9 Tips To Help You Rock Your First (Or Next) Conference Presentation

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! 🙂

Presenting at a Tech Conference for the First Time: Simultaneously Terrifying and Awesome

So I took a flying leap out of my comfort zone today, and did a presentation at a tech conference… and lived to tell the tale!

It was TERRIFYING… and Awesome!

It was the craziest experience! I did the presentation on a research method that I’m really excited about. I was a software trainer in my last life, prior to diving into the UX & design world, so I’ve trained groups of folks in the past many many times, and have spoken at company workshops and user events. I’m telling you what though, presenting at a tech conference with actual awesome technically savvy folks is a completely different experience!

I don’t think I’ve ever been that terrified in my life, haha, but I also don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a rush! Having lived through it, I’m now here to tell you that you should absolutely give speaking a shot if there is a topic you feel passionate about!

How I ended up with this gig…

A few months ago, there were a few simultaneous calls for proposals for tech conferences all over the country. I had never ever written a presentation proposal in my life, but decided one night at 9pm after seeing an inspiring call to action tweet from one of my fav UX authors Karen McGrane, that it would be really fun to submit one, just to cross “submit a presentation proposal” off my bucket list. So I got to work and knocked out a description of a really fun research method I’d recently had the chance to apply, that had some pretty sweet results. (I’ll blog about that soon, I promise!) I had less than zero expectation of actually making it through and being offered the opportunity to speak, and was STUNNED when I received my acceptance letter!

What did I just get myself into?

I experienced an interesting combination of joy and panic when I got the notice. There was a period of about 20 minutes during which I considered declining and just not mentioning it to anyone, haha, but then I remembered how pumped I was about this research method, and how much it could really help out other UX pros and organizations. So, I alerted my super supportive manager and VP, and replied with my acceptance.

Then it dawned on me: I needed to make a PowerPoint presentation to go along with my session. I have ZERO artistic skill at all… I can barely draw stick figures, so the thought of putting together a presentation that would be viewed by amazing designers completely stressed me out. Also, I’ve created a grand total of about 3 PowerPoint presentations ever, in my life.

Focus on the Content

I got some really awesome advice from my fabulous coworkers at this point, they told me not to worry about making it fancy, and to just focus on the content. So I did.

The Day Of

I’d practiced my presentation about 400,000 times, but still felt like I was going to pass out when I arrived at the conference this morning. I’d been too nervous to eat any breakfast, which was probably a good thing. Thankfully there were some really interesting conference sessions in the morning that completely distracted me from the fact that I’d be presenting after lunch. When lunch time finally hit, everyone else went down to the restaurant, and I snuck into my presentation room, set up my laptop, and tried not to have a full blown panic attack. I hid in there through the entire lunch break, flipping through my slides to make sure I was ready and then attendees started to file in. I was able to chat with a few really nice folks while we waited for the rest of the crew to come in, which really helped me relax. I was expecting about 15-20 people to attend, and wound up with many many more than that, closer to about 60.

Adrenaline… GO!

Once everyone got in and sat down, it was go time. I started the presentation, still feeling the nerves, then started making eye contact. That was when the nerves exited the scene and the excited adrenaline kicked in. I’m pretty sure I started talking at warp speed for a bit there, haha. That’s what I get for skipping breakfast and lunch and having 6 cups of coffee instead. lol But I got through it, and shockingly, ENJOYED it!

They said thank you!

My whole goal in presenting was to share this research method in hopes that at least 1 attendee could use it to benefit his or her software, website or service. After the session several attendees came up and thanked me, and told me they enjoyed the session and were excited to get back and apply the research! I was overjoyed! (In fact I probably scared a couple of them, I had so much caffeine in my system by that point that I probably could have taken flight.) A really kind attendee even tweeted a thank you, and another live tweeted some session quotes! It completely made my day!!!

If I can do this… so can you!

So here’s the thing… if I can do this as an artistically challenged person with zero PowerPoint skills, so can you! And it’s SO important that as design and UX community members we share our tips and tricks with one another! Together, we really can make the world a better more usable place!

Thank you!

I just want to send a gigantic thank you to the organizers of the Web Conference at Penn State for giving me the opportunity to present! Also, I’m sending an enormous thank you out to the completely amazing audience who attended my session, and didn’t even heckle me! You made what could have been a totally traumatic experience, awesome! 🙂