“So just make it up!”

That’s the advice it seemed everyone had for me as I approached my first conference presentation at Stir Trek (a one-day conference focused on software development and new technologies) and had to turn a 15-second abstract into a one-hour talk. 

To be fair to “everyone,” I was giving a talk on using improv skills to improve communication, and I have a performance background in improvisation, so it wasn’t just being cruel. However, after the thirteenth person, the cleverness rubbed off.


Fortunately, I had been thinking about this longer than fifteen seconds, so I was able to piece together a slide deck with the ideas I wanted to get across.

I worked on balancing useful and clever, memes and actual information, and finally had a presentation I was ready to give…to my wife.

Thus the first thing I learned about giving a presentation: it’s like moving—USE YOUR FRIENDS!

I ran through the presentation with my wife, then with people from work, then refined from the feedback they gave me…and ran through it with them again. All my co-workers at Aztek were incredibly helpful in giving advice on everything: content, display (slide layout, font size, etc.), presentation style. Additionally, their positive feedback helped my confidence tremendously.

With their help, and a great crowd, “Yes, and! How lessons from improv comedy can help your development career” (or the far wittier and abbreviated schedule card version Stir Trek came up with—“Improv Your Career”) went off wonderfully. As such, I’d like to give advice to any future first-time presenters, based on my now huge (one-time) backlog of experience presenting (and a far larger one attending).

Advice for First-Time Presenters

1. Be yourself

It’s a cliché, but it’s true. Whatever your strengths are (sense of humor, technical expertise, whatever) play to those. Nothing more painful than watching someone who isn’t funny try to be…or someone who’s not sure what they’re talking about uncertainly read their notes.

2. Believe it

Don’t give a presentation just to give a presentation and pad your resume. Find something you really care about to talk about. It will come across to your audience—it’s terribly easy to get excited about something when the person talking is obviously interested and pumped about it, even if you had no interest before.

3. Practice, practice, practice

Run through what you’re going to do several times. Rehearse in your head as you’re driving around, showering, before you go to sleep. But also make sure you do the full presentation at least one or two times before the actual day. “Blahblahblah”ing through a section you think your practice audience already knows or doesn’t care about doesn’t help you, or them. If it’s important enough to put in your talk, it’s important enough to practice.

4. Involve the audience

Not every talk is as amenable to this as an improv talk, certainly. But if you can find a way to get people involved, from finding out about their experiences, to making sure they know you encourage questions, to somehow making them part of the talk, it keeps them more involved and invested in what you’re saying.

5. Get off the slide

There are few things more boring than the presenter who sits there and reads you their slides. Use bullet points, and remember they are just that—launching points. They should serve as spurs for you to talk, and for your audience to remember what you said, not a script. Walk away from the podium if possible, escape your box. It helps the audience stay focused on you, rather than reading your slides. It will also help you go off script, saying what you think, not just what you wrote. 

6. Relax

I know, easier said than done. Remember, though—these people are here because what you have to say was interesting enough that they didn’t go to the presentation across the hall. Be prepared, write what you know, know what you write, and you’re preaching to the choir. It’s a good feeling – enjoy it.

I also want to give a big thanks to everyone who helped me, including my wife and Aztek co-workers who helped me refine the presentation. Thanks to Cassandra Faris (@cassandrafaris), who’s “It’s OK To Talk To Strangers” presentation helped inspire my talk, and who was exceptionally generous in advice and reviewing my abstract; to Sarah Dutkiewicz (@sadukie) who was generous with encouragement before and after my talk; to Steve Smith (@ardalis) for volunteering and his flattering Tweet on the presentation; and to everyone who took the time (and skipped the one day post-Build VS2015 talk) to come and make my talk a success. 

Didn't see the presentation? 

Get the slides from GitHub

What tips would you give to first-time presenters? Let us know in the comments below.