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conference speaker 101

TLDR: Here I talk some of the things that helped me to present my first talk at a conference

Last year, I presented my first talk at RS on Rails, which is a Rails (and Ruby) conference which happens in Rio Grande do Sul at the south region of Brazil.

Before that, I never had given a 40 minute talk at a conference (I've only talked about 20 minutes at FISL 2008 on a short talk about Archlinux) and as a regular geek I'm shy and I don't think I'm someone which masters the skills to delivery great talks like Steve Jobs.

This posts intends to tell you some tips that helped me to prepare my talk, how I rehearsed it and what I did on stage.

Content is king

If you're not a well known speaker, people will not watch you unless you have something great to tell them, so spend some time thinking about nice things to talk and if a regular attendant will be able to watch it. I remember about going to an event where the speaker talked about Ruby's meta programming and 90% of the attendants were doing their first steps on Ruby and Rails. The speaker was really a good speaker and taught really nice things, but clearly he missed the point talking about this on an event with that amount of newcomers. You should measure if the subject that you will talk is too basic or too advanced for the event.

Before writing any slides or sending any proposal, create a list of topics that you will talk about. Validate this with a colleague and see if he thinks that you had chosen well the topics. If you're not secure about the topics and your colleague didn't get the point of your talk, try to write a draft of the slides and present it to your colleagues in order to get some feedback. If you have friends that talked on events, you can get valuable feedback and discover what is worth talking and what isn't.

Study about creating great slides

Every time I think about boring things, I remember a professor in college that used to give his lectures using power point slides. I remember that most of the students slept or played games on their mobile phones. You may say that students should pay attention on what professors say, but in our defense, I say that his lectures were really really boring. Obviously, even if he is a great researcher and knew a lot about the subject he was teaching, he lacks knowledge on presentation preparation to keep the audience focused.

Of course, lectures and talks are more than great slides. But in order to deliver a great talk, you should prepare beatiful slides.

But how do we prepare a good talk ? There is some resources that teaches you how to prepare great talks. Due to a friend recommendation, I've read Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery by Garr Reynolds before preparing the slides. This book tells you how to prepare and present a great talk and design great slides. I've also watched the talk Your Slides Suck by Shane Becker, that tells you how not write slides. Other resource that was published after my presentation is Zach Holman's blog post about slide design which tells developers (that generally lack design skills) how to create beautiful and great slides.

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse

When you're writing slides, you probably know what to say on each slide. But, do you really know how to connect it to the previous and the next slide? Also, you know how to explain it clearly? As expected your answer is probably "no". So, you should rehearse. Check if you're saying what you need to say in your presentation time frame without having to hurry or skip any subject. Also, check if you can explain clearly every topic (if you're afraid to forget something and your presentation software have this feature, write a note visible only to the speaker about what you're supposed to talk). If you're not secure, present it to your colleagues and get some feedback about your explanations or examples. When I wrote my talk, I present it at least 4 times to my colleagues at Plataformatec and every rehearsal I got valuable feedback about it. I also presented it to myself several times, and the last one was on the night before the event.

Also, ask a friend to play the devil's advocate and find flaws on your talk.

Rehearsing is really important, but keep in mind that you're rehearsing to practice what you will say, not exactly what you will say. Don't try to memorize everything, because listening to someone reading (or saying something that has been memorized) is way boring of listening to someone telling a story (unless you're an actor, which is probably not the case).

On the stage

When you're on stage, you will probably get nervous with all that people watching you. I remember, while presenting a lightning talk on Ruby Conf Brazil, a moment when I forgot what to talk and, on stage, I saw the crowd looking at me, and I thought I would not be able to continue presenting. Fortunately, I quickly remembered what to say and continued my talk. Asking my friends later, they said that this moment took around a few seconds, but appeared to me that it took at least fifteen seconds.

You will probably get nervous, but if you have rehearsed it enough you will calm down and keep it going.

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