When I was little and you asked me what I wanted to be, I always said a teacher. As a result, I never thought of public speaking as public speaking, I always thought of it as teaching.
Before I was an engineer speaking at tech conferences, I was an academic speaking at academic conferences (on some very… niche topics) and giving lectures as a graduate student. My initial foray into public speaking was very research-based, and this continues to impact a lot of the work that I do around preparing conference talks.
I generally give two types of talks:
- Research based or technical
- Advice and opinion based
I prepare for these two types of talks very differently. But first, some things I don’t do.
Things I don’t do
In the spirit of full disclosure, there’s a lot of stuff I don’t do for conference talks. I fully admit that some of this is probably bad, and if I did some of these things, I’d probably be a much better public speaker.
Practice a lot (or in front of anyone else ever)
I usually do a few (3-4) run throughs by myself with all of my slides. I practice in my head until I have the slides right, and then I practice out loud. By myself. Alone. In a room. Usually 2-3 days before I have to give the talk.
If it’s a talk I’ve given before and only made minor changes to, I won’t do an out loud run through until the night before.
This works for me because
- I have a really good memory, so I can generally remember the phrasing from a recent practice session almost to the word
- I prefer to have the flexibility in my talk so that I can adjust how I present information as I read the room
Share my slides beforehand
Most people joke that “slides are never done.” I agree with this sentiment to the certain extent, but I’m a type A perfectionist who is obsessed with fonts and colors, so I consider slides to be a playground of fun that can always be re-done. I used to share my slides beforehand, but I found that most of the feedback I got was design related and not about the content.
This works for me because
- Outside of legibility, I’m generally not interested in design feedback because I consider my slides to be a creative expression reflective of my talk.
- My slides also don’t lend themselves very well to content feedback, as they’re typically only a handful of words on each slide. I use my slides as emphasis points or talking points to reference, not as things I expect the audience to read.
- My slides reinforce what I say, but they don’t list everything I say. It’s very difficult to get a good picture of my talk from the slides alone.
A cautionary tale
I am a “seasoned” speaker. I’ve given lots of talks, and I love doing it. This is absolutely not the way I prepared my very first tech conference talk, nor is it the way I developed talks when I first started public speaking.
With that said, the traditional “create, share, process feedback, iterate, repeat” process that many speakers abide by doesn’t have to work for you, and you don’t have to follow it. It’s super helpful when you’re first starting out because it gives you guidance, but take what works for you and throw the rest away.
And the most important things to remember:
- just because you do something a lot, doesn’t mean you’re the best at it
- just because you’ve never done it before doesn’t mean you won’t be great at it
Preparing for research based and technical talks
The majority of the time, the idea for the talk comes from a blog post I’ve written. Less frequently, I get ideas from something I’ve tweeted, or something someone else has written that inspired me to think about something differently.
Developing the talk: pre-CFP
100% of the time, these talks always start with writing an essay or outline. Depending on the type of topic, I might pick a different format. Technical topics generally get outlines, whereas research based topics that are not technical are in essay form.
I don’t have a specific length I limit myself to for essays and outlines, but I do use a hierarchy to keep myself organized.
Preparing for advice and opinion based talks
The least helpful thing I will ever say is: these ideas just come to me. Sometimes by the abyss that is my brain, sometimes from conversations with others.
When it comes down to it, no joke, I just make slides.
Ok, rewind a little. I do actually write the description (see below) before I make the slides, but that’s it. My process is thus:
- Write a long description (see below)
- Write a short, CFP-length version of the long description
- Make slides
I feel a little shame admitting it, and it makes it sound like there’s very little work that goes into these types of talks, but that’s completely the opposite.
I spend a ton of time on those slides, often doing dry runs in my head as I complete each section.
Writing & submitting a talk
Some notes on organization
I keep a Trello board of all of my talks so I can see what I’ve done so far, and what I have upcoming.
I organize my talks like this:
- Ideas: things that are not submitted anywhere - usually just a few scribbled notes or sometimes a full CFP waiting for the right conf
- Proposed: talks that I’ve submitted (sometimes there are duplicates here, as I have one card for each submission, even if it’s the same talk to multiple conferences)
- Accepted: accepted talks that I’ve agreed to give, sorted by date with the conf name
- Given: talks I’ve given in the past, sorted by date with the conf name
- Rejected: talks I’ve submitted but have not given or were not accepted, sorted by date and conf name
I end up having a few duplicates in there, because I tend to live giving the same talk and revamping it.
Writing the talk: CFP, and a first draft
Remember learning how to write a thesis sentence in high school? I take that approach and write a description of the talk that includes everything I want to cover. This is usually 3x the length I end up submitting for the description for a CFP, but it helps to:
- Limit my blabbering to only the points I want to make
- Help me determine how long the talk should be
- Help me focus the topic and trim extraneous information from the talk
- Speed up the outlining and writing process
- Determine if the talk is a good fit for a specific conference
Submitting the talk
I take my ridiculously long proposal and compare it to my outline or my essay. Does it cover everything? What am I really trying to say? What’s the main take away from this talk? What things do I think make the talk most compelling? What’s the best way to concisely explain my thesis and provide enough supporting evidence? How do I make my talk relatable? Am I telling a story, am I solving a problem?
The questions I ask are endless. I could probably go on for a few paragraphs with all of the questions I ask myself.
I keep repeating this process until I feel comfortable with my talk, until I feel like I really know it and all the points it wants to make. My talk becomes a tangible, sentient being that I want to introduce all of my friends and colleagues to, so I go about writing a bio for it.
I usually write the talk description, with the goal that I keep it 3-7 sentences. I ask my husband or a friend with no familiarity with the topic to check it for typos, weird sentences, or words that seem stupid. I save their edits and come back to it an hour or so later, then I plop it into the CFP form and let it sit there for a bit. I re-read it about 2,000 times in that little form, and then I submit it.
After I give a talk
People suck at feedback.
One of the things I hate the most about giving conference talks is feedback like this:
- “hey, I have a question! [insert not an actual question, but really an opinion that disagrees with your point and they think you should re-do your entire talk].”
- “why didn’t you talk about X?”
I like feedback. I am a very feedback-oriented person. Giving feedback is absolutely a skill, and giving useful, relevant feedback is not something that many people I’ve encountered have been good at.
People with these same concerns who give good feedback generally say things like:
- “your point was very interesting, have you considered this [totally different perspective where they disagree with you, but frame it nicely]?”
- “i was curious if during your research you encountered X? if so, did you have any thoughts on it?”, generally followed by conversation and then “i think it would strength your thesis if you incorporated that information about X into your talk.”
Tips for newer public speakers
Some things that helped me, and sometimes still help me:
- If you’re worried you’re speaking too quickly, you probably are. Think about your breathing if you can, and take deeper, less frequent breaths. Talk 50% slower than you think you should.
- You’re not “proving” something, or convincing people to believe you. You’re sharing something you learned with other people.
- Review the audio from your talks, not the video. The video is super valuable if you’re like me and are a wild gesticulator, but you don’t have to watch it unless you want to. The audio will help you a lot more than the video. You don’t have to do this all of the time, but maybe once every few talks is good.
- Practice reading a room. Speakers who can read the room and adjust the tone or presentation of their thesis are some of the best speakers.
In a nutshell
Giving talks should be fun.
Do I get nervous? Absolutely, hell yes.
Usually my nerves look something like this: unrest the night before, butterflies in my belly the meal before my talk, nearly incapacitating nervous when I’m getting mic'ed up, and a total rush of relief the moment I step on stage, open my mouth, and start speaking.