Speaker Guide

This document is a guide to people who are going to speak at a conference, and are interested in tips and tricks for composing and delivering a successful talk.

It is intended to be relatively light-weight, focusing on the most common mistakes and useful tips. However, it’s not written in stone - any “rule” will have exceptions! Never feel forced to hammer a talk into a set of rules if you don’t think the circumstances warrant.


Slide Decks

Following are some useful patterns (techniques that make for good slide decks) and antipatterns (mistakes to avoid).

  • Antipattern: wall of text - a slide covered with lots of small-font text (related antipattern - reading this text to the audience).
  • Pattern: using figures, diagrams, plots. Using non-text visuals is often the best possible way to convey information. Strive to use visuals instead of text in your slide decks wherever you can. Using figures typically requires more preparation, since it forces you to talk around your slides instead of just reading them. (This is a good thing! See speaking tips below.)
  • Pattern: re-use visual conventions and metaphors. If you use a figure or symbol to represent some idea, re-use it everywhere you need it. Your audience will find it much easier to follow your narrative when they can recognize recurring ideas visually.
  • Antipattern: wall of math. Anybody in the audience who wants that much math should be referred to source material for further reading. Equations or other math should be kept to a minimum: large font only! Favor diagrams when possible. When you do use math, explain terms, parameters, etc, in non-technical terms. People want intuitions, not derivations.
  • Antipattern: wall of code. Nobody can read a small-font page of code. If you can’t fit a block of code on your slide with a font smaller than 14pt (even larger is better) consider some other approach to presenting your ideas.
  • Antipattern: wall of logos. I have seen slides where people dump dozens of logos onto a slide, trying to convey some notion of large interoperability, or ecosystem. Mostly it is visually confusing and overwhelming.
  • Antipattern: acronyms. Acronyms should generally be expanded in slides when they appear for the first time. In order not to lose audience members, the speaker should provide explanations during the talk for what stands behind any acronyms and proper names (for projects, products, etc).
Organization

Talk organizational patterns and antipatterns.

  • Pattern: Know your audience: at most industry conferences, you can expect your audience to have diverse backgrounds and levels of technical orientation. Unless your conference is narrowly focused on some domain, plan for an audience with people who do not share your technical background.
  • Antipattern: too much detail - new speakers often feel like they need to convey every possible detail in a talk, and obscure the important narratives. Focus on strategic choices of details that tell the important story, and provide links to more detailed resources such as blog posts, papers, code repos, software documentation, etc.
  • Pattern: build up context slowly. It is tempting to assume an audience knows all the basic context that you do, and dive right into more advanced content. At most industry conferences, audiences will have varied technical (or non-technical) backgrounds and many will be unfamiliar with your topic of expertise. Spending time at the beginning of your talk on “basic” context and information will actually help you go “faster” at the end, since you now have established a firm foundation to build on.
    • Why is problem X or topic Y important?
    • What are fundamental terms, definitions, concepts?
Speaking/Performance

Speaking patterns and antipatterns.

  • Pattern: practice. Practicing your talk several time will help your presentation sound smooth and prepared and will help you be more confident. People in the audience came to your talk to learn and are on your side - they want you to succeed. They will appreciate your talk if they can tell you have put time, effort, and thought into it, regardless of how experienced you are as a speaker.
  • Antipattern: reading the slides. Far more engaging to “talk around” your slides, than just reading them.The audience could do that on their own! It takes more preparation and practice to talk around a deck, but it is a far more effective presentation style!
  • Pattern: eye contact. Engage the audience by looking around - avoid staring at your screen.
  • Pattern: occupy your stage. This is not always possible, but if you have room to walk around, and have a remote to change slides, it is a more engaging style.
  • Antipattern: speaking too fast. A common effect of being nervous or of trying to include too much detail. This can happen even if you practiced a lot for your talk, so it’s important to take a deep breathe, and speak in a conversational manner, as if you are talking to one of the audience members.
  • Antipattern: speaking too softly. Microphones can compensate for this, but your A/V equipment may not be everything you hoped for.
Presentation-Making and Speaking Resources