The last few minutes before a talk are the worst, for me. There's nothing to do but wait where I am told to, and feel mildly nauseous.
And then I get up and start talking and after a minute or two the fear is pushed out, replaced by excitement and concentration and enjoyment. Here's how I get from "opportunity to speak" to "rush of relief that it's all done".
Phase 1: The Blender of Planning
Having the chance to give a talk is a big deal, so I want to do a great job. Still, if I'm honest, my very first preparation step is often to think "wow, that's ages away, I've got heaps of time". Cut to a few calendar pages tearing off and spinning around, and then I get to work.
Decide what to talk about
Sometimes I am recommended a topic, sometimes the conference has a broad theme, sometimes it's free choice. Generally there will be some guidelines and a general area to focus on, but my first job is narrowing down to a specific topic.
I'll often mind map it on paper or electronically.
- Which conference or event is this for (what have they asked for? What do they typically cover? Who else is speaking?)
- Who are the audience (what backgrounds will they have? What do they expect? How technical are they? How diverse are their expectations?)
- How much time do I have to speak? A 10 minute talk or a 45m slot or a workshop?
Answering those will give me some boundaries to work in, and I'll usually have a few ideas on what I could cover. I want to be genuinely useful to attendees (or at worst 'not boring'). So it should be a topic I know well and can talk with some authority on, or something I want to understand and am prepared to do a bunch of research on. That second option is harder to do really well.
What's the point?
I've picked my topic and then I want to understand the ultimate point of the talk. I'll try to answer this question:
"After hearing my talk, I want
in the audience to...[do something]"
For example my goal for my Webstock talk was "I want product managers and marketers to truly value their customer service team, and to understand how to access that value for their product"
Produce an initial outline
When I was at school I never really understood outlining; I'd write the whole essay and the produce an outline to satisfy the marking requirements of the school.
Now I have a million more responsibilities in my life and outlining helps me avoid wasted effort.
- I'll start by picking my three or four main points
- I fill in the outline for each section, explaining those points
- Writing as quickly as I can I'll create a rough first draft, so I have something to work with.
Procrastination is a constant threat for me, but I've found that getting any sort of first draft done, no matter how crappy, unblocks the whole process.
For my Webstock talk I was originally planning to talk about ways to help a customer service team perform better, but as I wrote it, I found I was instead explaining how product teams can get at the knowledge locked in the heads of their customer service team.
That kind of shift in focus is pretty normal for me. Almost always I will discover in the first draft a more interesting topic than the one I'd started writing, so I'll adjust the topic and the goal a little.
Then I'll rework the outline and the rough draft to be more focused on this new idea.
First read through
Reading the draft to myself helps me figure out if I have roughly the right length and where the highs and lows are. I love Nancy Duarte's book, Resonate, which is really helpful in recognising the "emotional shape" of a talk.
The actual talk as delivered will be quite different, but I've found I can't skip this writing step without making my life a lot harder.
Building the slides
Now I'll start work on the slides, starting with the key slides that match up with my major talk sections. A few helpful resources:
- noteandpoint for some inspiration, garr reynolds, duarte slide book
Then when I have an idea of the look of those slides I can build out the in between slides, looking to hit key points and to have some moments of surprise, (see photo above) or fun, or interest.
Very often, picking out key points for slides will change the flow of the talk. Sometimes I'll drop whole sections or add new sections as I merge the visual explanation with the verbal.
While I'm building out slides I am also doing practice run throughs (in part or in full), trying to hit that talk goal I've set. I'm listening to myself for weak spots, boring sections, ideas that don't connect with the rest of the talk. It's much easier, for me at least, to hear those moments than to notice them in the written talk.
I might cut out sections that aren't adding anything, replace an example, look for a stronger point. The slides and the words start to evolve together, coupling more tightly as I stop making structural and content changes.
Putting it all together
When things stop changing much, I'll add a few high level speaker notes to each slide - just trigger phrases to remind of my main point, and of what's coming next
From this point on I don't refer to the written version at all, and just speak from the slide deck. Every practice is different, and sometimes I'll accidentally come up with a story or a great link or an example, and I'll write that down. Sometimes I'll end up dropping slides or changing the order.
This phase never ends really, it's only limited by how much time I have (and when I'm forced to hand over my slides). Sometimes I'll run through with a friendly test audience and tweak things.
On the day
On the day of the presentation there is not a lot to do. I make sure I have backup copies of my slides, in different formats. I'll have a print out of the slides as a visual reminder to glance at in the minutes before hand.
Even though I'm nervous and bouncy, I know that I've put in the work and the information is all there. I walk out, and give it my best.