5 Tips for Speaking at Conferences

I know what you’re thinking. This seems like a bit of an odd post for me to put up on a Thursday morning. But you see, last night at my writers group, the issue of speaking at conferences came up1 and certain people asked for advice and suggested that, given the prolificity of my blog posts, I was certain to have written a post on the subject.

This morning, I discovered that I had never written on the subject.

I reported this fact on Twitter, to which certain people replied:

Five bullets points on speaking at conferences by the end of the day? How little you know me. Why wait, here are five bullet points before lunch, based on my extensive2 experience speaking at conventions.

  1. When in doubt, I give the talk I would want to hear if I was in the audience. Without intending to sound self-centered, I often think if I would find a particular subject, or angle interesting, others will, too. So when I am uncertain what direction to take or what subject to speak on in the context of the overall theme, I go with the talk I wish I could hear if I was sitting in the audience.
  2. Know the subject, but be casual. Especially for subject matter talks, I try to prepare at least a framework. But so far, I have never written out a talk to memorize or read to an audience3. The talks that I most enjoy listening to are the ones in which the speakers are colloquial and can shift on the fly. These come across more natural and also tend to be filled with more practical information in my experience.
  3. Provide a context and/or begin at the beginning. It has been my experience that in some talks, often technical ones, the speaker rarely begins at the beginning. I suspect they assume the audience already is familiar with the subject. But I find providing a context and starting from the beginning to be a useful way of gracefully immersing an audience in the subject of the talk.
  4. Speak slowly even if it sounds strange in your head. I have a tendency to speed up once I get started. It took me awhile to learn to speak slowly. On stage, in my head, speaking slowly seems odd, but when I’ve seen videos afterward, it sounds perfectly normal from the audience perspective. It also sounds better than when I race through a subject at a breakneck speed.
  5. The nerves go away at the sound of your own voice. I don’t have a problem getting up in front of audiences and speaking. But I do get nervous beforehand, and I get very nervous the minute or two before I start. Probably the most nervous I’ve ever been was when I was a presenter at the Nebula awards in 2012. There I was, getting up in front of an audience of several hundred people, many of whom I’d idolized since I was a child. But I’ve noticed that the moment I start to speak, the nerves begin to fade, and after two minutes, they are gone entirely.

And here is one bonus tip, because it got squeezed out of the five bullet points:

  • BONUS TIP: Leave time for Q&A. Often, my favorite part of listening to a talk at a conference is the question and answers that come at the end. I am always dismayed when the speaker does not leave enough time for Q&A. I try to always leave time. If I have an hour slot, I will talk for 40-45 minutes and leave 15-20 for Q&A. It’s an opportunity to interact with the audience and it is my favorite part of giving a talk, being on a panel or doing a reading.

If anyone else has tips or suggestions for my fellow writers group members, leave them in the comments.

  1. Briefly.
  2. By “extensive” I mean the two or three times I’ve given solo talks; the one time I’ve given a reading; and the couple of dozen panels that I’ve been on.
  3. I have had them written out for me, as when I accepted the Nebula Award on behalf of Ken Liu back in 2012, but that’s different.

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