Advice For PyCon Speakers

This page is a consequence of my inexperience at speaking at technical conferences (read: none). It’s a combination of content provided by others, small bit of editorial discretion, and various resources from ye ol’ internet. Finally, it’s a work-in-progress and I will gladly take feedback. Ultimately, my intention is to get a form of this page up on the official PyCon site, if people find it helpful.

Mainly, a bunch of folks in the Python community were very generous with their time and shared some great advice. Most of the content on this page is just a compilation of what they had to say. The value here is that their perspective is collectively quite appropriate to the Python community. You might go as far as to call it pythonic. :)

The whole point it to focus on the practical advice of people that know what speaking at PyCon is all about. PyCon is it’s own creature and who would understand it better?

Some of the contributers provided links to things they have written on their blogs. These, along with other more general public speaking links, can be found below in the Resources section.

May this be as helpful to you as it has been to me!

Talk Proposals

It’s a little late for this one...


To start off, here’s a great bit of general advice from one of the contributers, inspired by Dale Carnegie:

Talk about something you know well; speak passionately about it; speak to the audience as you would your friends (they want to hear what you have to say).

Know Your Stuff

  • Make sure you’re genuinely interested in your topic and just have fun with it.
  • Know your material. Don’t give a talk on something you only vaguely know about. Don’t think that the few months you have between submission time and the talk will be enough for you to learn about the topic.

Building Your Talk

  • One approach: structure the talk as you would a story, where each section leads naturally into the next, building in complexity.
  • Another approach: write out every word you plan to say, and time yourself saying. Then turn it into an outline and throw away the text before you actually speak. This way you’ll have the precise words somewhere in your head, but you won’t be reading from a paper. Your outline can help guide you.
  • An overarching mindset: “Entertain, Educate, Practice”. (See this blog post.) Remember, play to your strengths.
  • Treat your “PyCon presentation [as] be a trailer for your expertise.” (See this blog post.)
  • Often you should try to avoid introducing concepts if you will have to say things like “and I will explain that more in a few slides.” Making “forward references” like that breaks the linear flow and makes it more difficult for the audience to concentrate on what you are saying now, since they start worrying about what you will be saying in a minute. It isn’t always possible to be completely linear, but consider starting with that as a goal.
  • A lot of “intro to X” talks start by doing a live demo and installing the tool. Seriously avoid that. No one cares about how easy it is to install a tool until they have seen why they care about using it, at which point they can look at the instructions on the project web site. Instead, jump in and get right to something interesting to grab the audience’s attention, or they are going to go back to checking email.
  • “Tell em what you are going to tell em, tell em, and then tell em that you told em.”
  • Keep the talks short and focused. Explain to the audience why they should also be passionate about the subject. GET THEM HUNGRY.
  • If you are funny, use it. Good, geeky tech jokes == good.
  • Gender references and sexual/racy refs are right out. Don’t. Just don’t.
  • If in doubt, err on the side of not talking long enough. It’s better to have the audience thinking “That talk left me wanting more. I need to go talk to the presenter/download the package/go to the BoF,” than “That talk stretched 15 minutes of material into an hour. What a waste of time.”
  • Don’t waste time on introductory material, e.g. explaining Python’s syntax, explaining XML for fifteen slides.
  • Have your important research done before you start trying to prepare the talk. If you run out of preparation time, don’t skimp on rehearsal; instead, cut scope from the talk, or make do with a simple but readable visual design.
  • Don’t think of talk length as an indicator of value. There is a reason why the most popular sessions of the entire conference are the lightning talks. Less is More.

All About Slides

  • The slides are primarily to support your talk.
  • Slides should not be too “busy”. Keep them short, effectively as “reminders what to say”.
  • If a bullet point gets up to 15 words, consider breaking it up.
  • Group related points.
  • Only hit the most important points on the slides. Expand as you speak if there’s audience interest.
  • Presentations look best when the slide size is the same as the projector’s native resolution. For the conference this year, that is ????x???.
  • The most important thing about slides is that the audience needs to be able to read them. That seems obvious, but all too often the slides are hard to read.
  • Many people have trouble reading light text on a dark background. It may work for you on your laptop screen, but projected in front of the audience in a dark room is a completely different story. Use a white or other light background color with high contrast dark text in a large font.
  • Background colors that look great on a laptop or monitor screen often lose something in the transition to a projector. You can’t predict what the venue will give you in regards to quality/brand of projector, so why take unnecessary risks?
  • Strongly consider using the default font of the slide software. Maybe its not fancy or artistic, but your message won’t be obfuscated by forcing people to squint to see slides reinforcing what you’re saying.
  • Use more slides with less code per slide in order to increase your font size. Wrapping lines to make them less than 80 columns helps with the size, too.
  • If all of the slides show code and output, there probably isn’t enough visual reinforcement of whatever framing story you are using to tie everything together. Use pictures to reinforce concepts, without simply throwing keywords up on a bullet list. Use diagrams to explain the architecture of the thing you are describing.
  • Try to finish your slides way before the conference. It’s tempting to put them off, but the more you go through them, the more secure you’ll be with your timing and your content.
  • One way to make the slides and the talk work together is to ramble through your talk a few times, recording it, then organize your slides off of that.
  • Aim for big text, clear images, good contrast. Stand about five feet from your laptop screen – can you see the text from that distance?
  • PyCon does not have a published volume of proceedings, but the slides and other materials for talks are often made available on-line. Therefore, be sure your presentation can be turned into a format suitable for online viewing. While PDF is permitted, HTML is better. Keep graphics reasonably sized for web access.
  • Hopefully your slides are finished up in advance of the conference. Consider uploading the presentation to the conference talk proposal system or to a page linked from your talk’s page on the PyCon site. This gives the audience more information in choosing which talks to attend, and people can refer to the slides if they miss something during your talk.
  • Don’t try to squeeze more than 10 lines of code onto the slide; if the font gets too small, the code will just be a meaningless set of squiggles to people in the back of the auditorium.
  • If possible, view your slides on a projector and see if they’re readable. Are the font sizes large enough? Is there enough contrast between the text and the background?
  • Plan on spending absolutely no more than 60 seconds on any slide.
  • Conversely, only a few seconds for a slide may be too little.
  • Above all, try to be consistent about how long you spend on each slide. The audience will respond well to consistency.


  • As noted above, don’t do a demo of how to install a tool.
  • Be hesitant to rely on live demos. Fumbling around on stage changing between a code editor and a terminal where the code is running takes time that could be spent telling the audience something else interesting. They believe you can type and they believe you can run programs. Just show them the meaty bits.
  • Phrased another way, don’t do live demos.

Practice, Practice, Practice

  • (Try to find all the references to practice that you’ve already read.)
  • If it is you first time around, it may be worth going to a local interest group or somesuch to practice your talk in front of a small audience.
  • Everyone you’ll see at Pycon giving “good” talks has also given their fair share of bad talks. It just takes practice. The best way to practice is just to give talks.
  • Video yourself (even just for part of your talk) and see yourself “in action” as others see you.
  • Giving a talk is not a writing problem or a design problem. It is a performance problem. If you are a new speaker, you should probably spend more time practicing your presentation than you spend writing and designing the slides.
  • Practice! Go through your talk at least twice just to yourself. You’ll find yourself much more confident if you know the talk well enough not to worry about forgetting it or what you will say next. It just flows better and you’ll feel much more relaxed.

What to Bring

  • Bring your own dongle, and your presentation on a thumb drive, in several formats.

Somewhat More Officially

For a 30-minute slot, you have 25 minutes to talk plus 5 minutes for questions. 45-minute slots mean you have 40 minutes to talk and 5 minutes for questions. Time your talk accordingly.

At the Talk

Before You Get Started

  • Make sure you got a good night sleep (yeah right).
  • In fact, be rested, fed, and sober (not somber) for your talk. Skip the late night party and get a good night’s rest. The day of the talk eat food that makes you feel physically better.
  • The backdrops are generally black so don’t wear dark clothes. On video it can look like you it is just your head bobbing around by itself. Steve Jobs can get away with it because he has a professional lighting crew, you don’t.
  • Remove your conference lanyard. It can distract you, you will play with it, or it will get caught in your wireless microphone and cause problems.
  • Turn off or silence your own mobile phone and in general remove any large objects from your pockets which make it look like you are hiding your next bottle of beer in there.
  • If you don’t need wifi for your talk, disconnect yourself from the network, shutdown all applications besides the presentation software. Temporarily turn off any notifications, or sources of notifications as the popups can sometimes cause presentation software such as KeyNote to drop out of presenter mode. The audience also doesn’t want to hear all the tones as people mention you on live Twitter streams saying how cool or lame your talk is.
  • Try to verify ahead of time that your computer works with the AV system. If you are going to rely on speaker’s notes, consider printing them out ahead of time in case you can’t use your laptop screen for some reason. Remember Murphy.
  • Be in the room a few minutes early if you can, and chat to people already in the room as you prepare.
  • Introduce yourself to your session chairperson no later than the break before your talk. Once the presentations start the chair will be focused on managing the session.

DOs and DON’Ts During

  • DON’T give a talk with any kind of pen in your hand. You might just end up with ink all over your shirt.
  • For that matter, be conscientious that having anything in your hands could be a distraction, to the audience or to you.
  • DON’T move around. Stand still. See this blog post.
  • DO take the podium... then move to the side. Make sure the audience can see you. This is a good thing. We like seeing the whole person. Once you’re out there, stand still. Don’t sway. Try not to lean. Keep your hand movements to, maybe, one every five minutes. This works really well if you’re actually calm and well-rested.
  • If you’re tired, stay behind the podium and grab it. This isn’t the best thing in the world, as it weakens your visual presence, but it also won’t be distracting your audience.
  • DO speak loudly! This naturally makes you slow down and enunciate your words more clearly. It also makes you seem and feel more confident. It’s very hard to listen to a talk, even from a very knowledgeable person, who is talking too quietly and mumbling words. It’s amazing what effect it has on your confidence too.
  • DON’T just read the slides. People came to hear what you have to say.
  • What you should be doing is using the slides to remind yourself of your next point. Think of them as notes for your speech, not the speech itself.
  • DO remember about the microphone, whether it’s attached to your lapel or is on the podium in front of you. Some speakers will turn to point at the display and talk away from the microphone; be sure to point and then turn back.
  • Never, ever do a live demo, or depend on the wireless.

About the Audience

  • Unlike some academic conferences, PyCon is not an adversarial environment–you’re not going to be attacked afterwards.
  • Just flat-out realize you will be presenting to hundreds of people (even at worst case of 10% of the conference, that’s 150 people). But presenting to a lot of people is actually easier than a small group at a users group. Why? Smaller venue means more attentive attendees.
  • When you present at PyCon you have to realize a huge portion of people will be on their laptops, staring at their screens. This doesn’t mean they are not listening, but it can be disconcerting as you won’t be able to use the audience to easily judge how engaging you are being.
  • Said one contributer: “I have presented and thought I sucked and then later have tell people they loved my presentation, even with essentially no one laughing at my jokes.”
  • Look around at your audience and pay attention to their body language.
  • Check that the audience is hearing you (“Can you hear me at the back?”) and understanding you (“Does that make sense to everyone?”; “Are there any questions about that?”).
  • It takes people about 10 seconds to realize you have asked a question, so if you ask if people are understanding you need to wait that long for it to be effective, else just always assume that someone will speak up if you are being confusing.
  • Encourage the audience to fill all available seats, rather than standing/sitting in the aisles or by the door.
  • Open Space, BoF, and Followup. Don’t forget to invite your audiance to a BoF or Open Space followup! The part of your audience which is passionate (or has become passionate due to your presentation) are encouraged to continue the conversation, and you the presenter are a key part of that.

Question Time

  • There may be that one smart aleck who tries to point out some bad design decision or mistake or something that is really not important or your fault. Feel free to answer them succinctly to get them off the microphone.
  • Someone will ask you a tough question that you can’t answer on the spot, so just ask them to catch you after the talk.
  • If someone asks on the mic a very specific question that is really only helpful to them, ask them to talk to you after so you can get to more questions that are helpful to the whole audience.
  • Have a prepped response for when you just don’t know an answer. It’s okay to say ‘I haven’t run into that’ or ‘I’m not familiar with that’. It’s not okay to bumble and fake it.
  • During the Q&A portion of the talk, always repeat any questions that were asked without a microphone - otherwise many people in the audience won’t hear the question.
  • Consider finishing your talk early for extra question time. Then prepare some bonus material in case people run out of questions. See this blog comment.
  • Be nice to people who come up to you after a talk. You never know who is that new person who comes up to you, and you might regret it later. Be nice to them and you’ll find out. Try to find time to talk to everyone, even if for just a minute each.

Handling Nervousness

  • Remember, they’re more scared of you than you are of them!
  • You shouldn’t get all worried about “being remembered for a bad talk”. The honest truth of the matter is that almost nobody is going to remember much about the actual presentation of your talk. So, don’t sweat it.
  • If you’re nervous, thinking that if you screw up that you’ll forever ruin your reputation in the community due to fidgeting a tiny bit too much? Chill out. We’re all still working on our talks.
  • Take a deep breath and relax. One contributer said, “I’ve yet to see a talk where someone was booed off the stage, and I’ve seen some horrific talks.”
  • If you are nervous, there’s nothing wrong with admitting that. The information you present is your talk’s primary value. PyCon audiences are very forgiving.
  • Take time to yourself before you speak. Deep breathing is always good preparation. Your nervousness will be less apparent than you suppose.
  • And again, the best remedy for nervousness is to practice, practice, practice.


Finally, a big thank-you to the folks that have contributed (in no particular order): * Raymond Hettinger, * Katie Cunningham, * David Beazley, * Brett Cannon, * Doug Hellmann, * C. Titus Brown, * Michael Foord, * Ned Batchelder, * Danny Greedfield, * Graham Dumpleton (from comments), * Doug Napoleone (from comments). * Jacob Kaplan-Moss (from comments).