Tips for Conference Speakers

René Pfeiffer/ June 5, 2011/ Discussion

We’ve been through four DeepSec conferences already, and MiKa and me have talked in person at other events. Given the feedback we received about past DeepSec speakers, the video recordings and our own experience, we’d like to give everyone who is thinking about submitting a talk some advise. It really doesn’t matter if you are going to speak at DeepSec (though we prefer this option) or anywhere else. If you have something to say, then make sure your message is delivered in an appropriate wrapping. Try to address your audience and make them listen to you. There are ways to do this, and most of them can be practised and learnt.

  • Structure : Most talks have an outline of what the audience can expect. Take some extra time and think about the agenda. If you announce what you will talk about, then stick to the most important issues you have announced. Don’t digress, don’t delve into „war stories“, don’t overdo telling anecdotes or try stand-up comedy! A bit of fun or examples is nice and necessary, but you do have a time constraint and your audience is waiting to hear about the points you showed in your agenda.
  • Reduction : You will not be able to explain everything in detail. First of all you don’t have the time to do so. Secondly you will have a heterogeneous audience with a different level of knowledge (talking to a homogeneous crowd is a very rare event).  This is perfectly normal. A speaker has to keep this in mind. Reduce the complexity, present the bare bones necessary to understand your talk, use analogies and examples often. You can always go in-depth during the Q/A section or off-stage after your talk. Less is more.
  • Storyline : Try guiding your audience along a thread. A bit of storytelling helps to focus and guides your audience to the central statements of your talk. Don’t just repeat facts and drown your audience with them.
  • Voice : Train your voice! Your voice is the most important ingredient of your talk. If you want people listen to you, then make sure you use your voice in a right way. Get a headset and do some speech practise. An important part of giving talks is to get used to your voice, so try to give short sample speeches, record them and listen to your voice. Make notes if you hear something you wouldn’t like when being part of the audience and avoid doing this when speaking yourself. This is especially important if you are not speaking in your native tongue. Accents are fine, but make sure you speak in a way others can understand you. Again this is especially true for members listening to talks not in their native tongue. Recording your speech and listening to it will help you here as well. You can also take advantage of language tutorials that have audio samples.
  • Stance : Use the right stance for speaking! Do not hide behind a desk or a podium. Remember, you have a point, that’s why you are on stage! Deliver your message convincingly and leave no doubt. Take a look a tutorials or ask actors! There are trainers out there who can give you a helping hand. Try to do demo presentations in front of colleagues or friends (or complete strangers) and ask them which impression they got. Again recording your practises and watching it is a good way to improve how you act while giving a talk. While being a speaker is not being an actor, both have an audience and usually use a stage. You don’t have to act, but you need to leave sufficient impression to make your audience look at and listen to you.
  • Multimedia : Some speakers include video or audio samples from other sources in their talk. Be careful if you intend to use this. Firstly the audio equipment on site may not be able to cope with the extra audio feed. Secondly the part of external multimedia might break your storyline or presentation style. Make sure you weave video or audio samples well into the structure and storyline of your talk. When in doubt, leave it out.
  • Slides : For ages everyone is recommended not to cram slides with information and not to use too many slides. Your audience will use your slides as a guide through your talk. If you have a good storyline you probably don’t need slides at all. Use little text, use symbols as often as possible, focus on the things you are going to talk about. The latter is essential when you provide a quoted text. Mark the important part and blur the rest. Don’t give your audience any chance to be distracted. Again: When in doubt, leave it out.
  • Handouts : Handouts are the reason why your slides must not be overloaded with information. Everything that is too detailed for the slides goes into your handouts. Most presentation software has features to combine slides and handouts in the same document. If your software or system cannot do that, then simply prepare separate slides and handout documents. Handouts do not need to be optimised for beamer projection. They can be articles, collection of sources, in-depth examples or anything you like. Handouts are meant to be read in private by your audience. I prefer to give them structure as well, it makes for an easier read.

Of course this is not a complete tutorial on how you should deliver your talk. It’s just a collection of tips. It’s especially not a requirement for speaking at DeepSec, but if you consider submitting a talk, please consider your audience too. 🙂 Facts and in-depth information about security problems are paramount for us, though.

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About René Pfeiffer

System administrator, lecturer, hacker, security consultant, technical writer and DeepSec organisation team member. Has done some particle physics, too. Prefers encrypted messages for the sake of admiring the mathematical algorithms at work.