Jano González

Conference speaking HOW-TO

02 Dec 2013

One of the things I enjoy the most is going to conferences, not only as part of the audience but also sharing my own experiences on stage. You can learn a lot when it’s you the one who is speaking.

But how to become a conference speaker?

Start small

Before thinking about speaking in conferences start speaking in your work, university or local user group. When you get used to prepare a talk and delivering it in public you will become more confident. Conference speaking like every other skill requires practice to master.

Apply to conferences

This seems really obvious, but please let me repeat it: Apply to conferences.

The best way to get your first talk accepted is to send proposals to a lot of conferences. I use lanyrd to find conferences with open CFPs.

RubyConf Uruguay 2011 was the first conference outside Chile I applied to. I sent my proposal without any hopes to get accepted, but surprinsingly they liked it. Remember that a great number of conferences are willing to give you your first chance to speak.

Regarding to the proposal itself I don’t have too much tips to share, I still have to improve a lot in that aspect. Just try to be clear about how the talk will be useful for the audience, let the organizers know about its structure and tell them why you are the right person to speak about that subject.

Prepare your talk

Your slides must have good contrast, remember that projectors suck 99% of the time. Big fonts are necessary because some people will be watching from a considerable distance. Also, remember to don’t include too much text in your slides otherwise people will become distracted reading, and you want them to hear you with attention. I learned a lot about preparing slides with a great post from Zach Holman.

Avoid the temptation of live coding unless you are really experienced doing it, some people just record videos. If you need internet always have a plan B, remember that conference WiFi sucks 99% of the time.

It is very important to rehearse standing and actually speaking, don’t make the mistake of rehearsing only with your thoughts, remember that when you think words come quickier than when you speak. When you have mastered your timing you are ready to the conference. You can give your talk in front of your colleagues or in small meetups first to get early feedback.

When you already are in the venue you can test your slides to check the contrast.

Be respectful: Remember that the audience and the organizers have invested time and money, rehearse your talk to deliver the content the best way possible in the given time slot and don’t include offensive things in your slides (e.g. sexist jokes).


If you are like me you will probably get very nervous before your talk, don’t eat heavy and remember to go to the bathroom before speaking. Have a bottle of water to don’t get a sore throat.

Before starting take one or two deep breaths to calm down, remember to control the speed of your voice because when people get anxious or are too passionate about a subject they tend to speak too quickly.

Make good use of your presentation software. In the presenter screen I always have the timer of how much time I have left, the current slide and the next slide. In the last conference I spoke, I made the mistake of speaking to much in the first slide forgeting that the timer starts when you pass to the second slide, to avoid that mistake many people suggest to put a blank slide first or to repeat the first slide and inmediately switch to the next to start the timer.

If you have rehearsed properly your talk, you can easly compensate your timing problems by going slower or faster in some points. Remember to look from time to time in which slide you are and how much time you have left.

If you have a problem don’t freak out, just ignore it or make a small joke about it.

There are some rules like don’t move too much, don’t stand looking down, etc. but don’t try to be another person on stage. For example I move a lot my arms while speaking and that can be distracting, but that’s part of the way I express myself and I won’t (actually, I can’t) change it.

When you are speaking get feedback from the audience looking at their faces, are they enthusiatic about your talk? bored? amused?

After you finish, answer the questions of the audience and if you don’t know something don’t worry, nobody is gonna crucify you.

Be humble

Accept the feedback without being a smartass, share with the audience after your talk. Don’t believe you are better or more capable for being on stage.

Repeat and improve

If the conference has videos watch yourself (and become a little embarrased), then improve your weak points. Try to get honest feedback, in my case it was my wife who told me about the problems with my voice speed, excessive movement, etc.

I promise that you will improve over time.


Conference speaking is a really rewarding activity. I have learned a lot, had a great time and made lots of friends in different parts of the world. You should try it!