Preparing a conference talk
While I was putting the talk together, I posted some pictures of my talk preparation process. People seemed to be quite interested in that peek behind the curtain, so I thought I’d jot down the process I used.
There are two aspects to preparing a talk: the content and the presentation. I like to keep the preparation of those two parts separate. It’s kind of like writing: instead of writing and editing at the same time, it’s more productive to write any old crap first (to get it out of your head) and then go back and edit—”write drunk and edit sober”. Separating out those two mindsets allows you to concentrate on the task at hand.
So, to begin with, I’m not thinking about how I’m going to present the material at all. I’m only concerned with what I want to say.
When it comes to preparing the subject matter for a talk, step number zero is to banish your inner critic. You know who I mean. That little asshole with the sneering voice that says things like “you’re not qualified to talk about this” or “everything has already been said.” Find a way to realise that this demon is a) speaking from inside your head and b) not real. Maybe trying drawing your inner critic. Ridiculous? Yes. Yes, it is.
Alright, time to start. There’s nothing more intimidating than a blank slidedeck, except maybe a blank Photoshop file, or a blank word processing document. In each of those cases, I find that starting with software is rarely a good idea. Paper is your friend.
I get a piece of A3 paper and start scribbling out a mind map. “Mind map” is a somewhat grandiose term for what is effectively a lo-fi crazy wall.
The idea here is to get everything out of my head. Don’t self-censor. At this stage, there are no bad ideas. This is a “yes, and…” exercise, not a “no, but…” exercise. Divergent, not convergent.
Not everything will make it into the final talk. That’s okay. In fact, I often find that there’s one thing that I’m really attached to, that I’m certain will be in the talk, that doesn’t make the cut. Kill your darlings.
I used to do this mind-mapping step by opening a text file and dumping my thoughts into it. I told myself that they were in no particular order, but because a text file reads left to right and top to bottom, they are in an order, whether I intended it or not. By using a big sheet of paper, I can genuinely get things down in a disconnected way (and later, I can literally start drawing connections).
For this particular talk, I knew that the subject matter would be something to do with web standards. I brain-dumped every vague thought I had about standards in general.
The next step is what I call chunking. I start to group related ideas together. Then I give a label to each of these chunks. Personally, I like to use a post-it note per chunk. I put one word or phrase on the post-it note, but it could just as easily be a doodle. The important thing is that you know what the word or doodle represents. Each chunk should represent a self-contained little topic that you might talk about for 3 to 5 minutes.
At this point, I can start thinking about the structure of the talk: “Should I start with this topic? Or should I put that in the middle?” The cost of changing my mind is minimal—I’m just moving post-it notes around.
With topics broken down into chunks like this, I can flesh out each one. The nice thing about this is that I’ve taken one big overwhelming task—prepare a presentation!—and I’ve broken it down into smaller, more manageable tasks. I can take a random post-it note and set myself, say, ten or fifteen minutes to jot down an explanation of it.
The explanation could just be bullet points. For this particular talk, I decided to write full sentences.
Even though, in this case, I was writing out my thoughts word for word, I still kept the topics in separate files. That way, I can still move things around easily.
Crafting the narrative structure of a talk is the part I find most challenging …but it’s also the most rewarding. By having the content chunked up like this, I can experiment with different structures. I like to try out different narrative techniques from books and films, like say, flashback: find the most exciting part of the talk; start with that, and then give the backstory that led up to it. That’s just one example. There are many possible narrative stuctures.
What I definitely don’t do is enact the advice that everyone is given for their college presentations:
- say what you’re going to say,
- say it, and
- recap what you’ve said.
To me, that’s the equivalent of showing an audience the trailer for a film right before watching the film …and then reading a review of the film right after watching it. Just play the film! Give the audience some credit—assume the audience has no knowledge but infinite intelligence.
Oh, and there’s one easy solution to cracking the narrative problem: make a list. If you’ve got 7 chunks, you can always give a talk on “Seven things about whatever” …but it’s a bit of a cop-out. I mean, most films have a three-act structure, but they don’t start the film by telling the audience that, and they don’t point out when one act finishes and another begins. I think it’s much more satisfying—albeit more challenging—to find a way to segue from chunk to chunk.
Finding the narrative thread is tricky work, but at least, by this point, it’s its own separate task: if I had tried to figure out the narrative thread at the start of the process, or even when I was chunking things out, it would’ve been overwhelming. Now it’s just the next task in my to-do list.
I suppose, at this point, I might as well make some slides.
I’m not trying to be dismissive of slides—I think having nice slides is a very good thing. But I do think that they can become the “busy work” of preparing a presentation. If I start on the slides too soon, I find they’ll take up all my time. I think it’s far more important to devote time to the content and structure of the talk. The slides should illustrate the talk …but the slides are not the talk.
If you don’t think of the slides as being subservient to the talk, there’s a danger that you’ll end up with a slidedeck that’s more for the speaker’s benefit than the audience’s.
It’s all too easy to use the slides as a defence mechanism. You’re in a room full of people looking towards you. It’s perfectly reasonable for your brain to scream, “Don’t look at me! Look at the slides!” But taken too far, that can be interpreted as “Don’t listen to me!”
For this particular talk, there were moments when I wanted to make sure the audience was focused on some key point I was making. I decided that having no slide at all was the best way of driving home my point.
But slidedeck style is quite a personal thing, so use whatever works for you.
It’s a similar story with presentation style. Apart from some general good advice—like, speak clearly—the way you present should be as unique as you are. I have just one piece of advice, and it’s this: read Demystifying Public Speaking by Lara Hogan—it’s really, really good!
(I had to apologise to Lara last time I saw her, because I really wanted her to sign my copy of her book …but I didn’t have it, because it’s easily the book I’ve loaned out to other people the most.)
I did a good few run-throughs of my talk. There were a few sentences that sounded fine written down, but were really clumsy to say out loud. It reminded me of what Harrison Ford told George Lucas during the filming of Star Wars: “You can type this shit, George, but you can’t say it.”
I gave a final run-through at work to some of my Clearleft colleagues. To be honest, I find that more nerve-wracking than speaking on a stage in front of a big room full of strangers. I think it’s something to do with the presentation of self.
Finally, the day of the conference rolled around, and I was feeling pretty comfortable with my material. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. You can read The Web Is Agreement, and you can look at the slides, but as with any conference talk, you kinda had to be there.