Speaking at Conferences

Ever since I've started my speaking journey back in 2017, I've been asked for tips how to become a conference speaker, write an abstract, create a presentation or workshop, or prepare for a session. While there are many people out there who are way more experienced speakers than I am, here's what helped me.

Although this compilation is targeted at speaking at conferences, there's advice for speaking at any kind of event as well, like giving a talk at a meetup or a workshop at a company. Whether you've never spoken before or you are an experienced speaker, I hope you get inspiration out of it for your own journey.

Why Speaking at Conferences

Let's start with why - why should we even bother? My main reasons were, and still are, the following.
  • By sharing my knowledge about a certain topic, I'm learning a lot about it. Trying to convey knowledge really makes you realize what you know and what you don't know yet. Teaching and coaching are skills to hone as well, and have proven especially useful to me for my work life.
  • Through speaking, I get the opportunity to attend the conference. This means I can participate in a lot of other sessions and learn from other speakers and attendees. This way I have a larger access to knowledge than I would have before, even if my company is able to provide me a conference budget.
  • By attending more conferences, I meet a lot more people and therefore can increase my network. Especially when joining as a speaker, I get to know many other speakers who naturally have a lot to share! Starting conversations is also easy as we have the speaking part in common. Speakers dinners create great opportunities to meet up and create new connections. Yet being a speaker makes it also easier to get into contact with the attendees, especially for me as an introvert; and attendees have a lot to share as well, if they know it already or not. I have made great connections at conferences that last a lot longer than the conference itself. Nowadays I can easily reach out to these people and ask for advice or their specific expertise.
  • Throughout my career, I've received a lot from the community myself. Speaking and blogging is my way now to give things back to the community and support its growth. When I'm speaking of community, I see it as diverse and manifold. We have a great testing community, a software crafter community, a mob programming community, a domain-driven design community, and many more. I see a lot of overlap here and really appreciate all these wonderful people who share and learn with each other so we all can benefit from each other's experiences.
  • Last but not least - public speaking was one of the scariest things I've ever done. Speaking at conferences got me out of my own comfort zone, and that alone was worth it.
Now you know about my motivation why to become and be a conference speaker. Whatever it is for you, get clear about your own reasons.

How to Become a Conference Speaker

There are many ways how to end up speaking at conferences. You might get inspired by colleagues, you might have a sponsor or mentor supporting you, you might try it on your own. What helped me is to have a learning partner to make this daring step and help each other on our journey; my deepest thanks go out to Toyer Mamoojee here. You can read about our story from my perspective in the following blog posts.

What to Talk About

Many people asked me what they shall talk about. I frequently heard people say "I don't have anything to share". I've said this myself. Lisa Crispin was the one who reassured me: "You have a story to share, too!" Given my past experience, I completely agree with her nowadays. People do have a lot to share, if they are aware of it already or not yet.

"I could talk about X, but so many others already talk about it. I don't have anything new to add." Your own experience is always unique. Think of why you relate with the topic, your own story - you probably find a different angle to it. Even if there are resemblances with other talks, people still need to hear about the topic. Not everyone joins the same conferences and therefore hears the same talk, or message, over and over again.

"I just started out; I don't have experience yet." I'd argue you do! You bring fresh eyes, something we might have lost and we can all learn from. Or maybe it's the opposite? "I've seen anything there is, there's nothing new for me." Why not share this vast experience with the community and help them learn? Also, there might be new discoveries and insights that can still surprise you.

What helped me getting started was creating a mind map, brainstorming potential topics, experiences, and stories I could talk about. Things I am comfortable talking about. Things I want to talk about; people will notice passion and joy! Then I asked for feedback from people who worked with me and they helped me see a lot more that I missed, or details they found very intriguing that I might have taken for granted.

Having gained more experience with speaking and conferences in general, I know a lot better what to look for nowadays. I can pick up my ideas more easily from my everyday life and work experience. Conversations with others can spark ideas as well, and I simply know better these days what could work as a talk or workshop. I usually gather new ideas in a document where they might sit for a while, and pull them out whenever inspiration hits me or I want to develop them further. 

Another thing you can do is have a look at the program of various conferences and see what other people talk about. You might get an idea for yourself by doing that. Is there someone speaking about their journey and how they changed minds? Someone sharing results of experiments they ran? Someone helping people gaining their own experience with a certain tool? Someone comparing our craft with another? There are many ideas out there that could trigger our own inspiration.

I've given sessions on my own as well as together with a pair. Pairing up can really bring ideation to another level as our thoughts can nicely build up on each other and bring new ideas to life. If you have the chance to pair up, I recommend taking it. Be aware, it won't be easy - yet the learning opportunity is huge and the outcome can be even better.

Which Conferences to Speak At

Before my public speaking journey, I only had the opportunity to experience one conference. Now that I'm speaking, I have the chance to attend a lot more. Therefore, people now ask me how I choose the conferences to speak at. Here are my usual reasons.
  • I've attended the conference before and am eager to get back.
  • I've never attended the conference before but heard amazing things about it.
  • I've never attended this kind of conference before and am eager to broaden my horizon, learn about a certain topic, get to know this community, experience a new conference format.
  • I get invited to submit to or speak at a conference and it fits my criteria and schedule.
No matter which of the above reasons trigger me, I then start checking for the following criteria.
  • Does the conference have an explicit code of conduct? If not, I am going to ask them why. Some conferences are not aware of the importance of a code of conduct, some are aware yet only in the process of creating it. I'd like to know where they are, yet usually I won't speak in case there's no code of conduct.
  • Does the conference reimburse reasonable travel and accommodation costs and is the ticket to the conference included in the speaking package? If not - I won't speak there. Some might argue with speaking helps me get more "exposure", yet I don't pay out of my own pocket in addition to all the effort I do in order to speak at conferences. Believe me, preparing and delivering a session is a lot of effort. It needs to be worth it for me. I'm not talking about honorariums here; I'm just talking about reimbursement of costs to get to the conference. Even better if conferences do the booking themselves so I don't have to pay in advance and follow-up on getting the money back. That being said, some conferences cannot support all speakers, or cannot reimburse everything. In these cases, I try to learn about their context, and make my decision case by case.

How to Craft a Proposal

The most common way to speak at a conference is to apply for it. In order to do so, you usually need to submit a proposal for your session. Depending on the conference this can include different aspects, yet usually they ask at least for a title, an abstract and some takeaways.
If you check out the program of the previous years, you will see examples of these proposals. What I didn't realize before I started speaking is that the same description is used for the selection process as well as for the later program. This means, when you write this proposal, it needs to sell your idea both to the conference program committee as well as the future attendees. Why should we pick your session over the others? Why should I attend your session if there are so many more to choose from? We need to answer both questions at once. Looking at the proposals of previous programs can give you a lot of clues which kind of proposals got accepted. They represent what the conference is looking for, both regarding content and style.

Writing a proposal is a skill, and it's quite a different skill than giving a presentation or facilitating a workshop. When you're starting out, it's hard to know what people are looking for. The same still applies when you're an experienced speaker already. Therefore, my top advice is: ask other experienced speakers to review your proposals and iterate over them based on the feedback. It might be scary to reach out to others, to have your own work reviewed, yet it's so much worth it. This way you will learn more and more what is expected, what's helpful and what not. Really: have your proposal reviewed. Not only by one other speaker, but by diverse other speakers. Take your time to revise it, to have it reviewed again, to revise it again - until all sides are fine and you're good to submit. Be aware that this takes quite an amount of time both from your side as well as the reviewers! Therefore, ask kindly for reviews and accept in case people don't have the capacity now. It's not a "short look", it requires real effort and we also need to consider several iterations to go. My first proposals took at least a month of effort; nowadays it's less, but writing a new one still requires dedicated time and effort, and depends on other people's schedules.

Gathering these diverse perspectives helped me immensely to find out what is interesting, how to formulate, how to structure a proposal for people to quickly review. Imagine a conference program consisting of ten tracks or more. Both program committee and future attendees have to quickly grasp the essence of your session and be able to decide what's in it for them and why they should pick your session over others.

There are a lot more points that I got feedback on myself and that I learned to point out when reviewing other people's proposals.
  • Title:
    • Make the session title as expressive and concise as possible, clearly reflecting your session topic. Despite all the effort you will put into crafting a proposal to convince the program committee, most conference attendees will decide only based on the title whether this session is relevant for them or not. This is especially true if the conference offers a huge program with many tracks that would be quite some effort to read through entirely.
  • Abstract:
    • Have a clear structure for your abstract. Personally, I enjoy abstracts that start with the problem statement, a challenge I can relate with. Then let me know which potential solutions you tried, the lessons you learned and what you're about to share in the session. Your structure may differ, yet make sure there's a red thread that's easy to follow.
    • The abstract itself should make it clear why people should join your session. What is it that they are going to take away and they can instantly apply at work back home?
    • If you use terms that are probably new to the majority of the audience, please explain them shortly so people can decide whether they are relevant for them. Don't expect people to have the time and energy to look up unfamiliar terms when deciding which sessions to join. I suggest to make abstracts as easily understandable as possible, while still showing what people can expect and take away with them.
    • Make things concrete and provide examples where you have them. Don't be afraid to spoil anything, I want to get a real taste of what I can expect. I'm sure there's so much more to it, yet in the first place the proposal should make me want to join your session. If it's too generic - I will most likely discard it. 
    • Be assertive and confident in your formulations, just as if you would have been accepted. Remember, the same text usually ends up in the program as is. In case you catch yourself weakening your phrases ("I would like to share...", "I hope I can help you ...", "I am planning to...", "I will try to...") - it's time to revise them to more active formulations ("I will..." might be enough). This makes it easier to read, conveys a clearer picture of what to expect, and also fills me with confidence that you got this.
    • I prefer reading abstracts where not many sentences are phrased from an "I" perspective, and instead formulations are varied. This makes the text flow better which results into an easier read for me.
    • Keep your sentences short. Long sentences make it harder to read the abstract quickly.
    • To increase readability, it's good practice to separate your abstract in paragraphs. If you do so, make sure to add an empty line in between to add a clear visual clue where a paragraph starts and ends. Also, make sure to have at least a few sentences per paragraph; starting a new line after each sentence does not help readability. I suggest to stick with two to four paragraphs.
    • If you include a list of items, then add the visual clue that this is a list by adding bullet points. If you include a quote or a book title, add clues like quotation marks. Anything that helps the reader quickly grasp what you are referring to.
    • Keep the abstract short and concise. I need more than four sentences, yet neither have time nor energy to read a full page. Overall, 600-900 characters should be enough.
  • Takeaways:
    • Sometimes I see people listing topics as takeaways, like "Canary testing", or "Event storming". While I know these are great things to learn about, you cannot assume that your potential audience would as well. What does this term tell me? Why is this important, what's in it for me here? Therefore, phrase takeaways with the audience in mind. What is it exactly that they will take away and learn? These points help both the program committee and the audience decide whether they pick this session or not, so make them as concrete and tangible as possible.
    • Formulate your takeaways consistently. For example, if you start one point with a verb, then have the other ones do the same as well: "Learn how to...", "Get inspired to try..., "Gain a deep understanding...", "Understand why..." and so on.
    • Sometimes I see proposals listing only one takeaway. Why? I would expect to learn more than one thing. I recommend providing at least three concrete things people can take home with them.
  • Keywords:
    • In case you're asked to tag your proposal with keywords, make them fit to the abstract; they should be clearly reflected there. If you tag your proposal with "collaboration", but your abstract is only talking about "performance testing", I fail to see the connection. If there is a connection indeed (which would be great), then reflect it in your abstract.
    • Talk specific:
      • What's your unique angle on the topic? Why is it relevant for you, why should we know about it? Which struggles did you face, which challenges did you overcome? How would this session be different than watching a lecture online? Your abstract should already let me see that you have a story to share from your unique experience here. Give me something I can relate to. I'd like to hear your story and get inspired by it for my own journey.
      • Don't try to cover everything in just 30 minutes, rather go deeper on one aspect. This will make your talk more interesting and allow you to share your personal experience better instead of just touching on theoretical concepts that can stay quite abstract and are hard to remember.
      • Ask yourself, might the topic you plan to talk about be better suited for a hands-on workshop where people can practice techniques?
    • Workshop specific:
      • I would expect a workshop to be as hands-on and interactive as possible, with only minimal lecturing. Your proposal should convey this. If you planned a long lecture instead, consider transforming the session to a talk.
      • Does your workshop require any prerequisites? Do I need to bring certain knowledge? Do I need to bring my laptop? Do I have to have certain resources on my laptop prepared already?
      • How many people can you deal with? Consider that some participants might run into problems and need your special attention during the workshop. Some might bring more advance knowledge than others; can you scale the challenges up or down to fit their needs?
      • Is there anything you'd like to share for the program committee's eyes only that shouldn't show up in the later program, like a rough schedule or an overview of exercises you'd like to do with the people? Not all forms have a separate field for this purpose. If it's not offered, you can add this information to your abstract, yet be sure to mark it clearly as such.
    • General:
      • Unless it's crucial for your story, use gender-neutral language only and avoid ableism.
      • Please refrain from any kind of swear words or offensive terms, even though they had been watered down, for example by not spelling them out and replacing characters by asterisks.
      • Avoid using abbreviations. We cannot assume any knowledge people would bring. As obvious as some abbreviations and their usage might be for you, as unfamiliar could they be for someone else; especially when considering an international audience. If you really want to use abbreviations, make their access easy for people. Write the term out once and add the abbreviation in brackets. This way everyone shares the same page and understands what you mean by the abbreviation.
      • I recommend avoiding colloquial expressions or spellings and use the formal variant instead for increased comprehensibility.
      • With today's extremely international conferences, many people won't be native English speakers. Use simple words and clear language wherever possible to make it easy for all people to grasp your proposal quickly. In addition, I recommend refraining from using mixed languages and stay with English only for an international audience.
      • Don't capitalize words unless it's for proper names, and then be consistent about it. Anything else will make your proposal hard to read. I for one would keep wondering what are the reasons for using capitalization instead of focusing on the message.
      • There are further stylistic points that can make a proposal hard to read, for example heavy usage of brackets, semicolons and dashes, or exclamation marks. These can be great to emphasize certain parts or engage people, yet overly used they can interrupt the flow of the text. I suggest to use them scarcely.
      • Read your proposal out loud. Does it read easily in a nice flow? If you stumble at any point, this is an indication that it needs another revision.
      • Check the essence of the session again. Is it a new topic you haven't seen anyone speak about before? Is it a known topic but you provide a new angle on it or your unique experience? Is it meant as an introduction session? Whatever the essence is, it should be reflected throughout the proposal to let people know what's in it for them.
      • If this is a proposal for a session paired with a co-speaker, ask yourself what makes it special because of you two giving it together. It should not be a session you could give on your own just with a second person; it needs to be better because of your two unique experiences.
      • Who's your target audience? Certain roles, certain seniority levels, certain level of experience or expertise?
      • Avoid using qualifiers like "all" or "no one", "always" or "never", and the likes - as these kinds of statements are very likely not to be true.
      • Please check your proposal for spelling and grammar before submitting. No matter whether you're a native English speaker or not. Spelling and grammar will help your readers be able to understand the essence quicker and easier.
      • Before submitting the proposal, please do a final check that all fields are filled correctly. Be aware that most form fields are limited to a maximum length. You don't want to have your entries cut in the middle of a sentence.
    A question I received several times is: do you adapt your proposal to the conference? People probably have different viewpoints here, yet my own answer is: no. I offer what I provide, my story, to the conference. If it matches with their vision, it's a win-win situation for both of us. I will stay authentic. If it doesn't, there will be other opportunities. I don't adapt my proposals for conferences; there might be the exception to the case, but usually this is not needed. As you can see above, a lot of effort goes into crafting a good proposal already, and I'll try to make use of it as much as I can.

    Another point to be clear about: you don't have to have a fully-fledged presentation or workshop concept before writing your proposal. I usually don't have that, unless I've given that session already at other conferences (which is completely fine, by the way). I don't start creating my actual session before this new idea did not get accepted, it's simply way too much effort. I know this can help other people, yet it doesn't help me. I should have a clear idea, yes, but the details of the final session are yet to be determined. I need to maintain that flexibility as well. While a proposal should have enough flesh and examples, I don't want it to fixate me to anything that I might not be able to keep (like timings for workshops), or that I might want to change as I learned something new before the conference. Remember, a call for proposals usually takes place many months before the actual conference. Lots of time goes in between, and there's a good chance that things changed meanwhile.

    Last but not least: if it's the first time submitting to a conference, you will also need a speaker biography and a speaker photo. My advice: get inspired by other speakers and their bios, construct yours in a similar way, revise until you like it, get feedback from other speakers. First or third person? Whatever you like better. List private hobbies or not? Up to you!

    How to Deal with Rejection

    When it comes to applying for anything, there's more people besides you taking their chances, and only a subgroup will make it. The same applies for conferences. Unless you get invited, you need to deal with the waiting period, and a potential rejection.

    Let me be clear on two things: first, it's your proposal that could be rejected, not you as a person. Second, we never know why it was not accepted. There can be a multitude of reasons why. Sometimes conference program committees provide you feedback on your proposal, sometimes not. If they do, the feedback might be constructive and hint you on what to improve for next time. Yet it could also be that nothing was wrong with your proposal, you receive overly great feedback on it - and it's still not accepted.

    There's a number of different reasons why a well-crafted proposal might not make it into the program.
    • Ten more people submitted similar proposals with the same level of quality.
    • The topic does not fit the program vision of the conference, either overall or just for this year.
    • The topic was great, but other session proposals were even better and all slots had been filled.
    • The conference needs a set of big names to attract audience, or a set of new voices to bring in new perspectives, or a set of you name the criteria.
    In essence: you never know why, and it's not worth wondering.

    That being said: you might not have made this year's program, yet why not try again next year? No shame to use the same topic, maybe even the same proposal if it was well crafted. Also, why not submit the same proposal to several other conferences? It might fit their program just fine.

    How to Deal with Acceptance

    Is this even a question? Getting accepted to speak at a conference is what we aimed for, right, so why would we have to deal with it? Well, sometimes the submission itself was daring enough; submitting is definitely already worth a celebration! Yet what happens if you indeed get accepted?

    The joy of having been accepted can be overwhelming! It's amazing to see such a note in your inbox. Yet it can be frightening at the same time, especially if public speaking is a scary thing for you. Now you really have to do it, right? Try to have the joy overweight everything else and concentrate on this great opportunity.

    In any case, it's good advice to consider your next steps. First, do you still want to speak at the conference, and second, are you still able to (thinking of schedule conflicts). If so, and you confirm your participation, there's a whole lot of things to consider next.

    It's good to create a schedule leading up to the conference. Make a plan what you need to do and when you need to do it. Depending on the conference these could be different things at different point in times, yet I've found there are a few usual suspects. You can find my list in the section on how to prepare.

    At some point in time you need to start crafting your session, try it out and revise it based on feedback before the conference; so, let's have a look at that next.

    How to Craft a Talk

    These days, I've created a whole bunch of conference talks. I've found a sort of pattern that helped me with all of them. This could very well mean their quality is stagnating and I should consider leveling them up again, yet let me share what helped me so far.

    Be aware that different people use different approaches - it's basically about finding what works for you. I've tried a bunch of advice from others before. For example, not to have notes or a few bullet points at most; or to tell a story freely and record myself to get an idea how to structure my slides. Well, these tips didn't work too well for me. As a person who needs to reduce uncertainty to be able to cope with any kind of surprises that are coming up, and as a non-native English speaker presenting only in English, I found I needed to write out nearly full sentences. This way I can fall back to them in case my brain is stuck on stage; it's sort of my safety net. I can use it, or I can deviate from it, yet I always have it available.

    During ideation phase, a mind map can help me come up with both content and structure for my talk. Sometimes it's the same as I used for the proposal, sometimes a different one, sometimes I skip this step. Whatever works.

    Several people craft a talk for a long time without any slides, maybe only in their heads, or using sticky notes, or story boards, or other means. Some even create their slides only the day before the presentation. That doesn't work for me. I might start out with a mind map, yet the slides help me create the talk, it's an intermingled revision of story, structure, and visuals. Early on I will create a rough outline of slides with the key messages so that I have a sort of story board of slides.

    For that to take place, it helps me to have a good template for my slides. That's my usual starting point. I might re-use a previous template that worked for me, I might only change the colors, or I might create new template content. Whatever I need to help me tell my story. Sometimes people use their company's templates; fine if it works for them. In my case I'm speaking as a private person, so I will have my own template. Sometimes conferences ask you to use their template; might be fine for you, yet I will question this. I want to tell my story how I want it to be told, with the slides supporting my message as I want them to support it.

    There are a few points that I always got feedback on in my first talks, and that I try to take care of in all future presentations. Over the years I've added more and more on top.
    • Think of the rough structure and flow. My presentations follow a certain structure: title slide, agenda, slides for the different sections, slides for the individual points, and in the end a closing thank you slide.
    • I'm most active on Twitter, and many people love to live tweet at conferences. Therefore, it's best to include my Twitter handle on all slides, so people don't have to remember it when tweeting, and photos instantly have my reference on them as well.
    • I love using big photos and visuals and only including a few words on my slides. People should listen to me and not get distracted by reading my slides. Despite that, sometimes I include tweets or more information whenever I deem it supporting my message. Still, the slides alone won't tell you the whole story, they're not meant to document. They're meant to support my live presentation and serve as a reminder for people who attended.
    • I mostly use images and other material that I own or whose usage is completely free and doesn't require any attribution. If that's not the case, make sure to provide the source on the slide. Credit where credit is due.
    • Make it a point to have diverse people represented in the photos or illustrations you choose or create. Diverse in any kind of aspect that can be visually transferred. Representation is way more important than you might think, especially in case you're speaking from a position of privilege, like me.
    • A slide about my own person or not? I usually prefer not to have this, yet it's a matter of taste. In general, I would recommend starting your story right away. If context is needed to understand it, go ahead and include that. If people are interested, they will find out more about you by reading your speaker bio or contacting you directly after the talk.
    • Agenda or no agenda? I learned early on that some people don't care about agendas, yet other people need them so they know what to expect and see what is yet to come. Therefore, I make a point to always include one in my presentations.
    • The same applies to a navigational helper. I always add some visual clue to let people know where I currently am in my presentation with regards to my agenda. Some people don't even notice it, others benefit from it.
    • Do you share important resources or other links? Consider using URL shorteners so people can quickly navigate there.
    • One big point to consider is the accessibility of your slides. Consider colors, fonts, size and symbols that are easily seen and understood by everyone - from large distance. They could also be influenced by circumstance or conditions; maybe you have to present in a room full of light so contrast is really bad. Red font on black background might be clearly readable when sitting in front of your computer, yet not from the back of a room full of light using an old projector of low quality.
    • Think of audience interactions. Do you want to engage the audience, interact with them during your presentation? In any case, keep it authentic. I'm not a joke type of person, so starting off with a joke is bad advice for me. Jokes are tricky anyway as many are culturally loaded and you never know your audience in advance. What could work instead could be some good old "show of hands" questions. It could be short exercises where people in the audience pair up. It could be some icebreaker interaction, especially after lunch. Whatever you choose - try it out first, see what could possibly work, and what you're feeling comfortable with. Take into account that audience interactions take their time.
    • Frequently check against the session's abstract and key takeaways. Make sure to cover these main points or at least be ready to explain why you deviate from them and have something even better for the audience. Still, I would advise not to go too far astray from your abstract as this is what the people came for. If you really feel the need to do so, ask the conference organizers if it's okay to update your abstract accordingly.
    • It helps me a lot to formulate the sentences to open my talk in advance, and also the ones to close it. What is it people should take away with them, remember? What's the essence? This is also a great check for yourself when going through your talk. Is the message consistent, does everything match and lead up to this conclusion you're drawing?
    • Re-tell the story again and again. Wherever I stumble, I rearrange content, rephrase my notes, or change images. Refining the content takes time.
    • Reduce your content to whatever time slot you have. Most conferences allow questions right after the talk; if so, leave 5 minutes for them at the end. In case your time slot is 30 minutes, time your talk to be 25 minutes only. Timing a talk perfectly requires a lot of practice. Consider that you won't be sitting in front of your computer. Consider you won't be reading your slides (at least you shouldn't). Consider walking the stage. Consider you're going to be excited, which might trigger you to talk faster; or even slower (happened to me when I actively slowed down too much). In any case, make explicit pauses when speaking; not only for yourself, but also for your audience to digest the information you provided. Messages need to sink in.
    Needless to say, you will probably need endless revisions. Giving a talk several times, also at different conferences, will result in further revisions. There's always something to improve, something new to add, something outdated to correct. Some of my best talks started as 40 minutes talks that I had to cut down to 25 minutes. Reducing your message to the essence is hard - yet usually a better talk comes out of it. That being said, don't cut it to 25 minutes in case your slot is 40 minutes long.

    When I craft a new presentation, I will do at least two dry runs in front of different audiences before giving the talk the first time at a conference. Dry run in front of a small group, revise based on feedback, dry run at a local meetup, revise based on feedback, then rehearse it again just before the conference. Then I feel ready.

    There's one thing that helps me most when it comes to improving my presentations. Right after I gave the talk, I will take note of all kind of feedback I received. I usually just have an additional hidden slide within the presentation where I collect everything. What did I observe myself? Where did I stumble, did I feel comfortable, what did I forget to tell, what about my timing, and more. I note down the questions I received after the talk, at least all those I can remember. I also document every kind of feedback I received from other people, either directly after the talk or on social media. Most often than not I have no idea how a talk was really received until I hear about that feedback - and writing it down helps me internalize it. Remember, different audiences will provide different feedback, even if your content and delivery was exactly the same. Having these kinds of notes has proven extremely helpful when coming back to the same presentation later again to bring it to the next level. Finally, if the talk had been recorded by any chance, get your hands on that recording and watch it at least once, taking note of anything you observe from this different perspective. It's hard to watch a recording of your own talks, yet so much worth it.

    Some feedback I received, for example, was that I could modulate my voice a bit more to make the talk even more compelling. Or think about gestures: when you raise your arm several times, always use your other arm, feels more naturally when watching. Some of this feedback I implemented - other feedback I chose not to implement. Find your own way between upskilling, experimenting and still feeling comfortable.

    One question I received was "how did you learn walking on stage and being so confident while delivering a speech"? First of all, it was awesome to hear that feedback! Really encouraging indeed. Because the truth is: I'm mostly not as confident as I might appear on stage. The secret: lots of practice, lots of feedback, lots of iterations. Nowadays I realize I am a lot more confident on stage than I used to be - because of sheer repetition. The more often I got myself into the situation on stage, the better I learned to cope with it.

    The same applies to walking on stage. In order to be able to walk the stage and not stick behind my laptop, I practice a lot at home already, having my notes on my laptop while always trying to walk away from it and speaking freely. This doesn't work right away, but with practice it gets a lot better. Some speakers use locations on the stage as memory anchors; "when I move there I talk about X, when I move over there I do Y". I tried this, didn't help me so far. Sometimes I manage to walk, stop, make a statement, walk again; still too many times I mix everything up and keep walking back and forth. Again, it's hard to watch a recording of your own talks.

    To be able to walk the stage: get a presentation remote. I love mine which also has a timer and vibration alert as additional timing helper. It's even more than that. My clicker is something to cling to and it helps me get into "presentation mode" - when I have this token in my hand, it's on!

    Your talk is over, you made it through! But wait, there's often a few minutes left for questions from the audience. Some people are really excited about receiving questions - they show interest after all! Other people like me, rather dread this part. Especially when starting out this was what made me most nervous: having to respond to an unknown question, while still being in front of the whole audience. If someone comes up to me after the talk and asks me a question, and I have no clue what to answer, or I don't understand it, or it wasn't a question at all yet rather a comment (or story of their own), then it's awkward only between the two of us. If that happens on stage... well, you get the picture. Here's what helped me answering questions on stage.
    • Make sure you understood the question correctly. Repeating can help clear out potential misunderstandings and also gives time to think. Repeating can also be required for the audience to hear the question, as not all conferences have mobile microphones available.
    • Take your time before answering; think first, speak second.
    • Drink to think. You usually have water on stage. Now might be a good time to make use of it.
    • If you got the question wrong, your answer might still be valuable for the audience.
    • If you don't understand the question, just ask the person to catch you right after the session, in a break, or whenever suits you.
    • If you don't know the answer - well, just say it. No shame in that. We cannot be experts in everything. You can suggest the person to ask the many other people in the room during the rest of the conference.
    • If the question wasn't a question after all, but rather a long comment, feel free to interrupt and ask for the actual question, or to offer a private conversation after the session. Remember, it's not only you waiting on stage, yet also the rest of the audience waiting for the question, or maybe their chance to ask one themselves.
    • Whatever happens, you're on stage, you earned this place, and you're in control. Stay in control.
    Another question that came up in recent years: Is preparing for a keynote any different? A very good question I am still trying to answer for myself. As of now my talks and keynotes haven't been too different; as the nature of my talks often fit a keynote format. I would expect a keynote to trigger thoughts, to inspire, and yet to talk to everyone in the room - that's what I try to do with my track talks as well. Getting too specific might lose people. Getting too vague and high level might lose people as well. Watching others keynote, I found everyone has a different style here as well. If you get into the great situation of giving a keynote, then do the same as for any session - get feedback, do many revisions and find what works for you.

    Finally, what about a paired presentation? Everything above applies here as well. But there's more to it. If you pair up for a presentation, you need to make it special. It shouldn't be a presentation you could give yourself; it should be one that needs the perspective and contribution of both of you. You shouldn't simply split up slides; one tells this one, the other the next one, and so forth. It's a way better experience for the audience if you interact on stage, switch frequently, tell the story together. Consider playing out a scene, or asking questions, or - well, get creative. No pair is the same, make this presentation yours. But be warned: for this to flow smoothly, and work out on stage when both of your nerves might show, it requires a lot of preparation and practice. Also, make sure you share your specific needs and behaviors with each other, for example certain rituals before a presentation. Align on "what if" scenarios. What if one of you forgets to share information that you wanted to build on? What if your pair suddenly falls sick? Although preparing as pair, you still need the fallback plan and be able to present on your own, even if it wouldn't be the same experience. Paired presentations are both difficult and fun, and you will learn a lot on the way.

    How to Craft a Workshop

    Personally, I extremely enjoy attending workshops - yet only if they are really hands-on and interactive. The more the better. I want to learn by doing, by gaining experience with something myself. Therefore, I also try to design the workshops I'm facilitating as hands-on as possible.

    Two concepts help me the most here, and if you've been to one of my workshops you've probably noticed.
    1. The approach from the book "Training from the Back of the Room!" by Sharon L. Bowman, a recommendation I received from Lisa Crispin. This is pure gold when it comes to designing workshops! It's all about minimizing the lecturing time from the front of the room, and maximizing the time the participants engage with the topic and content themselves. As a facilitator you give the structure and set up the environment for people to learn, you support them on their way; but they are responsible for their own learning.
    2. The collaborative approach of working in a mob and learning from each other. I've found the mob to be a wonderful tool to convey content and get people their first hands-on experience on various topics. Many times, people have a lot of implicit knowledge already, and together they can put together the pieces of the puzzle a lot faster and easier compared to learning on their own.
    Besides these general concepts, here's what I usually cover when designing a new workshop. Not necessarily in that order, rather during several iterations, yet all this will be part of my concept.
    • Think about what's needed from organizer side. To provide an example, usual suspects for my mob workshops are:
      • 1 projector or big screen that everyone can see clearly and that provides connection via HDMI, 1 table for the laptop close to it, and 7 chairs in a semicircle in front of the screen; the rest of the room would be best organized in desk groups for about 3 persons each (unless we have more big screens available)
      • External English keyboard that can be connected via USB or Bluetooth
      • Stable internet access which allows to download something not too big
      • 10 flip charts (adhesive, or including tape to pin them on the walls) or the same space on whiteboards
      • Pens for flip charts or whiteboards
      • Sticky notes and Sharpies (or other pens easily visible on sticky notes)
      • I can get into the room quite some time beforehand to prepare it and to prepare the flip charts or whiteboards; in case of flip charts I’d be up for preparing them already on the evening or morning before the session
    • Think about what's needed from participant side. For example:
      • Laptop; they need to be able to connect to the internet and allowed to install programs 
    • Consider what you need to prepare in advance of the workshop, maybe a day or a few hours before.
      • Laptop
      • HDMI cable and cable adapter
      • External mouse
      • Connect to WiFi already
      • Clean up desktop (you don't want to show any sensitive information)
      • Clean up browser (bookmarks bar, history, etc.), consider having them use incognito mode
      • Clean up any other application you intend to use where you don't want to show sensitive information, private projects, or even spoil exercise solutions
      • Prepare flip charts or the whiteboard space. Writing in capital letters can improve readability, adding frames or icons make them more appealing (basic graphic facilitation or sketchnoting skills help here). Photos from past flip charts help so you don't have to re-invent the wheel or become creative when the pressure is on.
    • List what you need to prepare right before the workshop. Examples could be:
      • Prepare the room (if not already prepared)
      • Laptop, keyboard, mouse
      • Switch to English keyboard
      • Have the website for the practice application open
      • Have mind map ready and open
      • Have the application running locally
      • Flipchart and pens
      • Sticky notes and sharpies
      • Hang up prepared flipcharts or ensure whiteboard space
      • Have timer ready, set to 5 minutes
    • Create a concept for the workshop with concrete times, duration of each part, and detailed notes.
      • Consider including a grace period in the beginning, especially if there was no or only a short break before the session.
      • Think about an icebreaker or introduction exercise, or maybe rather have the people connect to the topic when they enter the room (see tips from the book "Training from the Back of the Room!").
      • Make the working agreements for this workshop explicit. What is okay, what not. Phone calls? Scheduled breaks or not?
      • Create a schedule for the exercises you want to do, think about how to get people engaged with the content, how you trigger learning experiences.
      • Think about a closing. I usually do short retrospectives at the end of the session, followed by few closing words from my side.
      • When it comes to timing for workshops, things usually take longer than you might expect. Take surprises into account and don't plan too tight.
    To avoid turning my workshop into a lecture, I usually don’t have any presentation in a workshop but rather use flip charts or whiteboards as information radiators throughout the room. 

    The same rule as for presentations applies: we have to do dry runs also for workshops, test out the concept we came up with. This will help you see what works with which kind of people and what not, where you need longer than expected, which exercises you should change, or maybe explain differently. Of course - every audience is different and you will need to respond to specific needs in the moment. Workshops are great to learn that having a plan is important, and adapting plans on the fly and improvising is essential. I always learn something new when facilitating workshops, something about myself, a different way to convey information that helps more people, a new trick to gain attention from the crowd, and more.

    After the workshop I will take photos of all the information radiators I produced, so I have this as input for my next session. Just as for presentations, I will take note of all my observations right after the workshop. During a workshop I usually have time to scribble down a few things already, yet afterwards I add them right away to my concept document. Any feedback from participants, coming from the retrospective, or having them come up to me in person after the session, or sharing via social media? All this goes in there as well. This is great food for thought for the next revision of the workshop.

    Pairing up for a workshop? Especially when facilitating for bigger groups that's a really great idea! Yet here it's the same as with presentations, be prepared that this most probably requires more work for both of you and that the session needs to be well aligned. Who takes over the moderation of which part? Who reads the room? Who takes care of timing? What if your pair forgets about something important? Just as with paired presentations, make sure to make your needs explicit, and make sure to have a fallback plan in case you pair unfortunately falls sick. 

    How to Prepare and Follow-up

    There is quite a lot of things to do before speaking at a conference, as well as following up on it. If there's more than one conference coming up, it's even easier to overlook something. In order to keep an overview, I have a Trello board for every conference year. Here are the typical tasks I create per conference, some as individual cards and some as one card with a checklist, all with a due date so I get reminded of a due task. The order will differ, yet I hope you get an idea.
    • Craft proposal
    • Submit proposal
    • Craft session (in case of a new session I haven't given before; otherwise I only revise it once more)
      • Schedule dry run for a small group
      • Run dry run for a small group
      • Revise session based on feedback
      • Schedule dry run at a local meetup
      • Run dry run at a local meetup
      • Revise session based on feedback
      • Rehearse just before the conference
    • Have travel and accommodation booked
    • Decide on tutorial (when I speak at a conference, I usually opt for attending a tutorial as well)
    • Prepare for the conference:
      • Preparation done according to speaker checklists? (for details see below)
      • Travel checklist created?
      • Personal goals for this conference?
      • People to meet up with?
        • Schedule: which sessions to join?
        • Questions to bring to the conference? (This is great in case lean coffee or open space sessions are offered, yet also good to ask other attendees about.)
      • Give session
      • Follow-up on the conference:
        • Reflect on the session: what went well, what to improve; document received feedback
        • Slides?
          • Mark the finally used version of your slides for later reference
          • Publish your slides and tweet about them
        • Update your blog's speaking engagements page
        • Create a Twitter moment with all tweets on your session (this helps me internalize and remember the conference)
        • Check your goals for the conference and people you met
        • Send goodbye and thank you tweet
        • Add people you met to a Twitter list for the conference
        • Sign and publish sketchnotes on Twitter
        • Digitalize any other notes (in case of workshops I usually take lots of notes that need to be cleaned up and transferred to a digital state so I can make use of them later as well)
        • Transfer photos to your computer
        • Publish best photos on Instagram
        • Blog about the conference and your session
        • Provide feedback for conference organizers; ask for gathered feedback, photos, recordings from your session
        • Send invoices for reimbursement
      Besides my Trello board, I have what I call my "speaker checklists". They help me feel prepared as a speaker before the conference and reduce my uncertainty. This way I know what I can expect and can prepare accordingly. They also help me as a simple reminder, not to forget anything I already know of. For talks this is quite generic as you can see below. In case of workshops I will have additional lists, specific to the session itself.

      Now here comes another truth: no matter how well you are prepared, accept that things might go wrong. Don't stress out, there are always alternative options. Feeling prepared helps me cope easier with unexpected situations, not prevent them. We're all human. Try and make the best of it. In most cases your audience won't even notice something didn't go exactly as planned.

      The following lists contain points that cater to my own needs. You might notice an overlap between my Trello cards and the lists here, yet this is what serves me. We are all different, so feel free to adapt these lists to your own needs.

      Months Before Conference
      • Tweet about session, inviting people to the conference
      • Ask conference organizers what they require, respectively further questions to clarify
        • Do you require a certain slide format/layout or are we free to design the slides how we see it would best convey the message?
        • Do we present using our own laptops or do we hand over our slides to you before the talk? If so, when do you need the final slides latest?
        • In case we use our own laptops:
          • Do the projectors in the rooms offer an HDMI connector and a resolution with 16:9 aspect ratio?
          • Are cables available or do we have to bring our own?
          • When can I do a quick tech setup check before my session to make sure everything works?
        • Can we use our own presentation remotes?
        • Which kind of microphones will be available for speakers? I’d love to have my hands free for presentation remote and gestures, but in case you only have handheld microphones I’d love to know that upfront.
        • Can I use audio?
        • What is the size of the room?
        • Will there be a track chair to support speakers?
        • Are the talks going to be recorded?
        • Do you offer an airport transfer service?
        • Will we stay directly at the conference hotel?
        • Do you know if other speakers arrive earlier so we could arrange a common dinner? Would love to get to know some people before the conference.
        • When can I publicly share the good news that I'm speaking at your conference?
        • When will the schedule be announced so that I know which slot I have?
        • Could you please provide a contact number in case there’s any emergency or travel problems?
        • For further questions, check out Emily Webber's awesome list what speakers need
      • If going abroad: Check if you need a travel adapter, fitting to charge your...
        • ... mobile phone and Kindle
        • ... laptop - its charger might have different requirements! (I can tell a story about that)
      • Buy whatever you might not have yet
      • Create a fallback plan for the case there's no internet, no presentation, the laptop does not work, the laptop does not share screen, the projector or a cable does not work, and more; for example:
        • Print presentation and notes
        • Use whiteboard or flip chart
        • Tell the story without any means
      Days Before Travel (Latest)
      • Tweet about upcoming session
      • Have your laptop backpack available
      • Backup presentation online
      • Backup presentation locally on laptop
      • Backup presentation on USB stick
      • Install all available updates on laptop
      • Print presentation and notes (or anything needed for the fallback plan)
      • Have this checklist available offline on your mobile phone
      Travel Checklist
      • Laptop and related power cable
      • Cable adapters
      • Presentation remote
      • Backup batteries for the presentation remote and the microphone: AA & AAA
      • USB stick with backup on it
      • Printouts of presentation and notes
      • Printout of this checklist
      • Comfortable clothes
        • Set of backup clothes
        • Spare clothes in your hand luggage
        • Shirts where sweat stains are not instantly obvious
        • Choose something with a collar and a waistband for the microphone
        • Comfortable shoes
      • Power plug travel adapters - laptop needs a special one!
      • Charger and power bank for mobile phone
      • Health kit
        • Aspirin or any other headache preventing or mitigating pills in stock
        • Anti-diarrheal medicine
        • Lozenges to treat sore throats
        • Cough candies
        • Nasal spray
        • Band-aid
      • Cash money
        • Different currency? Plan if and when to change money and how much
      • Contact number of the conference organizers in case your travel is delayed or you face any other emergency
      • Any session materials you need and don’t get from the conference organizers (like pipe cleaners, giveaways, chocolates, etc.)
      Day Before the Session
      • Tweet about upcoming session
      • Practice session once again to get it in short term memory
      • Disable laptop notifications and updates so they won’t suddenly restart it or show popups
      • Mute laptop sound
      • Clean up laptop desktop
      • Charge laptop to 100%
      • Charge mobile phone to 100%
      • Prepare clothes to wear
      • Prepare second set of clothes as backup (including trousers)
      • Prepare a tweet already which you can instantly tweet afterwards including the link to the resources (I won't have the energy or time to come up with a tweet after my session; having one prepared that I only need to adapt helps me massively)
      • Eat light! Don’t eat anything which will cause troubles
      • Sign up for a slot to rehearse and check your technical setup
      • Plan enough time to be early back on your hotel room to take a shower and get some rest and quiet hours (even if you don’t sleep)
      • Backup final presentation online
      • Backup final presentation locally on laptop
      • Backup final presentation on USB stick
      • Prepare backpack (see following checklist)
      On Day of the Session

      --- Before the Session ---
      • Eat light! Don’t eat anything which will cause troubles
      • Right before the session: get tea and coffee and lots of sugar!
      • Wear comfortable clothes
        • Choose something with a collar and a waistband for the microphone
        • Comfortable shoes
        • Take off your lanyard and any heavy jewelry before you go on stage, because microphones will pick up the sound of it rattling around
      • Take with you to the venue:
        • Laptop and related power cable
        • Cable adapters for projector
        • Travel adapters for charging - different for mobile and laptop!
        • Presentation remote
        • Backup batteries for the presenter and microphone: AA & AAA
        • USB stick with backup on it
        • Printouts of presentation and notes
        • Backup clothes
        • Backup makeup
          • Health kit
            • Aspirin or any other headache preventing or mitigating pills in stock
            • Anti-diarrheal medicine
            • Lozenges to treat sore throats
            • Cough candies
            • Nasal spray
            • Band-aid
          • Charger and power bank for mobile phone
        • Turn up really early to the venue, be there a good hour before
        • Check out the room where you will speak
          • Think about how to use the stage, walk the stage if you can
          • Sit in a few of the audience seats to see what parts of the stage they will see
        • Test your setup
          • Connection to projector
          • Internet connection if required
          • Microphone
          • Presentation remote
          • Make sure your laptop is ready for the session:
            • Close all other programs
            • Have the slides up and ready
            • Turn all notifications off
            • Put your laptop on airplane mode if you can
            • If you have a smart watch or phone on you, don’t forget to silence that as well
        • Get to know anyone who’s there to help
          • With technical setup
          • With the session itself, like track chairs
        • Agree with the track chair
          • How they should introduce you
          • If you want to get hints on how much time is left
        • Especially in the morning: drink something hot which makes you wake up (coffee, black tea, anything)
        • Remember that you will probably miss any session right before your slot as you will get excited and not be able to focus on anything else, as well as the session right after your slot as you will face a drop of energy when it's over and you can finally relax. It's okay to miss out! Be kind to yourself.
        • Grab some water and make sure there is some during your session
        • Go to the toilet ahead of time
        • Take 5 minutes to flip through your slides and notes again
        • Turn on presentation remote before starting presentation, set the timer
        • First connect to the projector, only then start the presentation mode - otherwise it doesn’t pick up the image
        --- Right after the Session ---
        • Make sure to take everything with you again
        • Tweet the prepared tweet
        --- Evening after the Session ---
        • Mark the finally used version of your slides for later reference
        • Publish your slides
          • Tweet about them
        • Provide a link to the slides to the conference organizers
        • Update your blog's speaking engagements page
        • Reflect on session
          • What went well, what to improve
          • Document received feedback
        • Re-enable laptop notifications and updates
        Days after the Session
        • Blog about the conference and your session
        • Create a Twitter moment with all tweets on your session
        • Provide feedback for conference organizers; if speaker: ask for gathered feedback, photos, recordings

        Further Resources

        Last but not least, there are many great resources and tips shared out there. Especially when starting out on my public speaking journey, those resources were invaluable to me. Many of the things I've read went into my speaker checklists or other preparation I do. Today I cannot tell anymore which resources helped to which learning, so I will just list those I am still aware of here as they are. These great people along with many others shared their experience and tips, provided concrete feedback and advice, and inspired me to find my own way. I hope my compilation contributes to your inspiration, yet it wouldn't even exist without all these other people in the first place.