How I prepare conference talks

May 5, 2015 | career, resources, conferences, speaking

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:

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

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

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:

Preparing for research based and technical talks

Ideas

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:

  1. Write a long description (see below)
  2. Write a short, CFP-length version of the long description
  3. Make slides

That’s it.

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:

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:

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:

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:

Tips for newer public speakers

Some things that helped me, and sometimes still help me:

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.