3 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Conference Talk

Conference season is upon us, and VMware is joining in on the fun. We have 18 speakers headed to the Open Source Summit EU next month. So how do you make the most of your talk? Talks are one of the best ways to share your ideas and draw attention to an open source project, but they can also be stressful and difficult to prepare for. Here are three tips drawn from my conference experiences to help you master the art of public speaking.

1. Practice at the event

Practicing is about giving your brain a chance to internalize your talk and the context. Practicing means you don’t have to sweat the small stuff, so you can focus on important details, such as cadence. When the environment changes bright lights, an audience, a giant projector screen your subconscious gets confused, and you become distracted by these little details, hurting your confidence and credibility. The audience will notice when you don’t know where the microphone is, and they may even be less likely to believe what you’re telling them if you don’t seem prepared.

If possible, visit the location of your talk in advance. Take a moment to internalize the setup. Focus on the details while you run through the whole presentation process. It’s the little things that not only impress audiences but boost your confidence that can then carry you through the talk. Confidence and competence are the keys to a great presentation.

2. Stop being nervous. No, really

People who walk tightropes like to say that the only way to stop wobbling is to stop wobbling. What they really mean is that wobbling will put you off balance, which can only lead to more wobbling. The same is true of nervousness. Nervousness leads to stammers, “um’s,” and grammar errors, all of which make you think you’re speaking poorly, which makes you nervous. The cycle is a dangerous one, so head it off early.

Focus less on speaking perfectly and more on not correcting yourself. Oftentimes correcting a grammar error is more noticeable than the error itself. Keep talking unless the pause is intentional. Pauses can be a good public speaking tactic as they command respect and project authority and confidence. And not only do pauses grab attention, they also give the audience a moment to catch up and parse what you’re saying. Use pauses with intent to highlight important points.

3. Dispense with subtlety

When presenting, you set the pace and flow of ideas. If you lose someone, you probably won’t get them back, so do your best to make the flow easy to follow. Dispense with subtlety. Say what you mean. Announce what you’re going to say in advance. I like to organize my talks into discrete “bits.” For instance, if you’re going to cover the advantages and disadvantages of two technologies, tell the audience that, and add big header slides for each of those four bits: Advantage A, Disadvantage A, Advantage B, Disadvantage B.

When you structure talks like this, audiences build a mental outline of what you’re talking about, and then you provide details to fill in the gaps. If listeners don’t understand a section, they might tune back in when you move on to a new one. Instead of asking them to understand your ideas sequentially, hint at the conclusion throughout your talk. This can spark that “aha!” moment when you finally build to your grand finale.

Go for it

Putting in the time to craft an impactful talk has the potential to inspire others or change someone’s point of view for the better. Speaking at conferences also gives you the opportunity to network, share and develop new business strategies, and advance your career. Most people find public speaking nerve wracking, but the only way to be good at something is to learn by doing. So keep these tips in mind and put your idea out there.

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