The year is coming to a close, which means it's time to start making resolutions for the new one. If one of your 2019 resolutions is to present at a tech conference, I encourage you to include these resolutions along with it.
1. I will collect more rejections.
Conference proposals are a lot like hockey: You're more likely to score if you take more shots on goal. When you're submitting to a conference's call for proposals/papers, submit more than one proposal. You'll increase your chances of getting a talk accepted, and you'll give the conference organizers a more diverse pool of talks from which to choose.
This also means that you'll start collecting more proposal rejections. This is a good thing! It shows you're putting effort into trying to get a talk accepted. Also, every rejection is an opportunity to ask for feedback on your proposal so you can learn and improve.
2. I will consider my audience's needs before my own.
Yes, you want to speak at conferences. Doing so can help your career. However, if you're not providing value to your audience, your talk won't be well-received and you won't do either yourself or your career any favors.
Take the time to learn something about your audience before presenting. Learn what challenges they're facing, then provide insight that can help them resolve those challenges today or avoid them in the future.
Also, even if the solution to those challenges is the project on which you work, always present and compare multiple options. Not only can that help your audience choose the solution that's the best fit for their specific situation, it also helps prevent your talk from coming across as a sales pitch.
3. I will practice my talks before I present them.
One of the audience's needs mentioned above is the need for a coherent and well-delivered presentation. This means, yes, you will have to practice and edit your talk to make sure it makes sense, it flows well, and you can deliver it fairly smoothly.
The only way to do that is to practice how you'll present: Standing up (or sitting, if standing is difficult for you) and delivering the material to an audience. That audience can be coworkers, friends, pets, or even just a mirror. The important part is to speak the words out loud in the way you hope to speak them at the conference.
Simply reading your slides to yourself isn't enough, since the way things "sound" when we read them doesn't match the way things sound when we say them. While reading your slides to yourself can help you become more familiar with the information and the order in which you're going to present it, it doesn't help you feel more comfortable with the presentation itself.
4. I will create better presentations.
The same rules hold true for any language, be it human or programming:
- More slides. Slides are free. Don't be afraid to use a lot of them.
- Fewer words. The words on your slides are speaking points, not a script to be read by you or the audience. This especially counts for code.
- Higher contrast. Dark on light. Light on dark. Never dark text on a dark background or light text on a light background. Use a tool like Color Oracle to confirm your slides are readable even by those with different forms of color blindness.
- Large fonts. Bigger is better. If your text isn't very easy to read from the back of the room, it's not large (or high contrast) enough.
- Test before presenting. Get to your presentation room early to confirm both that your slides are readable throughout the room and that the AV setup works well with your laptop.
5. I will remember that I belong there.
Never open your talk with an apology about being an inexperienced speaker. If you mention it's your first conference presentation, some people will "helpfully" (but unnecessarily) look for things to correct. If you stick to the resolutions above, no one will know that you've never done this before.
Even if this is your first time presenting at a conference, remember: A lot of people reviewed your proposal and agreed that it was good and that your talk will provide value to the audience. Trust their skills, knowledge, and opinion that you're good enough. You earned your way to the front of that room—you deserve to be there.
It's OK. You've got this.