How to Suck at Conference Talks

Justin Searls pinged me on Twitter asking if I had anything to add to his advice on building and presenting conference talks.

First off, go read his article. He’s clearly put more thought into this stuff than I have. It all seems like good advice.

It joins a number of other great resources for how to give talks. Zach Holman built a whole website on the subject. Kathy Sierra has some great advice as well.

Honestly I don’t know why anyone would ask me for advice on conference talks. Here’s a confession for you: all of the advice linked above intimidates the bejeezus out of me.

Yes, I know, the Kathy Sierra article is supposed to be all about ignoring speaking advice, so I shouldn’t be scared off by it. Unfortunately, while I think it’s a great post, it is built on a common misconception: that every programmer has to have at least a rudimentary understanding of UI.

When I worked for a government contractor, I spent years working on systems that literally had no UI whatsoever. Zero. Nada. Zip. Their only interface with the outside world was through well-defined protocols talking to other computer systems, or well-defined hardware addresses on custom I/O boards. Some people spend their whole careers on such systems. I’ve worked on plenty of user-facing systems since then, but I still feel pretty inadequate when someone says “you just need to be a UI!”.

Anyway. I know doodleypoop when it comes to giving good talks. I am not naturally funny. I have yet to write a talk with a decent narrative arc. The only time I ever came up with a custom slide theme I actually paid someone else to do it. Usually I just go with the defaults in whatever presentation framework I’m using. I am, in short, a rank amateur.

Nevertheless, for reasons that pass my understanding, in the past three or four years I have not only had talks accepted at dozens of conferences, but have actually been asked to speak on numerous occasions. So here: I’ll share the one little piece of advice that most helped me get started speaking.

I gave myself permission to suck.

That’s it. When I wrote my first talks, I was pretty sure I had some solid technical material to present. And I knew that I would suck on every other possible front.

And boy did I ever. The first time I gave the Confident Ruby talk at a users group, I was so nervous I actually took a drink of water in the middle of a sentence. It took me a year or so just to stop saying “um”every other word. My early speaking reviews are full of criticism of my awful delivery.

Slowly, as I’ve become more comfortable speaking on stage, I’ve tried to address aspects of the suck one by one. Once I finally managed to minimize the “um” problem, I started addressing my tendency to march back and forth. Then I started thinking about what I was doing with my hands. At every point, I’ve given myself explicit permission to suck at all the things I’m not yet working on.

Robert Heinlein famously gave his rules for writing fiction, which I find can be trivially repurposed for just about any pursuit. They are:

  1. You must write.
  2. Finish what you start.
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
  4. You must put your story on the market.
  5. You must keep it on the market until it has sold.

Notice that he doesn’t say “you must write well“. And he admonishes against endlessly polishing. The message is clear: first get the work out there. Worry about getting better later.

This is just me, of course. If you have less anxiety than me, by all means read up on all the presentation techniques. Make gorgeous slides. Attend your local toastmasters.

The only thing I can tell you about giving talks is what has worked for me: figure out one thing you can deliver on. That could be technical content. It could be your knack for storytelling. It could be humor. It could be brilliant illustrations. It could be the rare and miraculous skill of live-coding without disaster.

Figure out the one thing you can deliver, and give yourself permission not to worry about the rest. At least, not yet. That’s all I got.