December 02, 2019

Conference Talk Roadmap

Co-authored by Jordan Thayer and Robert Herbig

Presenting information to your peers is an important part of an any career, especially engineering:

  • Teaching a subject reinforces your own understanding and mastery
  • Presentation and communication skills are essential to team based work
  • Sharing knowledge helps improve the teams you’re working on
  • It helps bring in new business (which keeps us all employed!)

Maybe you don’t feel like you have anything interesting to say. You do. Any idea is valuable to share given the right audience. We’ll present some ways to develop your ideas and find an appropriate venue.

Maybe you don’t feel like you have time to prepare a talk. Giving a good talk does take time, however the time doesn’t need to be spent all at once. You can build a presentation in installments over the course of weeks or months. Most companies have activities that support this piecemeal construction of presentation material.

The Roadmap

We, the authors, think of a conference talk as the capstone to a larger process:

  1. Have an idea
  2. Record an idea
  3. Expand an idea into a lightning talk
  4. Expand the lightning talk into a blog post
  5. Expand the blog post into a long talk
  6. Give the talk internally (e.g. brown bag or lunch and learn)
  7. Give the talk externally (e.g. meetup or conference)

Every step of the process is worthwhile. At every step, you have produced something of value. This process is meant to be interruptible and resumable. It starts with having something worth talking about (which everyone does!).

Have Your Thought

Start with an idea. You are the expert on this idea. You don’t have to be an expert on everything about the topic, just your experience with it. That experience is yours alone and no one else’s.

If you feel like you don’t have an idea, here are some prompts that might help you elicit yours:

  • What are you doing that you haven’t seen a team do before?
  • What are you doing that you think others would be excited to learn about?
  • What is your team doing that may surprise or interest other teams, or what are you doing on this team that you haven’t done on any others you’ve been on?
  • What of those things do you think you should share with other teams?

Collect Your Thoughts

The key to building a talk over weeks or months is to be able to put it down and then later pick up where you left off. Otherwise spreading effort out will just end up being wasting effort, as you struggle to find your place from when you last left off.

There are lots of things that you could put in your repository. We’ve found the following organizational structure helpful:

  • A document that captures a collection of ideas
  • A set of personas to help us target and refine our presentations
  • A directory for pitches, organized by topic
  • A directory for short presentations (e.g. lightning talks)
  • A directory for blog entries
  • A directory for long talks

The first two elements are what we use when we’re deciding what we should start next. We pick a topic that we feel is particularly important and an audience that we’re especially interested in reaching today. Then we start in on the writing.

Giving A Lightning Talk

Often, a topic and a few related thoughts are enough to give a lightning talk. Ten minutes may sound like a lot before you get in front of a group, but it’s shockingly short once you’re speaking to something you’re interested in. If you spend three minutes explaining the problem, three minutes explaining your approach to it, and three minutes describing why that was better than what you used to do, you’ve got just one minute left over.

That leftover minute is for audience interaction. It’s important to pay attention to how the audience reacts and what questions they ask. This gives you important guidance for your blog post.

Expanding the Talk into a Post

If ten minutes is short, three minutes should be positively claustrophobic. It is critical to stay on point, focusing pretty much only on the central point of each part of the lightning talk. This focus is good for the lightning talk, but it also serves to produce an outline for the blog post. You’ve already done the hard work of distilling your thoughts down to a small number of the most important, salient points. That’s where you start writing from; that’s your outline.

The next step is to supplement those points with supporting facts to flesh out the blog post. Be sure to address any questions that came up during the lightning talk and expand upon any areas that the audience was particularly interested in. Make sure that your supporting facts do not distract from the central topic. A quick check is: if this was left out, would the reader still come to the conclusion we want them to?

It’s important not to stall out here. Don’t wait until the blog post is perfect, just wait until it’s complete. You want feedback on your writing. The best feedback is going to come from people who are already immersed in the topic. For example, the people that attended your lightning talk. If you get that post out there while the talk is still fresh in their mind, you’re going to get more pointed feedback from your readers. The more direct and specific the feedback, the easier it is to take action based on it.

Find an appropriate external venue

Give a Brown Bag

Our brown bags are thirty minute talks given to our colleagues within the company. Thirty minutes may sound like a lot of time to speak. It is, and it isn’t. In thirty minutes, you can get into detail on a topic everyone already knows about. Or, you can cover some of the most important points of a topic that most people aren’t familiar with. The thing is, you’re not going to make anyone an expert on a subject in half an hour. At best, you can tell a story and convince them that they should invest more time in getting a better understanding.

The lightning talk or blog post can serve as a starting point for the brown bag. Previously we recommended splitting the talk into thirds: what is the problem, how do you solve it, how is that an improvement. That’s still a viable approach, but you may find the following breakdowns attractive as well:

Template 1

  • What is the problem?
    • Who has the problem?
    • What’s the cost of not addressing the problem?
  • How do we solve it?
    • What are the techniques for solving it?
    • What are the trade-offs?
    • What have we used to date?

Template 2

  • What is the problem?
    • What lead to the problem?
    • Who typically follows this trajectory?
  • How do you solve the problem?
    • When can you intervene?
    • What interventions are appropriate when?
    • When is it too early to solve? When is it too late?
  • How can you recognize these problems?

Template 3

  • What is the technique?
    • What is it’s history?
    • What are common misinterpretations of it?
  • Where can it be applied?
    • What are some successful case studies?
    • What are some failed examples?
    • What’s the most common misapplication?
  • How do we apply it?
  • Where can we learn more?

Even if none of the above templates are a good fit for your talk, notice that all of the above are phrased in the form of questions. We find it helpful to think about a talk, from start to finish, in terms of what we want the audience to come away with. The templates above are motivated by thinking about which questions we’d like the audience to be able to answer about a topic after listening to our talk.

Once you’ve figured out what you want the audience to take away and, roughly, what you’d like to present, it’s time to fill out the rough draft. The lightning talk and the blog post should go a long way towards filling in the material for your presentation; you should be able to reuse some of the slides from the lightning talk, and if you made any visualizations or included any pictures in your blog post, those are good candidates for inclusion in the brown bag.

We suggest that you never give the first rendition of your talk to a live audience, even an incredibly friendly audience like the kind we have in house. Instead, give the first version of your talk to an empty room. There are three reasons for this:

  • Estimating the duration of a slide is hard
  • Your script will refine itself with each pass
  • Some issues are only obvious when speaking to a slide

Your talk will improve with repeated presentations. Get the rockiest presentation out of the way before you’re in front of a group. This lets you get better feedback when you do the next dry run in front of an audience of one or two others. This serves two purposes: it provides outside perspective on what isn’t obvious to a non-expert, and it gives you feedback on the quality of the presentation overall.

Find an appropriate external venue

Don’t let your talk be done after you present to your colleagues. You want to share those ideas to the rest of your peers within the software development community.

The first step to giving an external talk (e.g. at a meetup or a conference) is finding a venue. There are a variety of mailing lists, aggregators, and services that can point you in the right direction. The tricky part is finding the right venue. Here are the things we consider:

  • Is this the right audience?
    • Are audience members interested in my talk?
    • Am I interested in being known by the audience members?
    • Do I want to be associated with the other presenters?
  • How expensive is it to present here? (your company may cover some of the cost)
    • Travel
    • Registration fees
    • Time away from the office
  • How prestigious is the venue?
    • Who else presents or has presented here?
    • Is this the first year? The tenth?
    • Who are the major sponsors?
    • City-level, Regional, International?

Most conferences will ask for a pitch to evaluate whether or not a talk is appropriate for inclusion in their proceedings. If you’ve been following along with the roadmap, you’ve got a number of sources to help you build the pitch:

  • The lightning talk
  • The introduction of your blog post
  • The outline for your brown bag
  • The introduction of your brown bag

From these, it should be easy to gather the central points of your talk, a description of who the target audience is, and what you expect that audience to gain from the talk. Those are the core components of a solid pitch.

Conclusion

Public speaking engagements are an important part of any career, yes, even yours. They help us hone our communication skills, reinforce our own knowledge on a subject, and improve the community that we work in. Although every presentation you give is the result of substantial investment, you do not need to spend all of the time at once. Spreading out the work reduces how much it impacts other obligations, like project work. Further, it provides more time for feedback and refinement which results in a better presentation overall.