Speaker Notes

By Rebecca Murphey

Speaking at conferences has changed the course of my life. Conferences are where I’ve met some of my best friends; they’ve taken me across the country and around the world; they’ve given me access to a network of people that means I’m never wanting for work or for guidance.

They’ve also given me the chance to see a whole lot of talks by other speakers. Allow me to let you in on a little secret: less-than-stellar public speakers give talks at conferences all the time. They go way over time, or way under. They mumble or whisper, or say “um” a lot. They read the text on their slides, sometimes word for word. They spend one third of their talk setting up their topic, or convince you they are worth listening to by taking five minutes to list their credentials.

And some of the best speakers, the ones who make it seem like getting up on stage in front of hundreds of people is no big deal? They’re often the ones who have been practicing and preparing relentlessly.

The fact is, if you’re thinking about speaking but worried that you might be a little rough around the edges, you’re already ahead of the game: the first step toward being a good speaker is recognizing that you can be a better speaker!

But how?

What follows are a few tidbits that I’ve come to take to heart before getting on a stage. Sometimes I’ve learned these lessons by watching others, and sometimes I’ve learned them the hard way.

Know your story

“So what are you talking about?” Someone once asked me this a couple of days ahead of a talk that I felt pretty prepared for; thirty seconds into fumbling through an answer, I wasn’t feeling so prepared. I’ve learned that my ability to give the “elevator pitch” for a talk is a great measure of my preparedness.

An elevator pitch that has me worried: “I’m talking about how to get better at JavaScript.

An elevator pitch that makes me feel confident: “I’m talking about how valuable it is to read other people’s code and to spend time with people smarter than you when you’re trying to get better at JavaScript, but also how there’s no substitute for hard-earned experience.

I also like to practice writing out the narrative of my talk in longhand. If I’m flying to a conference, I’ll spend the time on the plane when I’m not allowed to use a computer working on that instead. It’s a good mental exercise to test just how well I know my material, and it means that when (not if) there are technical glitches on stage, I have a better chance of knowing my lines.

No one cares who you are

At his 2012 BackboneConf talk, my colleague, Andrew Dupont — a contributor to Prototype.js, an author of a book on the library, and a well-known member of the JavaScript community — asked the audience, “Who am I?” He followed up quickly with one of my favorite slides of all time, which said simply, No one of consequence.

While some audiences may care more about your credentials than others — and you do well to know where your audience falls on the spectrum — my general thinking is this: you can spend five minutes citing your qualifications to be giving your talk, or you can spend those five minutes giving your talk. Tend toward the latter and let your talk speak for itself. No list of credentials will spare you from criticism if your talk is subpar; if your talk is amazing, no one will question whether you had a right to give it. At most, mention where you work and what you do; but then move on. Do make sure to include contact information in your slides, but save it for the end.

Another thing to keep in mind when it comes to your qualifications to give a talk: if you’re preparing for your talk about ‹some tool› and thinking that ‹the tool’s author› could do a better job, think again. Most tool authors are thrilled when other people start talking about their work; if anything, they’re likely to be a great resource to you. Your audience is also likely to be grateful to hear a new viewpoint from a new person.

Command attention

For better or for worse, your onstage persona can dramatically affect how people respond to your talk. If you’re soft-spoken — and, alas, this is more often the case among women than among men — practice speaking in a clear and authoritative voice. If there’s a skilled person managing the audio for the event, they might be kind enough to adjust the settings so you sound better, but that’s pretty rare.

Pay particular attention to whether you’re speaking into the microphone; if you’re wearing a lapel mic, for example, be careful that you don’t turn your head away it.

When you’re delivering your key points, deliver them clearly and with authority — I’ve seen a surprising number of speakers whose voices trail off right when they’re getting to the good part.

Make eye contact with audience members and, if you’re feeling brave, engage with them directly. For example, just saying, “Aha, I see you nodding!” to a single audience member can make the audience as a whole re-focus on your presentation.

Project confidence

I know you’re nervous — even experienced speakers will usually have some butterflies before they go on stage. But don’t start your talk by telling the audience how nervous you are; it makes them nervous on your behalf, even if you end up knocking it out of the park, and it makes your talk about you rather than about the content.

You might think that confessing your nervousness will put you at ease, but it can have exactly the opposite effect. You probably will have a nervous inner monologue that’s going on through your whole talk — I know I usually do — but study up on some coping strategies and do your best to press ahead with your content. More likely than not, people will come up to you afterwards and marvel at how comfortable you seemed.

Know your tools

There are lots of great tools for creating presentations. Personally, I still use Keynote, because it gives me a lot of control without a lot of fuss (and I’ve developed a “theme” that I can reuse with ease). Reveal.js is the current hotness in browser-based slideware, and includes speaker notes functionality, which I consider essential. No matter what tool you use, make sure you are comfortable with it long before you go on stage. Customize your “presenter display” so it shows you the current time, your time remaining, your next slide, and your notes (pro tip: make your notes big and your slides small).

Keynote Screenshot

If you’re going to use a remote, make sure you’ve practiced with it before. The Remote app for iDevices is actually pretty terrible, especially on a conference network, so think twice before you use it and be prepared to bail. Lots of computers support infrared remotes, but some newer Macs do not, so beware — you might need to invest in a Bluetooth remote instead.

Of course, you can go remote-less, but that will either tether you to your computer, or else have you running back to the podium every time you need to move to the next slide. Using a remote is a good way to have the freedom to move around, but don’t go overboard with your movement — it’s good to get out from behind the podium (if there is one), but you don’t want to be pacing all over the stage.

Try it and see

You must see yourself speak in order to get better at speaking. If you’re nervous about a talk, one of the most terrifying and yet most valuable things you can do is to force yourself to give the talk ahead of time. This can be especially difficult when you don’t want to pause the writing of the talk in order to practice the delivery of the talk, but no amount of moving slides around and adding funny cat pictures will tell you what a rehearsal will tell you. Start in the shower, or on the drive to work, and just feel what it feels like to say the words you’re planning to say. I have discovered many times that as soon as I hear myself say what I’m planning to say, what I was planning to say is all wrong.

If you’ve never spoken in front of an audience before and you’re planning to speak in front of a big one, find a smaller, friendlier audience to practice on; maybe a lunch and learn at work or a local meetup. Do your best to collect anonymous feedback from them, too — maybe by providing a link to an etherpad or asking audience members to fill out a Google form.

Make a video recording if at all possible. Even just rehearsing in front of a video camera at home can do wonders. Make sure you’re standing up if you’ll be standing up for your “real” presentation. Use a projector or a second monitor, if you have one, to get the sense of what that feels like.

After your practice run, watch the video. Yes, it’s brutal to listen to yourself talk and yes, you probably said “um” way too much. But you can also spot places where things went particularly well, or make note of things that you want to remember to do again when you’re on stage for real.

Respect the audience

Audiences will tend to be extremely polite and forgiving; don’t make them regret it! Use a timer and do not go over time. It is one of the most disrespectful things you can do to the audience, to the conference organizers, and to the next speaker.

Remember that your audience can probably read just fine — you don’t need to recite your bullet points to them; indeed, you might want to consider whether bulleted lists of things are appropriate at all.

If your presentation includes code and you intend your audience to be able to read it, do not include more than a few lines on a given slide. Make sure you are using high-contrast syntax highlighting.

If you’re planning to live code during your presentation, you are brave and potentially crazy. I’ve seen it go well, and I’ve seen it go so terribly that everyone in the audience was squirming in their seats. Technical difficulties during live coding are a surefire way to go over time. If you choose to give it a try, it is impossible to rehearse too much. Keep your demos small and finite, and have an escape plan for when (again, not if) things go wrong.

Above all else, remember that your audience could be doing anything else, but instead they are most likely sitting in an uncomfortable chair, awaiting or recovering from a mediocre lunch, wishing there was an outlet nearby so they could plug in their dying devices — and they may have paid a few hundred dollars and a couple of vacation days for the privilege. Your talk has the potential to be the best thing that happens to them all day. Do all you can to prepare yourself to live up to that.

Keep learning

There are some people who are natural public speakers, but most get better the old-fashioned way: through practice and preparation. Watching other speakers and paying attention to what you like and don’t like is one way to get better; watching your own talks and soliciting honest feedback is, of course, another. I’ve also learned an enormous amount from a few books that I think anyone interested in speaking should take the time to read:

Confessions of a Public Speaker, a book by a professional public speaker that shares some of his ups and downs, and how he prepares and delivers compelling presentations.

Presentation Zen, a book that greatly informed how I think about designing and preparing a talk.

Thank You for Arguing, a layman’s introduction to the art of rhetoric and persuasion.

Good luck, and happy speaking!

45 thoughts on “Speaker Notes

  1. Jenn Lukas

    While I’ve customized my presenter display in Keynote, I had no clue I could change the presenter notes to be larger. SERIOUSLY THANKS AGAIN FOR THIS!! #gamechanger

    1. Jenn Downs

      Same. I knew you could customize, but didn’t know you could make the screen look that easy to read. Thanks!

  2. Hector

    I am so glad to hear somebody openly advocating the “no one cares who you are” point when giving a presentation. Most speakers that I’ve seen recently skip the “let me tell you about me” slide but I have seen a few still using it and it looks bad every time. As you indicated, spend the time talking about the topic rather than about you.

    On the nervous part I’ve found that walking in the room where you will present (either the day before or a few minutes before the presentation) helps me get familiar with the setting. Even if the room is empty, just walking around helps me.

    On the case of failing demos I would add that presenters should acknowledge when a demo fail and move on. Don’t dwell on it or keep telling people “if only my last demo had worked” because it puts the audience down. Most developers will relate to you if a demo does not work, and as you said, just be prepared for it (perhaps have a finished version already cooked or a slide showing the final product)

  3. val

    Sounds like I’m the odd one out, but I actually like it when speakers do a really quick “who am i” bit. A quick one or two minutes about what they do or projects they’re involved in helps me frame where they’re coming from on the topic.

    1. Jenn Lukas

      I go back and forth on this. I also sometimes like the intro, and as you said, it can help frame where the speaker is coming from. Knowing what type of project or client work a speaker has worked on can let me know if I can relate with them or if maybe they are opening up a new point of view because I have a different background from them. I think this probably became a negative because sometimes people go on for too long, and it’s a good 5 minutes before we get to any ‘meat’ of the talk. I don’t want to feel like I’m being ‘sold’, but if I’m going to listen to a speaker for the next 45 minutes and I’m unfamiliar with their work previous to the talk, then the intro let’s me feel a bit more in the know.

    2. Domenic Denicola

      I’ve gone back and forth on this in my own presentations.

      For a while I’ve been doing slides with links to my various relevant profiles (npm, GitHub, Twitter, SlideShare) plus a few things I’ve been working on recently. See e.g. [slide 2 here](http://www.slideshare.net/domenicdenicola/promises-promises).

      But for my most recent talk, which was at JSConf and felt like a big deal, I went with a simple “Hi, I’m Domenic, and I’m happy to be here.” See [slide 2 here](http://www.slideshare.net/domenicdenicola/boom-promisesa-was-born). I felt like this let me immediately jump into my talk points and grab the audience much more quickly.

      To some extent, it comes down to the old meetup-talk-vs.-conference-talk spectrum. Meetup talks are more personal and technical, with room for e.g. Q&A, personal details, etc. Whereas conference talks are more about really imparting a lesson or telling a story, and so want to be more cohesive and flowing, without the immersion-breaking experience of an “about me” slide or Q&A section.

    3. Andrew Dupont

      I don’t disagree with you there, and I bet Rebecca doesn’t either. But in past talks, rather than do a couple minutes at the beginning, I’ve found ways to weave the where-I’m-coming-from parts into the talk piecemeal wherever I feel the audience might need context. Whatever works for you.

      And to elaborate on her example: my “no one of consequence” slide didn’t come at the beginning as though it were a substitute for an introduction. It came about 15% of the way through the talk, right as I got into the meat of it. It was a very opinionated talk (i.e., “I think the community will work better if we start behaving this way”). I wanted to make it clear that I was offering suggestions — I didn’t want it to sound like I thought I had authority to order people how to behave.

      As long as comes off as “here’s some background that informs my approach to this subject,” and not “here’s why I am an expert on what I am about to say,” it will hit the right note.

    4. Ray Daly

      A minimal “who am i” is my preference. This way the audience knows that they are in the right presentation and didn’t duck into the wrong room. So I like a simple title slide that includes the speaker’s name. Then an introduction by the speaker repeating the title and their name. Some of the audience will associate the presentation with the title and others with the speaker’s name.

  4. Kevin Whinnery

    I’m glad respect for the audience made the list – this is usually demonstrated by preparation, concise and legible slides/code, and a recognizable narrative which that flows through the presentation (all of which you touched on to some extent). Excellent rundown.

  5. Jens Arps

    While I agree with the points you list, and they all are important, but I’m afraid it will rather scare people and make them shy away from giving their first talk than motivate them. I think the most important aspect to a successful presentation still is it’s content, and to be passionate about it. This, in my opinion, by far outweighs any formal factors.

    I remember well a presentation I saw in 2009. Nobody knew the presenter. The slides didn’t have any fancy memes or funny pictures. One could barely understand the speaker at times. In the end, it was the only presentation at that conference that received standing ovations, and the speaker now is a famous guy.

    If somebody has something to say, and believes in it, I want to hear it. Of course it’s bad when I can’t read the code on the slides because its grey on black. But I’d rather catch the presenter later on to ask about their code samples than not hearing the talk at all, because they thought they should not present because they didn’t read a book about it before.

    1. Rebecca Murphey

      Jens, I appreciate your point of view, and I thought a lot about your concern before and after writing this. Alas, I’ve seen a lot of first-time speakers who don’t take these things into consideration, showed up unprepared, and ended up giving a sub-par talk. The result? They don’t get invited back, when a little more preparation and consideration might have changed the course of things.

      The 2009 talk you refer to — and I’m pretty sure I know which one you’re talking about :) — is, in my opinion, an outlier. Rarely is the content of a presentation so exciting (groundbreaking, even) that the quality of the presentation doesn’t affect the audience’s reaction to it. I don’t want to scare people away from talking, but I do want to scare them into taking their preparation and presentation seriously.

    2. Steven Wittens

      Whether you’re speaking in front of 10 people or 1000, for 5 minutes or 50, you’re still taking up an enormous amount of people-hours. It’s a huge missed opportunity to not do your homework, and it’s really not rocket science. The talk you describe to me sounds like an aberration, the exception that confirms the rule: only an absolutely brilliant idea, delivered with oblivious conviction, can save a speaker who is doing their best to sabotage themselves.

      When things do go wrong, most people simply do not have the confidence and on-the-spot wit to entertain an audience that is unexpectedly staring at a blank or frozen screen. The speaker’s confidence will drain, the audience will feel bad, and few people will come out of that feeling good enough to think seriously about what was presented. And that’s really what a good talk is about: feeling good about it, both the speaker and the audience, because that’s what will get people to revisit the topic once they’re home.

      One piece of advice I would like to add: forget about the memes and the funny pictures, and for God’s sake drop the in-jokes. Instead, listen to what some of the greatest educators have said before. A great example is Richard Feynman, who discovered his son and daughter had wildly different learning styles and needed different approaches to engage them. His take-away was to structure his lectures not around carefully constructed linear progressions of only the absolutely relevant (as is usually done), but rather to draw in influences from all over place and show how everything’s connected. Don’t just talk about a subject, talk about the history of that subject and how it came to be. Don’t just teach answers or even questions, but teach how to ask them and why we care. Because that way, you’ll engage every audience member at least once during the talk, rather than only 10% all the time. They’ll do the rest themselves.

      1. Janet Swisher

        Context is interesting; history is boring. One of the most deadening things you can do is start with a history of the topic, before you’ve given people a reason to care about the topic itself. But you can work it in along the way : “Understanding this quirk requires a bit of historical background…”

  6. Nicholas C. Zakas

    Excellent piece, I agree with almost everything. The phrase, “No one cares who you are” I think is misleading (and in fact, I think is not what you meant). I always tell people to spend a slide introducing yourself because a talk is a conversation between you and the audience, and just like when you talk one on one, introducing yourself is the polite thing to do.

    What I think you meant is that credentials don’t matter. You don’t have to be an expert in something, you don’t have to be an author or established speaker. People do care who you are for context. If you’ve spent the past year working on a library at scale, that’s good information to tell the audience. If you are the library author, that’s good to know as well.

    I typically tell people to explain, “here’s why I’m talking about this”. That tends to be because you’ve worked on the technology, or in the project, or in the process, or at the scale you’re talking about. “Hi I’m Nicholas and I’m telling you about large-scale JavaScript applications because I’ve been working on that the past five years and learned a lot that I think will help you.”

    I do agree that credentials don’t matter. If you have something interesting to say, then I want to hear about it regardless of who you are or whether or not I’ve heard of you before. But I still want to know about you.

    1. Ari Stiles

      This touches on something that occurred to me as I read this. I hate long introductions (my eyebrow goes up when I see more than one intro slide. I have seen some speakers use 6 or 7), but I think a quick one helps the audience add a little extra context to the presentation.

      A 15-year veteran of UX is going to give a very different UX talk on than a front-end developer making the transition to UX or a freelancer who has to do a little bit of everything. I am interested in seeing any of these talks, done well, but appreciate the added perspective of a good, short self-introduction.

    2. Rachel Nabors

      I tend to put up a little slide of some of my old artwork to remind me to tell the audience that I got into code from comics, then web design, ie. “Don’t expect me to have a degree in anything I’m talking about today. But expect illustrations.”

  7. Eileen Webb

    Great post, Rebecca! Two thoughts for speakers:
    1) Regarding self-introductions: most speaking gigs also include a formal introduction – that is, a person who is managing the room and reads off a brief bio and welcomes you to the stage. Often people use canned bios for that (usually the same one that’s posted on the conference site) but there’s no reason you can’t write up a specialized paragraph that gives your relevant background, job title, etc. You still don’t want 5 minutes worth of info in there, but that introduction exists specifically to help the audience understand who you are and why you’re there. Use it!

    2) Though practicing by yourself is great, consider finding a local Toastmaster’s group in your area. Even my tiny mountain town has one, and there’s really no substitute practice for standing up and talking to a room of people. There’s a series of small lessons (focused on things like “intros and conclusions”, “using visual aids”, etc) but the most important part for me was simple exposure and giving myself a chance to form new habits – ‘Oh, I always start too fast. I need to take a full breath before I begin.’ Now I put breath marks in my slide notes, to keep myself from speed-talking. :)

  8. Tim Pushman

    As a further note to Hector’s comment, entering the room before the audience, if possible, is empowering (something you may be feeling the need for!). Psychologically it is making the space “yours” and having your audience enter your space, rather than walking into a room full of people, where you are entering “their” space.
    Not always possible in a large multi-track conference, but sometimes even looking at the space in the morning can help.

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  10. Justin Avery

    Great article Rebecca!

    I recently attended Aral Balkans “Slide and Stage” workshop in Brighton and he covered off a lot of the things that you mentioned in your article (plus a tonne more). I wrote a post (http://surfthedream.com.au/writing/review-of-the-slide-and-stage) about my expectations before and a review of the day afterwards but a few things that I noticed in your article that I’ll mention here.
    – Clickers: Don’t go with a phone based one, nor the infrared ones. The phone will fail on wifi, and you need to be in a line of sight for the infrared one to work. Splash out and buy one (I’ve got Kensington Wireless Presenter)
    – Presentation notes: Don’t have your notes there when you’re doing your presentation. If you need to read your notes, you’re probably not prepared enough (well, you probably are but you’re worried you’re not). If you have to look at your notes, you will have to read them… if you read them you’re going to break flow with what you’re staying, and worse your going to break contact with the audience. Keep presentation display up but show your next slide as the largest thing so you can peripherally see and know where you need to lead your point for a good segway.
    – Timing: Great points about timing, but be warned that if you’re going to jump out of your presentation for what ever reason the Keynote will restart your clock… and worse sometimes you don’t get access to your presentation notes. You should have another timing mechanism there for that.

    All of your points are awesome though, so I won’t re-iterate what you’ve already said perfectly. Thanks!

    1. Andy Davies

      – On the speaker notes front, I think it depends what you use them for…

      I often use them for suplemental info that I don’t want to include in the slides, or particularly for slides at the end of a talk notes on summing up – how you end a talk is important and sometime the notes as handy to keep the flow.

      This is my presenter screen – pic.twitter.com/fh7nHiTUEf

      – The other think I do, is practice infront of the TV, with slides on the TV, speaker display on the laptop and clicker in hand.

      – Get to know your presentation tool is the other advice I’d give as they have lots of shortcuts – X swaps screens in Keynote, W/B send screen white/black in Powerpoint

  11. Geoffrey Grosenbach

    Great points!

    I’ve learned a lot by going to the occasional non-tech conference. It’s a different scene and can give you ideas that don’t mirror what other tech speakers are already doing.

    I went to a few typography conferences. There were people who had been studying and researching their topic for 15 years.

    And of course the slides looked amazing.

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