A few years ago I submitted my first ever conference presentation proposal. My super supportive design team encouraged me to give it a shot, and a friend gave me a final guilt trip/shove that made me pull the trigger on the submit button.
I submitted the same proposal to 2 conferences. I knew that there was absolutely no way my proposal would get selected since it was my first time, but it was a great experience going through the process.
A few weeks later, I got an email from the first of the two conferences. My proposal had been accepted.
When I first got the email, I was elated! Overjoyed! Mega pumped! I was going to have the opportunity to share some of the research I’d been working on with the UX & Design communities!
45 seconds later, I was panicking and considering moving off grid to a cabin in the deep woods with no internet access so I could pretend I never got the acceptance letter.
I’m an introvert and public speaking is definitely not my forte.
Even though it was borderline terrifying, I was really passionate about the topic, so I wound up going for it.
The session went well, and I got some really great feedback from the attendees. And then I went and hid in my car for an hour to blast some music and decompress.
As it turns out, even though presenting at a conference was draining, it was also kind of fun. So much fun that I did it again. And then again, and again and again.
I learned some pretty valuable lessons after my first presentation experience, and thought some aspiring conference presenters might find them helpful.
1. Make an outline first, don’t touch that deck
When I put together my first presentation, I whipped out PowerPoint and started adding some slides. Then more slides, then 8 godzillion more slides. Then I realized that my presentation was out of order, confusing and had no flow. Then I got frustrated and slammed my laptop shut. (Sorry MacBook.)
The second time I put together a presentation, I made my outline first. It made the process about 9000% easier.
2. Once you have an outline, pick graphics to support your points
I said keep your hands off that deck! Take a look at your outline, and then grab graphics to support your points. Don’t be afraid to make them amusing graphics.
3. NOW open your deck program and go to town.
You now have permission to open up your deck program, and add your slides. Your flow has been defined, so creating the deck will go relatively smoothly.
4. In your slides use your pictures, not your words.
As you’re creating your slides, remember that people will need to see them from a distance. Use large fonts, and as few words as possible. If you can skip the words and just go with graphics for some slides, even better. If you’re doing a presentation that requires a bunch of text (I did one on a research method once that required equations like crazy) sprinkle pictures in between the boring parts to keep folks attention.
To improve accessibility, make sure you describe the images in your deck as you present.
5. Use your words to create a transcript to make your presentation more accessible, instead.
Creating a transcript is awesome for several reasons. First, if you post your presentation online people who attended your session will be able to get a refresher on the details. Secondly, if people didn’t attend your live session, they’ll still be able to learn from your presentation. Thirdly, and in my opinion most importantly, creating a transcript will make your presentation more accessible.
6. Tell stories.
When folks leave presentations, they remember stories that were told to prove points far more often than they remember detailed facts or figures. If you really want to make a lasting impact, weave stories into your presentation.
7. Make sure that your presentation works both online and offline.
Luckily for me, a seasoned presenter mentioned before I headed to my first presentation that I should always have a copy of my presentation that could be presented completely offline. If you’re using an online deck program, download a copy too. If you’re doing live demo of a product, get screenshots or a screencast of what you’ll be walking through just in case.
The woman who gave me that advice saved me from having an absolutely horrifying first presentation experience. About 10 minutes into my 50 minute presentation, the wifi in our building completely tanked. All of the presenters were booted offline for 15 minutes. I just whipped out my thumb drive and continued on, it was a non-event.
8. Back up your backup.
During the same conference, I attended a session in which a presenters thumbdrive failed. It just straight up flat lined. He didn’t have a backup, and we were using the venue’s laptops, so he was completely SOL. I felt absolutely terrible for him. He got through it lecture style, and offered to post his slides once he got back to his personal machine, but it was one of those worst case scenerio situations.
After witnessing that train wreck, for my next conference preso I had a copy up on an online deck service, but in case their service went down I also uploaded a hard copy of the presentation to Dropbox and emailed myself links to both, AND I had a copy on a thumb drive in case the wifi tanked. I was taking no chances.
9. Stop editing!!!
My final bit of advice is to leave your presentation alone once it’s complete.
With my first presentation, I spent days and weeks working on my presentation, then kept tweaking it pretty much daily for the months leading up to the event. This is a surefire way to drive yourself insane. I was even still tweaking it the night before the conference.
Do not do that to yourself. Edit what needs to be edited early on, and then DON’T TOUCH. Unless of course you’re using stats and they change. Seriously, leave it alone, or you’ll drive yourself mad.
If you wind up submitting a proposal and/or speaking at a conference for the first time, I’d love to hear about your experience! Hit me up on Twitter at @jma245! 🙂