The Ultimate Guide To Memorable Tech Talks — Part 7: Practice and Delivery
Preparing for the big day
This is Part 7 of a multi-part Guide to Memorable Tech Talks. Visit the outline for more information.
Now that you’ve written your talk, it’s time to practice it and deliver it at the conference. I’ve seen many different styles of great speakers, but there are a few shared important ingredients to every successful talk. Letting your audience know what they’ll learn if they stay, giving actionable takeaways, being prepared, well practiced, and knowing what to say, and getting to the point as quickly as possible. Plan your delivery for the audience. If you’re presenting to an international audience, be slow and deliberate with your words. If you have a heavy accent, do the same thing.
If you can make your content and delivery entertaining and educational, that’s an instantaneous win. If you can find a way to weave a story into your delivery, that’s one fool-proof way to deliver. Storytelling in tech talks is a skill that I’m still trying to master. Brandon Rhodes and Raymond Hettinger are both masters of this technique in the Python community. They were, and continue to be, an inspiration to me. As you watch their talks, see how you can incorporate some of their techniques into your talk, while putting your own spin on it.
When I first started speaking, I made sure to practice each conference talk I would give at a local meetup. While I lived in Salt Lake, I was lucky to have Faris Chebib host me at the SLC Python User Group Meetups. At the end, I’d ask for honest feedback on my performance or clarification around any confusing concepts. It usually takes some prompting to get an audience to give you honest feedback.
Constructive feedback is direct, focused on a particular issue, and based on an observation instead of an opinion. Examples include mentioning that an abundance of filler words like “uhm” distract from your talk, that a concept could be explained in more detail, or that you could explain a concept better with a diagram. Disregard feedback that isn’t constructive, and consider implementing the rest. This part requires thick skin, but I found that it really helped me craft quality talks even when I was new to the concept.
As you’re practicing for time, write down how long it takes you and compare it to how much time you have to do the talk. Adjust accordingly, giving yourself a few minutes to spare. Jot down when the halfway point of your talk is and put it in the notes on your slides. When you’re delivering your talk, check the time at the halfway point. If you’re at the halfway point before half of the talk is up, you know that you can slow down for the second half. If you’re way over time, you’ll know you need to speed up.
Wear a watch with a timer if you can. Some conferences, like PyCon, have volunteers who will sit in the front and give you time cues, but not all conferences do. Even where that’s an available resource, you might not always be looking in their direction as they give you time cues if you’re in the zone.
I use a clicker to advance my slides so that I don’t have to break my concentration to hunt for the next arrow. Use the clicker liberally, but don’t use the laser pointer on it. If you insist on using a laser pointer, make sure not to aim it at the audience and shine it at their face and eyes. It’s distracting, and depending on where you got your laser pointer, it could be dangerous. Keep in mind that not everyone can see the laser pointer to see what you’re trying to highlight. It also makes you look up at the screen where your slides are, which breaks the flow of your talk.
If you’re new to speaking or want to improve your style, record yourself or watch a recording of one of your talks. Honestly, I hate this process. I hate the sound of my own voice, and I’m sure many others do as well. We hear our own voices deeper when we speak because it vibrates through our vocal cords and chest. When we hear our voice in a recording, it can be an uncomfortable experience. Despite the discomfort, If you record a practice run you’ll be able to note things to change or improve for next time. Try to cut out filler words — the “ums”, “ahs”, and others. One of my filler words happens to be “so” — after watching my own videos I made a conscious effort to cut it out. Pause if you need to, you don’t have to be afraid of silence.
Silence on stage feels like an eternity, but it’s not. It feels longer to you than it does to the audience. Trust me, if you pause to collect yourself, no one will even notice. In fact, an emphatic pause can add a lot to your talk. You can pause before introducing a new concept or a big idea to add anticipation to what you’re about to say. A well-timed pause after a statement can add extra emphasis. Before I got comfortable with silence, I figured out a neat trick. I could keep a bottle of water on stage, and take a long swig of water to gather my thoughts. And no one would be the wiser.
Before you get on a stage, you need to be prepared. Be prepared by having your slides and demos ready — have the slides proofread by a trusted friend. At this point, you should have practiced the talk a few times.
Make sure the most up to date version of your talk is backed up in at least two places. As mentioned in the tools section, I used GitHub and Dropbox. Know where you need to be, and be there at least fifteen minutes early. Lay out your clothes the night before, and make sure you’ve eaten a light breakfast. Stay hydrated to feel best, and bring water with you.
You also need to be prepared for disaster.
You never know what might go wrong. I’ve had to deal with a projector that didn’t work with the new-style USB C Macs at all, regardless of the adapter used. Here it helps to have your latest presentation backed up to to the cloud or on a USB stick. You could be presenting in a basement with no wifi, your computer might not work with the projector, or, worst case scenario: You might leave your computer in a cab on the way to the conference center. Some of the scenarios will be in your control, but some, like your microphone giving out, won’t be. Since you’re a professional, you want to be prepared for as many worst-case scenarios as possible.
If you have conference horror stories, please share them in the responses below.
What to do in case of being sick or losing your voice? This recently happened to me before my All Things Open Keynote. I got tons of great advice on Twitter. First, don’t speak unless it’s absolutely necessary because you’ll be wasting your voice. Skip the social events and loud bars. Your voice needs recovery time. Next, Throat Coat tea is amazing, even though it tastes horrible. It helps lubricate your throat when it’s feeling dry and scratchy. Make sure you follow the instructions on the bag because needs to steep for ten minutes to be most effective. If you can, put lemon and honey in it. If you’re traveling and see a coffee shop with honey packets, grab extras so you can have some for next time. Don’t use too much honey, or it can upset your stomach. You can buy EarPlanes earplugs to help with the sinus pressure and ear pain during flight take off and landing. A few folks recommended gummy Elderberry supplements. I’m not sure if they actually helped, but they did taste delicious. Skip the dairy, because it can irritate your throat.
I have a checklist ready for everything I need to do before my conference talks, and I recommend checklists to everyone. You’re stressed out before you’re about to go on stage, and it’s hard to remember all the little things. Please note that I may earn a commission from the product links below. I only link to items I own myself or clearly state otherwise.
My checklist for before a conference talk:
- Close all tabs, and close Chrome unless a browser is needed. If it is, open a new guest window with no browser history, bookmarks, etc to avoid giving away sensitive personal information or work resources.
- Turn off wifi (to prevent Mac wifi notification or captive portals from popping up)
- Turn on the clicker.
- Close all unneeded apps, especially apps that send embarrassing pop up notifications (like chat apps) and any work documents.
- Clear any files on my desktop into a temporary folder.
- Hide any secrets, keys, or confidential information.
- Silence cell phones, because there’s nothing more embarrassing than a speaker having their talk interrupted by their own phone.
- Turn off sound/audio unless needed.
- Plug in power adapters or a battery, like the Mophie USB-C power brick that’s powerful enough to charge a MacBook Pro. (I like batteries because I tend to leave my charger behind)
- Turn screensavers off if the computer isn’t connected to a power source.
If I have time, I’ll also reboot my computer to give myself a fresh slate. I also plan for personal emergencies as best as I can. I pack a small lightweight portable speaker kit that contains everything I may need in at the last minute.
Think of it as a conference speaker everyday carry. I pack the following items into a small clear pouch:
- Advil packets in case of headache
- Tampons and pads, useful depending on your anatomy
- Shout wipe for last minute stains
- Toothpicks or floss to get that stubborn lunch-time salad out of your teeth
- A lanyard. To each their own, but I don’t like being a walking billboard for a random company at every conference. Plus, my lanyard is pink and has unicorns on it. 💅
- Mints and gum for stinky breath
- A variety of stomach meds for various ailments — the most important being Immodium for when conference lunch isn’t sitting well. I also have a single dose of GasX, Tums for heartburn, and my favorite ginger tummydrop candies for general stomach woes. I also carry lactaid because I’m lactose intolerant and know that no matter how well-intentioned conferences are, the food isn’t always labeled correctly.
- Charged battery with the adapters for my phone
- An extra dose of my daily meds, in case I forget to take them that morning
- HDMI Video adapter for my USB-C MacBook Pro
- Clicker and extra batteries
- A high protein snack. I like almond butter packs, they travel well and are shelf stable. This is a great option case I’m hungry and feeling woozy, don’t have enough time to eat, or if the conference food doesn’t go well with my dietary restrictions
- Caffeine gum, in case of coffee emergency.
- Riccola Cough Drops
- Spray hand sanitizer because of shaking hands and being in an enclosed area with hundreds if not thousands of people. I like this two-oz spray from EO because it doesn’t take up a lot of room in my kit and I love the peppermint scent.
- A packet of emergen-c for when my throat gets scratchy
- A few band-aids and an alcohol wipe
- Throat Coat Herbal Tea is amazing! It helped me recover from a sore throat when I lost my voice in just a few days. I also keep a few honey packets in my kit.
- Small concealer for last minute zits
The liquids get packed in a snack-sized ziplock so they don’t spill. All of these items are contained in a small clear pouch so I know where everything is and I can instantly see if anything important is missing.
So far, the kit has come in handy more times than I can count. I’m open to ideas for what else to add, but remember that the goal, at least for me, is to have a small portable and lightweight package that I can carry around all day without weighing me down.
Other stuff I tend to carry:
- Reusable spill-proof water bottle — I try to stay hydrated during a conference. If you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. You need water for your brain to function effectively.
- -A notebook and pen to take notes during conference talks. I don’t like having my laptop out during talks unless I absolutely have to. Otherwise, I don’t do a great job of retaining information. I recently got the less expensive 9.8 inch iPad, and I’ll be trying my hand to sketch note talks even though I’m not artistic as a way to help me remember information.
- A small pocket notebook and pen for “Aha! ideas” either during a conference talk, in the hallway with others, or right before the talk I’m about to give. I have terrible memory, so this lets me jot down the idea before I forget it without being rude and pulling out my phone.
- Developer Advocate Bit stickers like this one to give out after my talk.
- Noise-canceling headphones so I can think in peace and quiet. I use the wired Bose QuietComfort 20. I like this model because they don’t come with a huge case. While they’re a pricey buy, as an introvert they are actually my favorite possession. I use them along with a bluetooth smart bean adapterthat can be used for any headphones. I purchased a pair of them after running into someone in what was supposed to be the quiet speaker room being loud and obnoxious and stressing me out and they’ve been a trusty companion for several years.
To feel comfortable on a stage, breathe deeply and speak in your normal voice. A few years ago, I felt like I hit a wall in my speaking. I was always so nervous that I would freeze up. I decided to try to take a few online singing lessons to help with my delivery. The instructor told me that I was probably freezing up and anxious because I wasn’t breathing properly. I was closing off my throat and not getting enough oxygen which kicked in a fight or flight response. Before I learned to breathe on stage my voice would sound closed off and squeaky. I’d feel mounting anxiety because I wasn’t getting oxygen to my brain.
I learned that if I wanted to speak with confidence and avoid straining and damaging my voice I’d have to learn how to properly breathe while speaking. To do so, put one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest. Practice breathing so that the hand on your stomach rises and falls and the hand on your chest stays still. Stand up straight and try to breathe from your belly and think about keeping that breathing cadence throughout the whole talk.
Now that you’re on stage, introduce yourself, why you’re qualified to speak on the subject and a little about yourself. The audience is there for content, and you’re there to deliver it to them. Get to the point as quickly as possible.
As you’re speaking, remember to take a look at the audience every few minutes. Try to look a few people in the eye. Do they look confused? Bored? Entertained? Take it in, and adjust your tone as needed. Vary the speed and pitch of your voice, almost as if you were reading a child a bedtime story. That will help the audience stay engaged.
I’m still not great at this, but try to use your notes sparingly. Only put in the important points. Never ever read off your slides. That’s boring to the participants, as they can read the slides themselves. The slides should only be used to convey additional information or visuals, and add to what you’re saying.
If you’re moving too fast, reading off your slides, or if your explanations are confusing, you might lose your audience. They think they don’t understand what you’re saying and won’t be able to catch up, so they zone out or start checking their email. That’s why practicing in front of an audience or friends really helps you make sure that you’re explaining the concepts well.
Part of the reason for the nerves I experienced when I first started speaking at conferences was my completely illogical idea that everyone at the conference would be an expert in every single technical area and know more than me. From experience, this just isn’t true. I later learned that there’s a name for this common feeling, imposter syndrome. Research shows that women in particular face imposter syndrome around performance. Know that the people in the room showed up for your talk because your idea sounded interesting. If you put effort into your proposal and do your research, the topics you cover will be new to a majority of the audience. There are very few people out there who know it all, and chances are they aren’t in the room. Many developers only have expertise or a specialty in a particular language or discipline.
There are dozens, thousands, if not millions of things I don’t know about technology. When you get on a stage, you have the opportunity to teach them to me.
Unless you’re going to a specific homogenous conference, make sure you introduce abbreviations, technical acronyms, and concepts with a sentence, no matter how small or insignificant you think they are. Concepts and terms that may be obvious to you won’t be obvious to others.
A lot of my comfort on stage depends on what I’m wearing. I make sure to wear lightweight breathable materials like cotton, silk, or my favorite: lightweight wool. Avoid polyester unless it’s black. I run hot when I speak because I tend to be running on all cylinders. When the clothing item I’m wearing doesn’t breathe, it makes me even hotter and crankier, which in turn makes me more anxious, which turns me into an unpleasant sweaty beast. If you’re a very heavy sweater, you can also buy a shirt with absorbent pads in the underarm area, either on its own or underneath something. There are several companies that offer this, like Nix. It’s your little secret; nobody has to know. One of my world-class speaker friends swears by it. I always keep water on the podium to cool me down if I’m running too hot, to keep me hydrated, and to soothe my throat.
Wear loose fitting comfortable pants and tights. Tight pants that cut you off at the belly will impact your ability to breathe deeply. For those who wear bras, make sure you wear a comfortable bra that isn’t too tight or it can cut you off at the diaphragm. Remember, you want to be able to breathe freely.
You’ll need a collar or a sturdy cotton shirt to clip on a shirt-mic. You’ll also need a place to put the bulky wireless mic pack. For this reason, if I want to speak in a dress I’ll wear one with pockets. Side note: I was always afraid of wearing a dress or looking too feminine in my conference talks. I thought it would make me look like I didn’t know what I was doing, or decrease my credibility with the audience.
At this point, I still have those thoughts regularly but I no longer care enough to act on them. After a challenging decade-long career in tech, I am straight out of fucks. In fact, my fucks have dipped into the negative. To dig one up, I’d have to go to the fucks bank and get a loan. What I’m trying to say is that these days, if I want to wear a dress to speak, I will. Because I look damn cute in them and if that means a dude in the audience thinks I’m less credible, then so be it.
I like a practice run right before my talk, even if it’s just to myself. I discovered this last year at PyCon 2018 in the speaker room with Dan Callahan. We each quickly took a turn running through our slides. My talk was that afternoon, and his keynote was the next morning. I went through my slides at double time and only covered the important concepts. I really couldn’t believe how helpful it was. I have a bad memory, and it helped me retain the content in my talk better. It also helped me be less nervous because I realized that I knew the material like the back of my hand. Dan helped me identify a handful of small concepts he found confusing. Things that made sense to me, but not to him, along with a few concepts that I failed to introduce. The next time I feel nervous before a talk, I’ll try this technique.
The last thing I want to cover also happens to be my least favorite topic, Q&A. The Q&A portion of a conference talk is my least favorite for more reasons than I can count, but at the forefront is that it puts women and other underrepresented folks in tech at a major disadvantage. I’ve seen more Q&As go wrong than I can count, with question-askers second-guessing the speaker, offering their opinion, ramble on, or worse.
(If you’re a white male who completely disagrees with this statement, and thinks that it’s not true because you’ve never had a problem with it, I strongly encourage you to take a minute for self-reflection. Recognize that your experience does not apply to everyone else. If you’re in this position, you enter a stage with instant credibility. For underrepresented minorities in tech, that credibility has to be built up throughout their talk.)
As a conference, consider letting your attendees opt out of Q&A. As an introvert, I feel drained after a talk. I’d prefer time to unwind and reset, and not be pushed into a pop quiz Q&A session when my brain isn’t firing on all cylinders. If a speaker opts into Q&A, the conference should have a moderator available who knows the telltale signs of a Q&A session getting out of hand. A moderator is there to facilitate the process, cut off rambling jerks, and guide the discussion so that the responsibility of doing so is not up to the speaker.
There was one particular talk where the Q&A turned into men lecturing the female speaker on other tools and strategies she could have used. It was painful to watch. Remember, as an attendee, a critical part of Q&A is actually asking a question, and not making statements or lecturing the speaker. If you have other ideas, find the speaker afterward or contact them if they shared an email address. Remember, making your opinion known isn’t a universal right. As a speaker, you have a few strategies for taking control back. The first is to rephrase the question. It’s ok to take some liberty here and modify the question into one that’s most helpful for the audience. To interrupt a monologue during Q&A, you can say, “If you don’t have a question, please move on.”
I like Q&A with a group of attendees beneath the podium or in the hallway, and moving out of the way means you won’t interfere with the next speaker. This makes the Q&A process a lot more fun. Attendees with questions can talk to and meet each other, and even offer each other advice. It doesn’t always work if the crowd is too big, but I try to follow Eric Holscher’s Pac-Man rule. The rule states that when standing around in a group of people, stand “like Pac-Man” and leave room for new people to come inside the circle. This format is a lot more fun and rewarding, as you can answer questions for a much larger group of people.
Lately, I’ve started handing out stickers to attendees who come up to me after my talk, so they have a little keepsake to remember the talk by. I tend to bring stickers with Bit on them, the raccoon mascot for our team drawn by Ashley McNamara. If you run into me at an event, don’t hesitate to come up to me and ask for one.
Please remember to be kind to the conference organizers. The event is the finished product. They’ve been working hard for months, dealing with preparation and planning so you can show up and have a good time. This is their opportunity to reap the benefits of their hard work. Remember that they’re tired and stressed out. Say thank you, be kinder than usual, and remember, they’re people just like you. If you have any non-urgent or non-essential feedback, it’s appropriate to send it via email after the event so that the organizers can consider it for next year.
Continue to Closing Thoughts
- Introduction — About me and my journey through technical public speaking.
- Choosing a Topic — Selecting a topic you’d like to speak about.
- Writing a Conference Proposal (or CFP) — A guide to writing and submitting conference talk proposals.
- Tools of the Trade — Tools for brainstorming, creating slides, time-management, and more.
- Planning and Time Estimation — How to plan your preparation time before the conference.
- Writing a Talk — Writing an engaging talk and captivating slides.
- Practice and Delivery — Preparing for and delivering on the big day.