How to write a conference talk
Last week I took the stage at LaraconEU to speak to a crowd of professional developers about feelings and the ever-lasting industry pressure of high performance.
My talk was titled Stop Listening to the Internet*. Throughout it I discussed how to break through these messages and pressures of how to become more successful and valuable in your industry, and focus instead on your unique skillset and qualities.
As a designer I’d be pleased if even just five developers showed up for my talk. Almost all of the talks at the conference had been technical, and as there were two tracks I was pretty confident people would chose that over a ‘feelings talk’.
Thankfully, more than five developers showed up.
At the end more than five developers approached me afterwards either to thank me or ask for my advice.
Rewind 24 hours earlier I was pacing my living room as I practiced in front of my cat. I was changing my slides, trying my best to memorise my talking points and feeling complete imposter syndrome as I tried to remind myself that I had something good to say.
Writing a new talk isn’t easy — there’s a lot of uncertainty. On top of that, it takes time, research and practice. It’s impossible to know what the audience reaction will be. Will they laugh at your jokes? Will they raise their hands when you ask them to? Will they stay the entire 30, 40 or 50 minutes?
It seems like a lot to ask from a room of people.
In light of my recent talk preparation I thought I’d share some advice on creating a talk:
Decide on your message
Having one clear takeaway or message makes for an impactful talk. The best talks I’ve seen are the ones where I leave with that one message that inspires me to make a change.
What is the message you want people to walk away with?
How is your talk going to provide value in people’s lives?
I try and think about what message I want people to walk away with after hearing me speak. Do they feel inspired? Did I challenge their mindset? What and how are they going to implement the learnings from my talk?
Don’t claim to be an expert in something you’re not — stick with what you know and what you believe to be true. It would be wrong for me to stand on stage and talk about the future of VR when I know absolutely nothing about it.
What is something that you’re passionate about, have an interesting view on, or have experience, expertise or insights in? As long as you talk about your own experiences you can’t be wrong.
Whatever your message, choose something you know and believe to be true. People will associate this message with you after they walk away, so consider how you want to impact people.
The earlier you start preparing, the better. Creating a new talk takes a lot longer than you think it will so try to start 1–2 months in advance. This doesn’t mean sitting down and creating slides — in fact that’s almost always the last thing you do (if at all – more on that later).
To start, grab a notebook, pen and highlighter and head to your favourite cafe or focus zone. I like to start by writing down all of my thoughts related to the message I want to deliver — anything I think might have legs or could be of value or interesting for others to learn about.
Don’t worry about the structure of your talk or your introduction. Just start writing ideas. Later on you can refine and piece together how it will flow.
When preparing for a talk you should have already defined your main message. If you’re like me however, often that message expands as I discover I have more to share than I thought I did. That’s ok — this is the time when you can give yourself permission to explore your crazy (and shitty) ideas.
Do your research
Starting early gives you time not only to formulate your own thoughts, but to also gather thoughts and ideas from others. As soon as I knew my message I kept my eyes and ears peeled as I began to gather resources, inspiration, quotes and other material to use in my talk.
It also pays to check your facts and your sources. I tend to take most of my research from books I’ve read. If your facts are coming from a dusty place on the internet make sure you double check them first.
And always, always credit any material used in your talk that’s not yours.
Researching source materials helps bring to bring some unique perspectives or studies to your talk, however it’s also worthwhile to research the conference itself. Who are the attendees? What skills do they have? What time in the day will your talk be? What kind of stage will you be presenting on? What equipment will you have access to?
Define your communication style
As a visual person I love having slides to accompany my talk, however you might not. I’ve been to a few conference talks where the speaker had no slides at all. It was still a fantastic talk.
I’ve also seen people present with cue cards or notes. Each of us has a different way in which we feel comfortable and confident communicating.
I’ve tried two different ways of presenting; memorisation and having speaking notes.
Memorising your talk word for word can help instil confidence in that you know exactly what you’re going to say. However it can also come across as robotic or uninteresting. Memorisation also makes it difficult to adjust on the spot.
For example I was one speaking when loud music accidentally started blasting through the theatre. While it only lasted 5 seconds it was enough to completely throw me off and make me forget where I was. Scramble panic ensued in my head.
For LaraconEu I had speaking notes printed out with me. I’d broken my talk into sections and had written down a few bullet points and key takeaways for each to make sure I touched on the important parts.
Speaking is not a play – it’s not about talking verbatim. It’s about delivering value and providing key takeaways that the audience feels they can implement in their lives.
Find your own way of how you like to communicate best and own it.
Practice, practice, practice!
There’s only one way to deliver a great talk well and that’s to practice. Whether it’s in front of your cat, wall, housemate or partner — practice your talk at least once a day in the week leading up to the event.
You’ll find that delivering a talk out loud sounds very different from inside your head! That’s perfectly normal – you’ll likely find parts that don’t work as you expected, or discover opportunities to go more in depth.
A talk in itself is just the bare bones — being able to present it well is where you can really connect with the members in the audience and deliver your message.
Standing on a grand theatre stage in front of 700 people might feel pretty daunting if it’s your first time speaking (spoiler: it still feels scary even when you’ve done it 100 times).
If you’ve created a brand new talk or haven’t spoken in front of a large crowd before I recommend delivering it first to a small group of people.
Perhaps your could invite your closest friends over or organise an hour session at your workplace to deliver it to your colleagues. Alternatively you could deliver it at a meetup or workshop in your local area.
This is great way to test audience reaction, flow and pace. Take the time afterwards to get some feedback from the attendees and be open to making adjustments to your talk.
Be open to iteration
A perfect conference talk is never created perfectly. Practicing or delivering it to small groups allows you to gather feedback or identify areas that need refinement.
If you can, always get feedback whether verbal or through a feedback form afterwards. While feedback can sometimes be negative, look for the constructive comments and keep an open mind to how your talk could be improved.
Gather feedback from yourself as well. Ask yourself:
- What went well and what didn’t?
- Is the message clear?
- Which areas need expanding on?
- Which ares need to be condensed?
- Are my slides easy to follow?
Stop thinking about making a mistake
A good conference talk is as much about the message as it is about confidence. Knowing your talk well gives you space to connect with your audience.
The biggest fear I hear from people who don’t like public speaking is that they’ll mess up or make a mistake. Remember, the audience wants you to do well!
The audience is not sitting there waiting for you to make a mistake or say the wrong thing. They’ve come out of their way to see you (often paying large amounts of money to do so) and are rooting for you. They want you to deliver a good talk, so think of them as fans rather than enemies.
Speaking at a conference can be daunting, especially if you’re speaking for the first time or delivering a new talk. All of the points above come down to preparation and adaptability. Give yourself the time and space to prepare well in advance, and be open to going with the flow and iterating based on feedback.
PS. If you know someone that might be interested in my talk, please get in touch with me :)