Uncharted Waters

Jul 9 2014   12:30PM GMT

How I get ready for a conference talk

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman

Not just how I get ready for a conference talk, but how I have been getting ready for my first conference talk.

Conference season is in full swing in the software world. For the past few months, I have been spending a little time each week preparing for my first real conference talk at CAST 2014. I’ve done a talk at my local software testers group here in Nashville, and facilitated events quite a few times now, but for me, this is the real deal. The conference isn’t till mid August so I’ve got a little time and some work to do yet but I’ve learned quite a few lessons so far.

2014_CAST_Banner

Research

Research early, research often. Maybe you’re pulling from your body of experience, maybe the material will come from conversations with your peers, or maybe you’ll be spending late nights reading academic texts. I made an attempt to get as many resources together as early as possible. This way I could read, and skim, and catalog stuff to integrate into the presentation and produce a lot of material to work with. A lot of conference talks aren’t just about some theme or subject, people want to hear about experiences and authentic problems. Doing your research early on will help you to massage it into your context and share it in a way that the attendees can relate to.

Outlining

Outlines have been useful for me in a few ways. Initially, I created an outline to help me figure out how to structure the talk. It was pretty sparse: Bio, intro, topic 1, topic 2, …. Along the way, I discovered that they are also helpful for remembering the content and working on timing. If you’re like me and just now dipping your toes into the conference talk waters, your brain might conspire against you when the time comes. I’m hoping a good outline and maybe some light note cards will help me though that.

Iterating

I’m using some lean / agile development principles to create this talk. I started by creating an absolute minimum viable product (slide deck, some ideas I want to talk about, and a few stories) and presented that to some friends for feedback. Boy , did I get feedback.  With that feedback, I’m going to go back over my work, review and rework and try to produce something better. I’m planning to do this a couple more times before the big show.

Dry run with friends

This one was really helpful for me. After creating a very early version of the slides and notes, I did a Google + hangout with some friends and they were able to give some great candid feedback. The first version of the talk was a little fragmented, there were starts and stops, parts where I had to look at a note real quick to get back on track, and some parts that didn’t transition the way they did in my head. That’s ok though, that happening in front of a few colleagues and friends is no big deal. This also helps to work out timing and helps you figure out what you are actually going to be saying for that 30 or 40 minutes. I’m going to do this at least two more times. As I get more experience with doing conference talks, maybe I won’t need so many dry runs. One other option in a similar vein would be to give the talk to a local group before you get to the big conference.

Grouping lightening talks

Lightening talks are a popular format for local tech interest groups. The general idea is that you have a group of people interested in talking, each prepares a 5 or 10 minute talk (maybe a little less if you want to build in Q&A time) and then the presenters give their talks one after another. This is a great way to get variety into a meeting. If you’ve done a few different lightening talks on a theme, you pretty much have a talk together already. Just combine a few talks and like magic (well, maybe not that easily) you have a conference talk ready to go. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a set of lightening talks to pull from, but I’ll definitely be considering this for future talks.

The real deal

All this stuff combined probably won’t end up in a perfect conference talk, frankly, I’m not even sure what that would look like. But, you know what they say, fortune favors the bold.

Now what I need is a way to get over the nerves and deliver the talk without stumbling.

There’s still time.

5  Comments on this Post

 
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  • dsynadinos
    Good post!  I'm in the exact same boat right now...slowly prepping for http://kwsqa.org/conference/ in October.  I've done some (and will try other) things you mentioned above.  My wife told me "don't start too early" since I'd likely obsess over it trying to make it "perfect".
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  • Justin Rohrman
    Nice! I'm happy this was helpful. I discovered one more thing this morning while driving into work. A commute, even if it is pretty short, is a great time to turn off the radio and rehearse parts of the talk. My commute is only 10 or 15 minutes depending on traffic, but that is enough to do segments. 

    Your wife might be on to something, I'm in full obsession mode right now.
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  • thiscapfan
    I have made many presentations over the  years (I will let others decide whether any of them were any good or not).

    A few other thoughts ...

    (1) Spend a few minutes thinking about your presentation from the perspective of the audience. Why are they there? What are they looking to learn? Is there a different way of looking at the subject matter than they might have thought of.

    (2) Does your presentation provide them with usable action steps?

    (3) If possible draw upon specific examples from your experiences. There is a reason why you were chosen to speak.

    (4) Frame your presentation at the beginning, follow the classical tell them what you are going to say, tell them, then summarize what you told them. Get rid of stuff that is unrelated.

    (5) Assume 2-3 minutes/slide. Many people assume they will go faster than that (less minutes/slide), but they are almost always wrong.

    (6) Be enthusiastic, have fun
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  • Michael Tidmarsh
    Congratulations on your first conference talk Justin! For me personally, I feel research is the most important component. If you don't know what you're talking about, you won't be invited back.
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  • jcoyle
    I've always lived by the mantra of speaking about what you know best versus learning things specifically for a presentation.  Nothing is more obvious than a speaker who really doesn't know anything outside of the slides and/or hasn't lived in the world where they are representing.

    Of course, the other two sins are verbalizing/reading a slide deck in a monotone AND backpedaling ---- not owning your advice and second-guessing your statements.

    Good luck!


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