Christian Heilmann

16 Questions you need to answer before you give a conference talk

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015 at 5:29 am

When it comes to giving a talk at a conference the thing people freak out the most about is the delivery. Being in front of a large audience on stage is scary and for many people unthinkable.


I don’t want to discourage anyone to do this – it is amazing and it feels great to inspire people. The good news is that by covering the things here you will go on stage with the utmost confidence and you will dazzle.

I wanted to note down the things people don’t consider about presenting at conferences. There is no shortage of posts claiming that evangelism is “only presenting at conferences”. Furthermore it is deemed only worth-while when done by “real developers who work on the products”. This is the perfect scenario, of course. Before you judge “just presenting” as a simple task consider the following questions. If you are a professional presenter and evangelist you need to have them covered. More importantly, consider the time needed to do that work and how you would fit it into your daily job of delivering code.

  1. 1) Do you know the topic well enough?
  2. 2) Are you sure about your facts?
  3. 3) Are you aware of the audience?
  4. 4) What’s your story line? How do you package the idea?
  5. 5) Where are the materials you talk about?
  6. 6) Are you sure you can release the talk the way you wrote it?
  7. 7) When are the materials due?
  8. 8) What does the conference need from you?
  9. 9) How do you get to the event?
  10. 10) Do you have all you need? Is everything going to be fine while you’re gone?
  11. 11) Who pays what – how do you get your money back?
  12. 12) Can you afford the time? Do you need to extend your trip to make it worth while?
  13. 13) Have you prepared for a presentation in the conference environment?
  14. 14) How do you measure if this was a success?
  15. 15) How do you make this re-usable for your company?
  16. 16) Are you ready to deal with the follow-up?

1) Do you know the topic well enough?

If you talk about your own product, this is easy. It is also easy to be useless. Writing a demo for a talk that can’t fail is cheating. It is also hard to repeat for the audience. It is a theoretical exercise, and not a feat of delivery. Writing a product in a real work environment means dealing with other people’s demands and issues. It also means you have to re-think what you do a lot, and that makes for better products. How you built your product does not make it a best practice. It worked for you. OK, but is that repeatable by your audience or can they learn from you approach?

To give a great talk, you need to do a lot of homework:

  • you need to read what the competition did,
  • learn what is applicable,
  • you need to understand how the topic you cover can be beneficial for the audience and
  • you need to do research about the necessary environment of your talk topic and issues people may run into when they try to repeat what you did.

2) Are you sure about your facts?

It is easy to make grandiose statements and wrap them in the right rhetoric to be exciting. It is also easy to cause a lot of trouble with those. If you make a promise on stage, make sure it is yours to fulfill. You don’t want to get your colleagues into trouble or delivery stress by over-promising.

You are likely to present to an audience who know their stuff and are happy to find holes in your argumentation. Therefore you need to do your homework. Check your facts, keep them up-to-date and don’t repeat truisms of the past.

Get the newest information, and verify that it is fact before adding it to your talk. This also means checking various sources and cross-referencing them. Legwork, research.

Work with your colleagues who will need to deliver what you talk about and maintain it in the future. Ensure they are up to the task. Remember: you are not likely to be the maintainer, so delegate. And delegation means you need to give others a heads-up what is coming their way.

3) Are you aware of the audience?

Your job is to educate and entertain the audience of the conference. To achieve this, you need to cater your talk to the audience. Therefore you need to understand them before you go forward. For this, you need to follow some steps:

Get information about the audience from the conference organisers:

  • How big is the audience?
  • When is your talk – a talk at the end of the day is harder to take in than one in the morning.
  • What is their experience level – you write different materials for experts than for novices. Peer pressure dictates that everyone tells you they are experts. They might still not understand what you do unless you explain it well.
  • What is the language of the audience? Are they native speakers of your language or do you need to cater for misunderstandings? Do your pop references and jokes make sense in that country, or are they offensive or confusing? If there is live translation at the event you will have to be slower and pause for the translators to catch up. You will also need to deliver your slides up-front and have a list of technical words that shouldn’t be translated. Your slide deck also needs to be printable for translators to use.

Then think about what you’d like to get out of your talk:

  • Try to think like your audience – what excites a group of designers is not the same a group of developers or project managers need
  • Look at the rest of the line-up. Is your talk unique or will you clash or repeat with another talk at the same event?

4) What’s your story line? How do you package the idea?

A presentation is nothing without a story. Much like a movie you need to have to have an introduction, a climax and a conclusion. Intersperse this with some anectodes and real life comparisons and you have something people can enjoy and learn from. Add some humour and some open questions to engage and encourage. How do you do that? What fits this talk and this audience?

5) Where are the materials you talk about?

If you want the audience to repeat what you talk about you need to make sure your materials are available.

  • Your code examples need to be for example on GitHub, need to work and need documentation.
  • If you talk about a product of your company make sure the resource isn’t going away by the time you give your talk.
  • Your slides should be on the web somewhere as people always ask for them right after your talk.

6) Are you sure you can release the talk the way you wrote it?

It is simple to pretend that we are a cool crowd and everyone gets a good geek joke. It is also easy to offend people and cause a Twitter storm and an ugly aftermath in the tech press.

It is also easy to get into legal trouble for bad-mouthing the competition or using media nilly-willy. Remember one thing: fair use is a myth and not applicable internationally. Any copyrighted material you use in your talk can become a problem. The simplest way to work around that is to only use creative commons licensed materials.

That might mean you don’t use the cool animated GIF of the latest TV show. And that might be a good thing. Do you know if the audience knows about this show and gets your reference? Thinking internationally and questioning your cultural bias can be the difference between inspiring and confusing. Or frustrating. If you talk about great products that aren’t available in the country you present. Don’t write your talk from your perspective. Think what the audience can do with your material and if they can understand it.

7) When are the materials due?

There are quite a few things that affect the time you have to prepare your presentation:

  • Your company might have a policy to have your slides reviewed by legal and marketing. This sounds terrible and smacks of censorship. But it can save your arse. It might also make you aware of things you can hint at that aren’t public knowledge yet.
  • The conference might need your talks upfront. Every conference wants at least an outline and your speaker bio to publish on their web site.
  • Do you have enough time for research, creation and designing your slides before you travel? Can you upload your deck to the web in case your machine breaks down?

8) What does the conference need from you?

Depending on what the conference does for you, they also want you to help them. That can include:

  • some promotion on your social media channels
  • information about your travel and accomodation
  • VISA requirements and signing releases about filming and material distribution rights
  • invoices for expenses you have on their behalf
  • information on your availability for speaker dinners, event parties or other side activities of the main event

This needs time allocated to it. In general you can say a one day conference will mean you’re out for three.

9) How do you get to the event?

Traveling is the biggest unknown in your journey to the stage. All kind of things can go wrong. You want to make sure you book the right flights, hotels and have a base close to the event. All this costs money, and you will find conference organisers and your company try to cut down on cost whenever they can. So be prepared for some inconvenience.

Booking and validating your travel adds and extra two days to your conference planning. Getting to and from your home to the event can be a packed and stressful journey. Try to avoid getting to the event stressed, you need to concentrate on what you are there for. Add two buffer days before and after the event at least.

Booking your own travel is great. You are not at the mercy of people spelling your name wrong or asking you for all kind of information like your passport and date of birth. But it also means you need to pay for it in some way or another and you want that money back. Finding a relaxed and affordable schedule is a big task, and something you shouldn’t take too lightly.

10) Do you have all you need? Is everything going to be fine while you’re gone?

You are going to be out for a while. Both from work and your home. Make sure that in your absence you have people in place that can do the job you normally do. Make sure you covered all the needs like passport and visa issues and you know everything about the place you go to.

Prepare to get sick and have medication with you. It can happen and it should not be the end of the trip. Stay healthy, bring some safe food and plan for time to work out in between sitting cramped on planes and in cars.

Do you know how to get to the hotel and around the city you present in? Do you speak the language? Is it safe? Is there someone to look after your home when you’re gone? Prepare for things going wrong and you having to stay longer. Planes and trains and automobiles fail all the time.

11) Who pays what – how do you get your money back?

Conference participation costs money. You need to pay for travel, accomodation, food, wireless, mobile roaming costs and many more unknowns. Make sure you get as much paid for you as possible. Many conference organisers will tell you that you can pay for things and keep receipts. That means you will have to spend quite some time with paperwork and chasing your money. The same applies to company expense procedures. You need to deal with this as early as possible. The longer you wait, the harder it gets.

12) Can you afford the time? Do you need to extend your trip to make it worth while?

A local event is pretty easy to sell to your company. Flying somewhere else and having the both the cost of money and time involved is harder. Even when the conference organiser pays – it means you are out of the office and not available for your normal duty. One way to add value for your company is to add meetings with local clients and press. These need to be organised and planned. So ensure you cater for that.

13) Have you prepared for a presentation in the conference environment?

It is great to use online editors to write your talk. It means people can access your slides and materials. It also means you are independent of your computer – which can and will behave oddly as soon as you are on stage. Online materials are much less useful once you are offline on stage. Conference wireless is anything but reliable. Make sure you are not dependent on a good connection. Ask about the available resolution of the conference projection equipment. Don’t expect sound to be available. And above all – bring your own connectors and power cables and converters.

14) How do you measure if this was a success?

Your company gave you time and money to go to a conference and give a talk. How do you make this worth their while? You have to show something on your return. Make sure you measure the feedback your talk got. See if you can talk to people at the event your company considers important. Collect all this during the event and analyse and compact it as soon as you can. This sounds simple, but it is tough work to analyse sentiment. A Twitter feed of a conference is pretty noisy.

15) How do you make this re-usable for your company?

If you work for a larger company, they expect of you as an evangelist to make your materials available for others. A lot of companies believe in reusable slide decks – for better or worse. Prepare a deck covering your topic that is highly annotated with delivery notes. Prepare to present this to your company. Whilst hardly anything is reusable, you are expected to make that happen.

16) Are you ready to deal with the follow-up?

After the conference you have to answer emails, contact requests and collect and note down your leads. Most companies expect a conference report of some sort. Many expect you to do some internal presentation to debrief you. What you did costs a lot of time and money and you should be prepared to prove your worth.

You’ll get more requests about your talk, the products you covered and people will ask you to speak at other events. And thus the cycle starts over.


That’s just a few of the things you have to consider as a presenter at conferences. I didn’t deal with stress, jet lag, demands, loneliness and other mental influences here. Next time you claim that people “talk instead of being a real coder” consider if what you’re saying is valid criticism or sounds a bit like “bro, do you even lift?”. Of course there are flim-flam artists and thinly veiled sales people calling themselves evangelists out there. But that doesn’t mean you should consider them the norm.

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