Top tips for speaking at conferences, from inspiring women in tech

We often recommend that people take opportunities to speak at conferences, to help them get known as an expert in their field.

Well, now, as a business owner, I’m taking my own advice.

In April, I'll be speaking at one of the biggest search conferences in the world: BrightonSEO. And, being a first-time conference speaker, I’ve decided to find out more about what I’m getting myself into.

According to a 2015 survey, only 25% of speakers at tech events are women. I recently joined an international network of over 5,000 women in tech, including some of those 25%. I wondered: what were these women leaders doing in their conference talks, that I could learn from? I put the question to them - here were some of their top tips.


Pick an angle you are excited to talk about, and be excited talking about it, and let no-on steal your fun - they can't have that power unless you give it to them - Sophie Freiermuth

Really key point from a friend: best submissions I get are those that start from the conference purpose rather than what a speaker is expert in - Saffron Governor

People love a story more than dry technical exposition. For a technical talk, a talk about "I had this problem, I had this criteria for a solution. I tried X but it didn't work for Y reason. Then I tried Z, and it wasn't quite right again. Then I tried XX, and it was much better because.... Later we discovered YY was also an issue so we had to modify...." is much more engaging than just starting with dry technical exposition of technology XX - Julie Lavoie

People also love anecdotes, it's what I remember most from talks after I've forgotten all the technical content and it's also what people come up to me talk to me about in my talks as well. It also gives people a point of entry to talk to you about later in the conference - Julie Lavoie

Mix up heavy, technical content with a joke or anecdote, so it's not just monotone one type of thing - Julie Lavoie


Simple slides work best - don't cram too much info on them. Use a large font size (even bigger than you think). Images say a lot - Saffron Governor

Put your Twitter handle on the bottom of every slide so people can tweet about your talk while you're talking, also so it's easy to contact you - Julie Lavoie

Good-looking slides are nice but you can get away with "crappy" slides if your content is interesting - Julie Lavoie


Practice how you deliver it (body language and tone) rather than what words you say - Ada Shum

Time yourself when you practice. Your talk should be the time they have asked for. 20 mins means 20 mins - Saffron Governor

I think the best thing you can do is practice. Videotape yourself using your computer or smartphone and watch it and notice how you present and how you can improve. Practice in front of others and ask for their feedback. You'll always perform a little different;y when you are in front of others (you may speed up or slow down), so it's important to have that practice. One of our instructors talks a lot about how your body holds tension when you get nervous - pay attention to where you are holding tension and focus on releasing - Danielle Barnes

If there's a local meetup close to the date of the conference with a similar topic as the conference, you can often ask if they are interested in hearing a prelim version of your talk. Some meetups often just have this already (eg. local Python meetups getting close to PyCon) It's a good way to practice and get early feedback without the pressure of a big audience - Julie Lavoie

I'd also recommend not memorizing your talk word-for-word. It's great to have down your introduction, your close and some transitions, but if you memorize your full talk and get nervous and forget a piece, it can really throw you off. It's also really hard to talk naturally when you are that scripted. Instead, I'd have your key points down (maybe speaker notes and/or small index cards you can reference), and again - lots of practice. Remember your slides are there to guide your audience, not you. Know your talk without your slides, and do your best not to turn your back to your audience to look at them - Danielle Barnes


If you can check out the venue before-hand, do so. Try to get onto the stage to get a feel for it early in the day so you can own the room - Saffron Governor

Organisers aren't always on top of everything, so make sure you make yourself known on arrival and find out the procedure for micing up - Saffron Governor

Come with your laptop and all possible connectors to a projector, and have your own remote, too. I love the Logitech one, highly ergonomic, and free yourself from being stuck at the lectern, and looking at the keyboard to navigate your slides - Sophie Freiermuth

Some conferences will have a speaker room, where they'll let you practice with your laptop and the type of projector they'll have in the room. If they don't have this, you can ask if there's an empty time you can try out your laptop with the projector, mike, etc in the room where you'll be speaking. I try to do this - Julie Lavoie

If you have a Macbook or some other common laptop, they'll usually have an adaptor for your laptop, but you might want to check for other laptops or if you're using Linux - Julie Lavoie


If they attach a mike to you vs. speaking into a stationary mike, tie your hair or else your hair will rustle in the mike the entire time, and in the recordings - Julie Lavoie

If they're video recording the talk, take off your conference badge before speaking, or else it will be distracting in the video - Julie Lavoie

If you have a chance to see the room ahead of time, it's a good idea to wear clothing that contrasts a bit with the background of where you'll be talking, so no black shirt if the background is black or you'll look like a floating head - Julie Lavoie


Visualise you're on stage and under limelight with tons of people before the event - Ada Shum

Don't be afraid of feeling nervous, let the nervous feeling carry over into adrenaline and energy to put into your performance - Julie Lavoie

Remember: if they approved your proposal, they want to hear what you've got to say - Saffron Governor

Ensure the start goes well. After that it should just flow - Ada Shum

Everyone wants to see you do your best, they’re on your side - Saffron Governor

One of our instructors recommends a quick meditation before going on stage and some voice exercises, like tongue twisters or singing - you can do it in the bathroom or outside, before you start to warm up your voice - Danielle Barnes

How to talk

Vary your tone. Speaking in the same tone all the time makes people fall asleep, whereas a variation feels dynamic and keeps people interested - Julie Lavoie

It's always good to try to speak more slowly since you're likely to speed up from feeling nervous - Julie Lavoie

If you get stuck at any point, just pause and take a breath. Pauses are actually a great way to give the audience a moment to process what has been said, and can help you stay calm and reset if needed. Everything, including a pause or breath, seems like it takes much longer on stage - 10 seconds can feel like 10 minutes - so it never seems as long to the audience as it does to you - Danielle Barnes

Martha Graham said something to the effect that in every audience, there is one person and one only that one really performs for. I find it helps to find a sympathetic face and imagine that I'm speaking to them specifically. Of course, not staring at them the entire time, but returning to their face - Julie Lavoie

I knew a guy early on who was just a fantastic public speaker, and (this sounds a bit weird but the technique works for me), I "imagine" that I'm him, giving my talk, his energy, his mannerisms, his ultra-confidence, sort of acting in a way, and it really helps me - Julie Lavoie

Recommended resources

Power poses are a great warm up to help you feel confident - Danielle Barnes
Scott Berkun's book Confessions of a Public Speaker is chocabloc full of great tips and advice - Sophie Freiermuth
Sam Kap wrote a great article a while back about prepping for a talk - Danielle Barnes
Have a look at the YouTube videos by Metaspeech, they have some good tips - Mary Matthews
Toastmasters is an excellent place to cut your eye teeth and build confidence - Saffron Governor

Thanks to:

Saffron Governor, Ada Shum, Sophie Freiermuth:, Julie Lavoie:, Danielle Barnes:, Mary Matthews:, James Governor & Steve OGrady: