How to help presenters prepare for your conference
Great sessions make a great conference, and the key to great sessions is good preparation. In this post I’ll focus on how you can help your presenters best prepare their sessions. This is one of the areas where the team organising an internal conference can have their biggest impact. For some more context read why you should run an internal technology conference and check out our internal conference toolkit.
Every speaker should have a mentor who is responsible for helping them prepare. For Klarna’s conference this is typically someone from the organising team. The mentor’s first step is to contact the speaker, let them know that their session has been accepted and set their expectations.
Preparing a conference session is a lot of work, but it is easy to keep putting it off because there is always something that feels more urgent. Creating artificial deadlines can help summon the panic monster and get them started early. For instance, you can send calendar invites to review the outline of the talk and for the first dry run as soon as the talk is accepted. You can also agree on deadlines for the talk to be finalised and the slides submitted. It also makes sense to get managers on board, so they can offer support and make sure that the speaker can set aside time to prepare.
Presentation skills can be learnt. If you can find the right trainer then both new and experienced speakers will benefit from a presentation skills workshop. Good training focuses on the structure and content of a presentation, so it’s important to do it early, before the speakers have put together their slides. Our speakers also found it helpful for the trainer to come back a couple of weeks later to hear the dry runs.
Build a community
One of the nice things about an internal conference is that you’ll have a group of people who are working towards the same deadlines, with similar goals and concerns. Do your best to turn them into a supportive community as soon as possible. For example, you could gather all accepted speakers together at the start to talk to them about how to prepare for the conference and follow that with lunch or drinks. Set up a Slack channel or email group for them to post ideas or links to useful resources. You could also suggest that they ask each other for input on their presentations.
Practice with the right audiences
In our experience speakers will try and show early drafts of their talk to experts in the fields they are discussing, to make sure that they’ve got everything right. Whilst this is valuable and worthwhile, it’s even more important for them to get feedback from non-experts. People who are new to the subject being discussed will make up most of the audience, and it’s critical to check that they can understand and benefit from the session.
There are a couple of ways that mentors can help here. First, they can help set up the initial few practice sessions by finding the right people to provide feedback and by setting the time and date (early!). Second, they can provide feedback throughout the process by being in the practice sessions. If you’ve not had much training or experience preparing for presentations yourself then reading up on what makes a good presentation or taking part in speaker training will help you provide more valuable advice.
Once the speakers have got feedback on their sessions it’s time to practice, practice, practice! The right way to do this depends on the format.
For full length talks it is worth putting some extra emphasis on the beginning and end of the talk. For workshops there’s a lot that can go wrong, so it’s crucial to have ‘dry-runs’ with friendly audiences until you’ve worked out all the bugs.
For ignite talks (5 minute lightning talks, with auto advancing slides) the only way to get the timing right is to practice so often that every word is automatic. At Klarna Tel Aviv three people giving ignite talks agreed to gather every morning and spend 15 minutes practising together. In the run up to my talks on HTTP/2 and SemVer my wife had heard me practice so often that she offered to give the talks on my behalf!
Prepare beautiful slides
The quality of a speaker’s slides has an unreasonable impact on how much people enjoy the talk. At the very least you should send your speakers some resources to get them thinking. Uri Nativ has a great series on slide design in general, avoiding bullet points and presenting code that might be a good fit. You could also arrange for a session on slide design as part of your speaker training, or pair up your speakers with graphic designers to help improve their slides.
Make sure your speakers know what aspect ratios (page layouts like 4:3 or 16:9) the venue’s projectors will support and how they should attribute images before they start designing their slides. For ignite talks it’ll be easier to combine the talks into a single presentation if everyone uses the same aspect ratio.
Finally, check if any of the rooms in the venues have less than ideal projector setups, so that you can warn speakers that they need especially high contrast slides with large text. It’s worth going along to the venue to check this ahead of time.
Avoid heartache on the day
There are lots of small things you can do to avoid unpleasant surprises on the day of the conference.
First, make sure that speakers know what to expect. Get them together and make sure they know where and when they should meet to get set up. Let them know what kind of microphone they’ll be using and how they’ll advance their slides. Explain the layout of the stage and if they’ll be able to see their slides. Tell them how they’ll be introduced, how they’ll be kept informed of timing and how questions from the audience will work.
Second, assume that what can go wrong, will go wrong. Make sure there are at least two laptops that could be used to present each presentation, complete with connectors and power adapters. Be sure that they won’t go to screensaver, display chat messages or lock. Ask the speakers to provide their mentors with a final copy of their slides in case neither of them work. Make sure there is a fallback plan if a speaker’s demo doesn’t work or if there is no internet connection.
Finally, on the day itself make sure that there is someone there to help them connect their laptop and mic before the presentation, and to keep them occupied with smalltalk to help calm their nerves. When they get down from the stage be there to congratulate them and to make sure they know what a great job they did!
These tips are based on what worked for us at Klarna, organising our internal tech conference. I hope you found them useful. If you did, you might also like to take a look at the internal tech conference toolkit.
If you’re a conference speaker, or you’ve helped people prepare their sessions in the past, then please share what worked for you in the comments. We have found our internal conference to be incredibly valuable on numerous levels, and we’d love to help other companies to experience the same benefits by doing it and doing it right.
About the Author
Ben Maraney is a Software Engineer at Klarna. Klarna’s internal conference grew out of a conversation between him and Case Taintor that quickly spiralled out of control. He has been on the KonferenSE organising team from the start.