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I am standing backstage and a helpful gentleman is adjusting my headset.  I can hear the current speaker talking about something related to web page performance in the background, but through my bundle of nerves not much is actually registering in my mind.  

I take the chair next to the speaker that will go up next to share their story on stage, and I after a quick glance at the schedule I know I am up next.  I have about 15 minutes before my chance at the spotlight.

As I anticipate my turn, I try not to be nervous.  But I am always nervous being on stage. It isn’t a fear as much as pressure to do an awesome job. I want to be entertaining, give people useful information, and (hopefully) gain opportunities from the exposure.  I want to do a great job so I put a lot of pressure on myself.  

I take a moment to check my phone, and do a quick pass through my notes.  And then I realize I made a major mistake:  I haven’t actually finished my talk.  All I have is an outline and now there are less than 10 minutes before I need to take the stage in front of thousands of people.   My heart starts to race….


And then I look around and realize that I am actually in my room, in my bed, and it is barely light outside, and (thankfully) the conference is still a few weeks away.  A sense of relief floods over me and I curl back up to sleep until my alarm goes off in a couple of hours.

This is the recurring dream I kept having on the nights leading up to my presentation last week.

Panic relieved with preparation


I know some people who can get up on stage and they are amazing.  They can pull together a 2 hour tutorial in a weekend and it will come together beautifully.  You know, the ones that can waltz into a meeting with no materials and yet manage to lead the group in an interesting discussion for a full hour.

Unfortunately I am not one of those people.

Whether it is public speaking, or pitching investors, I get overwhelmed with anxiety.  And the only way I can overcome it is by preparing so much, that by the time I walk in the door I have rehearsed every detail, and paid attention to everything variable I can control – from my clothing to the contents of my handbag.

So if you want to make the most of a conference the key is to prepare.  If you are attending a conference, as a speaker or attendee I have put together my lists that I use to get ready.


For the conference


What sessions do you plan to attend?

  • Research the sessions and find the best ones. Go through the schedule and look at the abstracts and the speakers.  Google the speakers and look at their presentation style.  Sometimes it is worth going to a talk off your beaten path to see a great speaker.

  • Put each session on your calendar.  I love this, because I don’t have to pick up a handout and with a glance at my phone I know where I am supposed to be – reminders and everything.


How do you want to capture your notes?

I am not one of those people who can keep everything in my head, and if I try to take notes on my laptop I get distracted by IM, twitter, or email.  So I usually opt for my tablet (no need to copy my notes from my notebook).  A friend of mine swears by the Echo Smartpen for this purpose, but I haven’t tried it yet.


Your business cards.

  • Make sure you bring them.  I always manage to forget mine in my room, so also be sure to put them in whatever you are carrying with you and not in your suitcase!
  • Another great tip from the book, Book Yourself Solid, is only give your card to people who ask for it.  Think about that actually – if someone wants to follow-up with you they *will* ask for it.  So don’t hand out your cards like free drink tickets – they are special and an extension of you – not just for anyone.  Be selective.


Dress appropriately.

  • Temperatures can fluctuate wildly inside conference buildings so bring layers.

  • Always look a little nicer than you think you should.  Maybe it is fashionable shoes, or nicely cut slacks, but make a little effort to punch above your pay grade.  First impressions matter a lot, and people do judge you by what you wear – so give yourself an edge and clean it up.

  • Company t-shirts and gear are totally appropriate.  I actually always try to wear my employer’s gear when presenting if possible.  It is my way of saying thanks for the time to attend the conference – I am a walking billboard! Just make sure you represent your company well – don’t be a jackass in your team colors.

  • Wear comfy shoes.  I am always amazed at how much walking I end up doing at a conference, make sure you can get around and your feet won’t hurt at the end of the day.


Who do you want to meet?

One of the best parts of conferences are the people you meet.  Take the time to plan ahead and you will get so much more out of it.

  • Browse the attendees.  Many conferences make their list of attendees available, and you can set up coffee meetings ahead of time.  I have noticed that most of the time salespeople and vendors are the ones setting up meetings, via these mechanisms, but I have sought out people on Twitter or LinkedIn instead to set up meetings.

  • Are there people you want to meet in the area?  If I am traveling I always try to find startups, journalists, or other people I want to meet with while I am there and setup meetings.  This can be a lot of fun and build closer connections with the people in your network.  And if you go to Vegas, I highly recommend setting up the Zappos Culture Tour ahead of time.

  • Check out the expo hall.  I like to go visit all the vendors with products that I use.  It is fun to meet people and put a face to a product.  And it can help in the future when that person can help you move your customer service issue forward.  And you don’t have to worry about any high pressure sales, because you are already a customer!

  • Follow up with the people you meet.  Each night before I go to bed I go through each of the business cards in my pockets – no matter how drunk or tired I am.  I add them as connections on LinkedIn, follow them on Twitter, and send them a nice note.  If I don’t do this I will have no clue what we talked about or who the person was. The act of doing this actually helps me remember them, so if I see them again at the conference I almost always remember their name.  Oh, and the best way to do this is to have a template that you use – then you just have to fill in the blanks.  And if you use rapportive for gmail, then the connecting on social networks is just a click of the button.


Be a member of the press

Did you know that press people often get free tickets or special events to meet speakers and such?  And while I don’t think you should try to be a journalist, every conference organizer is paying attention to the coverage they get post conference.  Be someone adding value by covering their event and it can open doors – trust me – it has happened to me.  Here are some ideas:

  • Tweet during the conference.  Things you learn are great.  Interesting tidbits taken directly off the slides are easy and useful.  Try to include the speaker’s handle (i.e. @katemats) and the conference hashtag for maximum impact.  It also doesn’t hurt to retweet other great tweets too – it is a great way to build your network.

  • Do a write-up on your experience for your own blog, or your company’s blog.  Take a few pictures while you are there.  Keep track of your favorite parts and do a writeup on what you learned, what you liked, and who you would recommend attend in the future.  This is a great way to get on the conference host’s radar, and add value to future attendees.


For Speakers


For your session

Here are some things to make sure you know ahead of time.

  • Session duration.  How long are you expected to speak?  Does that include time for questions too? Generally people don’t mind you finishing early, but it can put everyone behind schedule if you run late, so make sure your content is timed appropriately.

  • Slide resolution and dimensions.  You want your presentation to look good, so figure this out ahead of time and setup your talk to be the right dimensions from the start.

  • Can you use your own computer? Most of the time you can, but if you can’t, be sure to know this so you can send any special fonts and such ahead of time.

  • When do you need to be in the room?  Usually you have to be available ahead of time to get mic’ed up.  For keynotes, it can be an hour before they start, for other talks it may be 5 or 15 minutes.  Just give yourself enough time.


For your slides

There are tons of great resources on how to make amazing slides.  So here is some of my lesser known tips:

  • Put your twitter handle on there!  That way when someone tweets they can give you credit and you can reply and say thanks.

  • Upload your slides to slideshare beforehand.  That way you can put a (shortened) link to your deck on your closing side.  Then people can share it, tweet it, or just have it for reference while it is fresh in their mind.  And typically you keep that slide up for a while afterward, so it gives them something else to look at besides “Thank you!” or “Questions” (I also try to put a joke or something on there too, just to spice things up).

  • Put in multiple final slides – that way if you click one too many times you still stay on the last slide.  I usually put 3 slides in there that are all a copy of the final slide.

  • Have extra content.  Finish early?  Get a question that you have material to answer but it didn’t fit into your deck?  Learn how to use links in Keynote or Powerpoint and you can access parts of your content by clicking a link. Adam used to do this with his “Choose your Own Adventure” talks, which I loved; but the idea can be applied to any extra content you choose.



Plan your clothing in advance.  You want to feel great when you get on stage.  This means that you are comfortable and not fussing with tags, or things that don’t fit well.  Try on your outfit before you travel and make sure it works.

  • Don’t wear a dress.  Most of the time you have to put a microphone somewhere, so you need pockets and/or a waistband. I learned this one the hard way – you don’t want to be running back to your room to change, or worse having a tail that connects you to the podium!

  • Don’t wear your speaking outfit until the actual day of your talk.  Planning to re-wear pants that manage to collide with a cup of coffee, or while wearing them you accidentally sit on a pen and that leaves a big ink spot on your butt (this happened to me), can really throw a wrench into things.  Save your clothes, or plan a backup.

  • No horizontal stripes.  These make funny patterns on video so aren’t usually a good option (plus they make a lot of people look heavier anyway).

  • No shiny clothes.  These also won’t do your any favors on video.

  • Stable shoes.  I normally have no issue walking in high heels, but one time I got nervous and my legs started shaking!  You want to be stable, and there are always weird bumps of carpet and cabling on stage, so think about shoes that you can stand easily in (I switched to wedges).

  • Pay attention to  your neckline.  In many cases you have to secure a mic to your collar, so make sure there is a spot to put it.  I would also avoid scarves and necklaces (and remove your conference badge) so you look professional and they don’t interfere with the microphone.


Put together a speaker kit

You can see a picture of mine below.  Here is what you should be sure to have:

  • A remote.  

  • Backup batteries for your remote.

  • Display adapter(s).  I have both one for DVI and VGA displays.  I used to just have one, until I needed the other and had to scramble to find one.  It never hurts to be prepared.

  • Thumb drive with your talk, and any non-standard fonts.  I also upload mine to Dropbox, just in case.

  • Power adapter (with a longer cord).  Since it sucks to have your computer go to sleep during your talk!

  • Print out of my slides, or transcript of my talk (when I write one).  If all else fails you can still present the material!

  • Bring water!  You may get thirsty talking for that long.

public speaking speaker kit, remote, adapters, batteries

On your computer

Here are some settings and reminders for getting my computer ready:

  • Turn off notifications.  For me this means disabling growl which seems to have a mind of it’s own.  I don’t need the audience to see my tweets and emails.

  • Turn off sharing.  You don’t want anyone using resources on your computer while you are presenting (especially if you are playing video).

  • Turn off all applications but the ones you need for your presentation. If you need a web browser or terminal, setup a clean one with the pages loaded and ready to go before you get on stage.  Make sure everything else is closed up.

  • Power settings.  Make sure your display sleep and computer sleep are set to be longer than the duration of your talk.

  • Test the display settings ahead of time.  I like to show the display settings in the top of my screen so troubleshooting is easier.  One time I kept getting the display reversed and I couldn’t seem to fix it – ugh, so I went ahead without my presenter notes.

Hopefully these tips help you make the most of your next event!  If you have other thoughts, ideas or resources, be sure to leave them in the comments.


Tags: conferences, productivity, public speaking,

9 Responses to “Stop Wasting Your Money, Get More Out Of Your Next Conference”

  1. Andy Davies

    I always put a PDF export of the slides on dropbox so if all else fails I can present from another laptop using them

    • katemats

      That is smart. And a smart way to be sure you have something you can use on any computer. Thanks for the comment Andy!

  2. Igor Sucupira

    “Print out of my slides (…) If all else fails you can still present the material!” <– Has actually happened to me! I presented using my printed slides and a whiteboard/marker that happened to be available. ;-)

    • katemats

      That is awesome. I honestly think I would be screwed. I constantly forget to print out my slides or keep changing them right up until the last moment. :)

  3. MajiD

    Thanks for sharing the tips Kate. That’s a complete checklist both for attending and speaking at a conference.
    Wonderful engaging narrative by the way.

  4. Tina

    Love that your tips included ones unique (presumably) to women: not to wear a dress, mentioning high heels and necklines.. We need more female speakers in technical conferences, and that your post assumes this advice is useful, is, well, useful.

  5. katemats

    Thanks Tina! Most of the tips were just from my personal experience, so being a woman I guess that they came from that direction :) I am glad you found them useful though!

  6. jeff hq

    Great post, Kate.. I will definitely be sharing this one.
    I hadn’t heard the term “Hallway Track” but I love it.

    The ability to network with others who have the same passions as you is not an opportunity that you should miss. I have made lifelong friends just from striking up conversations with complete strangers at conferences. And trust me– I get anxiety with the best of them. My worst nightmare is walking into a party and not knowing anybody. But the benefits that can come out of these chance encounters at conferences totally outweigh my fears.

    • katemats

      Thanks for the comment Jeff. I love your way of thinking about it – connecting with people that share your passions. Awesome!