Standing in front of PowerPoint Part 3: Hello, I’m Chris Ratcliff, and this is my talk

In the final blog post of Chris Ratcliff’s series about speaking at a security conference, it’s SteelCon 2016 and the day of the presentation itself. Read on for a presenters-eye-view of standing up and giving a talk – and why, if you haven’t already, you should give it a go.

So far in these blog posts I’ve gone from never having set foot in a security con, to doing my first talk to preparing my latest one. This post is the talk itself…

The day. Oh, what a day. Steelcon is a fantastic event, with great talks and a great atmosphere. Since it started I’ve been taking photos for the event. That means bouncing from hall to hall, taking photos, chatting with folk, Tweeting photos and generally keeping an eye on everything going on. The downside of this is that I never really get a chance to sit down and watch a full talk live, but on the upside I don’t have time to worry about my presentation. About half an hour before my slot I go into presentation mode. Boot the laptop, check my clicker is working, make sure the presentation is there and quickly run through the slides. I start pacing and I’ve got about 10 mins before I need to go up. I’m making idle chit chat with people, but mostly I’m thinking about the talk.

The talk. The easy bit. Once I’d resolved an AV issue getting my laptop hooked up to both the room and recording equipment, I could begin. This really is the easy bit, because the slides can’t be changed now, you’ve rehearsed (hopefully) the talking bit, it’s now just a case of doing it. The one piece of advice I was given very early on was “know your opening”. If you know the first thing you’re going to say when you open your mouth, then the rest will flow from there. And I fluffed the first thing I had to say.

The important thing is not to dwell on your mistakes. They’ve happened, and they can’t be changed. Just keep moving on. I knew the next bit, and off I went.

I made a few mistakes as I went through, especially getting myself horribly confused on the Fight Club reference about the cost of a safety recall vs the cost of the fines or compensation. I also knew going in I was struggling with the name of the airbag manufacturer. Takata, simply pronounced ta-cat-a. I can do it now, takatatakatatakatatakatatakatatakatatakatatakatatakatatakata, but I knew I’d struggled with it going into the talk and sure enough I saw it looming and tripped again.

I had to remember that at a friendly event, filled with likeminded people, the room is one of the most supportive you’ll ever get as a presenter. Everyone there wants to enjoy the talk, and wants you to do well. There’s also no harm in being vulnerable, being open, being honest. When I forgot one of the important researcher’s names I was citing and someone called it out, I had to say something so I was honest about why I kept forgetting. It’s humanising.

Chris mid-presentation
Chris mid-presentation

The review. The important bit. I was lucky this year that Steelcon had video recording running, and running reliably, across all the talks so I could watch my talk back. It’s weird, it’s a bit uncomfortable, but it’s crucial in being able to identify what went well, and what you can improve. I discovered errors I’d made and not even noticed – such as mixing up a clutch and throttle pedal – while others were not having planned out a slide properly and instead of making the point I wanted, I’d ended up making a different one.

I was pleased with the response I received both at the event straight after the talk, and subsequently on social media. If you can, however, solicit feedback and critique. While it’s nice to get praise, constructive feedback will give you a different perspective on how things went and areas to work on next time.

Thinking back to my crisis of confidence I remembered the thing I worried about most; the lack of technical depth. The truth is that I’d laid my stall out well in my CFP so it was clear that my talk was going to be high level. On top of that I only really had 45 minutes or so, and a lot of ground to cover – 60 slides in fact! Those who knew the subject took away something new, but what I came to realise was that many people came in with little or no knowledge of the subject. What’s obvious or basic to me is only that because I’ve been dabbling in car systems for three or four years. The field of computer security is so huge that no one knows everything about everything, and what’s basic for one person is enlightening for another.

If you have a desire to talk at a security con (or anywhere!) then I hope this has been useful, or at the very least shown what it’s like from behind the microphone. It can be daunting to stand up and ask people to listen to you, but it’s a thrilling challenge, and one I would recommend anyone tries at least once.

By Chris Ratcliff