Corey Quinn Profile picture
Jan 10, 2020 102 tweets 21 min read
Okay. For every retweet this gets (TO A POINT!) I'll add a thought / tip / observation about speaking at conferences.
This thread inspired by @mattstratton. I BET YOU'LL TAKE NOTES THIS TIME!
If you're giving a demo in a terminal, use a light background, dark text. The way projectors work often doesn't throw enough light for a dark theme to be visible.
Put your twitter handle on every slide. You want people to give you credit; nobody gives a conference talk without saying who they are...
If you call yourself "a public speaker," consider whether there's another way of framing what you do that's more engaging.
Never, ever, read the comments on videos of your talks.
The first 45 seconds of your talk are when I'm figuring out whether I'm going to listen to what you say or read Twitter instead. Are you sure you want to use those seconds to say "Hi, I'm X, I work at Y, and I'm going to talk about Z?"
"This is my first talk / I'm really nervous / I threw this talk together last minute / my demo is probably going to break" makes everything you're going to say next worse. Keep it to yourself.
Go read the comments section on a random YouTube video, then expect those people to ask questions during your Q&A section. Are you sure you want to do Q&A after all?

Are you REALLY sure?
So you're doing Q&A. Brave of you.

The "get me out of this question" escape hatch is "that's a great point--come talk to me afterwards." 90% of the time they don't show up; they just wanted to sound smart in front of a room full of people. They should give a talk!
Plan for failure. "Your laptop has to be at the projection booth" / "the projector isn't working" / "the power is out" have all happened.
Do a tech check an hour or two before you speak. There are no emergencies then; there are when your slot starts in three minutes.
People are going to try to decide whether they attend your talk, or the other talk that's at the same time. I like to win those competitions, usually by submitting my talk as @brendangregg.
Don't build a conference talk before it gets accepted somewhere. I have dozens of talk proposals that were never accepted. Save time and effort.
At most corporate events, if you don't charge a speaking fee you look like a rube. At most community events if you charge a speaking fee you look like an asshole.
The hardest working people at a conference are the event staff. Treat them well. Or they will kill you. Do you really want to fight someone who lifts heavy equipment for a living and knows where the dumpsters are?
Nobody in the audience hopes you fuck up. Everyone wants to see you succeed.
"Imagine everyone's naked" is problematic, as well as terrible advice.
Jokes that land super well in small groups fall flat in front of large audiences. This is why corporate keynote jokes are so corny. They work in front of the 5 people during rehearsal, fail in front of 15,000 people.
Always get a video of your talk if you can. Watch them, I know it's hard. It's your best chance to improve.
If you're serious about speaking, hire a speaking coach. Their job is to help you get better, not blow sunshine up your ass.

Also hire a person to blow sunshine up your ass.
The key to giving a lot of great talks is to give a lot of shitty talks first. Try not to do those in front of huge audiences.
At some point "speaking" becomes your primary profession if you let it. Corollary: at some point you've gotta do something to speak about.
If you talk about specific speakers sucking, you're the worst kind of human. This shit is hard, yo.
When the event staff hooks you up to the microphone, and you can rattle off the make, model, and specs of the microphone setup, there's a terrific chance you've been doing this too long.
Most audiences represent well over $100K in "their time spent listening to your talk." Respect that. "I threw these slides together on the plane" or "this is a rough draft of my next talk" isn't respectful.
Some people would rather die than speak publicly. Other people SHOULD, but I'm told it's rude to say out loud.
Turn your fucking phone off before you go on stage unless you want your pants buzzing the whole time. I'm talking to you, future @quinnypig.
When you get off the stage, double-check the podium. Power cables, wireless presenters, adapters--all of those are expensive to replace. This tweet sponsored by my third Logitech Spotlight.
"Codes of Conduct are virtue signalling." I disagree, but consider what not having a CoC in 2020 is signalling. Further consider if you want to be associated with such an event.
We can wirelessly throw video around the planet seamlessly, but assume that the projector in the venue is from 1990.

You're going to want a pouch of some sort for all of your dongles.
Assume your demos will fail. Cheating helps. See
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled is called "Conference Wifi."
If half of your talk is about hotel and airline stories, you sound like an out of touch asshole when speaking at a local conference. This does not apply if you work at a hotel or an airline.
You're never going to teach people about a technology in 45 minutes. At best you can give them a glimpse and a hook.
No matter what your call to action is, expect a tiny percentage of the audience to rise to it. AT BEST.
If you can wean yourself from the crutch of presenter notes, suddenly you can present anywhere, at any time. PDFs are universal!

I'd not advise doing this at the expense of giving a better talk.
I like to periodically remind people that:
* telling pointless stories
* calling bullshit on the talk's premise
* reciting your resume
are not questions. "That's not how we did it at Google" is a miracle of compression, as it hits all three points in one short condescension.
When you go on stage, conferences introduce you in one of three ways:
A great introduction
A crap introduction
No introduction

Have a plan to deal with all three options.
I've never, ever regretted making a talk more accessible to a broader audience.

"Plumbing the mysteries of git internals" was never picked up, but I gave "Terrible Ideas in Git" a dozen times.
I hate speaking at a conference and not attending the whole thing. "I just showed up to give my talk, then I'm out" feels rude. The handful of times I've done it due to scheduling issues I cleared it with the event organizers well in advance but still felt guilty.
No matter how many talks you give, no matter what the venue is, no matter what you talk about, no matter how big the audience is, you will never have a satisfying answer to the question "so what do you do for a living?"
Some of the best speakers you know spend *WEEKS* rehearsing their talks and are crap without that practice time. Others make it up while they're on stage talking. Both are valid. Don't try to be the one you're not.
Speak far more slowly than you think you ought to. Not everyone's first language is the language in which you're speaking.
Compliment the city you're in. Nobody likes hearing an out of town guest shit on their hometown.

I make an exception to crap on Maine when I'm there, of the form "I hate this place because I grew up here."
There's a time to get direct feedback on how to improve as a speaker. Some jackasses think this time is "immediately after you step off the stage." Take it in stride, and don't be that person.
Did you know there are two Portlands? Make sure you're flying to the right city, at the right day, and at the right time to attend the conference. Suggesting for a friend.
The only acceptable response to a compliment is a "thank you."
"Oh, the talk wasn't that good" says that they don't know a good talk when they see one, and their taste is shitty.

I suck at taking compliments; I've learned to mumble out a thank you. You can too!
Punch up, never down. You can make fun of giant companies, but not people. There's a reason I mock AWS / Google / Oracle. They can take it. There's a reason I own mocking a small scrappy startup makes people feel like crap.
If you want people to raise your hand when you ask the audience a question, raise your own when you ask it. @_ghoneycutt taught me that one.
Don't call the audience "guys." This is a hard verbal tic to overcome; it took me a year to switch to "folks."

The failure mode of one is sounding exclusionary. The failure mode of the other is that I sound like I was born in 1860.
I once gave an internal talk to a few hundred people at @awscloud. When I asked who had never heard of me before, 3/4 of them raised their hand.

No matter who you are or what you do, assume that you're unfamiliar to most of the audience.
"Can people in the back see this terminal okay?" is a question that shows you didn't do your homework. Case the room out in advance during a break. Find out what it looks like at what sizes for yourself!
Take your badge off before you go on stage; it can interfere with the microphone and it looks distracting.

Put it back on as soon as you're done. A lot of people have trouble with names.
Spend the $12 a year to get a vanity domain to redirect to the thing that's harder to remember.

I periodically talk about this on my podcast, which you can find at
If your slides are equally useful without the accompanying presentation you delivered, you didn't give a talk; you read a report. You were unnecessary.
The less text on your slides, the better. Break it into multiple slides! Images are a hit too.
Don't ever read your slides to the audience.
People can listen to you, or they can read what's on the slide. Don't make them choose.
Timing is critical. You can go 3-5 minutes short and that's ideal. Going over is abysmal. Going 20 minutes in a 45 minute slot shows you flubbed the preparation.
Don't judge your success as a speaker by what you see from other folks in public or on stage. Less than 10% of my proposals are accepted.
I don't care if your talk is on the sponsor track; don't make it a sales pitch.

The conference isn't the Superbowl; people aren't going to seek out the commercials.
Highlight failures. Point out where your dingus isn't a proper fit for a problem. Clean architecture diagrams are lies; don't make people hunt down what you didn't tell them.
"I'm Corey, I work in DevRel for Twitter for Pets. Thanks to them, we're hiring! That's the last time I'll mention them on this stage, now let's talk about which standing desks are best for 45 minutes" is a suspiciously common speaker pattern.
You have a podcast recording in five minutes.

Wait, how is that a--oh, it's my calendar! I will continue this thread afterwards.
We continue! I've gotten some pushback on this one:

I stand by it. Build two decks--one to present, and one to distribute! Alternately, build a talk *and* a blog post.
Set context behind your talks. Who is the intended audience? Who is NOT the intended audience? Call it out! "If you work at a bank, Twitter For Pets's deployment strategy may not work well for your needs."
I've never yet heard a speaker say "English isn't my first language so please forgive me" and then give an unintelligible talk. You got this! Go for it!

I've heard "native speakers" give incoherent mumblefests far too often.
If you're a white dude, and all of the other speakers are white dudes, the conference organizers have utterly failed. Consider whether that's what you want to be associated with.
If you can't talk about anything your presentation touches because it's under NDA, maybe don't do Q&A after your talk? "Only special people get to know the answer to that" is just crappy.
Rainy afternoon project: pull the speaker lists from a bunch of tech conferences and shove them into a database like Route 53. Sort by frequency. The results may surprise you.
"You don't have anything to get on stage and talk about" is not and has never been true. What did you spend yesterday working on? Talk about that!

What confuses you? What pisses you off? What helped you solve a problem? Topics are everywhere.
If you're a conference organizer, and you put the three talks about a topic all in the same timeslot, consider maybe sorta not doing that?
"Who's attending $CONFERENCE for the first time? Wow, half the room--that's great!"

No, that's terrible. The conference is roughly the same size as it was last year; why did half of your attendees not bother to come this year?
Some people love profanity in talks, some people hate it. I don't much care either way, but do remember that your audience is diverse. If you say something shitty or problematic, you aren't going to like what happens next.
I'm partial to scattering nods to all different levels of knowledge throughout my talks. If you've never heard of git (lucky!), there are tidbits and jokes there for you. If you're a core committer, you'll see some references you'll appreciate in there too.
Visit the restroom *before* you put on the microphone. That order is very, very, very important.
If you trip on the stage, your next line is "this talk is now about platform stability." You're welcome.
If you propose a talk about something you're going to do between now and the time the conference happens, you're gambling. Have a contingency plan.

"This talk is called 'Migrating off of Jenkins: Nevermind Jenkins is Awesome!'" is a weird intro.
Loan adapters and other speaking equipment to folks who are less prepared. Hunt them down ruthlessly after their talks.
Dark themed slides are awful. Projectors throw off less light for dark things. Ergo they're way, way, way harder to read from the audience. I know it looks GREAT on your LCD monitor; remember that this is a projector from 1990.
This is a great point. Corollary: If you're illustrating a bad actor doing something malicious, that might be a good time to go with "Ted."
Getting up on stage and talking smack about things is all well and good, but eventually you've gotta teach something, make an uplifting point, or do SOMETHING that isn't just roasting something for sport.
Every single speaker you see on stage is terrified.

Specifically, they're terrified that they're going to have to go back to their office and do actual work if they fail to convincingly tell the right story.
I've not been nervous before a talk twice in my career. Both times it led to a crappy talk. Roll with it. Try not to throw up on your shoes.
If you start your talk by telling people that they're doing something (on-call rotations, Ci/CD, the DevOps) wrong, you'd better have one hell of an argument. Or the audience will destroy you.
Audiences love being surprised. Conference organizers hate it. Make sure they're aware of anything... odd, about your talk. Think "twist ending," "a video embedded in your slide deck," "pyrotechnics..."
Pick a slide technology and go all in. I use Keynote. All of my old talks are in iCloud, and backed up in a few places, and exported to multiple locations regularly. I always know where to find them, and I can replace an equipment failure within minutes.
People who aren't @mattstratton hate airlines--but Matt is frequently in the audience, so it's never safe to smack-talk them.
@mattstratton Duplicate your first slide. You can go back and forth to validate that the projector / remote are working without the audience knowing before your talk.

Keep your presenter notes, if any, on the second version or people will see what you're about to say. That's bush league.
@mattstratton Give up the dream of delivering the perfect intro. @editingemily already did two years ago. "The code dumpster is on fire--" AND THEN THE FIRE ALARM WENT OFF.

You will never top that. Don't even attempt to.
@mattstratton @editingemily Sometimes, when you mention "the jerks who build X" in a talk, some of those jerks are in the audience and wish to contest your characterization after the talk in the parking lot. Tread carefully. Some of them are very large.
@mattstratton @editingemily I distrust slide transitions. When I do bullet points, each additional bullet point is a new slide. You should be able to export your slide deck as a PDF and it looks just fine.
@mattstratton @editingemily I've never yet had to show ID to get on stage and speak. if you don't get your talk accepted, give someone else's!
@mattstratton @editingemily If you give a talk with someone else, rehearse more than you think you need to and learn each other's styles. One of the best talks I ever gave was about salary negotiation with @soniagupta504. I'd speak with her again any time.
@mattstratton @editingemily @soniagupta504 There's a certain subset of conference attendee who'll talk to you for a few minutes about something, and then move on. Next year at the same conference they'll try to continue to conversation and are offended when you don't remember it.

Don't be that attendee.
@mattstratton @editingemily @soniagupta504 I don't care if you just stepped off the keynote stage and have a badge around your neck. When someone introduces themselves, introduce yourself too. The failure mode you're avoiding is presenting as arrogant.
@mattstratton @editingemily @soniagupta504 Speakers often introduce themselves at great length in their talk. It's often an expression of feeling unqualified. "Here's why I'm justified to speak on this." That's assumed! You're on stage with a microphone! Go! Just tell the story!
@mattstratton @editingemily @soniagupta504 "Don't most of the tweets in this thread come from a position of privilege?" Hell yes! I have no idea what it's like to not be me; privilege is tricky like that. I'm always willing to listen.

^ That's a microcosm of the approach to take in your talks.
@mattstratton @editingemily @soniagupta504 Don't assume people have heard of your company; explain a bit about what they do.

If you work at Google, doing this is incredibly condescending and thus very much on brand, so it applies to you too.
@mattstratton @editingemily @soniagupta504 If you're used to speaking, make yourself available to new speakers. Remember what it was like getting started?
For a few hundred bucks you can have a bespoke slide deck template made. I highly recommend it.

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