In the days, hours, and minutes before giving a conference talk, my brain gradually loses function. A day before, my thinking takes on an anxious edge. By the time I’m about to walk on stage, my mental faculties are reduced to walk there, stand here, and smile politely, before the muscle memory of practice takes over completely. And after my talk, my brain continues to buzz with the excitement of having just been on stage. To deal with all this, I try to put my thinking into an outboard brain: a checklist.
I have a few different checklists for three major periods surrounding a talk: the night before my talk, the hour preceding my talk, and wrapping up after the talk is over.
In the weeks preceding a conference, I rehearse the talk many times so I can keep to my wheels down rule: when my plane lands in the city where I’m giving the talk, I stop working on it. I may do one or two more rehearsals, but I stop changing any of the talk’s content. At this point, my preparation becomes strictly practical, making sure I’m in the right place, with the right equipment, in the right mindset.
This process begins the night before. Here’s the first checklist, with annotations:
Confirm HDMI, DVI, and VGA adapters are packed
Most conferences I’ve been to have already been set up with adapters, but I want duplicates in my bag in the event of incompatibility, loss, or damage. Plus, if someone else needs a connector after my talk, I can be a hero.
Confirm latest version of my slides are backed up off-site and to a USB drive
To be honest, I’m not sure if this is superstition or an insurance policy, but it means I can give the talk no matter what happens. The USB drive goes in my pocket in the morning and doesn’t leave my person.
Confirm presenter remote and spare batteries are packed
I practice with a presenter remote and I want the conditions on stage to be the same. Spare batteries mean that if I forgot to turn it off after a practice run, I’m not out buying AAAs the day of my talk.
Confirm computer is plugged in and charging
Again, I don’t want to be hunting for battery power.
I’m a generally anxious person, so this checklist gives me the reassurance I need to get a restful night’s sleep.
Once I’m at the speaking venue, there’s a few things I do to make sure there are no distractions when I’m presenting. This isn’t time critical, but at some point, usually a session or two before mine, I go through this checklist on my laptop:
Quit all applications except Keynote
This suppresses lots of noises, notifications, and maybe most importantly, distractions during my last-minute preparation.
Set macOS notifications to “Do not disturb”
Don’t @ me, computer, I’m talking.
Set screensaver and display timeouts to never
I don’t want the screen to blank at an inopportune time, and I want to be able to clearly see my presenter notes and clock.
Turn off screen dimming and Flux/Night Shift
I put the time and effort into making my slides look decent, so I don’t want any unexpected color shifting. It’s not usually an issue during the daytime, but if I’ve traveled far, time zones may pose a problem. No need to risk it.
Hide desktop icons
I don’t have anything embarrassing on my desktop, but I also don’t care to share what I’m working on right now, thanks.
Once my computer is ready, I’m free to attempt to enjoy the conference until the session immediately before my talk.
I’m always annoyed that the speaker before me is scheduled before me because I never get to enjoy their talk. Even if I watch part of it, my mind is somewhere else—I’m approaching a state of pure nervous energy. I try to keep it simple before going on stage:
I write a tweet thanking the audience and linking to my slides with the conference hashtag (relatedly, all of my slides have my Twitter handle in the corner). I schedule the tweet to post at the time I expect to finish speaking (since I’ve practiced my talk, I’ll know this time to within a couple of minutes).
I empty out my pockets so I don’t have anything to fidget with, drop, lose, or make distracting jangling noises with. I tuck this stuff into a little container (the very excellent Tom Bihn Travel Tray). Later, I’ll put it and my bag someplace secure or in the care of a trusted person.
Set phone to silent
I don’t carry my phone with me on stage, but I also don’t want it ringing, buzzing, or otherwise distracting anyone when I can’t do anything about it.
Remove conference badge
Conference badges make for unflattering video and photos so I take it off.
Put a coin in my shoe
I admit this is the goofiest thing on any of my checklists. I put an American quarter in my shoe. It slides around just a little bit, so when I step on the coin, I get a little reminder to take a breath and stand up straight.
I focus on my breathing for a few minutes. Now might also be a good time to listen to a relaxing playlist or my hypothetical walkup music (note to conference organizers: please make walkup music a thing).
Then I head on stage. If I’m lucky, the conference has some sort of speaker wrangler who will tell me where to go and when (I find this to be extremely calming). Otherwise, I try to position myself near the stage after I hear the applause for the previous speaker.
If I’ve practiced my talk and followed my checklists, the next 20 minutes or so go by in a blur. Once I’m a couple of minutes into my talk, I’m usually having some actual fun up there! When I’m finished, I’ll spend a few minutes clearing my things out of the way for the next speaker and have a chat with anyone interested enough to come up to the front of the room to talk to me.
Not long after that, I’ll politely excuse myself and go through my post-talk checklists, which are the pre-talk checklists in reverse. I refill my pockets, put my badge back on, and take a minute to peek at Twitter and thank people for any feedback they’ve given me.
These checklists have gone through a few iterations. What you’ve seen here are the things I feel I need to be confident and deliver the best talk that I can. I’ve refined them to the point that they’ll fit on a few index cards. I hope you’ve got a process for when you’re about to get on stage, but if you don’t, maybe adapt my checklists to your needs and give them try.