The Speakers' Checklist

I use the following rough schedule when preparing for a conference presentation. My process has changed over the years -- for example: I used to do more prep on paper with cue cards -- so I don't expect this to work exactly as written for you. The 50,000ft approach should be about the same though:

  • Start with the audience in mind. Have empathy, and aim for outcomes.
  • Leave yourself enough time to refine your thinking about the topic.
  • Do more writing and brainstorming before you start your slides.
  • Get feedback early in the process so that you can address common misconceptions / misunderstandings in your presentation.
  • Leading into the conference itself: you're going to be nervous. Embrace this and control what you can control.
  • The stage is yours. Get to know it, befriend it, and then own it.

Each 1-hour presentation takes in the range of 40-100 hours to prepare for (less prep time is required if it's a topic I've previously presented). Workshops can take in the range of one week to prepare one day's worth of content. The efficiencies for workshops are because I've already dedicated some time to a workshop's topic before proposing it.

Sample "time from presentation" is given for each phase. For example, "3 months" means "3 months before your presentation".

Brainstorming Phase

Gathering your thoughts.

3 Months

  • Write down the learning outcomes for the session. What do I want people to be able to do as a result of my talk?

2 Months

  • Choose the format for the presentation which best matches my desired learning outcomes.
  • Write a table of contents / agenda for the topic with the key ideas I want to convey.
  • Write the session description based on work to date. Ready to propose the topic to a meetup or event.

4-6 Weeks

  • Write a blog post; or series of blog posts about your talk. This acts as a transcript of what you might say and helps you to choose the important bits to talk about.

Draft Phase

Once you collected your thoughts about your topic, you're ready to start drafting your presentation. I generally draft in outlines.

3 Weeks

  • Write the first draft of your slides, incorporating comments from the blog posts you've written.

Polish Phase

With your outline written, it's time to start putting your slides and imagery together.

2 Weeks

  • Start practicing your talk outloud.
  • Fix the slides to match your story, adding imagery where relevant.
  • Decrease the amount of text on each slide to just the key point you want to make for that idea.
  • Test your colours against common colour blindness problems; and for contrast. Various tools are available for different platforms. A quick Web search should help you to find something relevant, if not ask your friends. Statistic suggest you'll have at least one colour-blind friend who can help you with this.
  • Remove any unnecessary animated transitions between slides and within slides. For those slides which need to have the animation, add a warning for folks with vestibular disorders.
  • Ensure all text is no smaller than 1/10 the height of the slide (font size can especially be a problem if you have a small projector in a long, skinny room).
  • Make sure you've included URLs (minified if necessary) to the blog posts you wrote earlier about your topic.

For additional tips on preparing a slide deck for a technical conference, check out my DrupalCon speaker training resources.

1 Week

  • Screen cast your practice sessions until you can run through the presentation from start to finish without stopping to adjust any part of your presentation. This will be exceptionally difficult.
  • If you have a "live demo" component, screen cast the demo, and embed the video clips into your presentation. It's plausible your demo will work perfectly on the day of, but if it doesn't, you now have a backup plan.
  • Double check the session description as it is posted on the conference website. It's too late to make changes to that description (it may have gone to print), but you should make sure the session you've prepared honours any promises you've made in the session description. You can change the order without feeling guilty, but if you can't meet a promise, make sure your talk includes a link to an online resource that covers the thing you're leaving out.
  • Your story should be final at this point. Practice for an audience if possible (e.g., your co-workers) wearing the outfit you plan to wear at the "real" presentation and with the approximate equipment you will be using at the event. This allows you to test things like: oh, you had a demo planned but the mic is hand held? That won't work. You were planning to wear a specific blouse, but the mic is clip on? That might not work.
  • Make sure your day bag easily fits your laptop, and day-of add-ons (remote control, VGA adapter, power converter). It's very stressful if you can't easily fit things into your day bag on the day of your presentation.

3 Days

  • Do one more full run of your presentation.
  • Get a good night's sleep.
  • Reach out to your supporters to remind them of what time / room your presentation is, and explicitly ask them to attend if it's important to you.

2 Days

  • Simplify your speaker notes so that they're easy to skim if you get muddled while you're on stage.
  • Get another good night's sleep.

Day Before

  • Go to the room where you'll be presenting. Don't just find it on a map, go inside the room. Look at the layout of the room. You're going to own it tomorrow, so become friends with it today.
  • Introduce yourself to the AV team if they are around. If anything goes wrong, these folks will help you. They are your friends and your superheros.
  • Make sure the room # on the printed schedule matches the room on the web version of the program matches the printed banner version that's outside of the room. (Your conference might not have all of these options.) Make sure they all say the same room, and make sure you can get into your room.
  • If you're able to, do a tech check to make sure your laptop works with the projection system. Some conferences will try to tell you that they're using a single room for all tech checks even though it's a multi-room event. No, you need to do your tech check in your room.
  • Drink lots of water and make sure you are hydrated. You probably won't sleep tonight. Don't stress about that. Do the best you can to relax.
  • Upload your slides. (Even if you've written really awesome blog posts, people will complain if they don't have the slides.) Uploading your slides will also give you a backup if there are any problems with your laptop, or the projector.
  • If you're an introvert, get as much quiet time as you can during the day to ensure you're fully charged for tomorrow.

Night Before

Pack your bag for tomorrow and include:

  • Fully charged laptop.
  • Power cable for your laptop + power adapter if you are not in your home country.
  • Presentation on USB as PDF in case your laptop dies.
  • Printed speaker notes.
  • Water bottle (filled).
  • VGA display converter thingy (for the projector).
  • Remote control (if you have one).
  • Clean shirt and trousers (for those of us who are prone to spilling coffee down our fronts)

Game Day

  • Try to eat breakfast. Being stressed out takes calories.
  • Hydrate with water, or fruit juice. A dry throat goes hoarse quickly.
  • Check in with the conference organisers so they know you are on-site and ready to present.
  • Smile lots. It may trick your body into thinking this is fun.

One Hour Before

  • Another half glass of water.
  • Find the room you'll be presenting in and settle in at the back.
  • Get a sense for the lights and the contrast of the slides (you can request that the lights be turned up or down; I generally ask for the house lights to be turned up so I can see the audience...and I have very high contrast slides so that I can do this).

Half an Hour Before

  • Final pee! Introverts: this is our last time for piece and quiet and total aloneness before going on stage. It is probably also your last look in the mirror to make sure you don't have anything stuck between your teeth.
  • If the presentation ahead of you is still going, either wait outside the room, or sneak into the back quietly.

(Literally) The Last Few Minutes

  • As soon as you can, get onto the stage and graciously tell the folks on stage that they've done a great job. Then help them to shepherd people alway from the stage by saying you need to get setup. The previous presenter can answer questions in the hallway. Help them to see if they've forgotten anything on stage, and then help them to move on. You being rude to the audience is a LOT easier than the speaker doing it; you're helping them. (And hopefully someone will help shepherd you at the end of your talk.)
  • Get your laptop plugged in and working with the projector. If anything is going to go wrong, this is generally it.
  • Next, get help putting your mic on if it's a clip mic. (Want to impress the AV staff? Test the mic by blowing on it. That's right: you don't tap the mic to test it because tapping a mic can damage the internals and potentially blow out the speakers if they're turned up too high. So don't tap the mic!)
  • Once your laptop is connected, open your slideshow software, bring up the first slide, and start the presentation. Make sure you can see your speaker notes (if not: your display is probably mirrored, you'll need to disable that).
  • More smiling! (It's okay, I don't smile during setup either.)

Now you're set. I generally pace or use my friendly "I'm not available to chat yet" face so that the incoming audience knows to leave me alone. You might be more comfortable chatting with people than I am. I love to chat afterwards; but need the pre-talk time to centre myself.

For additional tips on what to do the day of your presentation, check out my DrupalCon speaker training resources.

Your Presentation

  • Smile at the audience while thinking about something happy or delicious. Breathe in and give an audible “ahh-sigh” out.
  • Begin.
  • Tell your story with passion.
  • At the end, say “thank you” and give the audience time to clap.
  • Smile again. Good job, you!

There is a separate tip sheet for audience management.

Got More Tips?

Do you have tips of your own? Tweet your tip to @emmajanehw, open an issue on GitHub, or send me a pull request.

Thanks to:

  • Kate Kligman for her tip on double checking the presentation your room is in.