Are you thinking about giving a talk but unsure where to start? That’s usually how I feel at the beginning of my preparation. I’ve given a few talks and I feel like I learn something new every time. It can be intimidating to go from idea to presentation, so I’d like to share my current process. I typically follow these steps:

  1. Pick a topic.
  2. Write about it.
  3. Pick the points you want the audience to come away with.
  4. Write the outline on paper
  5. Prepare a first draft of slides.
  6. Try to give the talk aloud, warts and all.
  7. Research areas where the talk needs work.
  8. Practice more.
  9. Finalize slides.
  10. Practice as much as possible.
  11. Give the talk!

No one has ever said “It’s a simple 11 point plan!” and meant it. That said, most of these go by quickly. Let’s go into each item in detail.

Pick a Topic

I sometimes get stuck when I try to come up with a topic. Good news: You do not have to be an expert to give a talk!

I pick topics I feel like I know but want to learn more about. The topics I’ve chosen tend to come from one of the following:

  1. A question someone has asked me (e.g. How do we write good tests for code?)
  2. Something I had to figure out (e.g. How do I do code reviews?)
  3. Something I’d like to learn more about (e.g. What should I know about application security?)

I find that presenting a topic cements learning and helps me feel more like an expert in that area once I’m done.

Write About It

I like to write a long-form blog post on the topic before I continue. This offers some benefits that make the rest of the process easier:

  1. You’re get to consider what you think is important about the topic.
  2. You get early feedback.
  3. You can later point talk attendees to additional material if they’d like to learn more.
  4. You gain confidence on the subject.
  5. You find out if other people have interest in your topic.

When giving a talk, my goal is to cover a broad idea in a way that sticks with the audience. Blog posts, however, can go into more detail and serve as a reference.

For example, I wrote about code reviews before I gave a talk on them. My talk covered many of the same points but it also provided more context and personal examples.

If you can, seek out feedback on your blog post. I find it’s gentler to correct mistakes at this stage than in later ones.

Pick the Primary Points

Great talks contain a few simple points. A common recommendation I’ve read is that you should pick the central idea that you’d like people to leave with and perhaps 2-3 points that support it. Anything else and it can be hard to remember.

Picking the primary focus of your talk allows you to streamline. The typical 30 minute slot will not be long enough to go into depth on a topic. That’s okay.

Writing out your ideas on paper allows you to see which ones you feel strongly about and something about writing on paper helps me condense ideas more effectively. I’ll usually write too much and then edit it down later.

Write the Rough Outline

The outline is a simpler version of the blog post that we completed earlier. I include as many anecdotes and personal stories as possible in the outline so I remember to include them in the talk. This is not something I release so I don’t bother to editing or filling it in completely.

Prepare a First Draft of the Slides

At this point, I like to create the first pass on the slides. I use big text and no more than a few words per slide. The less text that you can put on the slides, the better. It becomes too tempting to read slides and that can prevent you from connecting with the audience.

If I’m giving a 30 minute talk, I aim for something like 30-60 slides. The style doesn’t matter because the slides will probably change.

Practice the Talk Out Loud

I find the first read of a talk intimidating because it tells me how well prepared I feel and what areas need improvement. I time myself and advance through my slides as I talk. Sometimes I’ll make notes as I go if I feel particularly stuck. After I do a runthrough, I make notes about what felt weak and what felt good.

Research Weak Spots

What academic articles are available on my topic? Are there other blog posts? Have others given recorded talks that I can watch? After I finish the research, I continue adding slides where I need help and removing ones that feel extraneous.

Practice More

I like to time the talk and give it aloud as though I were presenting it, usually 2-3 more times. Sometimes I’ll pick a friend to present to them in order to get some feedback on the content of the presentation. The slides can still be temporary.

Finalize the Slides

Once I feel good about the presentation’s content, I like to go back through and finalize both the text and the style of the slides. I follow the Zach Holman philosophy of choosing the biggest font you can get away with.

Here’s a couple examples from my previous talks:

One Final Practice

I do one practice with the final slides. Presenting it to a small group can be a great confidence builder. If that’s not possible, I practice and time it without stopping for any reason. I think recovering from problems can be as important as how delivering the content, particularly in front of others.

Give the Talk!

The easy part.

If you’ve practiced the talk 4-5 times, you should have it down by this point. It’s nerve-wracking to wait before getting up to give a talk but I find that once I start, it feels natural. Some important points to remember during the talk itself:

  • Slow down.
  • Speak clearly.
  • Make eye contact.

Questions usually follow the talk but they’re not as scary as you might imagine. I like questions. It shows where I could improve or clarify the presentation in the future. Leave a few minutes for discussion and be sure to repeat the questions that are asked.

Bonus: Post the Slides Online

Attendees may want to refer to them or you may find yourself referencing the slides for a post like this one!

Thanks for reading, I hope that’s helpful if you’re planning to prepare a talk. If you have questions about what would make a good topic or you get stuck, please feel free to contact me! I’d love to help.

Other References