When you start out as a speaker, getting some good tips, helpful advice, and constructive criticism can make a real difference for achieving sufficient success at your first attempt to make you want to do it again.
Has every successful speaker followed these steps? No.
Have all of our mentors followed these steps to the letter? No.
But these steps make a great starting point that, with the guidance of your mentor, can make your entry in the speaking world feel less overwhelming when you take one step at a time.
The MASH program is dedicated to putting you in touch with a mentor (or group if that makes sense) that can help you along in the various phases you will go through:
Choosing a Topic
What is an interesting topic? That is hugely different from person to person, so you cannot give a definitive answer to that question. It also means you cannot definitively state whether an idea you have will be interesting or not. Or you might not feel that what you do can be interesting to other people at all.
If you’ve attended conferences yourself, you’ll have noticed a lot of topics. You might not have noticed (but it’s true) that topics from the real life daily work are often as popular (or more) as topics by field experts. You’ll know things that might never have been talked about at a conference, but that a lot would benefit from hearing about.
Talking with someone who’ve attended and/or spoken at many conferences will help you discover which of your fields of knowledge could be presented as an interesting topic that would be useful for conference or webinar attendees to listen to.
Choosing a Title
When an abstract review committee has a list of abstracts to go through, or when a conference attendee has an agenda schedule to pick sessions from, the title and speaker is most often the only information available. Only by some action will the summary and/or complete abstract be shown. So an eye-catching title is important.
You cannot condense every detail you will be talking about in a short title, so no matter what you do, the title will not tell the entire truth about what you will be presenting about. If the title becomes too generic, it’ll not be interesting and will lose in the competition to catch the eye that scrolls through a list of titles. If it becomes too specific, it risks only covering a small detail of what’s actually discussed in the presentation.
Often a good choice can be a humorous title that makes the reader want to find out more. The trick being how to keep the balance and create something funny that still has some actual bearing on the topic without going overboard with something silly that is just a joke for the sake of the joke. Whether this is a good strategy can depend a lot on the culture of conference it is submitted to, which is where it is nice to talk to someone who’s been there before.
Writing an Abstract
An abstract needs to be concise and at the same time detailed – a balance that can be hard to get right in the first attempt. It’s also good if you can show that you have thought about who the intended audience are, what the audience is expected to learn, and an outline of the subtopics that’ll be covered.
Many conferences want two pieces of text – a summary that is intended for the audience and will be included in the schedule website/app, plus a detailed abstract intended for the reviewers where you can elaborate on the details. When a conference asks for both, do not simply cut-and-paste one into the other, but utilize the opportunity to write two different versions – one targeted at attendees who want to decide whether or not to go and watch your presentation, one targeted at the reviewers who will decide whether you get to present or not.
There might even be conferences that want a third version also – a brief short “teaser” version of the summary (typically for showing directly on the schedule.) That needs same type of considerations as the title – it needs to catch the eye but at the same time also show enough details of the actual topic to enable an attendee to choose based on this.
Submitting the Abstract
So you now have written a great abstract – where do you go and submit it? There are many many conferences – live on-site, virtual on-line or hybrid. As well as meet-ups, stand-alone webinars, webinar series, etc.
As a first-timer submitting to a large well-established multi-day conference with many tracks can be somewhat like taking a dive from the tallest cliff around. It can be done, but often it can be a good choice to start with a local or regional user group organizing smaller conferences, seminars or meet-ups. Talk to your mentor about what opportunities exist near you.
Also bear in mind that a presentation can be given multiple times once you have it written. It can pay off to write the abstract in a few versions, since some conferences have a much lower limit on allowed number of words than others. And having successfully presented it one place can sometimes be a bonus getting it accepted elsewhere too.
Building a Session
To keep the attention of the audience for the duration of your talk, you should think about the disposition of the session. Spend some time dividing your subtopics into suitable groups that you can arrange in order to give a nice flow to your information stream. Keep in mind who is your target audience – decision makers interested only in the high level overview or the technical people that wants the full nerdy details. It also makes a difference whether the expected audience are experienced or novices.
It can help keep the interest up to have some cliff hangers and “forward references” – but used with moderation, as you risk too much repetition if you use “I’ll go into details about this later” and at the same time spend too much time explaining what you’ll explain later, so that when “later” comes, you have already said most of it.
Choosing exactly which content and how much detail from your topic to include is not always easy. Are you doing an overview style session with a lot of content but little detail? Or are you doing a deep dive into the smallest details of a narrow topic? It’s easy to want to include too much and end up with a hurried session – consider perhaps that some less important details are pushed to the end so you only use them if time allows.
Creating the Presentation
The style of the presentation itself varies a lot from speaker to speaker – it should fit your style of speaking. A few can speak with a lot of simple slides changing every few seconds basically just as a background for the spoken word – most need to support their talk with slides that are more informative.
A presentation consisting solely of text with a dozen densely written bullet points on every slide is likely to be very boring. Bullets can kill a slide deck if misused. Often they turn out to simply contain what you want to speak, so the talk becomes a dull reading of slides. The slides are to support your talk, they are not a document to read.
Example code, screenshots, illustrations, they can all spice up the presentation – they can also make it worse if overused or not fitting the presentation or your style. You also need to remember copyright when choosing illustrations – pick from open source image sources rather than just google images.
Practicing the Session
Without practice, you run a big risk of either finishing too soon or running overtime and not getting to the final point of your talk. Practicing on your own just talking out loud can help somewhat to estimate your timing, but once that’s done then it can be helpful to practice with an audience.
Give a practice talk to your spouse or another non-tech person can give you feedback on posture, narration style, jokes and similar. Testing the session on a small tech audience gives you practice in handling audience feedback and questions, either during and/or at the end, so you have feel for how much time to allocate.
To practice on a tech audience, you can use colleagues and give the talk as an afternoon internal training session, or you can use your mentor, or your mentor can put you in touch with a meetup group to present for before doing it at a bigger conference.
How to Present
There are probably about as many speaking styles as there are speakers. To some it comes more naturally, for others (probably most) it is an acquired skill. The important point is to find a style that makes you comfortable speaking. Although some humor and jokes can lighten a talk and help attendees remember it, it can fail miserably if it’s just reading out loud of jokes you have found on a website.
Your speaking considerations are different whether it’s a talk in front of a live audience or it’s a webinar. When live, it helps a lot to be in contact with the audience and get a two-way interaction going – in a webinar this is much more difficult and having a moderator assisting you can be very helpful.
Taking a video of your practice talk can be an option to help you gain some knowledge of how you come across to an audience. If you practiced with your mentor, you can discuss together what worked well and what could be improved. And don’t worry about achieving perfection immediately – we all started inexperienced and never become perfect, which is okay as long as we work on improving a little each time we speak.
Promoting the Session
Doing a talk and noone shows up is not fun, so you’d like the potential audience to know about it. Social media can be your friend here, whether LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or others depend on where your audience is active. If you don’t have a large network yourself, reach out and try to get your talk shared by somebody who has (try your mentor as well as others.)
Typically the organizers of the conference, meetup or webinar will also share it on social media – re-share those just like they can re-share your posts to get a broader reach. The organizers are also interested in mutual promotion to boost attendance.
If you are doing a stand-alone session or in serial with a few other speakers (meetup or webinar), promoting the event and promoting your session is mostly two sides of the same coin. If you are one of many speakers in a multi-track conference (live or virtual), you should consider both promoting the event to attract audience in the first place, but promote your topic with some detail to give audience some arguments why they should choose your session over the other sessions in the same timeslot.
What Else To Do
In reality becoming a speaker is part of a bigger picture of becoming more and more involved in the tech community and network. It rarely makes sense to speak but not be an active community member. Often it’s a self-amplifying process – you engage in the community, start to speak, become more engaged, speak more, and so on, growing your own experience and network along the way.
This dual process of speaking and being part of the community gains you an invaluable network of tech peers to reach out to when you have the need. Nurture this network by giving back to it of your own knowledge – both when you speak and all the time the rest of the year in between sessions.
Part of this is also to participate socially in the community. At a conference the answer to “What Else To Do” is “A Lot”. Discuss tech and life in the corridors between sessions and at lunch and tea breaks, stroll the exhibit booths, join happy hours or evening events, play Werewolf, attend the social event/party – just talk and chat to other people as much as you can. Even if it’s a happy hour at the pub after sessions and you don’t drink alcohol, join anyway for getting to know people. It’s not uncommon to gain lifelong friends as a side benefit.
There are two types of speakers: Those who get nervous and those who are liars.