Preparing a talk: before you start



I've given a number of talks, and over the years I've made the journey from completely unprepared to mostly knowing what I'm doing. After a lot of trial and error, I've settled into a routine that works for me. This has been the advice I've given to a number of folks who are looking to start speaking, or improve their existing technique.

Empty Auditorium, Flickr image CC-BY-2.0

I'll break it down into three posts:

Pre-work

Whether you have a date for your next talk, or are thinking about proposing your very first, there are a variety of ways to do some research and give yourself the mental framework that you'll need to prepare yourself. This is what I do before I even start writing a talk for a specific conference or meetup.

Listen to Talks

While a meetup's theme or conference's selection committee may change, videos, slides, or descriptions from previous talks can give you a pretty good idea of what they are looking for from proposals. This can help you dial in the level of technical detail and polish to put on your presentation. The caveat here is that you shouldn't let this dictate your submission! Don't be afraid to push the envelope in any direction.

Outside of knowing what to submit yourself, listening to other people present is a great way of finding your own speaking style. Make notes about what kind of:

  • Storytelling approaches you like (lessons learned, "here's something I did!", best practices, etc...)
  • Speaking styles that resonate with you (formal/informal, witty/dry, etc...)
  • Balance between slides and code/demo that feels natural

That can give you a starting point for when you're putting together your own presentations. However there may be some styles that you love, but that you don't feel comfortable emulating. That's reasonable. Sometimes part of the reason we love certain styles is because we can't pull them off. Just sit back and enjoy those.

Read the Track Descriptions

Listening to talks is all well and good, but just because the previous year had lots of talks on orchestration doesn't mean that's what the committee wants for the upcoming one. Most conferences will publish track descriptions or themes for their calls for participation (CFPs). Read them! Not only may they give you ideas for your talk, which is good if you're starting from scratch, but also help you better refine your existing proposal.

The same as when applying to jobs, feel free to propose a talk that doesn't fit 100% within a track. While organizers and selection committees put a lot of thought into their tracks, they can't put every edge case into the descriptions. Stay within the spirit of the themes, but remember that coloring a bit outside of the lines is encouraged.

Melting Colored Pencil, Flickr image CC-BY-2.0

Submit an Abstract

I personally detest writing abstracts. I like lots of words in things and you can't do that in an abstract.

Trivia: this blog post was actually going to be about three times as long as it is. Instead of editing a lot out of it, I just split it up into multiple posts!

That said, it's a great way to refine the topic for your talk. Many conferences now have office hours or folks otherwise helping speakers craft proposals. This is a fantastic resource that I've heard works out really well for speakers, especially new ones. Many conferences have sample abstracts for you to review, and of course you can look at abstracts from prior years.

I have a document that I fork for each conference proposal: New Talk Template

At the bare minimum, your abstract should give the reviewer a sense of:

  • What you're going to cover
  • Why your topic is interesting and relevant
  • What the audience will have learned at the end of your talk
  • Why you're excited about the topic

It should not:

  • Be a sales pitch for a company or product
  • Use vague language to describe what you will talk about
  • Ignore central points of the track's or conference's theme

Despite being called an "abstract", it should be anything but abstract.

There are a number of better speakers than I who have written guides that help you write abstracts and conference proposals:

Cross your fingers and wait to hear back (and submit other abstracts in the meanwhile)!

Sprouting Through Pavement, Flickr image CC-BY-2.0

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