A month ago, I spoke at my first technical conference — Atlanta Code Camp. I had delivered talks to my co-workers, but this was a different ball game. I didn’t know a soul in the audience. I imagined the head of AWS Lambda was going to be sitting front and center, telling me everything I didn’t know about his product. On the other extreme, part of me wondered if anyone would show up at all. If a speaker speaks to an empty room, are they still a speaker?
Since the conference was an hour away, I gave myself two and a half hours to get there. After check in, I went to my designated room to verify a short video in one of my slides could be heard. The event organizers told me to bring an HDMI hook up but didn’t specify which kind. There I was with a male connector staring at another male connector. Best Buy and Micro Center opened at 10 am, but my talk started at 9:45. I’m that guy with a MacBook so of course no one had a USB-C adapter I could borrow for the hour. The AV guy just shrugged his shoulders at me. Imminent disaster was barreling at me as the minutes slowly ticked away to 9:45.
Luckily, I had uploaded the slides to my website so they could be available for download by the session participants. I put the PowerPoint slide deck on the classroom computer. I had the AV guy install Visual Studio and add the AWS toolkit on the machine for my demo. It all came together, but if I had glided in the door with only minutes to spare it wouldn’t have. Technical difficulties are just one of the pain points I wish I had anticipated coming in. Here are eight key things to keep in mind before going into your first conference speaking engagement.
Assume you are going to have technical problems
As you just saw, connecting to the projector can present some challenges. If your laptop is running Windows, you probably have some form of HDMI, VGA, or USB connector to natively plug into, but don’t take anything for granted. Reach out to the event coordinator to clarify what hardware you’ll need to connect. If you are bringing a non-Windows laptop, be prepared for anything as you are probably on your own.
Connecting could be the least of your worries. What if the WiFi is down? If you are giving a demo, it is always a good idea to copy screenshots out to your slide deck. This allows you to walk through the process via PowerPoint if technology fails to cooperate. What if the projector was dead on arrival? As unthinkable as that is, you should have notes from each slide printed out, highlighting key bullet points. Think through how you would use the white board to drive your presentation if needed. This would allow you to deliver your presentation even if you were at the local Amish college.
Finally, don’t even think about testing out new gadgets the day of your talk. Clickers, microphones and other helpful aids can spell your downfall if you haven’t properly vetted them first.
Practice, practice, then practice some more
When you are building your presentation, try to construct it as a narrative. One piece should logically flow into the next. A Stanford study by Bower and Clark found that subjects recalled six to seven times the information (93 percent versus 13 percent) when they constructed it into a narrative.
Try to do a dry run in front of a group of your peers the week before your talk. Free pizza is always a solid motivator to get people to help you out. A dry run can shake some of the nerves out once you’ve successfully delivered the talk. Also, they can be an invaluable source of feedback, showing you what areas you need to clarify, what you need to expand upon and generally allowing you to tighten your presentation. If you can’t corral your colleagues, you can normally find a local user group that would be happy to host your talk at their meeting.
I also recommend rehearsing your presentation in front of the mirror. Albert Mehrabian’s study showed personal communication is based 38 percent on voice, 55 percent on non-verbal communication and only 7 percent on content. Practicing in front of a mirror allows you to see what subtle quirks you are unknowing bringing to your presentation and helps you iron out any rough spots in your delivery.
Focus & engage your audience
One of the most challenging things I encountered was engaging the audience. When you are sitting through an hour-long talk, it’s easy to find your head drifting at times. Not all material is going to be compelling, but you can do things to help refocus the audience’s attention.
Make eye contact. Probably the harshest assessment I had for myself was that my eyes were too often focused on the slides up on the screen and not looking at my audience. Guess what? That just reinforced that these pretty slides were more important than what I had to say. When I made eye contact with individuals, I could feel their attention lock in on what I was saying. I made an effort to make contact with each person in the room periodically throughout the hour.
Try to sprinkle in laughs and interesting stories to break up the content. When we were discussing hybrid cloud, I brought up how, after reading one of my articles, the COO of VMWare reached out to me on LinkedIn, protesting that Azure’s hybrid cloud was an inferior solution to AWS Outposts with VMWare. I politely explained that our clients would disagree with his assessment, and while AWS was making great strides in hybrid cloud, Azure still held the pole position in my humble opinion. I’m still not sure why he felt the need to argue his point with little old me, but the audience perked up at this peculiar little story.
Use a water bottle to help with pacing
A water bottle is helpful to keep your vocal cords well lubricated, but it can also be an invaluable tool to help with pacing. Pacing can be a tricky thing. You can deliver a talk in front of the mirror or to an audience you feel comfortable with, and nail your projected time. Plop yourself in a room full of strangers, and all of the sudden you are blowing through slides at record pace. Chalk it up to nerves. Purposely make yourself catch your breath every couple of points. Take a drink of water, allow your ideas to sink in and then launch into your next thought. It will get easier the more events you speak at, but at the beginning you will need to slow yourself down so your ideas don’t start tripping over themselves. You don’t want to inadvertently wrap up thirty minutes early.
Thank your audience
During my talk, there were eight other sessions running in tandem within the building. That means the people who attended my talk looked at the schedule and decided that learning about serverless computing was the most interesting topic in the time slot. That’s pretty cool.
Maybe you are the only person at that given time, but your audience made an effort to get to the conference early enough to make your talk or not take an extended lunch break. Say thank you for coming out. Tell them you appreciate it, and you hope they are able to take a lot from the session. I find this small dose of sincerity to the audience says I value what you bring to this talk.
Pay It Forward
I like to include a slide right after introducing myself to suggest other sessions I feel the audience will find value in. A few of my colleagues and one former colleague were presenting at the conference so I asked everyone to give them special consideration if they were torn between a few interesting options. Sure enough, I kept seeing a handful of my audience attending these sessions I recommended.
Whether it is a coworker you want to support or just a really insightful talk you caught in the past, you are adding value to your audience by helping them map out their day. Some of that good karma might boomerang back on you in the future.
Do a Post Mortem
I hate to burst your bubble, but your first talk will be far from perfect. It may only be slightly better than good, and that is okay. I’m sure even Tony Robbins stumbled out of the gate his first time on stage. The key is to catalog your successes and learn from your mistakes so that each successive presentation builds on the last. Take some time to make notes on what worked and what didn’t on the current topic and around the session in general. That way you can make improvements to the talk if you are asked to give it again in the future, and you have a running list of improvements you can incorporate into your general speaking routine.
Also, start to notice what other speakers do to engage their audience and add value to their presentations. Try to find things they do that you can give your own voice to. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Become a Speaking Junkie
The start of my day was rocky and nerves threatened to get the better of me at times, but presenting was a lot of fun. It was an adrenaline rush, and afterwards I felt like I could leap tall buildings in a single bound. I’m already actively looking for the next conference to present at.
Don’t let your talk be one and done. Practice makes perfect, The more you get up in front of people, the more comfortable you will be.
Speaking is a killer tool to add to your professional resume because it’s not something that comes easily for most people, and shying away from it can be detrimental to your career. It was found that a fear of public speaking can cut wages by 10 percent and inhibit promotion to management by 15 percent.
With preparation and practice, your first conference speaking engagement can be a huge success. That doesn’t mean you’ll receive a standing ovation or generate a giant line to get your autograph. Success can be measured simply by showing up, facing your fears and giving the best talk you are capable of. You will thank yourself afterwards.