Advice for conference speakers

I've spent many hours working on tech conference talks over the past few years. I've spent even more time than that helping other people refine their talks, everything from startup pitches to lectures on cryptographic research, and after a recent week of conferencing I've decided to write down things I end up saying a lot.

Here's a condensed form of my usual speaker coaching, in no particular order:

  • Explain who you are! I may be at your talk but that doesn't mean I have any idea why I'm listening to you about this topic. Knowing the context helps with understanding the talk.
  • Your first couple of slides should be an on-ramp rather than criticial starting information. Your audience is still checking Twitter after the last talk, and you owe them a fair chance to start paying attention. An opening joke serves well here because laughter makes people look up.
  • Tell people where you're going in an early slide. Show the final benchmarks, demo the shiny feature, give a description of the tool you released. Establish the prize for paying attention.
  • Be willing to handwave. No one is going to challenge your definition of terms while you're speaking, and a friendly audience is along for the ride as long as you keep it moving. ┬áRabbitholing on some complex conceptual dependency is a particularly common failure mode among speakers who are used to giving academic talks.
  • Live demos are risky! Always have a backup for when it fails. Some good alternatives are to record a video, keep the bash history for a run you did already, or (sneaky) use VMs or scripts that only look live.
  • Be careful with your choice of font. Contrast is important. Size is important. Remember the colorblind. If in doubt or a hurry, use only black on white and make it large.
  • Speak slower than you think you should. The best speaking advice I've ever received is "if you don't feel a little silly, you're talking too fast."
  • Don't put too much information on one slide. But if your slides must have a lot of information on them, give people time to read before you start talking about the next thing.
  • Relax. You're here because the organizers want you to be. Your audience is on your side. The speaker dinner is going to be awesome!
  • Don't ever miss the speaker dinner. It's the best place to meet other people who are really into the thing! Sacrifice making your slides pretty if it means you'll make it to dinner.