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If you are thinking "I want to give a talk at a conference / event / workshop", I have some tips for you. Well, they aren't from me; they are from a workshop called "A talk about talks" that our fearless leader and frequent public speaker Peldi gave us during our 2014 Company Retreat.
Let me break it down for you. Here are Peldi's 15 steps for a successful conference talk:
Image credit: ©John M. P. Knox
Sadly, judging from most conferences' "Speakers" pages, the first step to be invited to speak is to be male, white, tall and in your early thirties. Things are changing though, and hopefully we'll all be able to go to better, more diverse conferences.
One good way to get invited is to write a blog. Blogging is the easiest and fastest way to get noticed.
You can also straight-up ask to be invited. If you love a conference and you are dying to speak at it, flat out ask the organizers. Peldi did this for Business of Software, and asked Neil Davidson: "What do I have to do in life to be able to speak at BoS?". And he did it! Peldi gave his first talk Do worry...Be happy! at BoS in 2010, and that was the beginning of his public speaking "career".
Tip: If you are not famous, start by going to talk where no one else wants to go to, because it's far away or not in a sexy location. This will be great practice for you, and once you speak at a conference, you can put “Public Speaker” on your Linkedin profile and signature! Remember, conference organizers are always looking for speakers.
The worse thing you can do on stage is to do a sales pitch for your product or yourself. Instead, talk about something that people clearly want to hear about; for example, your talk could be based on your blog's most popular post(s).
After a while you might get invited to speak just because you are well known; in that case, ask the organizers what they would like you to talk about and send them a few topic ideas.
Tip: Send the organizers your talk’s outline at least two or three times. Work on it together. The worst thing you can do is go to the conference and disappoint the organizers.
Who attends this event? What kind of people are they? What do they do? These questions help you set the register, the tone and the language to use. Don't forget to ask the organizers about it; usually they have data from the previous years.
It is equally important to know why are they going to that conference. Put yourself in their shoes: if you were to go as an attendee, what would you want to learn?
Lastly, answer this question: what do you wish someone had told you when you were just getting started? Don’t forget that a lot of people that go to conferences are less experienced than you, otherwise, you wouldn't be the one giving a talk. In a way, your job is to try to remember what it was like when you first started getting interested in that topic and the things you were googling, the things you wanted to know...
Tip: Go the extra mile and think about any shortcut you can provide to your audience about your experience on that topic; they will be thankful for that.
Peldi usually describes his process in this way: first, ideas come up in his head and then they go to his belly and they ripen; there is a "pregnancy" stage that could last one or two months, depending on how much time he has.
Let it simmer, don’t rush it out. And then you will feel one day it wants to come out. That is when Peldi opens Keynote, and in 1 hour he has all the structure down!
When you go to Keynote, the first step is make one slide per bullet, then save and close; within a minute you will open it again! The very first days are all about opening and closing Keynote. By putting your talk down in a structure it will help you think through and come up with ideas.
You’ll get more and more ideas over time; add them to Keynote as they come.
Here is the classic structure of a talk:
It's a good start, but remember Kathy Sierra's advice: your goal should be to make your audience awesome. This means that talking about yourself and how great YOU are is just a waste of people's time. Jump straight into the content instead to maximize time for things that will help your audience.
So here are better and better structures:
It has to include:
People have already read your bio in the conference program guide, you don't need to prove to them that you deserve to be on stage. Plus it's much better to let the content speak for itself.
If you don't want to skip this slide altogether, you should make it very quick, as it makes you look sales-y and possibly insecure.
Aristotle's advice is to "tell them what you're going to tell them", but I suggest skipping a TOC altogether. People don't have time and it takes away any surprise you might have during the talk.
What Peldi usually does is start dictating rough notes on his phone (because ideas come in every moment of your day, when you are falling asleep or while you are driving). He just puts random things related to the main topic in a note.
Just brainstorm, don't focus on structure yet: structure will emerge later in Keynote or PowerPoint.
Another ancient technique (this time from Cicero) is Captatio Benevolentiae: capture the goodwill of the audience at the beginning of a speech or appeal. Basically the first thing you want to do is to get the audience on your side. One of the easiest ways to achieve that is to make them laugh: start with a joke, or relate to the audience with something you might have in common. You can also make fun of yourself, it shows that you are humble, and it's a safe way to make a joke and not offend anyone.
Not sure what to do? Just add a cat slide! 🙂
If you can't be funny, you can steal other people’s funny stuff:
Just give the author credit in a little note at the bottom of the slide.
Don’t make the audience read your slides, except for short quotes. People can read faster than you can talk, and then you lose them because they are reading your text and in the meantime they try to listen; it doesn't work. So have bullets show up one at the time: in Keynote, use “Appear” > “By Bullet”.
Iterate, at least 5 times, up until the minute you give it. Don’t think that it’s going to be good the first time, this is one of the most iterative things that Peldi knows of. Some organizers say: "Send me your slides 3 weeks before the talk", and Peldi always says "no", because he feels that he's got nothing until the minute he goes on stage. Your answer might be: "The slide will be ready after the talk". There’s always something to change or add!
As you work on your talk, hit play; go left and right. Flip through it over and over! You need to feel the rhythm; it’s a dance, so choreograph it! It’s like a song or a poem, pay attention to the cadence.
Tip: Stub slides with words, then find images or short videos to replace the words to communicate in a more powerful way.
This is the difference between a great speaker and a bad speaker. Show your talk to at least one more person (a colleague? a spouse?): if it’s an important talk, rehearse at least 4 times, 2 of which in front of someone. Even if they have no feedback, it will be useful to you. You don’t really care what they think, but it forces you to go through it. Plus, it’s the only reliable way to know how long the talk will actually take.
Tip: The more you do it, the more you memorize it.
For all the details and more tips, here's Peldi's original slide deck from the Balsamiq retreat about this topic:
Do you have questions, or other tips to share? Post them below!
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Here’s another good article and TEDx talk about this topic, hope it helps!
For the last talk I gave, I tried a variation on #14: I provided the audience with a link to the PDF—including speaker notes—at the *beginning* of the talk. Yeah, it gives the audience spoilers, but if I’m not engaging those listeners in real time, I’d rather they get something out of it. Plus, I script my entire talk in advance, so my speaker notes function as a transcript for people with difficulty hearing (or, for that matter, ADHD). I put that slide before my title slide, with a tinyurl link on it, then (if I can) I talk about something for at least 30 seconds so people have time to jot it down before I proceed.
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