Tell your talk like a good story

If I had to pick one thing I love and hate at the same time, it would be public speaking. Each time it’s a different adventure. But it always starts with a lot of excitement, until I have a bad feeling and I think I’m going to screw up. However after the talk I can’t wait for the next time because it was again a unique experience.

Two months ago I had the privilege to share the stage with Michael May at MCE⁴ in Warsaw. We wanted to talk about how iOS and Android developers can collaborate to make their product better.
The talk went very well and I am extremely happy and proud that we have the opportunity to present it again in November.
We had the luxury to have 6 months to prepare and these were 6 very busy months. It was a great sharing experience and I personally got to learn a lot.
Michael has a lot of experience in public speaking, he’s given some very inspiring talks.
We quickly noticed that we have very different ways of working. 
I’m very visual, I need to get to the slides as quickly as possible and then I can structure the talk into parts and fill them one after the other. 
Michael sees a talk like a story. He doesn’t really mind starting the slides just a couple of weeks before.

I thought it was an interesting approach and I was happy to try something new. In retrospect I thought it was an awesome preparation and I will definitely do that next time I prepare a talk on my own.

From a chat to a script

We started by just catching up and having a few chats at the pub. That was a great way to brainstorm ideas and exchange how each of us sees the story. We mainly focused on these questions:

  • What do we want to talk about? What would make it unique?
  • What don’t we want to talk about?
  • Who is our audience, what can they learn from our session?

We quickly noticed that we needed some more content to make our story feel more real. From our time working at Songkick, we could share some interesting anecdotes related to us collaborating across platforms for a better product. But we both knew that it wasn’t enough to keep us busy for 45 minutes on a stage. So we needed to trigger something.
That’s how we thought about organising some pairing sessions where we would build simple Android and iOS apps. We got a lot of great situations out of that. It comforted us that we were on the right track and it gave us a few more things to make our talk a bit more meaty.

When we started to have a rough idea of the plan, we decided to create a shared Google doc. We threw some ideas in there, like we would do if we were to write a blog post. Then individually we would develop one idea after the other.

Then at some point, the document started to feel a bit busy. Ideas got repeated here and there and it was hard to know where we were going. So we added more structure with just some titles here and there, and a plan at the beginning. That helped us finding the paragraphs that were too long and those that were irrelevant. It also made us realise that some other parts were not developed enough.

A month before the talk, we were happy to have a fairly complete document. Everything we wanted to talk about was in there. But it felt too much like a novel. Nobody talks like they write. And everyone has their own words. It wouldn’t feel very natural if I had to say a sentence written by Michael, and vice versa. That’s when we decided to convert the story to a script. It took us a few days to assign paragraphs to one or the other and reword our parts with our own words.

Three weeks before the talk we had no keynote, zero slide. But it was not a big deal, converting our script to some slides literally took just a few days. We started by creating a keynote and copying & pasting one sentence/paragraph to a new slide. Then finally we would make the visuals. The funny thing is that sometimes we couldn’t find a good visual. And in fact sometimes it just feels wrong to divert the audience from what you say. At that moment I realised that a talk should not be about the slides, it should be about the story. Slides are only here to support the story. So we left some blank slides when it made sense.

Finally we spent the last weeks practicing, practicing, practicing until the story flows. It’s incredible how the brain works. I was a bit scared that I wouldn’t remember everything in just a few weeks. We built the script like a conversation where we would make jokes, sometimes switch speaker one sentence after the other, it was quite an exercise for me. But practice is all we needed to make it work. The funny thing is that new jokes were coming after we practiced a few times. We got a bit more confident each time and we even got the situation where if one speaker forgets something, the other one can jump in naturally to keep the talk on track.

To be continued…

It was quite a busy process but the result was so great that I would recommend it to anyone who wants to prepare a new talk.
I can’t wait to share again the stage with Michael, I’m sure that new adventure will be at least as amazing as the first one!