Steven HicksAboutSpeaking

10 Tips For Writing Conference Talks

In the last couple years, I've given over 20 talks at local meetups and code camps, and conferences throughout the Midwest. Here are 10 tips for preparing talks.

My anxiety while preparing for a talk looks like a saw.

Speaking is fun, you should try it.

For the last couple years, my priorities in life have been three things:

  1. My family
  2. Being active
  3. Speaking at tech meetups & conferences

Speaking is pretty new for me. My first talk in public was in February, 2016. In the last couple years, I've given over 20 talks at local meetups and code camps, and conferences throughout the Midwest. It's been a ton of fun, and I highly recommend trying it.

I've learned a ton about speaking in the last couple years. Here are 10 things I've learned about preparing a conference or meetup talk.

Tip 1: Keep your thoughts organized.

It takes me months to write a talk. Often I have multiple ideas formulating at the same time. If I tried to keep all of the different ideas in my brain, I would lose about 95% of them. I need tools to keep track of it all.

To stay organized, I use two main tools.

Trello

I keep a Trello board to keep track of all my speaking ideas, talks, submissions, and upcoming engagements. This is high-level stuff, just so I know what I need to be working on every night. I have lists for conferences I want to submit to, open CFPs, abstracts I need to write, talks I'm writing, and talks that are ready to submit.

Git Repository

I have a Git repository that contains all my talks. This is more detailed than what's in my Trello board. Abstracts, outlines, slides - it's all in the repo. I wrestle back and forth about whether this should be private or public. It is currently private.

Tip 2: Get outside. Creativity comes from many places.

Most of my ideas don't come while I'm working. I do a lot of thinking and workshopping ideas in my head in a few key places - in the shower, in bed when I fall asleep/wake up, listening to podcasts in my car, and above all during workouts.

I generally prefer working out by myself, because it's my best thinking time. I feel bad when people ask me if I am looking for a workout buddy, because unless it's my wife, the answer is almost entirely no. I really like being social with people, but exercise is such a personal thing to me. It's actually the only time I can think of that I'll say "no" to company. It's just such a valuable time for my mind.

My ideas usually take months before I even turn them into a conference submission. They simmer in my brain. I work through outlines and brainstorms, making sure that I have enough of a cohesive message to deliver it to an audience.

Tip 3: Keep a notebook on you at all times.

The ideas come at all times. I've lost enough ideas in the past that I want to be able to write them down as soon as I get them.

I take notes as I think of things. My daughters make me these awesome pocket-sized notebooks out of printer paper, and I keep them in a slim wallet case in my pocket, along with a pen.

I have become my father. :)

Sometimes the things I write down are points I want to make, sometimes they are jokes, sometimes they are drawings I want to include. Sometimes they are just the way I want to deliver a specific point.

Tip 4: Don't apply force to an idea. Let it present itself.

Sometimes I feel like an idea has legs, but I just can't find the overall message. I've found that forcing it to become something is less effective than waiting for it to present itself.

When I hit a brick wall with an idea, I still add it to my Trello board. If it's a good idea, it will eventually work its way back to the front of my thoughts.

My favorite talk - Maximize Professional Growth By Doing Scary Things - took 9 months to graduate from an idea to an outline.

If I feel like I have enough notes & ideas to deliver it to an audience, it becomes an outline. I give it a folder in my Git repo. I build an outline out of all the notes I've written down. They are often scatterbrained and messy.

Then I let it simmer some more.

Tip 5: Start with content and a message. Save the slides for last.

I'll work for a month or so at building an outline. At this stage, I'm mostly worried about two things - all of the content I think is worth delivering, and a single message I want my audience to walk away with.

I prefer a simple nested outline, in a text editor. It's quick and easy for me to move things around. I've heard others say they use mind-mapping software at this stage.

I don't start writing abstracts or slides until I've got a rough outline and a message established.

Tip 6: Don't write an abstract if you aren't certain you can write the talk.

When I first started trying to get into speaking, I didn't have much restraint on the abstracts I submitted. I wrote and submitted as many as I could think of, with little thought to how I would fill 45 minutes. This got me in trouble.

Once, I found that I had to write a talk that I wasn't really interested in. This was very hard to do, and I just kept procrastinating. I eventually reached out to the "organizers" (who happened to be my coworkers) and asked if I could change topics. Thankfully, I could.

I also found that I had too many talks to write this way. Different conferences picked up different ideas, and I had to write them all. This is probably normal when you're starting out, but I think my tendency to abstract without a solid idea of the content exacerbated the problem.

Now, I don't feel like I can write a solid abstract without a good outline. The outline isn't finalized at this stage - but it gives me a good idea of what's in the talk, so that I can summarize it with confidence.

Writing my abstract takes me many tries. I'll throw a few attempts in a markdown file in my repo, and none of them are usually what I end up with. I pick and choose from all the attempts, and assemble them into something I feel good about.

Tip 7: Get feedback from people. Sort the feedback before you address it.

Armed with a rough draft of an abstract, I'll reach out to a few friends, and ask them for feedback. I generally ask a few key people who I know will give me the kind of feedback I'm looking for. It takes time to determine who you can trust to give you good feedback, but it's worth the effort to find out.

When you get helpful, constructive feedback, it helps you improve your ideas & abstracts tremendously. But even with feedback from people you trust, not all feedback is worth addressing.

Sometimes, you get feedback that is more about the person giving the feedback, and less about your abstract. It could be a suggestion that you rewrite your talk to be about something they're more interested in. It might be that their past experiences influence their opinions of what you've written. Feedback from friends almost always comes from good intentions - but I've found it important to sort the feedback I get. I will generally only address feedback with the following characteristics:

  1. It is definitely about my idea or abstract.
  2. It is specific. We have an idea on how I can improve it, or we can at least identify what the problem is.
  3. It is more than just an opinion.

This is not to say that I don't like feedback - I love it. I'll continue to ask for feedback, and you should too. It's just important to recognize when it is actually something you can/should address.

Tip 8: Remember that your talk is for the audience.

As I'm turning my outline into a full-length talk, I often have to remind myself that the talk isn't for me - it's for the people listening. Even if it's a story I'm telling about my experiences, people aren't listening to me - they are listening to my message. They aren't interested in how I got through a problem, they are interested in how my experiences could help them get through their problems.

I focus on optimizing the flow of the information. I want my listeners to digest the topic with as little effort as possible. I once resorted to a card-sorting exercise, because I just couldn't work out the flow.

I want my talks to be (1) clear, (2) inspiring, and (3) entertaining. Making this happen is usually harder than identifying the content & message. I spend a lot of time editing my talk to meet these goals. The attendees paid to be at the conference, though, and I didn't - so any effort I can put in to give them more value is worth it.

Tip 9: The perfect image is hard to find. Make your own!

When my outline approaches "good enough," I finally start to build my slides. I use a tool called RemarkJS for my slides. It's an HTML/CSS/JS-based presentation tool, and it allows me to write all my slides in Markdown. Since I already have an outline in a text file, it's pretty easy to turn that into Markdown slides.

As I'm doing this, I start thinking about imagery. Images add a lot to your slides, but they have to be the right images. Showing an unrelated image can distract listeners - they spend time trying to decipher how the image relates, instead of listening to you.

I've spent a lot of time looking for the right images.

Early on, I would do an image search on Google. This takes more time than you think - especially if you're looking for something specific.

I've used sites like Unsplash, Pexels, and Flickr, and these all have great images. They still take a lot of time when you're looking for something specific, though.

Inspired by David Neal, I started drawing my own images on an iPad. Initially, they were bad. Even today, many of them are not great. But they add two major benefits to my talks:

  1. They add a personal touch to the slides. People overwhelmingly appreciate this, and comment on it often.
  2. I spend significantly less time drawing all my images than I spent searching for them.

Sometimes I get to a point in my slide preparation where all I want to do is draw images. It's therapeutic, and it breaks up the monotony of building out slides and practicing.

My oven sets off a smoke alarm every time I cook a pizza. Seriously, though. Try to find a good image of an oven that sets off a smoke alarm every time you cook a pizza in it.

Tip 10: Find The Way That Works For You

If you're interested in presenting at tech meetups and conferences, or getting better, you should watch this video from MSDN. There are a ton of good tips in it, but my favorite that comes out of it is from Scott Hanselman -

Find the way that works for you, and do it unapologetically.

This applies to so much more than just speaking, but it is definitely applicable here. In the past couple years, I've watched more videos and read more tweets and articles about speaking than 99% of the world. The one thing I can say for certain is that the process is different for everyone.

I effectively script every talk that I do. I rely on my notes as I speak. I don't read them word for word, but I have thought through almost every word I'm going to say ahead of time. I do this because I'm afraid that if I ramble, I'm going to say things I regret. Scripting your talk goes against almost every speaker's advice. But it works for me, because it makes me feel more comfortable when I'm up there, and I can deliver those lines without sounding like a robot. (I think.)

I also don't practice very much. This also goes against most speakers' advice. Many even say "you should practice so much you're bored with your talk." But I spend so much time with the ideas bouncing around in my brain, and editing my outline, and editing my outline some more, that I don't feel like I need a ton of practice. By the time I've actually built my slide deck, I know most of the content pretty well.

And really, that's all that matters when you're writing a talk - do what works for you. If you don't know what works for you, try some things that you think might. You'll find out pretty quickly if they don't.

Different strokes for different folks, as they say.