Top 7 tips to improve your conference presentation

It’s all about the slides and their delivery.

Well, it’s conference season again. I’ll be off to the West Coast for DeveloperWeek, then RSA, and, I’m sure, more conferences through the coming months. I had a good old rant a few months ago about what I hate about conference speakers, so this seems like a good opportunity to talk about all the good things that I actually enjoy. Well, it might to you, but I’ve got all sorts of spleen-venting that I still want to do, so bad luck: you’re getting another rant.  This time round, rather than getting all shouty about product pitching (which was the subject of my last cross-fest[1]), this time it’s all about the slides and their delivery.

First, here’s a disclaimer, however, or maybe two. One is this: I’m not perfect[3]. I’m may well have been guilty of one or many of the points below in many or all of my presentations. If I have, I’m sorry: and I’d like to know about it, as I like to fix things.

The other is this: not everyone is excellent, or will ever be excellent, at presenting. However hard you try, it may be that it’s never going to be your top skill. That’s fine. On the other hand, if you’re not great at spelling, or you tend to zone out your audience, and you know it – in fact, if you struggle with any of the points below – then ask for help. It doesn’t need to be professional help – ask a colleague or family member, or even a friendly member of the conference staff – but ask for suggestions, and apply them.

Before we delve deeper into this topic, why is it important?  Well, people (generally) go to conferences to learn – maybe to be entertained, as well.  Most conferences require attendees or their organisations to pay, and even if they don’t, there’s an investment of time.  You owe it to the attendees to give them the best value that you can, and ignoring opportunities to improve is arrogant, rude and disrespectful.  You may not feel that bad spelling, punctuation or layout, or even poor delivery, will detract from their experience, but they all distract from the message, and can negatively impact on what people are trying to learn.  They are also unprofessional, and here’s another important point to remember about conference speaking: it’s an opportunity to showcase your expertise, or at least get other people to be enthusiastic about the things you do. If you don’t do the best you can do, you are selling yourself short, and that’s never a good thing.

Here, then, are my top seven tips to improve your conference presentations.  I’m assuming, for the purposes of this article, that you’re presenting a slidedeck at an industry presentation, though many of these points are more broadly applicable.

Layout

I’m not just talking colours and shapes, but also how much is on your slides, whether it’s in sentence or bullet format, and the rest.  Because how your slides look matters.  Not just because of your company’s or organisation’s brand, but because it directly affects how people process the information on your slides.  The appropriate amount – and type – of information to put on a slide varies based on subject, technical depth, audience, for instance, but a good rule to remember is that people will generally read the slides before they listen to you.  If you have more than about 20-30 words on a slide, realise that nobody’s going to hear a word you say until they’ve finished reading, and that’s going to take an appreciable amount of time.  If in doubt, have multiple bullets, and reveal them as you talk (and never just read what’s on the slides: what’s the point of that?).

Spelling, punctuation and grammar

You may not care about spelling, but lots of people do.  It can be distracting to many people to see bad spelling, punctuation or grammar on your slides.  Everybody makes mistakes – and that’s why it’s worth reviewing your slides and maybe getting somebody else to have a look, too.  The amount that this matters will depend on your audience – but correcting slips raises the credibility of the presentation as a whole, because mistakes reflect badly on you, whether you like it or not.

Pictures

Or graphs.  Or diagrams.  I don’t care: put something in there to break up the slides.  I’m really guilty of this: I tend to have slide after slide of text, and forget that many people will just glaze over after the first few.  So I try to find a few pictures, or, even better, relevant diagrams, and put them in.  There are lots of free-to-use pictures available (search for “creative commons” online), and make sure that you provide the correct attribution when you use them.

Style

People have different styles, and that’s fine.  Mine tends towards the jokey and possibly slightly over-enthusiastic, so I need to think about how I pitch different types of information from time to time.  Play to your strengths, but be aware of the situation.  People will remember you if you’re a bit different, and there are times for humorous t-shirts, but there are times for a jacket or tie and a more sombre approach, too.

Tone

Do. Not. Drone.  There’s just nothing worse, particularly when the presenter is just reading the information on the slides.  And after a long lunch[4], it’s so easy to nod off, or just start looking at stuff on your phone or laptop.   If you think you might suffer from a boring tone, ask people for help: practice delivering to them, and then think about how you speak.  It’s relatively easy for most people to learn to modulate their tone a little up and down with practice, and it can make all the difference.  Equally, learning when to stop to allow people to digest the information on a slide can give you – and them – a break: a change is, as they say, as good as a rest.

Delivery

I’ve already said that you mustn’t just read the words on the slides.  I’ll say it again: don’t just read the words on the slides.  Notes are fine – in fact, they’re great, as most people aren’t good at improvising – or you can learn a script, but either way, one of the most important lessons when delivering any type of information is to look at your audience.  Sometimes this is difficult – there may be little light to see them by, or you may find it nerve-wracking actually to look at your audience – so here’s a trick: pretend to look at your audience.  Choose a spot just a few centimetres[5] above where an audience member is – or might be, if you can’t see them – and speak to that.  They’ll think you’re speaking to them.  Next slide, or next bullet, move your head a little, and choose another spot.  Engaging with your audience is vital – and will actually make it easier to manage issues like tone.

Audience

This could have gone first, or could have gone last, but it’s really important.  Think about your audience.  If it’s a conference for techies, don’t use marketing diagrams.  If it’s for CEOs, don’t go into the weeds about compiler design.  If it’s for marketing folks, well, anything goes, as long as there are pictures[6].  Remember – these people have invested their time (and possibly money) in coming to see you to learn information which is relevant to them and their jobs, and you owe it to them to pitch the right sort of information, at the right level.

Summary

I really enjoy conference speaking, but I know that this isn’t true of everybody.  I often enjoy attendee conference sessions, but poor attention to any of the points above can detract from my enjoyment, the amount I learn, and how I feel about the topic and the speaker.  It’s always worth trying to improve: watch TED-talks, take notes on what your favourite speakers do, and practice.


1 – I’m pathetically amused that my spollcheeker[2] wanted that word to be “cross-stitch”.

2 – yes, it was intentional.

3 – just ask my wife.

4 – or during the first session after the conference party the night before – a terrible slot to land.

5 – or slightly fewer inches.

6 – this is mean and unfair to my marketing colleagues.  I apologise.  A bit.

Author: Mike Bursell

Long-time Open Source and Linux bod, distributed systems security, etc.. Now employed by Red Hat.

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