Speaking at a Conference

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!


  1. Lig says:

    Couple of my hints:
    1) Keep in mind that Murphy loves first time speakers. Be flexible and ready for anything.
    2) Everyone is nervous the first time (I couldn’t eat the lunch right before my talk). Relax as much as you can and try to enjoy it.
    3) The audience picks up on your energy. Try to be passionate and excited about your subject (around the nerves) – and so will they.
    4) The first time is always the hardest. It will get easier the more you do it so submit more often!

  2. Kevin Bruce says:

    Great article! I’ll use your advice at a local conference I’m presenting. Also, you might want to consider practicing your presentations at a local user group or meetup- smaller crowd :)

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  4. Marcus Baker says:

    Wow, what a topic.

    1) Have a little too much to say and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. That way, when you forget stuff or lose your track, you can adlib a bit until you get back on track. You will probably talk faster than you did in rehearsal anyway. Slightly stuffing your talk will be transmitted as enthusiasm.

    2) Have too many small slides. Bullet points? Try placing each bullet on a slide of it’s own. Block of code? Clone teh slide several times and then highlight each line of interest on successive slides. Almost the same amount of work, but more effective all round. With less to remember per slide, you’ll find the whole process easier. I’ve done hour long slots with 250 slides. I can give those presentations fairly faultlessly a year later after only a single rehearsal.

    3) Have a character arc. That is, somebody in your story should change their mind in some way.

    4) Have an inciting incident. Some problem should be described in the first five minutes and then solved or recast in a different light by the end.

    5) Rehearse.

    6) Include motivations and failures (including yours). Technical information can be had from a manual. Talks should be human.

    7) Buy some iStockPhoto credits. A cheap resource of funny/cheesy pics. They always go down well.

    8) Did I mention rehearse?

    yours, Marcus

  5. Robert says:

    I spoke at 3 conferences so far and made these mistakes – on each and every one. I was preparing the slides on the days I was talking, thought that plugging a projector to my Ubuntu notebook will just be a plug’n’play and that I’ll be able to reach my web server – their firewall was letting traffic only through port 80 (I needed FTP).

    So yeah, be ready for anything.

  6. Jake Smith says:

    One problem that seems to be constant, especially for first time speakers, is letting the audience control your presentation. The speaker needs to write their presentation/slides for the allotted time and expect questions.

    You will be asked something you don’t know the answer to. It’s inevitable. Simply respond with the best answer you can provide, and ask them to leave a business card or email so you can follow up with them after you have researched their question further.

    I will be speaking at Confoo this year, and I plan on gathering business cards/emails so that any unanswered questions can be answered to all those who attend my talk.

  7. Joe LeBlanc says:

    Definitely agree on rehearsing early and often. While I’ve witnessed some people successfully wing presentations in the past, it’s not a good strategy for most of us.

    I think after that, trim down your slides and bump up the fonts. It may look huge on your monitor now, but it won’t be as large when people are sitting 25, 50, or 100 feet away from the projector.

    Also, trim the content of your slides down to the bare minimum; a few sentence fragments at the most. If you are going to show a code sample on screen, limit it to about 6 or 7 short lines tops, and make sure it’s a code snippet that’s worth projecting on screen. If it’s open source code, you can always refer to where it can be found so people can look it up later.

  8. Rafael Dohms says:

    Yep, that is the speaking at a Conference drill. I usually practice my talk in advance or at least the night before in front of my wife, which has 2 great benefits. One is that she has no idea about PHP, so if she get half of what i’m talking, i’m doing it well enough. That helps me find the best phrases to use, timing of slide changes, jokes and think about crowd reactions and such, i usually end up rearranging a couple slides. and Second, she works with teaching, so she has loads of tips on how to make a point go across more effectively, with visual aids or simple language adjustments.

    I might also add, if you can’t hold down alcohol, try for a quiet night on the night before you speak (NOT personal experience)

    Awesome post Matthew!

  9. Those are all very excellent pointers when delivering a speech. Usually after the anxiety side-effects diminish, communication and personality start to be conveyed to your audience. Good luck at php|tek!

  10. Jon Marks says:

    If you’ve got the time and energy, I’d recommend something like Prezi.com – the world is sick of PowerPoint and Keynote. I think you might have to pay a bit if you want to use the Download and Present Offline feature if the connection to the interwebs is really bad.