Preparing a Talk in Pieces

Preparing talk can be really overwhelming. As a rule, I expect to spend an hour preparing for every minute I spend speaking. When a slot gets over 30 minutes… that starts to look like very nearly a full working week. This is an intimidating amount of time to find and clearly being organised and starting early is key.

Step 1: Topic

The beginning of any talk – what is something that I think I can prepare something about, that will be interesting, useful (and entertaining!) to the people watching it? This normally starts from conversations with friends or at work, usually things that I turn into blogposts to test whether people will be interested. Generally I start thinking about a topic the year before I expect to give it.

Step 2: Structure

This is always the hardest part for me, and until I have figured this bit out, I have no idea where to “begin”. How am I going to break the topic down? How will the pieces build upon and relate to each other? Like a UI, I build my talks on grids so this bit is really important.

Normally I figure this out on a long walk – or six. I spend weeks thinking out and angsting, carve out time to wander around (or swim!) and think about it. And eventually it becomes clear and I frantically drop it in a Simplenote document. Phew.

Because I have someone else make my slide decks, at this point I can get them involved in putting the deck together. My MVS (minimum viable slides) are one for each point in the structure, and a template for any other data or photos I want to show.

Step 3: The Pieces

Once things are broken down, I have less-intimidating pieces I can think about individually. For the talk I just prepared (YOLO Releases Considered Harmful) I wrote a blogpost about each section and published one a week in as I prepared. This meant I was carving 2-3 hours for each post, getting the ideas out and getting feedback. It meant even when everything was hectic and I felt like I didn’t have the time or headspace to think about The Looming Event, I could still feel like I was making progress on it.

Step 4: The Intro

This is where things start to feel overwhelming again. I try to step back from the pieces and remember why I wanted to give this talk in the first place. What does it have to offer this audience? How can I make it clear that I am a good person to give it, but subtly, because I will never get on stage and recite a list of accomplishments. How can I introduce the metaphor that ties the whole thing together?

This bit keeps me awake at night talking to myself (very healthy). It’s another time to take a long walk -or go swimming! Last time I felt like I broke through this bit on a day when I spent ~5 hours walking all over Milan.

Step 5: Putting it Together

Now I need a bit more headspace to put things together and think about it as one thing. I put all my pieces in a document, add my intro, and start going through it. At first I read it normally, but soon move to reading it aloud. Is this the way I would say it? Does it flow? I edit it to make it flow, to remove things that are unnecessary, and start putting it with my slides to see how they go together. I check my timing to make sure it’s looking reasonable, and figure out what extra slides I want.

Step 6: The Ending

Now that I’ve looked at it all together – how do I finish? The ending needs to tie it all together and connect to the intro. A good time for another long walk…

Step 7: Practise Practise Practise

The most important bit! I give my talk again and again until it seems natural.

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