Presentations used to terrify me. I remember stressing for days about having to give a 3 minute presentation in high school about a topic of my choice. I chose “ghosts” and in my nervousness completely forgot my talk one minute in and started directly citing the textbook I’d read instead, discovering to my surprise that I’d accidentally memorised it. I still didn’t manage to make the whole 3 minutes.
These days I give 40-60 minute talks at international tech conferences! While preparing for my most recent one, I realised that I’ve developed a process for preparing for these talks that really helps make this easier. This is just a series of steps that I’ve learned over time, and I hope it helps first time presenters prepare for talks more easily too.
- Start early
- Do your research
- Just have one big message
- Get the admin stuff out of the way
- Make a talk outline and do a dry run
- Make pretty slides
- Nail your intro
- Make a strong conclusion
- Figure out what you’re going to wear
- Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse
1. Start early
I usually *try* to start my preparation at least 3 months before the actual day. Depending on how much of a procrastinator you are, you’ll have to figure out what works for you but I know from experience that the 4 weeks before a talk are very busy for me with rehearsing, creating slides and figuring out last minute details so the earlier this starts then the less stressful these last few leadup weeks are.
You may also need to submit a bio, abstract and photo very early. It’s worth getting a professional photo taken – it will serve you well throughout your career and you’ll feel much better when you see the pro photo on the conference website rather than an awkward selfie.
2. Do your research
This is another big reason to start preparing early. The most convincing talks are based on demonstrated evidence, not just opinion and anecdotes. Getting the data that you need takes time, and often involves approval from one or more parties to present publicly. Interview industry experts, look for papers, studies and surveys, find data within your own company that is cleared for public use. Strong evidence to support your claim adds credibility and added power behind your message.
3. Just have one big message
Audiences are unlikely to remember everything that you say. Ask yourself, if your audience only remembers one thing from your talk, what do you want it to be? Then centre your talk around that message. Make sure it’s a message that’s directly relevant to your audience.
4. Get the admin stuff out of the way
There are a lot of little things to take care of when doing a public presentation, and it’s good to just get them out of the way as soon as you can so you’re not worrying about them at the last minute.
- Will you bring your own laptop or will they want your slides in advance?
- What kind of equipment is available, and will it work with your laptop?
- What slide dimensions are expected for the projector used?
- Will you be holding a microphone, have one on the podium or have one attached to you? (important for ladies intending to wear a dress)
- If you need props, are these okay and will you have time to set them up?
- How long does the talk need to be (including time for questions)?
- What time of day will you be presenting?
- How many people will you be presenting to?
- Are there any due dates you should know about, such as deadlines for slides in advance, bio, abstract, etc?
- Do you need to submit a photo with your bio?
- Will the talk be recorded? Do you have to sign any consent forms?
- Is your company okay with you presenting the materials you have planned? Do you need approvals?
- What are your rights regarding the presentation contents? Can you reuse the talk at other conferences? (this might be something you care about)
- Do you have the correct image rights to all of the images used in your presentation?
- If you are quoting anybody or referencing their material, have you cleared this with the owner and credited appropriately?
5. Make a talk outline and do a dry run
The first one is always the hardest, and you will sound like an idiot. Just get it over with, force yourself through it. Skip the intro if you have to. Just lock yourself in a room for an hour or more and blunder your way through your talk outline. This will give you a rough idea of the amount of time you have too and will give you an early indication of whether you need to trim down or pad out your talk to fit the allotted time. It also gives you a chance to get early feedback from friends and coworkers on the general content and format.
6. Make pretty slides
There are a few easy tricks here. My first recommendation is Canva, which makes it easy for you to create beautiful images that you can use as slides. It has stock photography too that only costs US$1 a pop.
My second recommendation is for images generally. Unsplash is a fantastic HD free stock photo site. And Google Photos lets you search your own photos by keyword – you might find that some of your holiday snaps make the perfect backdrop for your message. All those pictures of trees and sky are finally good for something!
My third recommendation is a bit more advanced – I once used Sketch which is a vector drawing tool to create all my slides. It was pretty but it helped that I’d already done several tutorials to help me use the tool. And it cost about US$99, a price I was happy to pay because I was already using Sketch for other design projects.
My fourth recommendation is to look for professional presentation templates. Sometimes these are free, but good ones can be purchased for about US$15-20.
Try to keep your slides minimal, and make good use of your presenter notes instead of cluttering all of your content as slide text. Reading from slides makes for a boring talk, and having less text on screen makes you look like a better presenter even if you’re glancing at your notes from time to time.
In terms of presentation tools, I recommend Keynote or Powerpoint because they work offline and can be stored on a thumb drive (but best to also store it in the cloud and email a copy to organizers for safety). They also don’t depend on your web browser. Make sure you shut down all other running programs while you present in case some pushy program suddenly decides it needs your attention and interrupts you in the middle of your talk. Figure out if you want to use a remote for your talk – this can help you break away from behind the podium. Keynote has a mobile app that lets you do this while viewing speaker notes too – just make sure it’s in aeroplane mode so nobody calls you while you speak.
7. Nail your intro
I find the introduction the hardest part of the talk. This is the bit where you’ve just walked on stage, you’re nervous as hell, and you may freak out and forget what it was you were going to say. But it’s the most critical part of the talk because it’s the part that hooks people in and makes them pay attention for the rest of it. Set up a special rehearsal session just for your intro and rehearse the hell out of it. Read up on presentation tips for introductions that will make your audience want to listen.
8. Make a strong conclusion
Don’t awkwardly trail off at the end with a tentative “…any questions?” Drive home your main message confidently.
9. Figure out what you’re going to wear
This is probably harder for women than for men, but I have no experience being a man so all I know is that this is important to work out ahead of time. Odds are you’re going to end up recorded and on the Internet forever so make sure that whatever outfit you pick is something you’re willing to have the world see.
- Make sure your outfit fits you properly and is comfortable. You don’t want to be constantly pulling things up or down, or fidgeting with sleeves and cuffs.
- Wear comfortable shoes. You’ll be on your feet for some time.
- Figure out your hair. If you have difficult hair, consider booking a salon appointment the day before your talk.
- Is there a dress code? If it’s vague or you don’t know, better to be overdressed than underdressed if you are presenting.
- Go for something that’s neat but not distracting. I wore a thin striped shirt once and it had a rather dizzying effect on camera.
10. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse
Goes without saying really but at least make sure you’re allocating time for this. If it’s an hour-long talk then you need hours of practice so make the time. Setting up a preview rehearsal for some friends or coworkers about a week before will make you get ready earlier and get you some timely feedback as well. Recording yourself or practicing in front of a mirror can help you weed out any odd speaking habits you didn’t know about. Make sure you’re on top of any difficult slide transitions (avoid the “oh! I forgot that slide was next!” moments).
Have an answer prepared for the questions you’re likely to be asked. Have a backup response to anything that you don’t know how to answer – “That’s a good question and I’d love to discuss it in detail with you later, come and see me after the talk” is a handy one for anything that looks like a can of worms. If you don’t know if you *should* answer something, probably better not to – remember you’re being recorded.
Most of all, just slow down, take your time and remember everyone sitting there wants to listen to what you have to say. You get to talk for 40-60 minutes without being interrupted – how great is that! Take advantage of it and good luck!