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On Conference Speaking (hynek.me)
400 points by danielh on May 31, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 117 comments

On the whole, this is excellent advice. The introduction is completely true for me: I give many talks every year and it is, without question, a _lot_ of work. I suspect that everybody is a bit different as to how they prepare, but like the author, I do the cold rehearsal in my hotel room a half-dozen times (at least) before I actually go to give the talk.

I also break my talk into logical chunks - say five or six sections. I practice each of those individually, timing them. This gives me an average for how long each section takes, so I have a schedule written down. This lets me know how far over or under my time allotment I am so that I can adjust on the fly, either adding some additional explanation to some areas or subtly truncating something.

I always know my "bail out" slide - if I end up running out of time, what's the "thank you!" slide number? If you simply type in that slide number in PowerPoint or Keynote, it will jump to that slide without fanfare. Don't ever tell your audience that you ran out of time to get to all your material, or flip through the slides to the end that they won't get to see. They'll feel like they were ripped off. (Also, make sure to structure your talk so that the special bonus material is at the end, so they're _not_ actually ripped off.)

Interesting, I didn't know you can type the slide number.

Anyway, no need to remember the last slide number - just press the End key to jump there.

Some people organize their deck with an end slide and then an "appendix" of backup slides with figures that might be relevant during Q&A but don't really have a role in the flow of your presentation. Of course, they could just have two, duplicate, "Thanks!" slides, one at the logical end of their talk and another at the physical end of their deck...

Or double your first slide as your Thank You slide and use the Home key.

Also, don't underestimate the power of the blank screen (B or period for black, W or comma for white in PowerPoint; press again to return to last slide). If you don't have an action item take away to display it can be an effective "I'm done" and bring focus more directly to you for any concluding remarks (including saying a "Thank You"). (It can also be effective in the middle of a presentation to highlight something you want people to hear from you first rather than read.)

> I do the cold rehearsal in my hotel room a half-dozen times

How do you prevent getting bored? And how do you prevent your audience to notice that you're bored giving the same talk for the Nth time?

These are actually my biggest problems giving presentations.

[author of the linked article here]

I get bored while practicing (and it’s getting worse as I get better) but the audience changes everything for me. In the absence of special talents, plowing through boredom and practice anyway is what separates good talks from mediocre ones.

To quote Dr. J: “Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them.”

Personally, I love speaking and presenting. I'm not bored giving a talk several times, they're different each time, even when you think it'll be the same. Having to compress something down to 30 minutes or extend something to 60 makes a different, plus the things that I've been thinking of that day. I also often try to tie in my talk with a prior talk or with the keynote.

I also don't find the rehearsals boring; in fact, around 24 hours before, I'm already starting to get excited about the upcoming talk. So I'm pretty amped up.

One challenge is multiple talks back-to-back. It's hard to keep that momentum up for several days in a row. I've definitely had occasion to give a great, high-energy talk and then give a talk a day or so later that just feels "off", especially in terms of my energy level.

You make sure the material is "boring" so that you can concentrate on what the talk is really about: The people in front of you. They change every time, sometimes radically (composition of the audience and context). You want to waste as little conscious thought as possible when it comes to the material you are presenting so that you are free to dedicate yourself to the audience.

How boring does it get for a painter to use the same kinds of brushes for all their paintings? Or for a musician to use the exact same instrument? It doesn't, because they are not what you focus on.

It may get boring to minimally refactor the same code twenty times -- the code is the focus of the action. When giving a talk about the code the focus is what you want to achieve with people, not with code.

If you are there and really only care about the thing you want to present instead of the people in front of you then sure, they will probably notice.


This goes along with the other sub-thread here about the value of recording talks. What I say above is more about talks that are about convincing and motivating people. I don't mean that as in "motivational speeches" at all, but an Apple keynote about their new products is in that category. You want to give people a "look behind the scenes", at the person, because technology fails if the people and/or organization(s) fail no matter the quality of the technology. If the talk is about the latest internal optimizations of the V8 Javascript runtime giving the talk once and then point to the recording, or even just a lengthy blog post may actually be better and the main reason there is a talk is "the conference is there anyway and why not". But that's the kind of talk I would put only minimal effort into and it still works, because I don't need to convince and engage people, only to inform them.

Yes, we truly live in the age of useless bullshit. 99/100 talks I've watched from YouTube make me skip through the bullshit and see if there's even a single slide with some interesting content in it.

1.5x and 2x speed on the desktop version of YouTube (and the ability to set playback speed in most media apps) helps with that.

I prefer the (open source) videospeed Chrome extension [0]. It gives me a much wider range (thus far I used up to 5 x speed; audio is blanked above 3 x speedup), 0.1 increments - and keyboard control. The latter is essential to me, I can watch sections of online lectures at high speed and quickly slow down without fumbling for the mouse to watch the few sections that demand more attention at lower speed.

[0] https://github.com/igrigorik/videospeed

Desktop YouTube shows a preview when you mouseover on the timeline. You can get through a 1-hour talk in 20 seconds or so with that.

Right, but at 2x you can actually watch the whole thing in half the time. If it's not too technical you can come away with 100% of the information. The more technical or unfamiliar accents the more backups you will need.

I've not done nearly as many conference talks as many people here (I do about one a year) but just for entertainment here is how it usually goes for me:

1. Come up with a proposal, send it out to as many conferences as I can find.

2. Wait.

3. Most reject it. Some times (often, actually) all of them reject it. Go back to step 1 (You lose 3 or 4 months when you are waiting, not knowing if any will accept your proposal).

4. If one of them accepted, be overjoyed!

5. Tell myself I'll start working on the talk super early so I'm extra prepared.

6. Actually not start until 1 to 1 and a half months before the conference.

7. Be super stressed. Not get anything else meaningful done.

8. Day of the talk I am angry at myself for agreeing to do it when I get little out of it.

9. Do the talk, it goes way better than I expected! I didn't totally embarrass myself and people seemed engaged.

10. It's over! Oh my god, it's over! Thinking of all of the things I can get done now, I'm never giving another talk and putting myself through that again.

11. 3 or 4 months pass and I see people I know are giving talks and I get the itch to do it myself again... back to step 1.

> 3. Most reject it. Some times (often, actually) all of them reject it. Go back to step 1

This is one of the biggest reasons I started https://GroupBy.org.

I speak at a lot of conferences, and I was frustrated with the mystery of the abstract review process. I wanted anybody to be able to submit on any topic, at any time, and then get peer review from other speakers and attendees.

The abstract submission process is totally open - it's just a WordPress blog where folks can submit comments and talk directly to the presenters out in the open.

It really helps speakers understand why their abstracts aren't resonating, and how they can tweak their abstracts to improve.

I sometimes get a feeling that some speakers due to their history get invited to give talks over and over.

There are only a few respected conferences where you get to see new faces. The rest usually cycle through their top speakers.

The worst is when you have the same white 5 males talking about diversity.

> I sometimes get a feeling that some speakers due to their history get invited to give talks over and over.

Running a conference is a financial risk. You have to bring in enough attendees to ensure that you'll break even on costs. Because of that, organizers often bring in presenters with a known reputation for putting butts in seats.

To break into the circuit, find a conference with lower financial risks. For example, in the Microsoft database space, that's SQLSaturday, a free regional conference typically held at colleges. Those organizers don't have a lot of money on the line, so they can work on promoting their local speakers.

Even better, speak at local user groups and build up a reputation.

>bring in presenters with a known reputation for putting butts in seats

And, whether or not they're a direct draw, a reputation for giving good talks, not giving a sales pitch, not flaking out at the last minute, etc.

For better or worse, it's just a lot safer for conference organizers to accept talks from known quantities. Unfortunately, this makes it harder for unknown quantities to break in and (often) means that there is less variety of topics and perspectives than might otherwise be the case.

Building up a portfolio at user groups and other local events helps to some degree--especially if you've never spoken before. However, in my experience, just about every conference at its in crowd.

In my case, there are some conferences where I get accepted to speak regularly, some where I have a middle of the road batting average, and some where I mostly don't even bother to put in proposals any longer. And it's got very little to do with the topic area or the prestige/popularity of the event.

Not saying you're wrong, but I've done 6 conferences and the 6th wasn't any easier for me to get than the 1st.

I think his point wasn't that doing conferences makes it easier to do more conferences, but that doing a big, headlining conference, and doing a great job, makes it easier to do that conference again another year.

let's hate on these white people who decided to work on diversity because they saw none around them.

That's not what the poster said, you sound defensive. They just said it's disappointing. Also if you are in change of putting together a panel on diversity and all you can come up with is white men, then maybe you need to grow your network and reconsider your approach.

They didn't say it was disappointing. They said it was "the worst" to have white males talk about diversity. Is the implication anything other than "your gender and the color of your skin make your opinions on this topic worth [less|nothing]"? I don't see how it could be.

Personally if I'm going to a tech conference I want to hear about tech, not about HR. But if you want to have talks on diversity it makes sense the speakers on that topic would be largely representative of speakers generally, which is mostly white males.

"The worst is when you have the same white 5 males talking about diversity."

That's what they said. In the context of talking about seeing the same speakers at conferences over and over.

The context is that the GP doesn't feel white men are qualified to speak on diversity.

I deeply care about diversity. It makes me glad to see different kinds of people from all over the world with different opinions, ages and upbringing at conferences.

Google i/o had plenty of female speakers giving deep tech talks. That's awesome. Yest SpaceX host was an African American woman talking about rocket boosters. That's awesome.

The reason I say this is while I was growing up society told me unconsciously that only white males can truly male it in tech.

That's not true and you don't want to send that message unconsciously. It creates a cycle where people self select themselves into careers based on kind of people they see being celebrated as heroes.

Agree to disagree.

This is roughly my cycle. I'm finding that step 10 gets stronger and stronger. After my first talk there was no noticeable step 10. Several years and many talks later, I'm currently in step 10 and I think I might really never get to step 11 again.

So what are some reasons to do any of this? Sounds unpleasant.

Does it really increase your salary or your network that much?

Being seen as an "expert" in your field does positively affect your salary and giving talks is one way to help there. To what extent it helps I'm not sure. But that's not really the reason why I do it. I do it mostly because of ego. I see people tweeting about giving a talk at X convention and I feel like I should have that status.

As jrauser said, though, the more I do them the less inclination I have, as it really does negatively effect my ability to achieve other goals. And the older I get the other projects become more important to me.

Even more than affecting my ability to achieve other goals, I think it might actually affect my health. After my last talk I tweeted[1]:

"In the days before my recent talk, my resting heart rate was ~50bpm. The morning after, it's ~45bpm. Be kind to your speakers, folks."

Long term low-level stress is pretty bad for you.

[1] https://twitter.com/jrauser/status/867055469700849664

As I wrote elsewhere in this thread, I write talks mainly because I want the finished talk to exist in the world. I think this is the same relationship an artist has with their art.

That said, having given some memorable talks[1] at high-profile conferences probably has helped my career more than a little bit.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLv3BG8BSXbeFNfR2Zk4n8...

Yes to both.

But that's not why I do it. It may sound trite, but I really do want to help others get better at stuff, and if I have something cool to share that I'm excited about, I'll go out there and share it.

If I help just one person in the room, that's a victory to me.

Speaking at a conference vastly increases its usefulness, especially if you get a slot on the first day, as people will then come to you for the rest of the conference to talk about stuff. It takes a bit of work up front (although - are there really people who rehearse for hours, apart from TED style performance-talks?) but it makes the conference itself easy cruising, and you get information and energy from it you never get when you're just listening to speakers and having to go 'hey, so who do you work for' a few dozen times over coffee breaks.

Having spoken at ~20 international conferences I'm pretty certain people underestimate the work that goes into giving a great talk you'll remember.

This also bugs me when people say "Oh, that person's given this talk at that conference before". Preparing a good talk is a lot of work, and after that's put in why should you not be allowed to give that talk more than one time?

Also only very few people watch conference videos. Giving the same talk a dozen times, by the 10th time maybe a handful of people in an audience of hundreds will have seen the talk before. I'm honestly surprised conferences still record the talks because I'm fairly certain it's not worth the money for them. (there are outliers to this when somebody gives the most amazing talk ever that gets watch millions of times, but how often does that happen?)

I'd much rather conferences invest money into a better experience for the attendees and speakers.

[author of the linked article here]

I’ll have to disagree here. Using PyCon US as an example since it ended recently:

1. My talk video has already been watched more than 650 times. I don’t think I had that many people in the room.

2. I rarely go to actual talks because as a European, being able to meet my American friends and being able to discuss things IRL is sadly a once-per-year issue. Open Spaces/BoFs are also more valuable IMHO by being present. IOW: now I’m back I’ve started to catch up by watching conf videos. :) As a speaker, I’d prefer people going to talks too of course. Last year I spoke to a 1/3 filled room and it sucked so hard I wasn’t sure I’ll submit another talk.

3. PyCon sells out. Always. It would be a pity to limit all the work to a small minority. Some great talk videos end up iconic too.

4. Plenty people can’t afford conferences at all. Be it money, job, or family responsibilities. Talk videos are a great way to democratize knowledge.

I think point 3 cannot be overstated. Iconic talks can be hugely informative or simple and brilliant in their execution. Two that come to mind and I regularly recommend to people are:

https://www.destroyallsoftware.com/talks/wat "Wat" https://creativemornings.com/talks/mike-monteiro--2/1 "F*ck You, Pay Me"

That Mike Monteiro video literally changed my life, helping me go from charging $15/hr for PHP "development" (sigh) to charging real money and getting real checks.

Wat is a great talk two, they're probably my top 2 talk videos.

Some speakers are more willing to give a talk when you record them. On the other hand it depends on the type of conference. There are conferences which are sold out for years and do not need extra money. They want people to be able to see the talk athough they did not win a ticket in the lottery. And this is true for conferences which are very different. Google I/O, Apples WWDC and on the other hand the Chaos Communication Congress. All of them offer recordings for free.

Damn, took me too long to type ;-)

But it's funny that you thought of the exact same conferences when it comes to good recordings with large viewer counts.

please conferences, record your talks. We, online talk watchers do exist. Besides, it's also good marketing material for you for next year, and for your speaker. Thank you

As someone who does conference talks, I'm glad they're recorded. It acts as a useful piece of advertising/credentialising and is also useful for future conference organizers to check to see if they think the way I present will suit them.

Also I'd say I watch quite a lot of conference presentations. there are far too many conferences for me to get along to and in many cases only a small percentage of the talks are interesting to me, so it's very useful to be able to watch the specific talks online.

> Also only very few people watch conference videos.

This is quite often true, but it hugely depends on the conference in question. The annual Chaos Communication Congress for example (well-known international IT security conference in Germany) records all of the talks, which usually have between 500-3k viewers at the venue, and the better ones usually get >10k views, with some top talks even topping 30k-50k over time, on the official recording page of the conference alone (there are quite often copies uploaded to YouTube and other outlets, and those amass similar numbers of views in addition). In addition there is usually a number of streaming viewers who watch the talks as they happen, in the figure of 500-3k.

In this case however the recording quality is generally very good, so that might also explain why other conferences with only mediocre recordings don't reach similar numbers of viewers. And the videos are released under a CC license, so sharing/reuploading/using them in education or similar stuff is all legal.

The WWDC talks most likely also reach high view counts, since many people would like to go to the conference but can't and the talks themselves as well as the recordings are usually of good quality.

The actual official site at https://media.ccc.de/popular has many talks in the hundreds of thousands of views.

Conferences usually have a relatively small number of attendees. By recording the talk you can reach a much wider audience. For example: when I was in college I used to watch lots of conference videos, even if it just had a few thousand views. If there hadn't been videos, I wouldn't have had any way to access the same content. Actually traveling to some of those conferences would've been prohibitively expensive at the time. Heck, even now I find most conferences to be prohibitively expensive.

I admit I am one of those conference speakers that doesn't prepare a lot. I tend to discuss the topic beforehand with the organisers, go inside the venue to get a feel for the audience, go on stage and just deliver. IMHO it is all about creating a bond with your audience and interact with them as spontaneous as possible. Works for me, but I know it's not for everyone.

I also rarely use slides nowadays. That helps a lot. Sometimes I use a whiteboard. The way I deliver keynotes and presentations is maybe best summed up (and definitely inspired by) this article from the late Pieter Hintjens:

http://hintjens.com/blog:107 Ten Steps to Better Public Speaking

>I admit I am one of those conference speakers that doesn't prepare a lot.

I've been running meet-ups and speaking at and attending conferences of all shapes and sizes all over the world for years and I assure you, unless you're exceptionally talented and experienced at public speaking (which you may be), then a lack of preparation is painfully obvious to the audience.

I completely agree that building a bond with the audience is the key difference between a good talk and a great talk but to anyone relatively new to public speaking, I promise you that there's no such thing as too much preparation.

I'm in the speaking circus now for 12 years, so I will happily admit that I have a solid pool of experience and knowledge to build upon. Preparation as in learning and practising the stuff I talk about is my daily job anyway, so in that sense I prepare a lot.

Some people call my style "storytelling" because that's the new buzzword, I guess. To me it comes very natural to be on stage and entertain the audience while delivering my content.

My main point is that speaking in public is not a one-size-fits-all thing. So what works for most doesn't have to work for all and vice-versa.

As long as the audience feels they learned something and were entertained, I'm happy.

You can do a lot of preparation and perfection, over years, and finally get up there and suddenly realize that you are not an entertainer, or even a teacher, and don't want to be either of those, even though the assumption was that this was a good idea, or the main idea. Then what, you're the guy from the Advanced Bashing The Shell talk, or a like guitar player who does not want to play for an audience, what do you do?

Not everybody can become a good speaker, granted. Training and experience helps a lot, though. But if you don't feel comfortable on stage then by all means, don't force yourself to.

There are loads of other ways to share your knowledge. Maybe you want to try podcasting, blogging, vlogging, writing articles for relevant magazines/web sites?

Heck, you could even make funny songs to get your message out :-) As a speaker though, I feel at home on stage and the feedback has been positive over all the years, so I feel comfortable with being a speaker.

As always, do what you makes you feel good, don't force yourself into something you don't like. The audience will notice immediately and some audiences can be very hostile. Most of the time though they are very forgiving in my experience.

Kind of depends on how you define a “good speaker”, right? Your style and mine style are obviously very different (lots of it is also due to English being my third language of course) but people still have expressed that they consider me a good speaker.

It’s like with everything: talent or grind. Or both if you want to be an amazing speaker. :)

The different approaches and results of speakers is what makes a conference interesting, when the mix is right IMHO :-)

I spoke at my first conference about two years ago, and it was a huge learning experience. Here's how I'd do it again, if I did it again:

1. Expect this gig to take a huge amount of time. As such, make sure that you allocate 1-2 weeks of full time work to prepare. Will it take this much time? Probably not, but its good to prepare anyways and know what you're diving into.

2. Speak at a conference as part of a much larger communications strategy. What does that mean? Its waaay easier to speak about something that you're already talking about on your blog, with customers or with your colleagues. Then, you can just develop that existing conversation into something that works well in front of a live audience. Developing an idea is a lot easier than creating an idea from scratch.

3. Test ideas first on your blog, HN or Twitter. Generally, what people want to hear and engage with at a conference is similar to what people want to read and engage with online. So, write a bunch of articles and share a bunch of articles, and see what people like from that.

4. Practice, practice, practice. Talking at a conference is like giving a performance. Would some violin player just wing it on stage? Definitely not, unless they have 10,000 hours of experience. So, practice giving your talk at home in front of the mirror. Hire someone to watch you while you practice. Per point one, this stuff takes time, and like any piece of work, you need to develop your skills.

Lots of "I give a lot of talk" folks on here. I'm a listener, and I just want to thank all of you. Being brave and sharing your knowledge to help empower others is no small thing. So, again, thank you.

Glad to see I'm not the only one who relies on scripts.

After having recorded 36 hours worth of video training courses, I've written over 150,000 words of scripts because explaining technical information in a concise way usually depends on thinking about how to word your sentences beforehand.

I'm really envious of people who can wing in depth tech talks amazingly well, but at the same time I'd also be surprised if those people even exist. Winging it "decently" and "amazingly well" are so much different.

William Bialek has given week long seminars (4 hours a day over 4 days) in biophysics with just chalk and blackboard.

amazingly well

I just spot checked about 10 minutes of his stuff on Youtube. Yeah this is top notch.

Has he been lecturing since 1986? That's when he joined up with Berkeley on his Wiki page.

Eliud Kipchoge ran a marathon in 2:00:25. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I speak at a lot of local meetups and from one of those got invited to speak at a pretty big conference (M3AAWG). It was really intimidating since the speakers consisted almost entirely of Facebook, Google, Comcast, Microsoft, Rackspace...and somehow me.

I enjoyed it but was really nervous and had some serious imposter syndrome going on. I generally like giving talks but for me, it was a very different experience knowing that you were speaking for people who were paying to be there. The speaking invite allowed me to attend the conference for free though and I learned a lot.

My talk was basically a practitioner's experience of using/implementing a lot of different anti-phishing/anti-fraud techniques that people were deeply specialized in throughout other parts of the conference. I had what I hope, for others sake, was a very unique experience of combating a lot of fraud and seeing things come from all angles where a lot of larger targets will tend to deal with different parts of attacks in entirely different departments. I couldn't go deep on anything, but mainly got to share my experience.

This guy basically prepares his "Hour" the same way a stand-up does, though without that all crucial audience feedback you need for comedy.

That's a great way to do it if you are focusing on one specific thing at a year turnaround rate.

If however you are asked to present a wide range of topics then it doesn't work quite the same and you need to be better at improvising and speaking off the cuff.

I probably speak 15 times a year on 3 different topics:

Augmented Reality

Applied Machine Learning


Each time I am asked to speak, I pull slides or structure from previous talks, and then update them with the latest from the field or my own constant research/learning.

Generally speaking though I don't start prep more than a week in advance - which is different than most people I think because I have so much experience here.

The day before, I will spend a few hours going through a routine where I just present several times to my hotel room. If it's an hour long presentation I won't typically walk through the whole thing each time, just the transitions usually. Once done I'll distill the points I'm making into bullets and write them onto a notecard. If there is a podium I'll use the notecard, if not then I just gotta memorize the bullets and go from there.

The reality here is also that a lot of conference speaking is about building momentum from previous talks and building relationships with the conference organizers. You need to have a great relationship with the organizer because things will go wrong and being able to show you can go with the flow is important.

Almost as important as what you present is being able to present it. Being prepared for contingencies (slide backups on dropbox, thumb drive, laptop with HDMI and VGA), knowing how to wear a pin mic, talk into a handheld mic, knowing how to use a clicker, doing pre-show prep for wonky videos or sound issues where necessary, know how to answer questions, give space for panel members to talk etc... are all parts of the equation that make you a good speaker or not and thus get invited to speak or not.

Most people miss all of these things or ignore them assuming that the staff has everything covered. Generally speaking conference staff are run ragged so anything you can do to help make their lives easier is appreciated and will be remembered.

Great article. Reminds me of Damian Conway's great conference talk on giving tech presentations - that one changed my approach on preparing for talks forever. https://youtu.be/W_i_DrWic88 and http://damian.conway.org/IBP.pdf are the notes. Well worth watching.

I speak as part of my job and have spoken at probably 20+ events that are 3rd party to my employer in the past 2 years. Currently I am averaging about a conference a month in 2017.

I thought this was a really great list. Some big ones I like to call out:

#9: Travel - This gets me more than most things. I have on occasions bumped into other speakers completely unprepared for their travel for or for things that might go "boom" such as: laptop failure, presentation corruption, display adapters not existing (or breaking which is harder to prepare for) and my personal favorite Immunity Boosters. Hell yes. A coworker turned me on to these two years ago after coming down with the plague after speaking at a few too many events in a short period. Now its a must for me and whether its placebo effect or not I haven't gotten sick while traveling/speaking since.

#10: Showtime - No one is born a great speaker. Flat out no one. I know people who speak weekly at public events and they used to suck at it too. Don't be afraid/stress too much before a talk. That said, I have seen people bite off more than they can chew and give a first talk at a major tech event such as AWS's Re:Invent where rooms average 1k people. If you're going to choke at your first event, don't have it be that big/visible of a one. Start with local meetups!

#5/6: A big one that I always recommend is peer review your content before you even start dry runs. Presentations often live longer on sites such as Slideshare than they do in the minds of those who have seen them live. It is in sites like Slideshare that your spelling, grammar, and even design issues will stand out the most. Get someone who is detached from your presentation to read through it, maybe even two people, take that feedback and then move forward. For me, my wife who was a journalism major reviews almost all of my content despite not knowing much about the technical nature.

I haven't given as many talks so I can't really contribute, but I see a very different pattern already: I tend to apply when I already have researched a topic and have some slides. Maybe I should re-think my approach :)

Also I would never drink coffee (or any caffeinated drink) before a talk, and rather wake up late to get a goooood night of sleep. Also eat really light.

> If you watch the talk, you may notice that I don’t do Q&As. That has two reasons

Never really understood Q&As after the talk. We can always have a private discussions or use different ways to ask questions.

Great blog post and certainly a lot to take away.

I've spoken quite a few times and several different conferences/events and love it. However, the thing I struggle with most is coming up with a topic. I find it incredibly hard to think of something I believe people will find interesting. However, I expect this is simply down to lacking industry experience and not having spent extensive time working with any particular language/tool.

Are conference speakers paid ?

How do you keep earning money when giving talks all the time ?

Do they pay the airfare and accommodation ?

Does their work sponsor them or do they take personal holiday ?

[author of linked article here]


At PyCon US/EuroPython everybody pays by default and the money goes towards financial aid so as many people as possible can attend. As a speaker, you can also apply for finaid of course.

The bet is basically that people that are able to attend today are the speakers of tomorrow. And anecdotally, it’s working out quite fine!

I let my employer pay my way to PyCon US and EuroPython because I’d attend anyway. PyCon ZA is special, because it’s in Cape Town and I like to surf so I pay myself. :)

Other than that, if a conference wants me as a speaker, they have to pay for my travels and accommodation. I’m also a diva and ask for SkyTeam flights which at least gives me indirect benefits (status miles + segments towards my status).

I don’t have to take personal holidays because I work at a small company and being able to exchange myself professionally with other peers is critical to my growth as an employee.

All that said, you speak because you enjoy the experience. I also got to see Japan, Russia, Ukraine, … all places I wouldn’t have gotten to see! To make a living with it you’ve got to be famous/influential already.

> At PyCon US/EuroPython everybody pays by default and the money goes towards financial aid so as many people as possible can attend. As a speaker, you can also apply for finaid of course.

Just to add on — here's the rationale behind it: http://jessenoller.com/blog/2011/05/25/pycon-everybody-pays

It depends on the conference. I've spoken at a lot of conferences. This is my experience, both from my own presentations and from chatting with other speakers:

Very few conferences pay speakers - even keynote speakers. The exceptions seem to be conferences explicitly organized around a particular proprietary technology, and sponsored fully by the company that makes that technology. Most community-organized conferences or conferences around a particular language or piece of software do not. I only know of one exception to that rule.

Some will, however, cover your hotel and airfare. You may have to ask for this, and they may only cover it if your company does not already. (Airfare may be capped, or may be limited to people traveling from the same country/continent).

As for whether work sponsors your or not, it depends entirely on your company and their relationship with speaking. I've been pretty lucky - even though I'm not in a role that explicitly requires speaking as part of my responsibilities[0], I don't have to use my vacation time when speaking at conferences. Not all companies take this same approach, though.

> How do you keep earning money when giving talks all the time ?

This is the main reason why I feel that all conferences should pay speakers, even a small amount. Preparing properly for a talk takes a lot of time, and providing speakers some share of the proceeds from a conference is a way of offsetting the amount of time it takes to prepare and give a good talk.

If more conferences paid speakers, the quality of talks would go up dramatically. However, I only know of one community-organized conference that pays speakers a share of the proceeds.

[0] ie, "Developer Advocate"

> This is the main reason why I feel that all conferences should pay speakers, even a small amount. Preparing properly for a talk takes a lot of time, and providing speakers some share of the proceeds from a conference is a way of offsetting the amount of time it takes to prepare and give a good talk.

I've organised a few conferences covering different languages and platforms, and there's two things which prevent organisers from giving more than a token sum to speakers.

1) Most of the "proceeds" from a conference come from an abundance of sponsorship for that year. For the community-organised, non-profit conferences I've been involved in, the per-attendee cost is often much more than what we charge for tickets. (This also depends on the overall sentiment within the organising team. Personally, I'm for charging as high as reasonably possible and offering scholarships and discounts where needed.)

2) The sponsorship climate changes every year, depending on the marketing budget of the various local companies, and the conferences that are taking place in that year. It's very important for conference organisers to maintain a healthy balance for the next year, if only to cover the large deposits that we have to put down for the various vendors.

> Most of the "proceeds" from a conference come from an abundance of sponsorship for that year. For the community-organised, non-profit conferences I've been involved in, the per-attendee cost is often much more than what we charge for tickets. (This also depends on the overall sentiment within the organising team. Personally, I'm for charging as high as reasonably possible and offering scholarships and discounts where needed.)

While I'm sympathetic to that, I'll note that the one conference I'm aware of that does do this, on a matter of principle, is also the most generous with scholarships and assistance, and also the most diverse in both speaker lineup and conference attendees.

It's not easy, but definitely possible to run a conference this way; the main problem is that very few actually try.

> Very few conferences pay speakers - even keynote speakers.

This I would expect, but doesn't the speaker typically get a pass to the conference in compensation? For some conferences that can mean quite a lot. I've seen conference prices in the thousands.

Are the passes typically single-day or for the whole event?

When I have spoken at conferences, usually the pass is for the whole event, and you are right that this could sometimes be multiple thousands of dollars, so it is a good way for me to get to these conferences and hear other speakers without my employer having to pay a lot for my personal development. And, usually, there will be a speakers dinner or after-party during the conference, which is a great way to meet and talk with other like minded people in your field. But, it can be hard work - even for a 5-minute lightning talk, the amount of preparation is vastly out of proportion to the 'live' time in front of an audience, however it is definitely worth it.

At the beginning of my career I would never have thought it would be something I would be doing, but if your work is interesting then it should be interesting and informative to tell people about it, which is all one of these talks really is, at base...

Given the answers regarding payment, which are in line with what I already assumed to be the case, I'm wondering how many speakers make a sustainable living.

Many of those I know are consultants or freelancers, i.e. there's no employer to cover the expenses and no revenue is generated while they're doing speaking gigs.

While the marketing value of being a high-profile, sought-after speaker and expert certainly can't be underestimated, when speaking at a conference most of the time you aren't exactly speaking in front of your target audience in terms of marketing but in front of fellow designers, developers, you name it ...

Giving a talk at an event certainly is a great personal experience and a tremendous personal growth opportunity. However, I can't help but wonder if for a self-employed consultant regularly doing speaking gigs really pays off business-wise. Perhaps someone with personal experience in that area could shed some light on that?

I can't speak to consultants, but as an experienced conference speaker I can tell you that it vastly improves my employability.

I cannot stress enough how much some modicum of "fame" in a community greases the wheels of employment. You don't need to be at the Guido van Rossum level of famous to get this benefit: just being known and respected by enough of the "right people" helps enormously.

Software engineers often underestimate how much of our industry is built on "who respects you". If respected people trust you to know what you're talking about and to do good work, it makes it much easier to find good jobs and get well paid.

(For those who hate public speaking, similar benefits accrue to those who write great blogs or notable, innovative OSS projects.)

Some consultants do speaking gigs as a way to increase visibility and gain clients.

However, when I was an industry analyst, I rarely did speaking if I wasn't being paid for it. In general, we didn't find that travel and speaking "for the exposure" was a good use of time and money.

Frequent speaker here.

It depends on the conference and depends on the speaker, but generally 90% of speakers at technical or trade conferences are not paid or compensated in any way. At software conferences it's typically that the speaker will be going to the conference anyway paid for by their employer.

For in-demand speakers travel and lodging, and generally catered food at event dinners/lunches etc..., will be paid for at a minimum.

Highly recognized professional full time speakers will charge a speaking fee between 5-10k, with the top celebrity names commanding significant sums.

It's an entire industry, but as with everything most of the real money goes to the top 5%.

> Are conference speakers paid ?

They may be sponsored (by the conf, the employer or a conf sponsor) e.g. have their transportation and lodgings paid or reimbursed, but AFAIK mostly not, at least for "community" conferences.

In fact specifically for the first conference TFA talks about (PyCon US) everybody pays up to and including the conference chair: https://us.pycon.org/2017/registration/ but attendees (especially but not solely speakers and tutorial presenters) can apply for financial aid, financed by both sponsors and entry tickets: https://us.pycon.org/2017/financial-assistance/

I've never gotten paid directly for speaking at a conference.

The boost to my resume, however, has helped me more than double my income over the last three years.

I've always been able to get my employer to cover airfare and hotels. It's good marketing for them too.

For keynotes and single-track tech conferences, my experience is you get free airfare and accommodation, plus an honorarium ranging from nothing to $2K. The most I ever got paid was $5K for a 15 minute talk at an O'Reilly big data conference, but that was an outlier.

For a conference like Webstock (in New Zealand), the free travel to the wrong side of the planet can be worth thousands of dollars, and is part of the draw for many speakers.

...the free travel to the wrong side of the planet...

We prefer to think of it as the other side of the planet, especially recently.

Yeah, but look at how all the other continents are avoiding you! There's something there...

I've done a reasonable number of talks for conferences/seminars. The only times I got paid in the past was when I was approached by specific companies to do a talk for them.

Sometimes you'll get travel covered and generally you get into the conference for free.

Luckily in my case my current employer is happy to cover travel/accommodation/time for speaking at relevant conferences and some time to help with talk preparation as well.

Usually the employer sponsors everything (time, flight and hotel) and this is then partially marketing partially education.

> Usually the employer sponsors everything (time, flight and hotel)

If you're lucky. When I speak at conferences, there are always some speakers who are there entirely on their own time and money (aside from whatever portion of travel expenses the conference picks up).

I got paid for speaking at Empex this month because I already lived in NYC. Otherwise you got travel taken care of.

It seems you don't get paid really. Why on earth would anyone do it?? I'd want a fat wedge of notes, or I would rather spend the preparation time outdoors or watching paint dry.

Because it's fun. Because it feels good to talk about your work with several (hundred) people.

Even if you only care about hoarding money, conference talks easily add a multiplier to your future income.

And like teaching, nothing immerses you in a subject like having to give a talk on it.

I write my talks mostly because I want them to exist. Why does an artist make art?

It's unusual to be paid to give a talk, unless it's a keynote or the organisers know that your name (or your organisation's name) will sell more tickets. Keynote speakers with a big reputation can get paid a lot of money for ~ 1 hours work.

It's fairly common for airfare and accommodation to be paid.

If you're talking about something work related, your company will likely be happy for you to do it on work time because of the exposure (and may well be willing to cover airfare/accommodation if the conference doesn't)

> Keynote speakers with a big reputation can get paid a lot of money for ~ 1 hours work.

They might only be speaking for an hour, but I can assure you that giving a talk worthy of that slot and money takes a lot more than a single hour to prepare, even for the most experienced public speakers. You may be able to get away with that once or twice, but it's unlikely you'd be invited back to speak for any paying slot after that.

By itself, conference speaking is not going to be a good source of income for anyone at any level of experience. When you factor in the preparation time, it's always going to come out to far less than you'd be able to charge for hourly contracting (or even salaried work). The value in speaking at conferences comes from the ability to use the platform to deliver a message and to build your reputation (yours and your company's).

I agree it can take a long time to prepare a keynote worthy talk.

However, it certainly can be lucrative, take a look at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1167682/Blair-worlds... (apologies for linking a Daily Hate article).

Note that a lot of keynote speakers will be asked to talk because of something they've done (e.g. NASA astronauts) and will be able to reuse at the same talk multiple times (or at least part of it).

Having said all that, I never meant to imply it was unfair that keynote speakers are paid or that they shouldn't be.

I've been running a software company, working on and managing various software projects, and launching/running software products for 10+ years.

The timing of this article is excellent as I was just about to start the search for conferences I could share some of my knowledge with. I've spoken at universities, colleges, and small business conferences a bunch of times and my talks are usually well received.

However, I'm still not sure about is where to find conferences with audiences who might be interested in what I have to say.

A lot of good advice, but I personally disagree with the slides not standing on their own. For me, slides + speaker notes should be able to stand on their own. It requires extra work and effort, but I believe the results are generally better because people can then consume the material the way they want.

However, like your guidelines, this is my personal one.

[author of the linked article here]

It’s obviously a matter of style, however I’d like to point out, that it’s not about extra work for me at all.

I probably spend as much time on my slides as you do (if not more), I just have a very different goal in mind and optimize for it relentlessly.

Fantastic article and wonderful tips. You could package it as an e-book, and maybe even sell it ;)

A shameless plug: I'm working on a side project which aims to help tech speakers get the most out of speaking engagements: https://eventil.com/for/speakers

[author of the linked article here]

In peak irony, I’m actually considering to make it my next year’s talk. It’s too long for lots of people to read, but I think I could make an entertaining talk out of it.

Your Site looks like something I tried for my area. What are you using to build it? I like it.

It's a Rails 5.1 application. We are also in the process of migrating some parts of UI to Vue.js

I'm curios about travel arrangements: i have spoken in many many events locally where I live, but never abroad. Thinking to propose a talk for a conference abroad, is it acceptable to expect them to cover travel expenses? (Not talking about pay for the talk itself, just flights and hotel)

Only if they explicitly offer that. I've never got compensation for anything unless I got invited. And you only get invited if you've built a name for yourself.

Bigger conferences also usually offer financial aid that is always worth trying.

I'm quite envious of conference speakers. I would love the experience but I never have any solid ideas that I think I could turn into a good talk.

You could always start with poster sessions or tutorials if a conference you like/are interested in has that.

Or lightning talks. I guess that the worst case scenario if something goes wrong is not that bad there.

To me ideas just come unexpectedly and often because I see someone mistaken https://www.xkcd.com/386/

I had a talk where I showed how Elixir and Elm programming languages complement each other and someone in the audience asked what are we using Elixir for in our company. When I said that for payment systems he looked surprised, because he heard about "let it crash" in Elixir and he thought it is unusable for anything critical. That inspired me to talk about how we use Elixir for handling money.

I also answered questions on Stak Overflow for some time. Of course there are many typos or library quirks that are simply missed, but often you see a person that just entirely misunderstood the concept. This is also a target for talks. There might more people struggling with the same thing (especially if your question gets more views).

Pay attention to what surprises people when you are talking with them. If someone didn't know what you find obvious, there is a good chance more people don't know it. We have some kind of bias where we think that what WE know is common knowledge and automatically EVERYONE ELSE is smarter than us (because they know everything we know and some more that we don't). That is obviously not true :)

If you find a topic that surprised couple of people it means you have and idea worth sharing. It doesn't have to be novel! I often put quotes and references from blog posts that I read about given topic to show that this idea is not new at all! Old ideas are often not widely known or forgotten. They are perfect for conferences, because they might be crystalized over years, so it is easy to research them.

I'm similar. I give a lot of talks in the local clojure meetup (I'm one of the organisers, so I'm often the fallback speaker when nobody else is available). I find it difficult to come up with good talks for that, but I guess I manage (passably). For conference talks though... I always draw a blank. I've wanted to give talks a bunch of times but could never come up with something that I would be interested in talking about, that I am knowledgeable enough to be confident talking about, and that is interesting for others too.

I think this should be approached backwards - FIRST one should have a good idea that he wants shared with the world and only then he should consider giving a talk about it (vs other mediums of communicating the idea). A talk is just a tool, not and end in itself. A btw, wanting to give talks because successful people give talks is a cargo cult.

Of course, which is why I've never given a conference talk. I haven't got anything I feel like I should share.

The desire to give a talk is because public speaking is something I want to be better at, because sometimes I've had opportunities where I could have talked about something but didn't feel confident enough due to lack of experience. Also, my employer would like me to give talks, but again, I don't feel confident enough to do so. At some point you just have to take the plunge and I'd rather do it at a generally friendly tech conference talking about something I'm interested in, before I do this in a more hostile environment. Maybe that's too selfish a way to look at conference talks...

Does anyone maintain a directory of conferences that accept proposals grouped by technology?

Nice list of frontend conferences https://github.com/benmvp/frontend-confs

If a speaker should specifically train him/herself for a talk, the talk is not worth listening.

So athletes shouldn't practice before the game?

I've given close to 300 sessions at about 100 events over the last 10 years.[1][2] The top three things you can do are practice, practice, practice. There are nuances to the material that you don't even think about at this point. Saying it out loud makes you think about them.

There are jerks in the audience who will say "do you know about X?" which is semi-related but not completely.. you need to respond and either a) connect back to the topic or b) shut it down and redirect back to the topic.

When someone asks "that's great but I need to worry about B instead of A, what do I do?" you need to either punt to something like "catch me after" or "Oh, there's a setting/plugin/tool for that!"

Finally, there are transitions and a flow to the talk that you don't know about until you try it. And sometimes you'll need to look up things - about tools or even your projects - to refresh your memory.

Admittedly, I go lighter on practice because I was a theatre geek (only 3-4x out loud before the first time) but it is still the most important step.

1 - http://lanyrd.com/profile/caseysoftware/past/

2 - https://joind.in/user/caseysoftware

Why so? I would guess the opposite - if the speaker is not prepared the talk might be fun, but you are less likely to learn something meaningful from it.

I know people who are very engaging and entertaining when speaking, but who are frankly not creative or clever enough to have anything ground-breaking to say. On the flip side there are people who are terrible speakers who do have ground-breaking things to say.

In a different sphere, there are people who are naturally very funny but fail as professional comedians. There are people who are not naturally witty who do make good comedians, due to approaching it like a challenge of writing and performance.

I don't think you can simply say that people who are unable to wing it aren't worth listening to. Having said that, I do admire people that can wing it.

I don't agree. Not everyone is born a good public speaker.

People here don't get that if your work depends on how you present it on some talk, it worth nothing.

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