Talking at conferences: What have i learnt?


This year i’ve been given the opportunity to speak at some well known conferences across Europe. My only previous experience was a 99 Second Talk at Test Bash 2014 and a consensus talk at Agile Testing Days 2014. This time around i was given the opportunity to step up to the full conference program at Belgium Testing Days, Nordic Testing Days and expoQA.

So what have i learnt……..?

Call for Papers

Writing a good abstract is the first step in getting asked to talk at a conference. I initially found it incredibly difficult to write an abstract. Typically you need to get the message of your talk across in a clear and concise manner within the strict word count. Not an easy task. Michael Bolton’s post from Eurostar 2013 has really helped me improve my abstracts. In addition to Michaels comments i’d highly recommend you review your abstract with someone else. This could be your colleagues, the testing community or even family. Also, read abstracts from other conferences for inspiration. That will give you some great examples of different abstract formats.

When submitting your abstract take note of the conference dates! I know it sounds simple, but i sent in a number of abstracts to different conferences expecting none of them to accept. In the end three did and they were quite close to each other which meant a very busy few weeks. In hindsight i’d have preferred to spread the talks not only from a personal perspective but with the impact on my employer too.

Preparing for the talk

One thing i’ve found is that putting together a good talk is very hard. The talks i’ve done this year ranged between 20 – 45 minutes. With my abstract i already had a good idea in my head about the structure of my talk but its a another thing turning the idea into a slick talk. Another thing i learnt was that putting together a great slide deck is hard. This TED Blog really helped when putting together my slides.

When preparing my slides i really wanted to break up the amount of talking. As an attendee myself i know after 10-15 mins of talking i start to switch off. So intentionally had a couple of simple 2-3 min exercises the group could do and some videos embedded. This was an attempt to present my content in different ways during the talk rather than 45 minutes of straight talking!

In addition to creating great slides i did a lot of preparation about How i would give the talk. Focusing on my speech, body language and how i’d get my message across. I practiced this with family and friends which helped to refine my presenting style. Speak: So your audience will listen was a great book that helped with my preparation. For example, the secret to a successful talk is to “Clench your Buttocks”

Finally ensure that you understand the process with regards to accommodation and travel for the conference. Some will pay all expenses, some arrange accommodation for you and some don’t. Ensure that you fully understand what you need to do ahead of the conference so that you are not left homeless!

At the conference

One of the first things you’ll get to do as a speaker is attend the “Speakers Dinner”. This is usually the night before the conference. I’d highly recommend attending as it provides a great way to meet the organisers of the conference and your fellow speakers. It certainly helped to calm my nerves although if your talk is on the first day then try not to drink too much! At the conference you’ll probably be assigned a Track Chair too who will be in the room when you do your talk. Try to meet them early on as they’ll be your main point of contact if you run into any problems. Try to visit the room where your talk is based and if you can, view a talk there. It will let you get a feel for the room and any specifics you may want to take into consideration.

Another big important learning point was how the conference experience changes when you are talking. You’ll probably be nervous for your talk so that will mean your concentration levels for the rest of the conference will be impacted. It can be hard to focus on the other talks when your constantly thinking of your upcoming talk. So in my experience, if you are talking at a conference, expect your learning capability to decrease.

Your talk

When the big moment comes it’s incredibly difficult to distill your emotions into a learning experience. When i look back on my talks everything is pretty much a blur. 45 minutes sounds like a long time but it if you have prepared well and know your content the talk really does fly by! There were a couple of things i learnt with delivering the talk. All three talks i gave were in countries where English is not the first language. I made an effort to talk slowly so that my strange northern english accent wasn’t hard to understand. Secondly i noticed a big difference between the cultures of the conferences. In my talk i had a simple exercise around “What stops you pairing?” At Belgium Testing Days the audience were very interactive so i asked attendees to shout out their thoughts. However at Nordic Testing Days and expoQA the audience were much quieter so instead i provided Post-It Notes to gather their thoughts.

Time management during my talk was really hard. Try to get someone to signal to you when you have 10 minutes left. At expoQA they had a person at the back room who would let you know. In hindsight i wish i had practiced my timing more.

Now its your turn

Talking at conferences has been a great learning opportunity and hopefully my talks have helped some attendees make a change in their teams.

Just over a year ago i’d never talked at a conference and now i’ve got a couple under my belt with an upcoming talk at Agile Testing Days 2015 too.

If you want to talk at conferences but are not sure where to start hopefully some of the my experience will help give you some motivation and confidence. I’d highly recommend starting like i did with a Short Lightning talk at a conference or your local meet-up. So many of todays great conference speakers started this way. Also there is a great initiative called Speak Easy which is another great route for those new to conference speaking.

See you soon!


4 thoughts on “Talking at conferences: What have i learnt?

  1. Another great blog post Toby! 🙂

    I’m reading a book at the moment called “Talk like TED”. It’s brilliant! You’d like it.
    It teaches about the traits of a good talk (researched from the thousands of TED talks) and how to captivate and connect with the audience… Well worth a read!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s