I can’t make any claim to the title of veteran conference speaker. Not yet, at least. However, I have done it once before at ZendCon in 2008 and I’ll be doing it again at php|tek this year. I thought I’d take a blog post to give out a few tips to any prospective first-time speakers based on my first speaking experience. I’m assuming there that you’ve already decided on a particular conference that you want to attend, you’ve submitted a session proposal, and you’ve been accepted.
First, in addition to the other things you should do before attending, be ready to give your presentation before you get on the plane. You should start on your slides as far in advance as possible. Don’t put it off or wait until the last minute, because it will likely be more work than you anticipate. This includes making sure that any live demos you intend to give will run as expected. Syntax errors and crashing web servers look very bad to the audience.
One of the reasons for this is that you’ll want to practice your talk out loud. It’s one thing to put the material onto slides, but it may sound different when it’s actually coming out of your mouth and going into the crowd. You may find stumbling points, places where you stutter or get caught off-guard when transitioning from one topic to another. Try to organize the presentation such that it matches your natural flow when talking about the topic without any slides at all.
Which reminds me, learn from the masters. People like Marco Tabini have spoken before and have a wealth of knowledge that they’ll share fairly freely most of the time, especially if alcohol (or, in Marco’s case, an espresso) is involved. Look at books like Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds. Take the time to hone your presentation skills before you have to make your delivery.
If you’ve been to a conference before, you’ve probably already learned about my next point the hard way. Don’t depend on wifi internet access availability. Why not? Because the vast majority of the time, it will suck. There won’t be enough IP addresses, someone will do something to hog bandwidth and make latency skyrocket, it will find some way to refuse to work. Save local copies of files, write a minimal daemon to simulate a remote server, do whatever you need to do to avoid it.
That point goes hand in hand with this one: test your equipment early and have a Plan B. In particular, hook your laptop up to the projector in the room in which you’ll be speaking (or to a test projector, if the conference hosts provide one and prefer you use that) to make sure it can display your slides. Ben Ramsey was gracious enough to loan me his Macbook at ZendCon because my Sony Vaio refused to work with the projector and the time-sensitive situation did nothing but add to my speaking nerves. Make sure you don’t end up in the same spot.
Lastly, don’t let critical reception deter you from speaking again. I got pretty negative feedback the first time around, but I took it in stride. While I know I have plenty of room for improvement, I’m still going to give it another shot. Do your very best, then strive to be better.
Hope you enjoyed this blog post and gleaned something useful from it. If you’ve got any of your own speaking tips, please feel free to add a comment on this post. If you’ll be attending php|tek, I look forward to seeing you there!