daunting.

Make sure you know your subject very well and repeatedly rehearse your talk out loud and imagine yourself on stage in front of that audience. If you rehearse silently, your timing will be wrong. Only by saying it out loud will you get that right (though you'll still probably talk faster on stage, a problem I still struggle with).

And finally, some thoughts of my own:

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