The Mystery of Presenting at Tech Conferences Revealed

15 October 2018

This art­icle was writ­ten after the Dot­All Con­fer­ence 2018. The developer com­munity I refer to is the incred­ibly sup­port­ive Craft CMS community.

Dotall 2018 Ben Croker 03 DotAll 2018 © Pixel & Tonic

The room was full. People were stand­ing at the back. I could see partly tired, partly expect­ant facial expres­sions in the audi­ence. It had been 4 years since I had last spoken at a tech­no­logy con­fer­ence and I recalled my con­clu­sion: tech­nic­al present­a­tions are too polar­ising — half of the audi­ence will lose the thread, while the rest will want more depth and detail.

As I was being intro­duced, I felt that famil­i­ar rush of adren­aline com­bined with nerves and self-doubt. I took a deep breath, remind­ing myself that I was as pre­pared as I could ever be and to just stick to the script”.

If you don’t read bey­ond this point, then here is the essence of how to present at tech­no­logy con­fer­ences. Your present­a­tion is a per­form­ance that should deliv­er a clear and mean­ing­ful mes­sage. Spe­cific­ally, it should:

  1. Speak To Your Audi­ence — engage them with stor­ies and exper­i­ences they can relate to.

  2. Edu­cate Them — give them some­thing new and bene­fi­cial to take away from your talk, regard­less of their tech­nic­al ability.

  3. Wow Them — cre­ate emo­tion and excite­ment so that what you say is memorable.

Before we look at each point in detail, I must admit that speak­ing to large groups of people does not come nat­ur­ally to me. The days and weeks lead­ing up to a present­a­tion are nerve-rack­ing — I feel an irra­tion­al amount of pres­sure to deliv­er a sen­sa­tion­al present­a­tion, pre­par­ing almost obsess­ively. While I feel very com­fort­able in one-on-one and small group set­tings, speak­ing at a con­fer­ence has always been and remains incred­ibly hard work for me.

For­tu­nately, I have atten­ded enough present­a­tions and gone through the pains of my own enough times to break down the pro­cess into a few gen­er­al prin­ciples. I believe the fol­low­ing applies to almost every speak­er in every situation.

Key Takeaways #

1. Speak To Your Audi­ence #

Audi­ence research is pivotal. Your aware­ness will gov­ern not only the top­ic that you present but also the way in which you present it, the level of detail you go into etc. The best way is to have con­ver­sa­tions with indi­vidu­als who are largely rep­res­ent­at­ive of your audi­ence. I gen­er­ally speak at con­fer­ences based around a developer com­munity, so I’ll often already know at least a third of the attendees per­son­ally. If you don’t have the good for­tune of know­ing your attendees, you should find a way to con­nect and con­verse with them as soon as pos­sible. Ask them ques­tions that will give you the most insight: What are they strug­gling with? What would they like to learn more about? What would they find fascinating?

Pre­par­ing a present­a­tion is nev­er a task that really gets done. It is a cre­at­ive pro­cess that comes to fruition when you utter your first word on stage. I gen­er­ally begin pre­par­ing from the moment I am invited to speak until the day of the present­a­tion. Those few days before a present­a­tion are cru­cial. This is your oppor­tun­ity to meet oth­er speak­ers and attendees in per­son and gauge the conference’s gen­er­al atmo­sphere as well as cur­rent trends and top­ics of interest. This is not the time to rewrite your present­a­tion, but it is an ideal time to set the tone for your open­ing and clos­ing remarks, tweak a slide here and there, and add some taste­fully humor­ous com­ments about oth­er speak­ers or in-jokes about the conference.

Cre­at­ing rap­port with the audi­ence is extremely import­ant. Humour and a sense of light-hearted­ness help the audi­ence (and you) to relax, so that they are open to what you have to say. How­ever, build­ing sus­pense is even more import­ant. Cre­at­ing sus­pense at the begin­ning and bring­ing it to a res­ol­u­tion at the end of your present­a­tion is cru­cial to keep your audi­ence engaged. Your present­a­tion is a per­form­ance after all and you are part edu­cat­or, part entertainer.

2. Edu­cate Them #

Teach your audi­ence some­thing new. Besides the social oppor­tun­it­ies that con­fer­ences provide — which are hugely valu­able and, in my opin­ion, can­not be over­es­tim­ated — people gen­er­ally attend to learn. Leav­ing a con­fer­ence wish­ing you had learned more can be disappointing.

What you share can be simple and prac­tic­al. It doesn’t have to be any­thing as pro­found as a new plan­et, but should open up new pos­sib­il­it­ies, wheth­er inspir­a­tion­al or prag­mat­ic. Your audi­ence has, after all, likely spent a sig­ni­fic­ant amount of money and taken a few days off work to be there. Speak about what you do best, what you know inside-out, what you are most pas­sion­ate about. Don’t bull­shit them and don’t pre­tend to be some­thing you are not. Be genu­ine, be humble, be you.

3. Wow Them #

Cap­tiv­ate your audi­ence: tell them a story, take them on a jour­ney, send them away with a new-found sense of won­der. That magic­al, child-like feel­ing when some­thing seem­ingly impossible becomes sud­denly plaus­ible is what you’re after. I’m not sug­gest­ing that you per­form tricks on stage, but a little bit of magic is exactly what will raise their emo­tions and leave a last­ing impression.

Wow­ing an audi­ence takes cre­ativ­ity and cha­risma. It can take the form of telling a com­pel­ling story or giv­ing a live demon­stra­tion. While live demos can be risky (so have a backup plan just in case), I find that there is noth­ing more enga­ging or more inter­act­ive which, when done well, can check all the boxes. Whatever your meth­od, it should raise their curi­os­ity, wak­ing them up to your under­ly­ing message.

Don’t let all this talk of wow­ing” dis­tract you from the fact that your mes­sage, above all, is the essence of your present­a­tion. How­ever, your energy is the vehicle for get­ting that mes­sage across to a room full of people. Eli­cit sus­pense, won­der and emo­tion­al engagement.

Below are some prac­tic­al tips that I find very help­ful when pre­par­ing presentations.

Struc­tur­ing your Present­a­tion #

Begin with a strong open­ing — cre­ate sus­pense by tan­tal­isingly describ­ing the big idea” that you will reveal dur­ing your present­a­tion. Then intro­duce your­self — keep it brief and per­son­al. Next, use a few key points, each backed by a story, to build your case. Cre­ate a cli­max with your wow” moment. Finally sum­mar­ise your mes­sage and close strongly.

Slides #

Your slides should sup­port what you have to say, not the oth­er way round! Avoid the tempta­tion of jump­ing the gun and design­ing slides straight away. It is a waste of time and a dis­trac­tion to do so until you have a very clear idea of what and how you want to com­mu­nic­ate. I gen­er­ally design slides no soon­er than a few weeks pri­or to a present­a­tion. Although you should research and col­lect data for them at an earli­er stage, don’t make the mis­take of build­ing your present­a­tion around your slides.

Research #

Research­ing your sub­ject mat­ter is the ground­work for pre­par­ing your present­a­tion. Begin as early as pos­sible by read­ing, invest­ig­at­ing, exper­i­ment­ing and con­vers­ing with your peers. Expose your­self to as many real world applic­a­tions and people in the field as pos­sible. I can­not over­state the import­ance of hav­ing dir­ect con­ver­sa­tion. This is the best way to get out of your head and appre­ci­ate dif­fer­ent per­spect­ives on any giv­en top­ic — an essen­tial part of build­ing a strong case and deliv­er­ing a mean­ing­ful message.

Prac­tice #

Prac­ti­cing a present­a­tion is easy, we just tend to avoid it. This is a trap. By the time you speak on stage, you should be well-versed in your deliv­ery. Choose your words pur­pose­fully, light­en your mood and be anim­ated. You can prac­tice by: visu­al­ising your­self going through the present­a­tion; per­form­ing it in front of a mir­ror; record­ing audio or video of your­self; prac­ti­cing in front of people (espe­cially those pre­pared to give con­struct­ive cri­ti­cism). I would recom­mend doing them all. Each time you go through your present­a­tion you will gain valu­able feedback.

Keep it Lean #

A bloated present­a­tion is likely to comatose your audi­ence and obscure the focus of your mes­sage. It may sound bru­tal, but you need to cut out any parts of your present­a­tion that don’t dir­ectly sup­port the thread of your mes­sage — even if they took days to pre­pare. Prac­tice your pacing so you can move quickly over less import­ant parts and spend more time on those that need emphas­is. Time your deliv­ery so that you fin­ish under rather than over your time lim­it. Less is more. It will also give you a buf­fer for any tech­nic­al issues that may occur, ensur­ing you have enough time to deliv­er your wow moment and a strong conclusion.

Under­stand How the Brain Works #

Wait, what?! Don’t worry, I only mean you need to under­stand that how we com­mu­nic­ate ideas and con­cepts is very dif­fer­ent from how we receive them. When we explain an idea, we do so using the neo­cor­tex, the most recently evolved part of the brain. It can pro­cess com­plex issues and present them using lan­guage and reas­on. On the oth­er hand, when we receive an idea, we do so using the rep­tili­an brain, the old­est part of the brain in evol­u­tion­ary terms. It fil­ters all incom­ing mes­sages, gen­er­ates most of our fight-or-flight” responses and pro­duces strong, basic emo­tions. As a res­ult, when you are on stage, you are not present­ing to a room full of attent­ive, logic­al, reas­on­ing intel­lects but rather to a group of wary, tem­pera­ment­al yet sen­tient beings.

This is how Oren Klaff explains it in his excel­lent book Pitch Any­thing”:

As you are pitch­ing your idea, the croc brain of the per­son sit­ting across from you isn’t listen­ing” and think­ing, Hmmm, is this a good deal or not?” Its reac­tion to your pitch basic­ally goes like this: Since this is not an emer­gency, how can I ignore this or spend the least amount of time pos­sible on it?”

This fil­ter­ing sys­tem of the cro­codile brain has a very short-sighted view of the world. Any­thing that is not a crisis it tries to mark as spam.”

If you got a chance to look at the croc brain’s fil­ter­ing instruc­tions, it would look some­thing like this:

  1. If it’s not dan­ger­ous, ignore it.
  2. If it’s not new and excit­ing, ignore it.
  3. If it is new, sum­mar­ize it as quickly as pos­sible — and for­get about the details. And finally there is this spe­cif­ic instruction:
  4. Do not send any­thing up to the neo­cor­tex for prob­lem solv­ing unless you have a situ­ation that is really unex­pec­ted and out of the ordinary.

These are the basic oper­at­ing policies and pro­ced­ures of our brains. No won­der pitch­ing is so difficult.

Final Pre­par­a­tions #

For the most part, final pre­par­a­tions go without say­ing. Nev­er­the­less, I have wit­nessed speak­ers at con­fer­ences who seem to pay little atten­tion to their phys­ic­al and men­tal state on the day. Your final pre­par­a­tions should help ensure that you are well res­ted, well nour­ished, well dressed and men­tally sharp. Of course, travel, nerves and anxi­ety will affect your men­tal state, but that is what men­tal pre­par­a­tion and mind­ful­ness are for.

In Con­clu­sion #

Where­as I used to feel that I had to prove myself in the eyes of my audi­ence, I have come to real­ise that I can only offer my best — no more, no less. Although present­ing at con­fer­ences still takes a huge amount of pre­par­a­tion and work, I have become more groun­ded and self-assured in my inten­tion and what I can offer. There will always be those who like what I say and those who don’t. It reminds me of the great end­ing to Bob Dylan’s Talkin’ World War III Blues”:

Half of the people can be part right all of the time Some of the people can be all right part of the time But all of the people can’t be all right all of the time”

For­get about people-pleas­ing and focus on being genu­ine and enjoy­ing your­self. The very fact that you have the cour­age to get up on stage in the first place proves strength of char­ac­ter, a will­ing­ness to be wrong and a desire to share your wis­dom, which is com­mend­able in itself.