BSides Las Vegas Proving Ground Mentorship
This was my first year as a BSides Las Vegas Proving Ground mentor. The program is pretty unique among other conferences, where a new speaker who has not presented at a major information security conference works with an experienced mentor who has experience presenting at a major conference and/or has teaching experience. The mentor/mentee pairs then spend several months working together to develop a presentation outline, refine the slides and other presentation materials, and practice their talk before delivering it at the conference.
I was paired up with Ty Atkin (@FullMetalCyber1), who presented his talk, “Understanding the Human API – Evolving End Users from Authorized Adversaries into our Best Defense,” on the first day of the conference.
Ty did a great job teaching security lessons and combining it with brain science in a way that was both entertaining and informative. He received positive feedback on the presentation from the Proving Ground leadership, which was definitely great to hear.
The best part of the Proving Ground program was its educational value, both for the speakers and for myself as a mentor. It’s easy to take for granted some of the considerations needed when writing and planning a presentation, and working with a mentee really helped me to better understand how to articulate that process.
It was also rewarding to see Ty’s talk develop from an early outline into the final product. This was particularly challenging due to the depth of his research and the limited time we had available; our first run-throughs were around 300% longer than the allocated time, and working with him on how to simplify the content while still keeping the message coherent was a challenge we needed to work hard to accomplish.
Finally, the Proving Ground program offers a pre-game event, where the mentees are able to deliver their presentation in front of an audience of other presenters and mentors the day before BSidesLV. Since my travel schedule worked out, I was able to help out by providing feedback during these sessions. I got a lot of good ideas from listening to the other mentors provide advice, and it was educational for me as a speaker to see how my comments aligned with those of the more experienced mentors.
Thoughts for Future Presenters
These are some common takeaways that will be helpful for anyone looking to speak at upcoming conferences:
Be sure that your final slide provides a way for the audience to get in touch with you. This could be through email, Twitter, or a link to a blog with your research. Plan on keeping this slide up for a bit while you answer questions until the room clears after your talk.
Know Your Audience
Some conferences are decidedly non-corporate, whereas others are the complete opposite. Know who will be attending the event where you will be presenting, and tailor your presentation to that audience. Your audience awareness should impact everything from slide design, such as when it’s appropriate to include your company logo, to what language you use.
Know how long your speaking slot is scheduled, and plan to utilize the majority of that time while still leaving an opportunity for some questions. The last thing you want to do as a speaker is finish a presentation in 15 minutes when you’re assigned a 50-60 (or even a 25-30) minute slot; this is disrespectful to both the audience, who chose to attend your talk over others, and the conference organizers, who gave you the speaking slot to begin with. Practicing your presentation using a timer helps as you gain experience.
Design your presentation with your audience in mind. Use text appropriately and make sure it’s visible from a distance when projected. Dark backgrounds and lighter text are generally more visible; be sure to pick a combination that isn’t impossible to see, like blue hyperlinks on a dark blue background. Images can be more powerful than words, so use images to reinforce what you’re saying.
Avoid Text Overuse
When slides contain text, the audience will read it instead of listening to what you’re saying. Use text to reinforce ideas, not as a book that the audience will need to focus on.
Attention to Details
Have someone else review your slides for errors. This includes spelling and grammar errors, as well as minor punctuation details like inconsistent periods at the end of bullets.
Dealing with the Unexpected
Despite your best efforts, surprises will happen to even the most experienced presenters. I experienced this personally during a DEFCON talk when my laptop rebooted as soon as I plugged in the requisite number of dongles for my Mac to output video. Thanks, Apple. Have backup plans, and be prepared to deal with the unexpected. This might involve having a second laptop or a copy of your talk elsewhere, or you might bring extra dongles to accommodate other display types. Having these options will reduce your stress level whenever something inevitably goes wrong.
Overall, the BSidesLV Proving Ground program was a valuable and rewarding experience. I would encourage any new speakers looking to break into the field to consider giving the program a shot. I look forward to having the opportunity to participate as a mentor in the program again in the future if given the opportunity, and would encourage others with similar professional experience to consider applying as a mentor as well.
If you have any questions about BSidesLV or my mentorship experiences, feel free to leave a comment or reach out to me on Twitter (@tomkopchak)!