Delivering Your First Live Talk Remotely

This blog post focuses on delivering live talks remotely, but if you are delivering a pre-recorded talk, go check out Carly’s blog post on exactly this! The first few tips here apply for giving talks remotely or pre-recorded, but Carly has written up some great guidance for those of you who need to submit pre-recorded content.


Image by Aksa2011 from Pixabay

Stand Up

Standing up is a powerful way to deliver your presentation. It’s really hard presenting remotely, as I covered in this blog post. However, standing up is one way of adding energy to a remote presentation. It’s also a lot less scary to stand up because you can shift your weight onto the front of your feet and lean into the audience remotely. This will calm you down, no one wants to be on the back foot when they’re presenting. In addition, your legs can’t shake if you’re standing on them!

You don’t need a standing desk for this, although if you have the means and the space they’re very helpful! You can achieve the same effect with some chunky programming books to raise your monitor and webcam up to your eye level when you’re standing up.

If you are using books, make sure that it’s stable; the last thing you want is a mid-talk-topple! If you are using an electronic standing desk, or a desk converter, that has a lock function – use it. It’s very easy to accidentally knock buttons and trigger a desk movement mid-talk. Trust me, it happens!

Add Lighting

Lighting makes a big difference to your presentation. You don’t need professional studio lighting either, but it’s important to work with what you have.


Image by Pexels from Pixabay

The best advice I can give you here is to experiment. There’s a lot to work with including the room lighting, windows, your phone torch, the old anglepoise lamp in the garage, your bedside table lamp and more. A lot of the time you can briefly improve the lighting for your desk when you give, or record, your presentation.

If you do want to purchase some additional lights for your desk then you could consider something like this or a ring light. I use the former as I wear glasses and find that ring lights cause too many reflections. However, if you want to purchase something to brighten up your environment then go for it. It if helps Carly has been playing with this one which comes with two sizes of tripod.

Expect the Unexpected

Life happens. I know it feels like life stopped in early 2020 but life still happens. That means that at any point, your kids could strut on into the room, the Internet could die, the doorbell could ring, your dog could inform you that the postie has just been, and many more interruptions are equally viable.

Of course, you want to avoid all these things but sometimes, as I said, life happens. The best thing you can do here is to mitigate them. That means accepting that they might happen, and, having a plan in place in case they do happen. For example, if there’s someone else in the house, ensure that they know you’re on a call, and they need to answer the door. Be ready so that if you’re live when the dog informs you that the world is ending because the postie is here, let the participants know, laugh about it and keep going. Your audience will be at ease when they know that you’ve got this! They don’t want to see you uncomfortable and twitchy, and they also know that life happens. If the Internet goes offline because your other half decided to press a button on the router mid-talk (that happened), deep breath, and dial back in tethered to your phone. Be ready for it but save the row for later!

Pay Attention to the Conference Tech Check

All conferences do tech checks. Tech checks cover a broad range of things and normally happen 1-2 weeks ahead of the conference. They can include:

  • When to dial in for your talk (it will be at least 10 minutes before the scheduled time as a rule)
  • What software to use – make sure you are familiar with it. If you’re not, let them know and do practise runs!
  • Username and passwords for the conference; speakers often have different details to participants
  • How questions will be managed throughout your talk (during or after)
  • Who is hosting your talk
  • Any pre-canned questions that you’d like to be asked in case the audience is feeling quiet



Image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay

These Tech Checks are your time to ask questions too. Make sure you make notes, write down what you need to do and where you need to be when you need to be there.

On the Day

Live talks are in many ways easier because you will have the excitement factor (which will manifest as nerves), and you’ll have to stick to a pre-determined schedule. However, there are still some things you need to pay attention to.

Wear (Suitable) Clothes

Okay, seriously, wear what you like! Wear what you feel awesome in. That will look different for everyone (good thing too!).

My only other tip here is to consider something loose fitting. Often when you’re presenting you’re nervous and that can cause you to get hot – especially if you’ve got extra lights pointed at you! Loose fitting clothes may be more comfortable!

Check Your Tech

Make sure your machine is not running 20 million applications and isn’t experiencing glitching. We recommend re-booting your machine prior to your presentation, but not five minutes before! A good couple of hours before is preferable, you never know when those updates are going to come and bite you!

Get in the Zone

On talk day you will be nervous, this is a good thing! Those nerves are what you can use to lift your talk energy, so you need to channel them. Do whatever it is that gets you in the zone – some press-ups, a walk, and shake it out – whatever it is. Have some water ready for your talk and of course visit the bathroom beforehand!

Image by Keifit from Pixabay

Make Eye Contact

This one is much harder with remote talks because you have to talk into the void and make eye contact with a webcam; it’s the weirdest thing! However, your audience are on the other side of the webcam, so it’s important that you try and maintain eye contact. Check your eye level with your webcam once you’re standing up. You can always record a little test video and see what it looks like.

Enjoy Yourself

This is the most important one – you need to enjoy yourself! It is much harder giving talks remotely, but you can do it! Of course at an in person conference you’d probably chat to conference delegates and then head to the pub afterwards. That is harder remotely but make sure you do engage with conference participants on social media and at least give yourself a treat afterwards. You deserve it!

Handle the Q&A

A Q&A session normally follows a conference talk. If the conference asked you for pre-canned questions and the audience is feeling quiet, this is a good way to get people feeling comfortable. Of course try and answer any questions that the audience has, but don’t be afraid of saying “I don’t know”, followed by “let me get back to you on that”, or “I don’t know, but I know someone who will know the answer to that question”. You don’t need to know everything!


There’s plenty of things you can do to ease your experience here and make it less stressful for yourself. I hope I’ve given you some ideas to try so what you feel more comfortable when you give your first, second and third live conference talk. Of course, I’m sure there is a different/additional set of skills for presenting in real life so when I get that opportunity I’ll write that one up as well!

Responding to a Developer Conference CFP

So here we are, you’ve done some public speaking at a user group, and now you want to apply to speak at a conference. Good for you! You have to ‘respond to the conference’s CFP process’ with your talk idea to speak at a conference. Before we go any further a CFP is a Call For Papers. It’s the process a conference goes through well in advance (in theory) to ask potential speakers for their talk topics so that they can build their conference schedule.

I’ve covered a lot in this blog:

I’ve recently done my first conference talk at the phenomenal Java jLove conference. I’ve also applied to speak at two different conferences, one of which I’ve been turned down for, and the other I’m waiting to hear from. I’m also on the program committee for a big developer conference that will be held later this year. The program committee are the folk who look at all the CFP submissions and decide which speakers and talks get offered a place in the conference and which do not. This experience means that I’ve been on both ends of the process and can provide unique insight into the complete process.

Are you ready?

Of course, this is a question only you can answer. What I will say is that you’ll probably never be ready. You’re unlikely to bounce out of bed and say, “yes! I’m ready to speak at conferences now”. There’s no sudden switch, and it will always be out of your comfort zone.

However, allow me to offer some guidance to help you to assess if you’re ready. Have you:

  • done a 30 minute or longer talk at a meetup/user group?
  • got a talk already done/drafted/under serious consideration?

If yes to both, congratulations, you’re ready! If you haven’t, you might still be ready, but your journey may be bumpier. User groups/meetups are a fantastic way to dip your toe in the water of public speaking, get feedback, iterate and improve. We all have to learn our craft. If you’re UK-based, I strongly recommend you check out the London Java Community. They’ve been instrumental in helping me on my public speaking journey with support, encouragement, and speaking slots of all sizes!

By the way, I once made the mistake of asking a seasoned speaker, Trisha Gee how many lightning talks (5 minutes long) you should do before progressing on to longer talks. Here’s the answer (video) if you’re interested. It’s one by the way. Lightning talks are just one of the many initiatives that the London Java Community have. They also have an Aspiring Speakers group and an Aspiring Woman Speakers group that I’m part of. Come join us!

The pandemic and conferences

Let’s talk about this one first. The pandemic has moved all conferences online. At best, some are considering hybrid events for the future, but, for the most part currently, they are all online and have been for over a year now. Sure the picture might gradually change, but if it does, it will be precisely that, gradual.

What does this mean for you? It means two things:

  • The barrier to entry is lower
  • You get zero audience feedback

The barrier to entry is lower

What I mean by this is two things. Firstly, you don’t have to travel anywhere. Now I know you might have wanted to go to that amazing new place and one day, you will, but for now, it’s safer and easier to stay at home.

Secondly, it’s easier to give a talk from the comfort of your home. This is true, but it’s also a lie. Let’s start with the true part. It is undoubtedly easier to give a talk from the comfort of your home. You don’t have to travel anywhere, you don’t have jet lag, your brain isn’t swimming with the names of everyone you just met, and your legs aren’t shaking as you walk onto the stage. All you have to do is join the Zoom call and do the talk. Now I’m not saying that’s easy, but it’s easier than going to a conference in many ways.

Now, let’s move on to why that is also a massive lie.

You get zero audience feedback

It’s a massive lie because you get zero audience feedback for the duration of talks that you give remotely. Nothing, nada, zilch, zero. And that is HARD. When I started my public speaking journey nearly a year ago now, I really liked that. It was great; I just had to turn my machine on, give my talk without throwing up, and then enjoy the adrenaline high afterwards. I didn’t have time to think about the audience, regrettably. I just assumed they’d tell me if they hated it, and they didn’t, so yay?

Then I started doing talks longer than 5 minutes. I did a 25-minute talk, and that’s when it dawned on me that I had absolutely no clue if the folk on the call were glued to what I was saying or if they were glued to what their phones were saying. I had no idea, and I couldn’t get an idea either. Most recently, I gave my 50-minute conference talk to a user group. The lack of immediate audience feedback for the duration of the talk was crippling. Thankfully two audience members put their cameras on, and I loved them for it – they were legends! I could see them smile, laugh, look confused and nod at the appropriate points. However, two people in an audience of over 50 is not a great sample size. Even if all 50 attendees had put their cameras on, I’d still not be able to read all their faces accurately and in time.

Now, unless you’re a speaker who takes questions as you go through your talk, a talk is, by the very definition, one-directional. You, the speaker, are talking to them, the audience. So that doesn’t change, but what does change is the fact that when you share the same physical space as your audience, you can see how they are reacting to your talk. You can see if they’re laughing at your jokes, nodding to your points, or grimacing at your self-owns. When you’re speaking from the comfort of your own home, you get no physical feedback from your audience at all. You cannot, as a comedian would say, easily change the room (video). This can leave a speaker feeling dejected. We have no way to know if we achieved what we set out to achieve.

So how do we address this, well, with great difficulty. It has baffled me for months now that I’ve had it drilled into me that “you are the presentation, not the slides”. As Deborah Frances-White put it in the video above, the overuse of slides is the savanna equivalent of you, the gazelle, saying “Look! A Zebra! (video)”. People come to talks to hear what you have to say, not to judge how fancy your slides are. Now, this area is changing. There’s a fancy new tool called mmhmm which is disrupting the space that PowerPoint and KeyNote hold firmly. It will be interesting to see if it takes off. I certainly am investing time in learning and playing with it in lieu of being able to be at conferences in person.

I really don’t like being a tiny hand-waving Helen in a little box next to my relatively sparse, disproportionally large, yet occasionally amusing slides.

Finding a conference that is looking for speakers

This is step one, and it’s not a difficult step you’ll be pleased to hear. As it turns out, my ex-colleague wrote this excellent list for developer conferences, so I won’t repeat him. Thanks, Phil Nash!

Responding to a CFP

So now you’ve decided that you’re ready, and you’ve found a CFP, great! Let’s do this! Each CFP is different (of course), but there are some guiding principles. Steve Poole recently did an excellent video that I learned a lot from on this exact topic.

Let’s take a look at the broad categories and what I’ve learned for each one.


It needs to be short

Like, really short. It’s absolutely worth putting effort into coming up with the shortest title you can, which is in itself an art.

It will probably (in time) appear in printed media; you don’t want it wrapping if you can help it.

It needs to be snappy

It’s not enough to be short; it needs to be snappy too. Yes, I know that’s a big ask, but it’s an important one. Now, snappy titles do not come naturally to me, so feel free to ask a friend. Also, get feedback and opinions on your title.

The other reason that it needs to be snappy is that, if you are successful, the chances are that those attending the conference will only read your title. Yes, that’s right, those beautiful pros that I’ll come on to for the talk description, they don’t get read a lot of the time. Brutal, isn’t it?

Talk description

This is the bit that will appear on the conference schedule as well. I know I just said many conference participants will not read this, but it will be scrutinised by the program committee. That is the folk looking at all the submissions and deciding which ones are in and which ones are out. So for that reason, you want to invest effort in your talk description.

Keep it flexible

Be careful not to box yourself into a corner here, especially if you’ve not yet written your talk. You don’t want to get your talk accepted, agree to the conference slot and then realise that the talk you really want to give is not the one you submitted. Conference organisers expect slides to change and ideas to be iterated over, but don’t commit to present one topic and then pivot to a different topic or audience level. That would break the contract you make with your audience and the conference organisers should your talk get accepted. Write about the structure of your talk and the stories you want to tell; you can hang the detail on it later.

Spell check it

It’s easily done and it happens. I can say this with absolute confidence because I’ve seen it. Run your work through a spellchecker.

Keep to the point

This is where you sell the talk. Think about prompts like:

  • Why are you giving this talk?
  • Who is this talk for?
  • What story are you telling and why?
  • What is the purpose of this talk?
  • What do you want your audience to talk away from your talk?

This should not be a massive block of text. Look at the past conference schedule for the talks you’re submitting for a guide as to the length. 100-150 ish words are usually the norm here. If you’re up at 200, you will probably need to start trimming it.

Elevator pitch

Not everyone asks for this, but some do. Imagine the scene; it’s the final day that the conference is open for CFPs, 68 come in overnight, and it’s your job to sift through them the following day. The elevator pitch is where you can sell your talk to the program committee. It needs to be short. Many CFPs that ask for an elevator pitch will limit you to 300 characters. Not words, characters. So use them wisely. The ampersand is your friend here, as Steve once told me. That said, don’t revert to text speak entirely. It is unlikely to go down well.

You need to tell a story in this little place. Human brains thrive on stories. Instead of trying to cut down your talk description, try and tell a mini-story.

For example, if it’s an experience talk, you could say something like:

I will share my journey of ‘the thing you’re going to talk about’. I will talk through what worked and, more importantly, what didn’t. I will give some top tips to deal with ‘the thing that didn’t work’. This is my story.

Or, for a technology-based talk you could say something like:

I’m going to show how to use ‘some technology to create ‘something awesome’. I’ll show how to install and configure ‘some techology’ for various environments. I’ll show how to get the most from it, what problems it solves, and how to avoid the pitfalls!

These are just examples, they’re not a gold standard! By the way, talks about failure are very useful; arguably more useful than talks about success. We learn far more from failure.

Make it stick, make it so that the program committee can’t say no. And, even if this is an optional field, never leave it empty. It’s incredibly useful for the program committee to read before or after your talk description.


Okay this is the place where you relax a bit. This is where you can talk directly to the program committee about why you are the best person to give the talk, and you can expand on the contents of the talk (if you want to). There’s not usually a word count here, but keep it to the point. The program committee wants to have some confidence that:

  • you’ve thought about your talk (seriously)
  • you have an idea of the structure of your talk
  • you’re the right person to give this talk
  • you know what you want your audience to take away from your talk

Expand on each of these points where you can.


Depending on the CFP, you may have a space for slides. If you do, and you have slides, insert them here. If you don’t, that’s okay too; it’s not usually a requirement. It’s helpful if you do but by no means a must. Make sure the link is accessible to all as well (yes I totally failed on that one with my first submission). Talking of slides, don’t start with them; that’s a terrible idea. If you’re looking to understand how to tell your story, I urge you to read How to make a presentation make a point.

Speaking experience

Again, depending on the CFP, this might be called something different, but somewhere there will probably be a space for you to evidence your prior public speaking experience. This box is crucial for new speakers who aren’t already on the conference circuit. It’s crucial because nobody knows you!

It’s fine that nobody knows you, but if you have a video or two of your prior public speaking appearance, it’s very helpful for the program committee. It means that they can see what kind of public speaker you are and if you’re a good fit for the conference. You have got a much higher chance of being accepted to speak at a conference if you have evidence of prior public speaking engagements such as user groups/meetups. Point to the videos of your prior recordings on your site or on YouTube. If you don’t have such evidence, record a little video of you talking about this talk that you’re submitting and put that on YouTube for the program committee.

This is a good place for me to mention that having your own website can be very useful for creating your own collection of your public appearances. You can link up your previous talks, podcasts, blogs and more.

Speaker bio

Last but not least, we have a speaker bio. This should be written in the 3rd person (which is very strange when you’re writing your own). Again if you’re a new speaker, this is something that the program committee will look at closely. They want to know who you are and what makes you tick. Keep your speaker bio relatively short – around 100 words should suffice. It should state who you are, where you work, what your experience is, and what your passions are. You can read some good advice here and more here for writing your bio.

Getting accepted / rejected

Of course, I hope you get your talk accepted, but I cannot guarantee that. However, I can say that this is the guidance that has helped me get my talk accepted at my first conference and the advice I’ll be building on for future conferences. I was not entirely surprised that I didn’t get accepted for the other conference I applied to, especially given I don’t work directly in that field anymore. There are always a lot of factors to consider for the program committee, but please be assured that it’s never personal.

Getting accepted

Yay! You got accepted! In this instance, the program committee will get in touch with you offering you a slot at the conference. Remember, at this point, you still have the chance to say no. Your circumstances might have changed, a big piece of work might have come in, or life might have thrown you a curve-ball. If you can’t commit to giving the talk on the date offered, say no. You’re not letting anyone down at this point if you say you can no longer do it.

Of course, there is the rare event that you can’t do a talk that you’ve committed to. This is always a tough situation to be in, and if you’re here it’s highly likely that it was completely unavoidable. In that instance, you need to explain your situation to the conference organisers as soon as you know. They will be accepting and understanding.

Something else that’s important to ask at this stage – does the conference want you to do your talk live or as a pre-recorded video. This has come about because all conferences have moved online. As I’ve already said, it’s incredibly hard to talk into your webcam for any length of time and get no audience feedback. For this reason, I prefer giving the talk live because I feel like I at least owe that much to the audience. At least then they can see my gaffs in real-time rather than a polished pre-recorded version. That said, some conferences do want pre-recorded versions, and you might not be in the place to be picky over what you say yes to.

Some conference organisers prefer pre-recorded talks because they remove the element of risk. They don’t need to worry about conference speaker turning up on time or having audio issues because they have a pre-recorded version of the talk. Make sure you ask what they’re expecting, what platform they are using, and if there is anything you need to know in terms of format or staging (such as your zoom background). Ask if they are expecting your talk to be pre-recorded. If it is, find out on what date they want the pre-recorded talk. It’s normally a few weeks before the conference, which can catch you off guard if you’re not careful.

The next thing to ask, and everyone needs to ask this is “What’s the diversity of your proposed conference schedule?” If you don’t get a satisfactory answer, you need to dig into that in more detail. Look at past conferences. What was the diversity of those? Are you happy with it? This is an uncomfortable conversation to have, but we need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. If the conference doesn’t have the answers for you, that in itself can be a red flag.

Getting rejected

If you get rejected, ask the conference organisers for feedback. They may not give you any, but they might. And, if they do, you can make tweaks accordingly. It’s worth mentioning that there are always more talks than conference slots, but if you keep applying and keep honing your skills, you stand a greater chance of getting accepted. If you’ve written your talk, and you evidence it in the CFP, and you’re still not being accepted to speak at any conference, you need to get feedback. It should help you to understand your next steps and what you need to change (if anything); competition is stiff but keep going and keep learning. I could insert numerous quotes about getting rejected, but you know the drill, get back on it and submit to another conference.

Writing your talk

My top tip for writing your talk is this – don’t wait to get accepted before you write the talk. Now you may think that’s very presumptuous but allow me to explain. If you start writing the talk before you receive confirmation of acceptance, you’re ahead of the game – win. On the other hand, if you start writing the talk and get rejected, you still win long term because your talk will hopefully be accepted in the future, and even if it’s not, it will be great experience to master your craft.

Remember, public speaking is a skill and, we’re not born with it. Everyone can learn it, though. On that note, don’t compare yourself to people who have been public speaking for decades. They’re good for a reason; they’ve had A LOT of practice! Talking of practice, practice really is everything when it comes to public speaking.

It takes a very long time to create a talk. I’m loathed to give a metric here, but my most recent conference talk that was accepted has taken me just over 50 hours to prepare. It’s a 50-minute talk. That includes the slides and numerous dry runs. I know every line, what I want to get across, where my punch lines are, and what emotion I want to get across and why. Now, I know there are some public speakers out there who can quite literally wing it. Good for you; that’s an awesome skill. Most of us, however, cannot wing it, nor should we try. Don’t assume that you can give the talk and wing it in any way. It’s not fair on your audience, and for a conference, they’ve often paid to be there.

I’ll say it again, practice is everything.

Giving your talk

You will be nervous, that’s because you care! Being nervous is a good thing. It would be far weirder if you weren’t nervous. There’s not much to say here except:

  • Pay attention to the tech check. Write down what you need to do and when.
  • Have canned questions ready for your talk in case your audience isn’t feeling chatty.
  • Get in the zone, whatever that looks like for you. For me, it’s raising my standing desk, doing a few press-ups, and some pretty bad dancing and singing. Do whatever works for you.
  • Remember that your voice reflects your mood, so it’s imperative that you go into your talk happy. You can’t fake it, at least, I can’t.
  • Join in a timely fashion, give your presentation and answer the questions afterwards with a smile on your face.
  • Reward yourself with whatever makes you feel good when it’s done!

Submitting to more conferences!

By now, you’ll know that creating talks takes time and a lot of investment from yourself. There is absolutely nothing wrong with giving the same talk multiple times at different conferences. In fact, it’s expected. Conferences know how much effort and time it takes to create, and they do not expect unique content.

That said, it’s polite to ask and to let them know where else you’ve given this talk, with a recording if possible. If you’ve not given this talk before, that’s fine too. I was in that exact situation; just let them know. Communication is key here.


Submitting your talk to a conference, that is, responding to a CFP, is hard work. It’s similar to the amount of effort you need when applying for a new job, especially when you’re a new speaker. You do have to put the groundwork and effort in, but public speaking is an incredible asset for your career. If you can, volunteer to be on a program committee. It means you can see what other folks submit and learn a lot about what is and isn’t accepted. Ask conference organisers if they need program committee members. Some will say yes!

Hopefully, we will all get to go to real conferences again soon and get that audience feedback that is so important, along with the post-talk drinks! I hope we’re both there!