Let's pause and reflect on the loads of work you’ve done. You’ve chosen and workshopped a topic you really want to share with the world. You’ve found the right venue, learned about its audience, and went and drafted a great talk. You practiced and iterated your presentation—pushing places that’ll resonate with your audience and give them something to chew on afterward. Your talk is well on its way to being an enormous success.
Now that we’re counting down to the days leading up to the event, let yourself lean back a little, and take a big breath. Shift your thinking to preparing and packing, following up on event logistics, and easing any anxiety that may pop up now. Most of all, congratulate yourself on nearing the home stretch.
From clothing to adapters, from backups to business cards, let’s tackle your suitcase or conference go bag. What’s here won’t work for everybody or every event, but I hope to provide an overview of options for you to consider—so you can feel settled in knowing you’ve set yourself up for action and comfort.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking on my appearance as a speaker. How much of “me” do I want to be onstage? Should I present a more polished, “public speaker” self? What’s okay to wear, and how does that affect my delivery or the way the audience perceives me?
These are tricky questions. Part of the worry, echoed by survey participants, is about “authenticity”—the idea that a good speaker should show their truest self to be relatable and engaging.
But, as engineering professor Deb Chachra writes, “performance, by definition, isn’t ‘authentic’”. The person you are onstage will not—and doesn’t need to be—the most “authentic” version of you, because, frankly, being onstage isn’t your normal habitat. As Chachra points out, “I doubt that Bjork or Amanda Palmer or Lady Gaga or David Bowie feel inauthentic for having on-stage personae.” Putting on a persona or character can give you some healthy emotional distance and make you feel more powerful—and it’s okay to take advantage of that. For me, my outfit comes down to wearing whatever makes me feel confident—and letting that “whatever” change over time, and mean different things in different venues. While I do get significantly more (unhelpful) feedback about my tone when I wear a dress and heels to present than when I wear a T-shirt and jeans, I still choose to dress a little nicer than I do day to day. That extra effort is a way for me to show I take the event and work seriously, and it gets me in the mindset to deliver an awesome talk.
Think about what clothing would get you in that mindset for your own talk—what would make you feel like a superhero? What could you wear that will help you feel the strongest, most secure, and grounded while onstage?
Hold that superhero uniform in your brain, and then see if it holds up against an onstage scenario. Here are some factors to consider as you pick your public-speaking outfit:
I always recommend packing backups of, well, everything. If you’re able, pack an alternative outfit. You never know what might happen on the day of an event, and it’s far less stressful to have options. If you wear heels, consider bringing flats just in case.
It isn’t only you onstage—it’s your electronics too! Think through the equipment you’ll need to ensure you won’t have to scramble to get everything connected correctly moments before you go on.
Placing these electronics accessories into a dedicated bag will make it easier for you to retrieve an item later. Plus, you can keep one electronics bag packed at all times and continue to use it at each speaking event without worrying about forgetting something.
No matter how confident you are that you’ll be able to use your own equipment onstage, prepare for that just in case moment when you’ll need to use someone else’s machine. Their laptop might have different software or fonts installed, and the last thing you want to do is rush to reformat everything so it works correctly onstage.
To avoid this pitfall (and major spike in stress), I suggest two safeties. One, create a backup folder of your files and save it to a physical thumb drive. Two, save the folder online in whatever service you prefer (I use Dropbox) and email the link to yourself. This way, you can quickly forward that link to someone else, if they need your files. Your backups should include:
When you’re presenting a live demonstration of a technique, workflow, or product, be prepared for things to go wrong. If you’re supplying a service, open-sourcing some code, or promoting a product, check that it’s accessible to your audience—capacity-plan to ensure it can handle the oncoming traffic.
If your presentation needs the internet, include a low-tech alternative on a thumb drive. For example, save a PDF to display the code you wanted to demonstrate, or save a video of your planned live demo. When possible, you could also record a simple screen capture of your demo to use as a further backup.
If you want to be exceptionally prepared, create a second version of your slide deck in the other major aspect ratio. If the conference requested 4:3, create a duplicate in 16:9, and vice versa. This way, should the conference tell you the wrong ratio (which has happened to me!), you’re ready with a smart-looking deck anyway.
Revisit what the conference has listed for your talk. Is it still the right date and time? How about the description? Once, after checking what I’d originally written as an abstract for my talk, I realized I’d forgotten to cover one of my intended points! I edited my talk and deck to sneak in an extra few thoughts on what the audience would expect to see, along with additional links to my resources page so people could read more on the topic later.
Last but not least: pack some business cards!
Maybe travel is incredibly refreshing for you—kudos!—or maybe it’s a ticket to hives. If you’re in the second camp, don’t worry. With some planning, you can reduce your travel stress and cruise your way to the main event.
Travel can drain our energy quickly, no matter how long or short the trip. If you tend to suffer from jet lag, consider arriving earlier than necessary for the event to rest up and feel more like yourself before the big day. If I’m flying internationally, I land a few days early to adjust to the time zone, so I can do my best work when presenting.
Give yourself the space to recharge in the days before your talk. It can be exhausting to travel and meet new people, on top of prepping for the spotlight. It’s okay to skip networking events, or duck out early from a speaker’s dinner or happy hour. Carve out alone time if you need it, and save your energy for the work you’ll be doing onstage.
Maybe you’re concerned about things going physically wrong during travel or the event. In the survey, people worried about “feeling sick and having a bad cold,” “being unable to speak due to jet lag or lack of sleep and nerves,” or “being late to the event.” Some of these are in your control, and others are not.
As someone with a chronic illness that affects my mobility and limits my diet, I know I need to sort out a few things on arrival (like where the elevators or escalators are, where to grab food) to give me a sense of control and ease. It’s a big help to talk to event organizers about any questions I have on these logistics.
In her article “Make Yourself Comfortable,” user researcher Angela Colter writes, “Whatever the requirement may be—a vegetarian food option, allergy-free bedding, or a refrigerator for your medications—acknowledge what it is, then make the request…Just give yourself permission to ask; you don’t have to figure it all out on your own”. Lean on those around you, and consider what you need to make your experience as comfortable, healthy, and stress-free as possible.
One more way to prepare for the uncertainties in travel: print it out. Pull out your venue profile from Chapter 3, and pack a physical copy. You never know what might happen if you drop your phone or run out of battery when you land in a new place. It can be handy to have information about where you’re staying and how to get there (numbers for taxi services, directions for public transportation), and the address of the event itself.
Shake off the travel dust, and let’s explore a few ways to ground yourself and reduce unknowns in your new space. Again, these may not apply to every event, or feel necessary for every speaker, but take what makes sense to you.
A good way to settle in is to confirm the timeline of events leading to your talk:
If you plan to share your slides online, go ahead and upload your likely final slides to a site like SpeakerDeck or SlideShare; this way, you can share them immediately after your talk. Triple-check your resources page too—make sure the links work and that everything is ready for the public.
Put faces to names and meet the event organizers and other speakers. These people are now effectively your coworkers—get to know them, ask them for what you need, and be kind and helpful in turn. You’re on the same team; you’re all there to make the event a success.
You might start by seeking out the speakers’ lounge, if the event has one. Unlike the hallway track, it’s a low-key, quieter place to chat with people one-on-one or in small groups (and great for decompressing before and after being onstage). If you have any logistical questions, another speaker in the same boat might already have the answer.
Next up, befriend the event staff; I’ve had plenty of last-minute questions (“Oh, hey, where can I get some water?”) and a familiar face can be reassuring. I’ve asked the person clipping in my microphone if I have food in my teeth, and I’ve asked the video person to check me for lint. Getting onstage, as we know, is such a vulnerable act—connecting with the people who want to help you do your best work can also help you feel like you have a solid network of support.
Last, check in with the organizers on how you’ll be introduced before your talk. See if they have the correct pronunciation of your name, or let them know if you have a preference as to what titles or professional affiliations they include. Some events have an emcee or host (or the organizers themselves) who will introduce you, while some events have no planned introduction—which means you’ll be the person stepping onstage to call the audience’s attention to your talk. In that case, try a short greeting before clicking through your slide deck: “Good morning! My name is Lara Hogan. I do engineering at Etsy, and I’m here to talk to you about web performance.”
Whenever possible, scout out where you’ll be speaking. Get yourself acquainted with the space and setup (no need to run through your talk—you’ve already done the prep!). Go onstage: see how it feels under the lights, and how high you are off the ground. You’ll sense how far away the audience is, and how close you are to your presenter notes. Look around you: Is anything obstructing your view or the audience’s? How does the placement of the table, chair, podium, etc., feel? Definitely consider approaching the organizers if anything seems uncomfortable or distracting. You might be able to shift things around yourself too—but clear it with the organizers to make sure you don’t jumble the setup for other speakers.
As you’re in the room, you might note A/V technicians or others setting up. Some conferences have very high-tech logistics like custom lighting or music between speakers, while others are more scrappy and it’s on the speakers to manage their own equipment. Depending on the event, the staff may help you put on a microphone or test your computer with the A/V system to make sure it works on the day of your talk.
If you can, take advantage of the opportunity to introduce yourself to A/V and ask about the setup. Is there a place to plug in your laptop onstage? Where will you get mic’ed up? What kind of mic will they use? Can you see it or try it on? The more you can get a feel for the onstage logistics, the more at ease you’ll be.
We’re in the home stretch! Let’s prime you for success on the day of your talk.
Along with the mental highs (and worries), public speaking—projecting your voice, gesturing, moving your body, standing in place—is a physical activity. Be sure to fuel yourself.
What you eat and drink depends on your preferences and dietary needs, of course. For me, I also factor in when I’m speaking. For example, if I’m presenting first thing in the morning, I might skip breakfast until after the talk, to avoid worrying whether I’ll have something in my teeth or whether I’ll have enough time to eat a snack before I go onstage. No breakfast means I’ll feel way more jittery after a cup of coffee, so I hold out on the caffeine until I’m done.
Onstage, a glass or bottle of water is a convenient prop. For one, it serves as a helpful reminder to slow down during your presentation if you take intermittent sips. For another, it gives you an object to hold, if you feel awkward with your hands. And yes, it hydrates—good if you start coughing or feel your mouth getting dry.
Now’s the time to check your pants zipper and any gaps in your button-down shirt. Check for food or lipstick in your teeth, give your appearance a thumbs-up, and head over to get mic’d.
Microphones may throw you for a loop if you’re not used to them. Types vary, from what I call “Britney Spears” or head-worn ones that clip to your ear and follow your jawline, to lavalier mics that clip to your collar, to handheld or podium mics. Some microphones require a battery pack, which can be heavy and weigh down your clothing. They generally clip onto your back pocket or belt if you have one; when I wear a dress, I clip the battery pack to the back of my bra.
As you can imagine, getting mic’d up can feel a little awkward, as the audio technician will be close to you and touching your clothes. You can absolutely choose to clip the microphone to yourself in private; don’t feel obligated to have the audio technician do it. You can get feedback from them on how you sound through the speakers once you’re ready.
Which is another reason to get to know the A/V crew; I’ve learned a ton from audio teammates as I prepared for the stage. At one conference, I learned head-worn mics aren’t fitted for women’s faces, often leaving the wire with a lot of extra slack and a poor audio experience. These mics sometimes don’t work well for people who wear glasses, or people with long hair that may brush against the microphone. (I, unfortunately, have both.) It was great to be able to talk to the audio person in advance, so we could choose a microphone that would best fit my jawline, glasses, and hairstyle.
But by far my favorite lesson from an audio technician happened when I was wearing a dress made from a thinner fabric that couldn’t withstand the weight of a lavalier mic. I apologized and started thinking through other outfit options, but the technician stopped me and grabbed a nearby multitool. He sliced a half-inch off of the short end of his spare hotel key card, then told me how to use this piece to stiffen my dress fabric behind the mic clip, keeping it put. I’m forever indebted to him for teaching me a cool presentation trick and reducing my anxiety before I got onstage to speak.
Some events build in a tech or sound check during breaks between talks, before you go on. When you first plug your laptop into the projector or open your slide deck on a shared laptop, click through everything to make sure it works. (If you’re plugging in only moments before your talk, you may have to bravely wing it and hope for the best!)
Ask to see the slides on the projector, and verify they look right and are still readable to the audience in the event lighting. If you have presenter notes, ensure you’re still able to see them on your laptop screen or nearby monitor. And if the event has a countdown timer, make sure you can see it from where you’re standing.
If you have a live demo in your presentation, practice transitioning from your deck to the demo and back again. Confirm internet access; if you choose to tether from your phone, check your cellular coverage. Also test any audio connection if your talk features sound.
Last, click through your slides with your remote (if you have one) to make sure it’s connected correctly. Triple-check you have enough power on your laptop to run through the entire presentation, or plug it in—and ensure its screen won’t fall asleep midway through your talk.
Don’t forget to check your own energy levels. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy says that “power posing” before an important event can affect your body chemistry to boost confidence. You can do these stances backstage, in the bathroom, or even slightly offstage as you wait to go on. I love to “Superman” pose for a minute or two before my talk, and I’ve had a good laugh with copresenters (laughing also calms stage nerves!) at how ridiculous we look getting ourselves ready.
This is it! Start your engines; let’s do this thing!