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Preparing for conferences

I've been speaking at conferences and meetups on and off for nearly five years now, and a few people have asked me what the process is for preparing a talk. So I thought I'd share how I approach it.

For me, the talk process is a circle:

A circular flow diagram. The top box says "YEAH LET'S DO A TALK!", which flows to a box that says "Oh no, I have to prepare the talk.". That box flows to one that says "This is the worst. I hate this. Why did I agree to this?". The one after that says "Okay! Ready! Let's do this!", and the box after that says "THAT WAS AMAZING! I want to do it again!". That box points back round to the first box, in a circle.
It's the circle of talks.

It repeats around and around forever. There is always a point at which I hate my talk and wish I'd never done it, but there is also always a point where I'm having the time of my life. Giving talks is great fun, but it's also hard work.

(As a sort-of aside: that hard work is why you should never speak at a conference that isn't at least paying for your travel/accommodation or taking you to dinner. Your time is worth money.)

I'll break my process down into a set of steps, but the tl;dr is: practise. Your audience deserve to watch a talk that you've rehearsed and aren't just making up on the spot. Not only will it show if you haven't practised, you're much more likely to run over time as well. The practise part isn't optional!

The timelines are super rough, but generally I'd start around 2-2.5 months before the talk. I've done talks in shorter timeframes than that, but I wouldn't recommend it – taking longer means I don't have to dedicate all of my free time to it, I can space the work out a lot more.

Initial planning: about 8-10 weeks before the conference

To begin with: identify the overarching theme(s) of the talk. What are the main points I want to convey? No more than 3 or 4.

I make short-form notes for content ideas – bullet points or post-it notes – jotting down any ideas that come to mind, and sorting them into themes afterwards.

Previously, I've used notecards blue-tacked to the wall with ideas on, so I can shuffle them around and group them.

At this point, I'll also do research. Depending on the topic, I might read blog posts, articles, I even read someone's PhD thesis once. I might pull out some good quotes, or just write down some general ideas from those.

Content: about 6-8 weeks before

Taking my notes, and writing more detail for each point in a Notion doc. What do I have to say about each of these ideas? Sometimes I spot how they flow into each other, or I might find that one of them doesn't fit with the others any more after I've written some blurb.

I treat it a bit like a blog post at this point, writing as if I'm talking to someone. It helps me to solidify my ideas as a talk rather than just random sentences.

Slides: about 4-6 weeks before

Depending on my needs, I'll either use Keynote or Google Slides. I prefer Keynote, but if I need to be able to switch to a browser quickly, Google Slides is better. I used Reveal once which was useful for code and embeds, but it took me ages to build the slides so I probably won't use it very often.

The first version of the slides always has the notes containing the full sentences from the content planning stage, because I'll use these for the first few run-throughs.

If my talk needs any code snippets, I'll screenshot them from VSCode so they look pretty (or, if I'm using Reveal, I'll put them straight in the slides).

This part is also about editing, editing, editing. Especially for shorter talks, it's as much about what you leave out as it is what you put in.

Not gonna lie: at this point I start to hate my talk. I'll come around to it again, but right now I'll be fed up with it and full of regret. It's really hard work, and I find making slides pretty tedious. Prepare to have some moments like this – it will get better, though!

Run-throughs: from 3-4 weeks before

Early on, I'll run my slides through with my husband who's usually pretty good at spotting things that don't fit, or things I can leave out. I always recommend doing a run-through with a partner, friend or colleague!

I sometimes run talks at work as well – we have a weekly slot for engineering talks that anyone can give. If you don't have that, perhaps you could introduce it at your company?

I'll do three or four run-throughs a week, after work, where I shut myself in our little office and just deliver the talk to nobody. When we have a dog staying, it's a bit easier as I can give the talk to him. (He's never particularly interested in what I have to say, though.)

The week of the conference

I don't tend to practise my talk in the days leading up to the conference. Often it's because I'm travelling or busy in the evening with a speakers' dinner. But I also think it'd just stress me out. By the time the conference arrives, I've practised it enough that I feel happy with it.

Delivering the talk

I'm not going to go into a huge amount of detail here – the post I wrote when I was preparing for my first conference in 2018 covers a lot of that ground – but the main thing I've learned is that I get super nervous as I'm waiting to go on stage, and then when I get on stage it just goes away and I have a great time.

If you've practised enough, you shouldn't need to stare at your speaker notes – just glance at them for a prompt. Sometimes you'll find you won't need to look at them at all.

Afterwards, you'll probably feel amazing and want to do more talks, and thus the cycle starts again. (Conference organisers: I'm at my most suggestible in the week after I've just given a talk.)


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