5 pro tips for aspiring conference presenters

Last week I got inspired by a keynote presenter at a conference. Not about the topic, sadly, but to write on how to present. The logic of her presentation was sound, with good ideas, but she completely lost the audience.

She opened with a set of slides with 10 bullet points each, some with further detail. Like an evil robot from the movie 9, she started to drain the life energy from the audience. The room became very hot. With my last few mana points I tried to escape. Damn, I was blocked on both sides by people turning into zombies. I faced a tough decision: be rude and try get out by interrupting a row of attendees, or be polite and stay there to slowly die. Or at least, check out what’s new on Twitter. Others had similar ideas, and Angry birds seemed to be the preferred antidote for people around me. When this happens during a normal talk it is sad and bad. When it is an opening keynote of a conference, it should be a criminal offence punishable by law.

Good presentations inspire and energise, not hibernate the audience. Who cares about the plebs, you might think, because if people aren’t paying attention that is their loss. When you decide to invest one hour of your life in speaking at a conference, with a few more hours to travel and prepare, you probably want to get a message across. The less people pay attention, the lower your return on investment.

Presenting doesn’t come naturally to software people, and I made lots of mistakes early on and learned from them. Here are five basic things to watch out for if you’re planning to present.

A word or two is due about context before I start. People present for lots of different reasons and at many different occasions. There are no best practices for presenting, similar to the way that there are no best practices for software in general. My keynote at StarEast this year, for example, was rated very highly by the audience. I asked Naomi Karten, famous author of Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals, for feedback on improving after the talk, and she said “It is amazing how someone can do everything wrong but still make a great presentation.” Use the ideas below as an inspiration, not as a prescription. I mostly speak at conferences in front of mid-size groups (100-400), mostly from the IT industry, often geeks. In different contexts, different rules might be applicable.

Watch the wordcount

Presentations where I lose interest are often the ones where the slides are trying to be a novel. Geeks are compulsive readers — put text on the projector screen and people start reading it, which means that they stopped paying attention to the presenter. Another issue with novel-like slides is that detail often doesn’t come across nicely. The average projection equipment at a tech conference is as far as you can get from IMAX 3D as possible. Even a cheap monitor has much better quality of picture and colours. This is important because the audience, especially those at the back, won’t be able to see fine detail. Font size 8-9 is perfectly readable on a monitor, but it will be impossible to interpret for people from the audience, unless they have superpowers. Shades of colours are often indistinguishable. The keynote presenter last week showed a photo of camels in a desert, that I have no doubt looks fantastic on her monitor, but was just blurry surrealist art from where I was looking. She then had to explain the photo, proving that a thousand words is better than a bad picture.

For best results, I keep the font massive. 30 pixels at least. 40-60 pixels is even better. This makes me keep the text short as well. I try to rephrase the text and remove as many words as I can — and focus it just on the key points. When I show code, I try to have only one or two relevant lines on a slide, with emphasis on relevant elements. Lots of people show a whole method or even worse try to push in a whole class. Nobody is going to try to compile a slide, show them the key stuff!

Slides are a visual aid for the presentation, and good slides support a story by illustrating it or reinforcing key points. If the slides are there just to reproduce what the speaker is talking about, the audience is not getting any benefit from them. Even worse, slides are competing with the speaker for attention, so complex slides with lots of text are a great way to score an own-goal.

Great slides help the audience see what the presenter is talking about. The comparison between pictures and kilowords is a big cliche but it really works, especially when I need something visual to complement the audio experience. I got great ideas on how to illustrate key ideas of my presentation from the The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures. You don’t have to be an artist to draw nice illustrations. As long as you have a simple idea (such as the key idea of the slide), you can express it with diagrams or charts. For example, see my presentation from StarEast, which was inspired by the Indexed blog and GraphJam.

60 minutes is shorter than you think

Many new presenters are scared that they won’t have enough content to fill the whole hour, and end up creating too much material. This often causes presenters to overrun, which means they start skipping some of the slides. When I’m sitting in the audience and the presenter is skipping slides, it makes me feel as if I’m being cheated, especially towards the end when I expect a conclusion. The presenter had more things to tell me but she’s now keeping something secret.

In general, it’s better for a presentation to be 10 minutes shorter than 10 minutes longer. You can always use the spare time for Q&A. I tend to leave slack just in case that someone interrupts the presentation in the middle with a few questions, so the whole thing might take longer than expected. At less formal conferences, talks before mine often overrun, so I then have to make mine shorter.

My rule of thumb is 15-20 slides per hour. Any more than that needs to be cut down. There are exceptions, of course. For example, I watched Simon Wardley do a presentation with 100 slides in one hour and it was fabulous. It was perfectly rehearsed and his slides were there for the comedic effect.

In any case, the best way to see how long a presentation takes is to try it out before the talk. Just rehearse it. I make my family crazy by presenting at home and talking to myself, but this makes me spot parts that are going slow, refocus, and ensure that I have enough material to fill the required time but not too much so that I have to rush it at the end.

I now try to keep the number of slides as small as possible, and have only key points in the slides. If there is not enough time, I can skip less important parts of each story. People won’t feel cheated because I skipped a whole slide. The same applies for too much text — when there are six or seven bullet points and the presenter only talks about two, the audience feels cheated. If there are only three points but I talk about more, they feel that they got more than they should.

For an example, see the slide below. It illustrates the key point of what I want to talk about visually and I can rant about that topic for two minutes or for 30, depending on available time and audience interest.

Keeping people awake is the presenter’s job

I read somewhere that TV has conditioned us to pay attention at most for 20-30 minutes, and expect a commercial break after that. With too much content fired at the audience, without considering their attention span, people won’t remember most of what was said. This again reduces my return on investment as a presenter. Keeping people awake is a part of the presentation as much as the “real” content.

The presenter last week tried to create short discussion breaks, but I often find those things a bad distraction. The classic “turn to the person next to you, introduce yourself and tell them all the sad elements of your life story” thing never works for me. Maybe I’m a bad person, but I just don’t care about what other people had for breakfast, especially if I’ve never met them before and I’m unlikely to see them ever again. Giving people five minutes to discuss something topical seems as a good idea until you actually participate in that, and see that most of the audience talks about something else. They lose the context, which requires the presenter to grab the attention back. Even when on topic, these discussions often don’t have a conclusion because they are too short and there is no time to consolidate all the information from the audience. Five minutes never turns out to be five minutes, because it’s not enough time for any decent conversation and some people just won’t shut up. Things like this work for interactive workshops where groups have 15-20 minutes to explore a topic and summarise it, not for presentations. Getting people to discuss something at a conference presentation is just a lame attempt to break up the boring stuff.

Interruptions in a presentation are a good idea to keep the attention, but for best results I try to create interruptions that are strongly facilitated and controlled, not a free-for-all please discuss something. One good technique is to ask random people from the audience questions. The rest of the audience then floods their organisms with adrenalin because they fear that they might be next in line — nobody wants the world to know that they were sleeping during the presentation. Stand-up comedians are masters of this. Watch any show by Dara O’Brien to see this effect.

Another good trick is to give away gifts for correct answers. I often try to insert 3-4 questions in a presentation that allow the audience to compete for gifts, such as books. This keeps them awake because they don’t know when I’ll be giving away something next. I intentionally organise questions as a bit of a shouting contest (“the first person who…”) because the person shouting also wakes up all the people around her.

The third trick I use to keep people awake is moving all the time. That gives the audience a moving target to track, so they have to pay attention. Don’t understand this as a justification to run around like crazy during a talk — I’ve seen one guy do that and it just seemed as if he was on drugs. The audience shouldn’t feel as if they are watching a tennis match. I walk around slowly and people have to follow me visually. This also helps me engage an audience in a wide room, as I can make eye contact with different groups of people.

The presenter at the conference last week was still. Handcuffed to her computer by a short cable leading to a mouse she used to flip the slides. Without a moving target, the audience satisfied their visual stimulation needs with shooting virtual birds at equally virtual pigs. I strongly suggest investing in a clicker if you’re going to present. The cost of it will be justified by keeping just one more person awake. Some people use a wireless mouse, but a mouse has a shorter range and it is easy to press the wrong button or flip over too many slides. Good clickers work from 10-20 meters away, so you can even move into the audience if you want. I use a Kensington 33374 Wireless Presenter which fits nicely in my hand and the buttons are clearly separated. Here’s another tip: if you don’t have a clicker, ask the people presenting before or after you to borrow it to you, you’ll see the difference.

There are many books about presenting which talk about jokes as a good way to keep people awake, because they interrupt the expected flow of text. Geeks are curious by nature, so the audience pays attention after a joke because they want to know what the presenter will say next. This again has to be considered in context. I’ve done a stand-up comedy show at agile testing days last year and the audience loved it, the organisers asked me to come back and do a keynote this year. I’ve also tried to tell well-written jokes at a relatively formal conference at a country where people aren’t really known traditionally for their sense of humour, and this was a big mistake. I’m not going to resort to stereotypes, but nobody laughed, probably because they did not want to stand out. It felt awkward both for me and for the audience. I now try to gauge how formal the talk has to be, and whether the audience will react to jokes. Generic jokes also don’t work well. For best results, I try to use jokes that support the point of the presentation. They have to be topical and relevant for the audience. I often rewrite one of the points I try to put across as a joke. I got some great ideas on writing jokes from Comedy Writing Secrets and The New Comedy Writing Step by Step.

Slides are for the audience, not for the presenter

Many people use slides as presenter notes. The presenter at the conference last week continuously turned to the slides on the screen behind her and read from them. This is a horrible way to present and an easy way to lose the audience. While reading, the presenter loses eye contact and often turns her back on the audience. For example, here is a picture of me from a few years ago getting it completely wrong.

Presenter not knowing what is on the slides shows utter disrespect for the audience. If people in the audience give me one valuable hour of their life, I can at least bother to learn my own presentation.

I often use slides to remind me what to talk about, but glance over them quickly and not by turning my back or reading from them. Here is a protip for that: put your computer somewhere where you can clearly see the screen from a distance — the lectern or the floor, and position the screen so that you can see it when looking at a part of the audience. Then you can glance over the current slide while it appears that you’re talking to the audience. Having slides in big font or just massive illustrations helps as well, because I can see better from a distance. If I forget what’s on the slide and can’t see it from a distance, I walk past my computer and glance at it while moving to a different part of the stage.

It’s normal for presenters to have a sip of water during the talk a few times, so I use that for my plan B to disguise catching up on notes. If I do need notes, for example if I didn’t have time to practice the talk properly or if I’m doing something completely new such as a standup comedy show at Agile Testing Days last year, I write the key points to remember in big block letters on a piece of paper and leave it close to the water jug. Then I can pretend to drink water while reminding myself of the key ideas to talk about. The audience doesn’t see anything unusual.

Preaching puts people off

I absolutely hate when people tell me that I have to do something or that I need to do something without knowing the first thing about the context in which I work. At conferences, we speak to hundreds of people and they all work in different contexts. There are often some common problems and ideas, but preaching without context is a horribly bad way to pass on useful knowledge. No, I don’t need or have to do anything in particular. I could do it if I wanted and it made sense in my context.

Instead of treating the audience like a child, I treat them as adults and explain why good ideas are good and in what context have they worked. Instead of telling people what they need to do, I try to illustrate everything with stories from my experience and let the audience connect it with their own experiences. It’s fine to summarise the story in a “if you have this problem, then don’t do …” but preaching without context is a sure way to lose many people.

Another reason why experience stories are better than preaching is that nobody can argue against that. It might be right or wrong, someone from the audience can know a better way, but I’m telling what I did and what I learned from that. Nobody can dispute that. I encouraged a lot of first time speakers to present at various user group meetings organised at Skills Matter over the last 4 years — and they often had the same fear from presenting: “What if someone thinks I’m wrong and they know better about the topic?”. If you’re preaching, this is problem because it will inevitably create a strong negative reaction. If you’re telling your own story, then you are the person in the room who knows the most about it.


So in short, here are five things to consider if you want to avoid the classic traps:

  • Keep the font big and make slides illustrate your key points
  • Keep the slide deck short
  • Don’t let the audience fall asleep – move around, tell jokes, think of other ways to engage the audience but facilitate it
  • Don’t read the slides, use them just as a quick schedule reminder if you have to
  • Tell stories, consider context, don’t preach

This will get you over the first few initial hurdles in being a good presenter.

Photos: Zsuzsanna Kilian, Chris gilber, Paul Szustka, Alex Dunne.

I'm Gojko Adzic, author of Impact Mapping and Specification by Example. My latest book is Fifty Quick Ideas to Improve Your Tests. To learn about discounts on my books, conferences and workshops, sign up for Impact or follow me on Twitter. Join me at these conferences and workshops:

Specification by Example Workshops

How to get more value out of user stories

Impact Mapping

10 thoughts on “5 pro tips for aspiring conference presenters

  1. Yes, but what if there is a lot of material and I want them to READ it later? Putting it in the slides is good because they can then use that as notes.

  2. This is timely for me because I have to co-present a keynote at Agile Testing Days. I dread keynotes because I rely on interaction with the audience. I’ve learned all the stuff about not having too many slides or too much content, and keeping the slides visual and simple. But I was about to commit that sin of having people turn to each other and discuss. Will re-think that now! Thank you!

  3. One trick I use is to have two versions of the same slide — one for showing an one for reading. The first (for showing) has an interesting graphic to grab their attention, along with 3 – 6 bullet points. The second is directly after it and useful when distributing the presentation for later reference. It has the bullet points, but also the detailed text underneath.

    When I present, I put up the first version and discuss it. When I get to the second one, I say, “This detailed version is available in the downloadable presentation” and move on.

    I hope this is a useful perspective.


  4. If you need people to read through something later I would prefer to read something that was meant for reading. Like a blogpost, book, whitepaper or whatever. I don’t know anybody who enjoys extracting info from a slideshow and as already mentioned slides should be a visual aid for the presentation.

  5. Great post, Gojko, and thanks so much for quoting me and giving the link for my book, Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals. I just want to make sure readers don’t assume from the quote that I was saying YOU did everything wrong. Not by a long shot! Your StarEast keynote was excellent, and I had only a few minor suggestions that might make it even better. When I said “It is amazing how someone can do everything wrong but still make a great presentation,” I was referring to a few presenters who, despite not doing all the mechanical things some presentation coaches say you must do, they still give strong presentations. In any event, your recommendations are right on target. I especially wish more presenters would use a wireless remote (or clicker) to advance their slides, so they don’t have to remain tethered to their laptop. ~Naomi Karten

  6. Excellent post – Remember the day I borrowed your clicker because my Targus one quit on me?? well, I went out and bought the same one, and passed the favour on to another well known keynote presenter in Brazil.

    One other note – everyone does need understand their style For example, I am a lousy joke teller so I need to weave humour in my stories.

  7. I was there too listening to the keynote you mentioned. And mostly agree with the things you mention. However, I think short discussion breaks work sometimes. And when they are well facilitated I actually like them a lot. Maybe I am just weird person…

  8. Thank you for very useful tips. Want to add some words about number of slides in presentation. Many speakers use too low number of slides (near 10 including intoduction and Q&A) and spend 5-10 minutes on the same slide. It is very boring presentation style. To attract attention of the audience you need to “tell a story” and your slides should help you. Visualize your minds with images and graphics, use animation with carefully selected visual effects. In this case your presentation will be live instead of static picture behind you. Of course you need to find balance in slides number for every presentation to avoid mentioned problems like skipping slides or going too fast. This is achieved only by practice and enough time spent on preparation.

  9. Excellent article Gojko! Some very useful tips, thanks for sharing.

    Keynote by apple, is a great little tool if you have an IPhone. The same as a clicker, but instead of clicking you swipe back and forth through slides.

    It also allows you to create nice slides as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *