Speaking at conferences

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of talks at conferences, meetups and other events, such as job fairs and university classes. In this post, I will try to share some tips on how to get started, at least how were things going on for me in this interesting new experience.

The beginnings

I’ve hated doing presentations. I’m probably more introvert person, with elements of shyness. I remember doing my first presentation at the faculty I’ve studied, on a Physics class – I was thinking the whole week in advance about it. And when the day finally came, I was totally unproductive for anything else until the presentation passed. My thoughts were focused solely on how things would go on that presentation. It went ok, just a boring presentation with some bullet points, me as an unengaged speaker, speaking in one straight tone.

Since presentations were bringing a lot of stress in the build-up, I’ve skilfully avoided them, whenever possible. For my graduation thesis, I even got a feedback from one of the professors that I had my back turned against the audience, most of the time. 🙂

When I’ve started working, one of the first objectives I got from my team leader as a newcomer was to present something in front of the company. We have a conference room, which can gather probably around 50-60 people at most and usually we had the presentations there. However, when I’ve finally decided to do presentation on one staff meeting, the company decided to switch the meetings to the nearby cinema. A lot bigger room and a lot bigger stage. It also somehow went ok, but nothing special again.

My way of dealing with presentations this period was to prepare the best as I can, practise a lot and focus on what you have to present. Do my presentation without embarrassing myself. That was the goal.

Improvements

Over time, you learn that being a great presenter brings a lot of benefits. Whether you have to sell a refactoring of piece of code to your project manager, or an idea to investors, or a product to customers, doing it in a convincing and inspiring way is essential.

The best way to learn is to watch amazing presenters. There is a lot of great content on Youtube to start with, such as the classic Steve Jobs’ presentations. If you go back to time, when he was starting out giving presentations, you can see how much he has improved over time to become the master of delivering fantastic presentations. This means that there’s hope for all of us to improve. Let’s see how we can do it.

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Slides

The first and the easiest step you can do is fix the slides. I think no one wants bullet points with a lot of text in it. It might sound tempting for you to read the slides while speaking, but that just leaves an impression that you are either not prepared enough, or you don’t have confidence in yourself to present the topic. Whatever the reason, it will not intrigue your audience to listen to you. Also, if there’s text, the audience will intuitively read what’s there and not listen to you.

Beautiful slides, with a lot of animations, pictures, videos or live demo, are much better option. Minimal text, delivering one message per slide. Choosing nice font/s (no more than two), is also really important for delivering powerful messages.

I’ve found out that for me, Keynote is much better option for creating presentations than PowerPoint, but that’s my personal preference.

Way of talking

The next thing you can improve is the way of talking. When you dive deep into a topic and spent countless hours preparing for the presentation, it’s much easier to fall into the trap that some things are obvious.  However, if you put yourself in the position of your listeners, that might not be the case. So be sure to split the talk into delivering short messages, one at a time.

Learning many cool things about the topic will make you want to share it all. This might mean putting more content in the slides, speak faster, not make breaks  and do everything in the rush. However, less is more. Speaking slowly, in a calm manner, with breaks and focus on the most important things is much better option.

 

Make it fun

When I listen to other people’s presentations, my mind can sometimes go somewhere else after 15-20 minutes. And that’s natural, keeping people’s attention is pretty hard. But, there are inspiring people that you can listen to for a long time, without even blinking. What I’ve noticed is that they are making planned fun breaks, with jokes, multimedia or some demonstration, which will give the audience a break from the presentation. This way, when you deliberately focus your audience’s attention to something else for a short time, their minds probably won’t wander after those 15-20 minutes and they will be ready to focus on the next thing you have to say.

However, be careful with jokes. Those are really hard to pull off in front of many people, with possibly different backgrounds and beliefs. It’s not like when you are spontaneously making jokes with your friends – here you can offend someone. Awkward silence after a bad joke is one of the worst things that can happen in a presentation. So, jokes should be carefully considered, planned and politically correct. Over time, you will get a feeling about what might work and what not.

Storytelling

Storytelling is another way to make your presentation more interesting. Whether it’s some personal story or wrapping around your concepts around some theme, it will make your presentation much more compelling. Let’s say you are doing a presentation on memory management on iOS. If you start talking about reference counting, strong references and retaining straight away, audience not familiar with the topic might be confused and lost. But if you say something like “Imagine you are first in the office and you turn on the light. Then someone else comes in, they don’t do that because the light is already on. If you leave earlier, you will not turn the light off, because there are other people still in the office. Only the last one will turn the light off.” This is basically Apple’s automatic reference counting and it’s much easier and interesting to reason about it like this. There is always a way to find an interesting analogy for a concept, so get creative.

Overcoming fear

Usually, before your big talk you feel nervous and stressed. Will it go ok? What if I mess it up, block myself and have no idea what to say? There are two simple tips to overcome this. Prepare a lot and don’t worry. If you prepare a lot, you are dramatically decreasing the odds that something will go wrong. You know what to say at each slide, you know your jokes, you have backup plans for failed joke or demo. So there’s no need to worry. Even if your presentation is a failure, probably no one will even remember or care after the talk. No one will haunt you every day reminding you how bad your presentation was.  It can happen to anyone.

Stick to your time

It’s very simple, if you have 20 minutes for presentation, deliver the presentation for 20 minutes. Doing it in less will look like you haven’t bothered to prepare enough content to entertain your audience. It will also make gap to the next talk, thus making headaches for the conference organisers. Doing it in more time will look like you haven’t bothered to filter out the content and practise the presentation. You will shamelessly take the much deserved break from your audience and again cause headaches to the conference organisers. In both cases, it’s unprofessional and not fair to anyone.

Engaging the audience

This is probably one of the hardest things to do. Personally, I feel I can improve a lot in all of the areas above, but for this one, the most. Asking questions to the audience seems intimidating. What if no one answers? What if they don’t laugh at my joke? That can happen even to the best presenters. To get around it, I think it’s best to have a backup plan. Maybe throw another joke, for example if your presentation is before lunch, say something like “you are probably very hungry to talk now”. In any case, you should be prepared for such scenario.

Getting invited to a conference

But how do you get invited to a conference to show off your awesome presentation skills? Usually, most conferences have call for presenters, where you submit the talk title, along with some information about you and the topic you want to present. If the program committee like the topic, they will contact you and maybe invite you to the conference. If they don’t, they will either politely reject you or completely ignore you.

When you apply for a conference, you need to look at things from the context of the conference program committee. Their job is to select the best possible talks for the conference, so the attendees are satisfied and come again next year. Why would they pick you? Do you have past experience talking at conferences? Some videos of you in action? If not, than you would need to work a bit on your online presence. Having a blog helps a lot in increasing your chances of being selected. If you want to talk about some topic in iOS development, having multiple blog posts to back this up will certainly help you get picked. Sharing your pet projects with the community on Github is another thing that is considered. When you give something to the community, the community gives it back to you, by showing appreciation (stars) and following. And of course, they would like to see you talk about those topics. Having a cool product, famous app or you work for big tech company, such as Google or Facebook is a bonus.

That’s only one side of the story. The other is of course having an interesting and relevant topic. Being up-to date with latest technologies is very important here. No one wants to hear a talk about an ancient technology. You also need to be as specific and clear as possible about what you want to present.

The first time is the hardest. Once you start speaking, it’s much easier to get picked to speak at conferences. You will also start receiving invites directly by the organisers.

Benefits

Conferences are a great opportunity to exchange knowledge and experiences with the fellow developers. The communities are pretty cool – there are a lot of fantastic people who are building apps and tools, but also share knowledge with everyone who wants to work as an engineer.

It also promotes you, opening you new opportunities for the development of your career. What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you agree with the tips above? Do you like speaking at conferences? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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