The personal website of Chris Coyier

Speaking Tips

A friend of mine recently asked me any speaking tips I might have. I don’t have many, but I’m happy to oblige. I’m not saying I’m particularly good at it, but I have spoken at a few pretty cool events.

The audience wants you to do well, just respect them

Even if it’s true, don’t say say stuff like: “I didn’t prepare much for this.” or “I’m just super out of it today.” I got this from the book Confessions of a Public Speaker, and I like it. Now that I know this, I see speakers do it and suffer for it all the time at conferences. I think speakers think that saying it will garner them extra sympathy, but in fact it does the opposite.

You have this big opportunity to say something to a big group of people that want to hear it, you owe them some respect.

Don’t do too much

There are talks and there are workshops. Workshops are long and generally have that “deep dive” vibe. Talks are short (45 minutes is still short). If you plan to deep dive on anything, it better be super specific.

One of my favorite talks I ever did was a full hour on how ::before and ::after work in CSS. That’s a long time to spend on something so specific. I like to think of City Slickers and the “The cows could program the VCR by now!” scene. By the time you are done, the audience should absolutely understand what you were trying to say.

Have a point you’re trying to drive home and keep hitting it different ways until it’s as clear as can be.

Pick something you’re super comfortable talking about

Ideas for talks will come to you that you think would make great talks, but also that you might not be the most well suited to talk about. There may be a difference between what you are currently infatuated with and what you totally grok. What you grok probably will make a better talk.

I try and be aware of thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head for a long time. If I pick that as a topic, then start to create the talk, the ideas usually flow out pretty well.

As a bonus, you’ll speak more confidently about subjects you know better, and will be more prepared to field questions after.

Practice what you are actually gonna say.

All the books say to do it in front of a mirror. Or out loud in your living room. I don’t do that. I just stare at keynote and pretend I’m talking in my head. Works fine for me. I find what I said in my head matches pretty well what actually comes out of my mouth during the talk.

If your personality allows, rock some jokes.

If you ask someone what their favorite part of a conference was even a few days later, you’ll be lucky to get a few generic sound bites. People just don’t remember that much detail. They will remember that general feeling that they enjoyed themselves though.

Conference talks are largely entertainment. We’re nerds. Nerdy things are fun for us. A good conference experience might be like a Super Bowl party for a huge football nerd.

So if possible, make your talk fun. Toss out some jokes. Be self deprecating. Use some embarrassing past photos of yourself. Just don’t…

No cats.

Hi. I’m not very good at being funny, so I’m going to use the most formulaic possible way to get a laugh. Maybe I’ll even throw in an IE joke too!

You’ll get better.

Like every other thing ever, you’ll get better over time. You just might suck that first time. That’s OK, the next time will be better.