Talking about Talking

john v willshire
Aug 24, 2016 · 8 min read

Six things I find useful for speaking at conferences

Last week, I gave a talk on Metastrategy at The Conference in Malmö. It was the ‘third act’ in a series of talks I’ve given in the last year, and I was very pleased (as much as you ever can be with your own talks) with how it came together. It’s up online already, so you can watch it if you wish, just like my friend Tracey Camilleri did. Now, Tracey is smart, generous and an all-round inspiration, so when she suggests something, I listen.

She wondered how I might think about ‘passing on the learning’ of how to get better at public speaking. It’s also a good suggestion for reflecting on my own practice, and working out what works for me and therefore what to keep thinking about.

So this is the result of thinking it over a bit. It’s six things I can point to in the way I write and give talks, three in the lead up to the talk itself, and three on the day. It’s inspired by Tracey, it’s perhaps useful for you, and it’s good practice for me. Hopefully everyone wins.

  1. Start Physically

When I get asked to talk at a thing about a thing, I will have a raft of ideas flying around of what that talk might contain. Before touching a computer to do that though, I’ll start creating a physical version of the talk.

I find that just sitting with a pen and cards means I can discover the very first version of a talk, without getting caught up in the niceties of chiselling and polishing slides in Keynote.

I use Artefact Cards because (a) we make them and have lots around and (b) they are awesome for this, but anything that allows you to capture small scraps of ideas that you can keep moving around can work; post-its, index cards, whatever your poison…

Artefact Cards of a talk about Artefact Cards.

I *reckon* that anyone can create a version of the talk that they might give in about an hour. Yes, there will be gaps for research and examples, but you’ll get to a stage where you can explain a route through the core argument, and the places you’ll stop on the way.

I find that as long as I’m not distracted, and keep noting ideas, moving things around, examining the basic structure, and running it through in my head, that first physical version gives me two things.

Firstly, it’s an informal version to test with people. Sit round a table with someone who doesn’t mind giving you half an hour, and walk them through what you have so far.

Secondly, it’s basically a ‘jobs to be done’ stack. Each of those individual things needs to be captured on a slide.

2. Slidecraft

The basic way I transfer the ideas in to the presentation is as follows…

i) Take each of those cards, and write out longhand on the slide what the point is.

ii) Copy and paste that text into the notes section, then write a headline style version of it.

iii) Work out what the right picture or illustration is to match the point.

There are some very good stylistic principles for doing this in Russell’s collection of posts, and Alice has taken those and turned it into a white-label slide deck resource to get you started. Rather than cover that stuff, I want to highlight how long it takes me, and why…

I spend a lot of time illustrating presentations with the right thing. Maybe the photo I can find (and attribute) online, the right picture of my own that I have or can set up, some video footage or GIFs that bring the point to life, or some animation I can put together in Keynote which explains a point (the below, for instance, is about the most complex thing I’ve ever attempted).

What I find is that the longer you spend on thinking how to illustrate a point, the more you understand the point is you’re trying to make.

It’s perhaps back to the Richard Sennett point: Making IS Thinking. The longer you spend making the slide, the more you’re thinking about it.

Once you’ve started making the slides as individually compelling, you’ll start to understand how they better fit together…

3. Loops & Callbacks

“A callback, in terms of comedy, is a joke which refers to one previously told in the set. The second joke is often presented in a different context than the one which was used in the initial joke. Callbacks are usually used at or near the end of a set, as the aim is to create the biggest laugh at the end of a comic set. The main principle behind the callback is to make the audience feel a sense of familiarity with the subject matter, as well as with the comedian. It helps to create audience rapport. When the second joke is told, it induces a feeling similar to that of being told a personal or in-joke.” — WIKIPEDIA

I had some presentation training about ten years ago with Chantal Burns, and she talked about the idea of looking at the art of stand-up comedy, and the use of loops and callbacks with presentations. It’s maybe taken me a decade to really realise the wisdom in this, and work out how that structure applies to presentations.

As the passage on ‘callbacks’ above suggests, it’s a device that’s primarily there to create a greater connection with the audience. Rather than strictly with the jokes in presentations, I’ve found it also works well with visual devices, concepts, metaphors and examples… any point you want to reinforce.

As a shorthand, I’d break it down like this. I try and put multiple callbacks throughout a presentation, linking back to other things I’ve talked about earlier. Whereas the loop I consider to be the thing that links the start to the end, reminding people how the whole thing started.

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So by now, I’ll have a presentation worked up and woven together. So here are three things I’ll think about when delivering it…

— — — — — — —

4. Continual Context Adjustment

When I’m there on the day, and unless I’m speaking first, I’ll still be tweaking the presentation. This isn’t because I haven’t done the work beforehand (well, mostly not), but because the things you hear from other speakers matter.

Updating presentations shouldn’t be an issue. Most good conferences nowadays realise that people will want to use their own laptops, or if not then will want to be finessing presentations right up to the last minute. (All conference organisers have no doubt pinned up Chris Noessel’s “on the care and handling of speakers for your event” as a manifesto now).

It’s thinking about callbacks again, but beyond the scope of your own talk.

More than just mentioning people in the talk (which is fine too), if I have time I like to think about structured callbacks to other speakers and ideas from the event. Using pictures of them on stage (and crediting others who’ve taken better pics) is one way, or reshowing models/pictures they’ve referred to helps too.

Callback slide I used for Tricia Wang’s excellent opening talk at The Conference, Malmö

What it starts to build in for the audience, I think, is more of a sense of the threads being knitted together. You were there at the same time they were, so it feels like something we all share. Living in the same context as the audience, and adjusting what you’re saying as you go, makes for a better talk in a better conference.

5. Let a little chaos in

Of course, when it gets to the talk itself, the room suddenly isn’t frozen in amber, waiting for the precise delivery of the idea. THINGS will happen. It may be the intro you get from the host on the day. It may be the reaction of the audience to certain ideas or slides. It may be the technical mishaps that happen around you.

Whatever it is, I now tend to incorporate it somehow, whereas once perhaps I’d have pretended that it wasn’t happening. It is perhaps the sort of thing that comes with experience, but I’d encourage anyone to remember that these people are in the room with you, they know what’s happening, and they’re nice and on your side. Improvising reactions to things that you all see only makes for a more human connection with the audience.

6. Love The Pause

My final point is on delivery. Despite seventeen years down south, I still sound pretty Scottish. And being from near Glasgow, my natural rate of delivery is fairly fast. I had to learn to slow down in order to make sure I was bringing people with me.

Beyond just ‘going more slowly’ though, there’s something more about a variability in pace. And in particular, pausing altogether. Perhaps the initial inspiration was from Rob Poynton, who talks about ‘pauses’ and ‘the least we can do’ a lot.

At first, when I was on stage talking for the first time, I was petrified of soundless, empty space. It felt that I was failing somehow, it looked like I’d forgotten what was coming next. So I would keep talking, running from one point into the next.

More recently, in talks I’ve realised that the pause is a brilliant device. The lack of an immediate sentence afterwards gives a sign to an audience — “that last bit is a bit we should all think about”.

And whilst I could think about them to a certain extent in advance, I realise that I don’t. They’re very much a reaction to how the talk is going, and where the energy seems to be. You’ve got to feel the pause, and live in it when you find one.

— — — — — — — —

As I look back on these six points, neatly divided in two parts between the ‘before’ and ‘on the day’, something else occurs to me.

The first three points are about the methodical preparation, the attention to detail, the absolute craft of constructing the presentation.

And yet the last three points are about improvisation, acting in the moment, making things up, reacting to the audience and the circumstances.

That has a fascinating yin and yang to it. Only by methodically preparing the thing I’m going to talk about, can I be ready to discard bits of it in the moment and do something wholly unprepared.

Hmmmm. There’s probably a talk in that….

Thanks Tracey :)


Writings from Smithery, a Strategic Design Unit in London. We think, talk and work on strategy, design, prototyping, culture and innovation. More at

john v willshire

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Runs Smithery. Makes Artefact Cards. Said 'Make Things People Want' > 'Make People Want Things'.


Writings from Smithery, a Strategic Design Unit in London. We think, talk and work on strategy, design, prototyping, culture and innovation. More at