Alvaro VidelaRead my Thoughts. Follow my Leads.

Conference Speaking Tips

June 23 2012

After having attended way too many conferences over the past two years both as an atendee and a speaker I would like to share some tips I’ve learnt along the way for those who want to present at conferences. My tips are quite simple and even obvious, but I’ve committed these mistakes many times and I’ve seen others commit them as well quite a few times, so here we go.

There’s color blind people in your audience

Believe it or not there’s color blind people out there. I’m one of them. So if you present your nice charts and graphs with combinations of Red and Green chances are high that I won’t understand what you are demoing. As simple as that. Which lead us to:

High Contrast Colors

Choose colors in your presentation that have high contrast between each other. I don’t care if it’s just black & white, but at least I will understand your slides if they have a white background with black letters.

Also keep in mind that when you present code, the dark-i-am-a-hacker color scheme of your editor might not be visible at all during your talk since you won’t be presenting using your computer monitor. Projectors vary in quality and luminosity across conferences so you have to be prepared for that. I always choose dark colors for my fonts over a white background for my code examples.

Output Adapters

Speaking of projectors, if you present with a Mac keep in mind that some conferences don’t have the fancy Mac to VGA adapter, so it’s a good idea to buy your own. Tag it with your name and always keep it in your bag; you’ll thank me later.

Screen Resolution

You just bought the latest Macbook Pro with the super cool retina display and that’s fine, but I have news for you, most projectors out there won’t support such high resolutions. While that’s pretty obvious keep it in mind when designing your slides. What’s even more important, if you are going to perform a live demo keep in mind that the window size at which you are used to see your desktop, terminal window and text editor will change. That means that the code example that used to fit in one screen won’t fit anymore. You will have to scroll back and forth across your code example in order to demo it to your audience. Most probably you won’t have rehearsed for that, so be ready for it as well.

Font Size

This one is so obvious that it hurts, but yes. Most of the time we speakers have font-sizes that are not readable from the back row. The solution is easier: use bigger font sizes. –Thanks Captain Obvious.

Looking at the whole audience

Always try to look at the whole audience, don’t give the talk to that one guy that for some reason catches your attention. Try to explain your ideas to the whole crowd. This will help to keep them involved.

Don’t depend on Internet Connection

That’s pretty obvious but keep in mind that internet connection won’t be reliable at the event. It might be reliable depending on the conference, but don’t bet on that.

Learn to fail

If you are performing a live demo and then for some reason the app you are demoing fails, don’t keep trying and trying again and again to see if this time it works. Learn to move on and have a plan B. As simple as that. If you keep trying you’re showing that you don’t understand how computers work. Running the same command that is failing should keep failing. If it doesn’t fail again under the same conditions then your program has a bug.

Don’t count with your own laptop

Losing your laptop could mean a tragedy for your future talk. Now let’s assume that doesn’t happen, that your laptop is still OK but for some reason you can’t use it during your talk. You have to be ready for that. In the last conference I attended we had to use the event computers because they were already set up to use the session recording system, so we had to accept to use their own PCs which were running a different operating system from my machine.

Incorporate content from other speakers into your talk

In the same way a teacher links the current lesson with the previous one you could do the same in your talks. If you are not the first one talking I’m sure you can incorporate and quote other speakers from the event into your presentation. By doing so you link your talk with ideas from others showing attendees how everything is related, helping them feel more familiar with what you are presenting. You can easily say “what we see here is related to what John Doe said yesterday when he talked about XYZ” and expand a bit on that. This is not a requirement for a good talk of course, but I like it when it can be done.

Having a Conclusion

Many times I’ve ended my talks and then I had a bad feeling, like there was something missing. It took me a while to realize that many of my talks lacked a Conclusion, a final wrap up of ideas for the audience. Keep in mind that you were driving the audience through slides and ideas for over 40 minutes, at the end is time to tell them OK here is where I wanted to arrive.


This is all for now, as you can see they are quite simple tips but those simple details can go a long way in improving our talks.

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