This is a continuation of my earlier “So You Want to Speak at a Security Conference?” post where I cover creating a good submission to speak at a conference. I have spoken a handful of times and am definitely not an expert, though I do want to share some of the best tips I’ve discovered with others. I don’t have all the answers and I’m not an expert speaker. What I do have is some speaking experience at some notable security conferences and the tips and strategy that got me through them. 🙂 Hopefully these posts help you.
After putting together a stellar presentation submission, you receive an email with the words you were hoping for: “your submission is accepted!”
This email arrives weeks if not months after submitting to a conference and typically about 1-3 months before the actual conference date.
After taking some time to celebrate, and you really should since most conferences get more submissions than available slots (often many times that number), it’s time to get down to business. This is also a good time to make travel arrangements (assuming you need to travel). Also review the conference CFP pages and/or speaker section (if available) for speaker logistics.
Before getting started, please read through Speaking.io it’s a great resource and has lots of great tips for speakers.
The important ones:
- Presentation duration – usually 45 – 50 minutes, though some conferences also have other presentation formats, like 20 or 100 minutes.
- Milestone dates:
- Deadline to update abstract/summary and bio.
- Deadline for slides/whitepaper/other material (typically for conference CD/DVD)
- Projector: standard or widescreen (this matters for your slide format)
- Note if there’s a presentation template and/or file type requirement (PDF is typically required).
Also remember that the email address the acceptance was sent to will be the one conference/speaker updates are sent to, if there are any changes (i.e. you switch jobs, etc), make sure the conference contact knows about it.
Creating the Presentation
The first thing to do is to review your submission (hopefully you also included an outline) and start mapping out the presentation narrative. This is the time to figure out how you are going to get all the content in the abstract/summary into the presentation slides.
Make sure that the presentation slide material, including demos, can be covered in the time allowed.
Sample presentation outline:
- Title slide – presentation title and contact info
- About Me slide – keep this short – most likely no one wants to hear about what you’ve done for more than 1 minute, except if your Elon Musk, and in that case most people already know what you’ve done. Keep it shorter than you think.
- Agenda slide – major topics covered
- Introduction – why people should care
- Content Section 1
- Content Section 2
- Content Section 3
- Key Points
- Final slide – contact info
The first section (“Begin”) should take less than 5 minutes then get into the content. I like to break the content component into discrete sections help the presentation flow. Place some URLs in the slides for later reference, though there’s nothing wrong with having “reference” slides at the end of the deck. Provide references so others can find the same resources easily without having to search.
Finally, provide concluding slides. Highlight the key points of what you covered during the presentation and include some important takeaways for the audience. The final slide can include contact info as well. I’ve found that people really appreciate placing your Twitter handle on the bottom of each slide as well.
Key Points on Slide Creation
Remember that slides are supposed to compliment your talk, not be the talk.
Save the detail for your talk and the whitepaper/blog post.
- Keep information on the slide minimal – don’t include “wall of text” slides that have people reading more than a couple of seconds.
- 1-2 slides per minute seems to be a good rule of thumb. This will depend on how much time you want to spend on each major topic and you may add more information when presenting live.
- Your slides should inform and make people smile occasionally.
- Limit bullets to around 4 to 6 points. If you need more, split into multiple slides or reduce the content down to what’s absolutely necessary.
- Limit the number of words per bullet – don’t use long sentences.
- Make the text big – I aim for 36-point font to ensure people in the back have a chance at reading the slides.
- Screenshots should be big – maximize for text readability. Mark up the graphic to highlight what you want the audience to focus on. Increase the text size in demos so the audience can follow along.
- Put relevant pictures on as many slides as possible to keep audience interest. I like to insert memes at each new section and at certain points along the way to inject humor and keep the audience engaged (this may/may not be appropriate, so make that call).
- Plan to talk about material off-slide – either place keywords on the slide and talk in more depth about them or provide some information on the slide and provide additional information about the topic when speaking.
Never read your slides.
Keep in mind that before you have started to talk about the content on the slide, most of audience has finished reading it, so don’t read the text on the slide. Reference the information on the slide and expand upon it.
The where & when: Speaker schedule posted
Once the schedule is posted, don’t expect to have your talk moved to a different time slot. For this reason, it’s important to email the conference organizer/speaker contact when you receive the acceptance email to let them know about any potential scheduling conflicts. If you know you won’t be able to fly into the conference on Tuesday afternoon and it starts Tuesday morning, let them know as soon as possible.
The Final Draft
Once you have your presentation slides to a good final draft (trust me they’re never really “done”), it’s time to run through them. Connect your laptop to a projector or external monitor and act like you are presenting to a crowd. The difference here is you want to take notes while going through the presentation. Note what works and what doesn’t. Note required slide changes. Most importantly, keep a stopwatch running (presentation mode usually has this) and note times for each major section as well as the total time to run through the entire presentation, including any demos. I prefer screenshots since it’s easier to walk through what’s on the screen, but live demos do have more impact (typically). It’s often best to record a video of the demo just in case the live demo fails. It’s also highly recommended to video yourself going through the presentation which will highlight any distracting movements (visual) or “umms” or “uhhs” (audio). I have found that when I feel a little bored of going through the talk, I’m ready to give it live. This sense of “boredom” is actually a sign of familiarity and comfort.
Buy a remote for presenting. I like the Logitech Professional Presenter R800 which is usually available around $60 on Amazon (MSRP $79.99).
So, you’ve run through the entire presentation several times (I’ve found around 5 to be a sweet spot) to optimize the slides, flow, and timing. Going through the presentation fully several times before getting on stage has multiple benefits:
- Confidence – when you are comfortable with the content and flow, you feel more at ease improving confidence in front of a crowd.
- Anxiety – many people, including me, suffer from anxiety before speaking in front of people, especially on stage. Running through the presentation many times reduces some of the anxiety since you feel more confident and comfortable about what you will say and when.
- Nerves – obviously related to #2. Most people who present will be really nervous before stepping on stage and likely for the first part of the presentation, if not the entire presentation. Gaining confidence in the presentation helps reduce these nerves, especially when on stage and you forget what you were going to say. When this happens, relax, take a drink of water, breathe, and check where you are in the presentation. Since you have run through it several times already, the next item on the agenda will come to you (it’s on the slide after all 🙂 ) and keep going.
First piece of advice: relax, it will go fine. Remember that the audience wants you to do well.
Plan to get to the venue a couple hours before your presentation time and bring everything you need: laptop, remote clicker, video adapters (plan for HDMI and VGA), laptop power, and a bottle of water. Most likely the conference will provide water and video adapters, but always better to be safe and by bringing these, it’s one less thing you need to worry about before presenting. Water is the best thing to drink while presenting since it helps with dry mouth and any potential nerves. Use the bathroom about 15 minutes before your scheduled presentation time.
A few tips while presenting:
- Don’t say you’re nervous.
- Don’t call yourself out for mistakes. Make a mistake? Keep on moving.
- Take your time and yet be cognizant of the time allotted – don’t run over.
- When asked a question, repeat the question so the audience can hear it (and it’s captured if recorded).