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I’ve been trying to actively improve my public speaking skills (one of the reasons why I blog less these days 😁) and started from local meetups and user groups. However, my goal was to give a talk in an official conference this year.

I started to read blog posts from famous speakers around how to respond to CFP (call for proposals) and practice at home. Choosing a topic can be very hard so I was trying to find something interesting that I feel comfortable talking about in front of audience.

At the same time, I started doing brown bag sessions (short sessions sharing something you know in your own company or somewhere you work for) at Readify - where I work as a consultant - and got some internal feedback around what I should improve and areas that needed more focus.

Let me tell you that what you read on internet or hear from others might not work for you, so you need to find the sweet spot and customise it for yourself wherever you can. That’s how I did it when I was responding to CFPs for different conferences.

Since I was looking for improvement, I took part in an internal program called speak easy where we try to gather in our office at least once a month and focus on an area.

We try to make it fun as well by doing something like PowerPoint karaoke where you need to talk from a slide deck that you haven’t seen at all and topics are usually chosen at random. It as been so much fun that we’ve made it a part of program to keep the fun side of learning as well.

Long story short I got heaps of feedback from my short presentations on how do I talk, how is my physical movements, how slides are arranged and their logical correlation and many other aspects where every speaker should really care about.

I’ve learnt to research about the audience in a conference and choose a topic that matches so that it would be interesting for people and they don’t feel their time is wasted.

But the reason for writing this post is not to tell you my stories, but to share with you all the things that I’ve learnt by submitting talks to conferences and how I got to talk to an official conference as a first time speaker. So let’s begin.

Choose a catchy title for your talk

When submitting a talk to a conference you have to be aware that more than 70 percent of your chance of getting accepted is around your title. It has to have enough information to let the reviewer know that what this is about, what you’re trying to deliver and who is your audience.

I have near 20 failed attempts where I had to sit and think about what should I have done to make it more clear for the conference organisers what I am going to present but in a short sentence or two.

Think of this as your 30 second elevator pitch for the subject you are trying to present. It has to be catchy and informative.

Keep rewriting your abstract until your’re happy

When you are finished your title, it is time to start writing your abstract. Here is your chance to point out more details about the talk and its structure. You can put something that you couldn’t put in title but was important to mention in here.

There is a really good resource from NDC conferences that I used around this which has tons of good points on how to write it and what is its structure. It is titled Make me an offer I can’t refuse. I highly recommend you read this before submitting your abstract.

It not only covers the abstract, but also goes through title and some examples of good ones, then it talks about how agenda committees narrow down and choose talks for a conference, and many more useful points.

Bio

This might seem trivial, but I assure you it is as important as rest the information about your talk. Specially if you are a first time speaker like me, this plays a key role in accepting or rejecting your talk.

People who are reviewing the proposals won’t know you. So you have to let them know who you are, what you do and why they should choose you to give that talk rather than another speaker.

I have near 86 different bio’s which I’ve written in near 4 month of trying and then I became happy with it. I used that one and believe it helped me with my talk getting accepted.

Practice practice practice

Knowing how much time do you have for a talk and preparing for that plays a key role on what content you put into your talk.

I’ve listened to many great speakers and don’t prepare my content before I know it is accepted. This has helped me to not spend time on something that might take so much of my free time and I won’t be able to use it.

There is a reverse relationship between time and deliver in my point of view. The shorter the time, the harder is to prepare for it. As an example I struggle to give lightning talks where as I feel comfortable giving a long one like 30 minute or an hour.

The point here is that no matter how much time do you have, you have to practice so many times that you would feel comfortable giving this talk.

I know it might sound silly but talking in front of mirror is a great way to practice. You can see yourself and your movements, how you talk and when you stumble upon something.

How much eh, ah, hmm you use when you talk and so on would be very obvious after you watch yourself talking. Another way is to record your talk and watch it later if you don’t feel mirror is your friend.

There would be still a couple of points to consider when practising. First is that consider the possibility that your talk might start a bit later than schedule and you have less time that what you practised for.

This happened to me and I had to rush through my content, so much that I overkilled it and finished very early (almost 10 min).

I find it if you make your talk modular (a point taken from Tatham Oddie our CEO) it would be much easier to skip a section or two to make up for lost time.

It also helps if you want to shuffle stuff around after practising because you realised that the relevance of a specific item is not correct where it is in your timeline.

Do not eat fatty food before you talk

My talk was right after lunch and I tried to not eat too much just in case it affects my voice. This is so true as I’ve been in a meetup where I had pizza before my talk and I struggled with my voice during presentation.

Upload your slides and references somewhere

Usually people expect you to give your slides and references to them at the end of your talk. I had my slides uploaded but forgot to show where they can get it.

This might affect the feedback you get from the talk because they feel you haven’t provided enough information so they can follow the topic further.

Remember your talk is usually introducing something and you want your audience to go and explore it later. So give them somewhere they can start.

Try to get feedback

Almost all of the official conferences have a way for you to get feedback on your talk. This is very important for future because you can keep the good points and improve the weak ones.

Try to contact the organisers beforehand and ask them what is the feedback mechanism. For my talk unfortunately I didn’t receive any feedback from audience and no one from the panel was there as well. So I leant what to do for my next time.

Ask for recording

If they record your talk it is OK to ask for it later from them. Most of the conferences will do this for you and upload the video somewhere, but just in case you ask for it to have a reference for your next submission. I figured most of CFPs have a place for a link to one of your previous talks recording.

Manage your stress level

Although I had given talks to user groups and meetups, I was a bit nervous on the day. It was my first time and I didn’t know how many people will turn up. I started to walk 15 min before my talk and went into the room to get familiar to my surroundings.

Check my connectivity and see if I can project to screens. I checked whether my slides aspect ratio matched the display or not. I started my presentation and checked whether my pre-recorded will play in good quality.

This will help you to feel more relaxed when you begin. It eliminates the need to worry about the small things that can go wrong.

Don’t do live coding

If you happened to watch Scott Hanselman and his talks, you will see he usually has live demos and writes code on the fly.

Some other big names do the same. But those are in this field for a long time. We can’t compare ourselves with them. Of course it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, but not until you feel you have enough confidence and a good backup plan.

There are a million thing that can go wrong from connectivity issues to demo Gods preventing you from showing something which works as you expect.

Again I listened to my mentors and pre-recorded all of my demos and put the video’s in my slides. It worked very well and I didn’t have any stress whatsoever that something might go wrong when showing my audience how something works.

Conclusion

Read and study around public speaking. It seems simple when you watch people on stage but I assure you it is very difficult and requires a lot of time and effort to get it right.

Practice your talk multiple times until you feel comfortable and your speech is fluent enough and you don’t stumble between or in the middle of sentences.

Get a mentor if you can and get help from them. Someone who has done public speaking can help you go a long way compared to when you prepare by yourself.

References

This are my goto places when it comes to gathering information about how to respond to proposals:

And at the end if you are looking for conferences in Australia you can use this Github repo that is created by one my friends Alex Mackey.