A conference talk is a huge time investment. Forty-five minutes of speaking is probably a rounding error considering time to prepare the content, practice the talk before the conference, travel to the conference venue and back. So if I’m already going to invest a few days and ask hundreds of people to lend me one hour of their life, the more impact on the audience, the better. Here’s how to magnify it.
The nice thing for people speaking at tech conferences is that the bar is incredibly low. The average conference talk is so interesting that the audience is deep into e-mail and twitter even before the presenter is on stage. And I can’t say it’s not justified. Most conference talks out there leave no impact on the audience. As people leave the room, what they heard stays back with the empty chairs. Mix that with the fact that a typical conference runs over several days with parallel tracks that bombard those same people with information, and the end result is just a massive waste of time. Some people take notes, some people tweet, but in reality most of it gets lost. For a speaker who invests a few days of his life into this, that is a real shame.
At the same time, a good conference talk can give an idea a few hundred more interested followers, get people to try out a product, bring consulting work and even speaking engagements. Last year, I earned somewhere between a quarter and a third of all my income doing in-house talks for companies, as a direct result of conference appearances. And roughly half of our new work, for the whole consultancy, comes from people who’ve heard me speak at conferences.
The nice thing is that, in average, the session probably starts with a few hundred people at least mildly curious about the topic. But it’s up to the presenter to make sure they actually heard it. Here are my top 5 tips on how to do that.
Have a single, strong key message, and focus everything on that
A conference is essentially a denial-of-service attack on the brains of the audience. They get bombarded with so much information that the brain stops letting things in, or remembering stuff from the short term cache. When I started presenting at conferences, I’d speak really quickly and take my audience through a torrent of “crucial” information, because there was so much to say about any topic. It took me a while to understand that a one hour slot isn’t really good for in-depth reviews. Today, I’m much less ambitious with conference talks. I try to get people interested in a topic, explain why they should care and motivate them to research it further on their own. And it works much better for everyone. Instead of receiving 500 pieces of data that get lost in the sea of similar information, my audience gets one strong idea hammered into their brains.
Of course, whenever I try to write a talk a ton of ideas pop up and I’d like to talk about all of them, but they can grow into related talks, blog posts, or even a book. A conference presentation is a hook, so make it a sharp one. Choose only one topic, make sure it’s strong, and focus everything on that.
I’ll use my talk on Challenging requirements as an illustration here, there are plenty of videos of that talk from many conferences, a good example is here. For this talk, the key idea was that many teams can improve software delivery by not taking requirements at face value, but instead challenging the stuff that users ask for. That’s it. If I can get people to walk away with that message, it was worth it.
Have a way to wake people up at the start
The first challenge in a conference session is to actually get people’s attention. This normally means waking them up after a gauntlet of lecturing that they had to go through before the session, and show them that it’s going to be different. The trick is to break the pattern. The audience is trained to expect a stupid slide about the presenter’s company, bio, life achievements and so on. Any presenter that breaks the pattern immediately gets their attention.
One proven approach is to make a joke. I try to throw out something relatively controversial, so that it attracts attention. I can break the pattern even more by avoiding to talk about the presentation topic directly. If you want to play it safe, you can complain about the conference Wi-Fi (this is often horrid, so always an easy target), the weather, os something similar. Writing good jokes is completely outside the scope of such a small blog post, but two books that have helped me get started are: The New Comedy Writing Step by Step by Gene Perret and Comedy Writing Secrets by Mel Helitzer and Mark Shatz.
Another good approach is to give the audience a puzzle. Several comedy writing books recommend that a good joke needs to be a puzzle, giving people an opening that gets their brain thinking ‘Where’s he going with this?’ We like such jokes because they engage the brain. I apply this to opening stories of my conference talks. Give people something that will initially sound incongruent or confusing, so that their brain starts trying to figure out where that is going. A good example is in my ‘Challenging software requirements’, where I play on the expectation to ask the audience something about their background (eg “How many of you are developers?”). I open with a question on “Who likes old Bond movies better than the new ones?”, leading into a discussion on who is the one true James Bond and what’s the best Bond movie. I ask around until someone suggests Goldfinger, and then ask that person to summarise the plot. All this is just misdirection, but it breaks the pattern and gets the audience engaged. My next slide, after that, ties the Goldfinger plot with my key message. This gets the audience laughing, prepares them for the thing to follow, and I’ve already won their attention for the next 10-15 minutes.
A third approach is to introduce the key topic as something controversial. When I gave my “Death to the testing phase” talk to a room full of testers, my opening statement was that I’ll try to convince the room that most of their work is just a waste of time. This got people angry, annoyed, and the adrenalin started flowing in their blood stream. They were ready to pay attention to the rest of the talk. This approach is the most risky one, but can work really well if you know your audience and can get them to just the right level of anxious and not insulted.
Support the key message with no more than five practical ideas
Once I have a way to grab people’s attention and a topic to talk about, the next step is to think of a relatively small number of absolutely critical things about the topic. We’re going to nail the key idea into the heads of the audience, and to do that we need a few forceful hits instead of constant pressure. A small number of supporting, practical ideas, will act as those hits with a hammer on the head of the nail. Empirically, with my speed of talking, five seems to be enough to keep it interesting but also have enough time to spend on each point for a typical conference session.
Supporting ideas need to be short, effective, punchy, and create an internal rhythm of the presentation where the audience’s brain can shift gears to keep the whole session engaging. Anything monotone for more than 10 minutes is going to kill the session. The supporting ideas become the spine of the session, and I divide the session in blocks around each idea so that the audience can take a short break, write down the idea or reflect. I typically have a slide for each supporting idea with the conclusion in big font, and make sure the audience has enough time to see that slide and process it. A good way to do that is to change the tone, speak slower, or take a sip of water for a few seconds before moving on to the next topic. A dozen seconds to half a minute is enough.
For example, in the ‘Challenging Requirements’ presentation, the key supporting ideas are:
- Refuse solutions to unknown problems: understand what’s the real problem and solve that
- Refuse suggestions to use a technology: if they know IT better than you, what are you doing there?
- Know your stakeholders:who is going to use this and why?
- Don’t start with stories!Start with a very high level example of how people will use the system
- Great products come from understanding the real problem and whose problem it is
I often add things around those key ideas, but count on people forgetting them and aim not to overload the audience with information. So I might tell a story, or show some practical examples at the end, but this is just glue.
Explain supporting ideas with stories
Because a conference session is a hook, it’s much more important to explain ‘why’ than ‘how’, convince people to research further instead of teach them everything about everything. This is where stories are the most effective way of communicating. Just laying the information in front of the audience can seem like preaching, and is very easy to dismiss. Gary Klein shows in Sources of Power how stories go through pattern matching in our brains and connect at a much deeper level. The best stories are the ones from personal experience – as nobody in the audience can argue about that, and talking about personal stories sounds as an experience report instead of preaching. I try to think of a good story to illustrate each supporting idea, that will allow me to present the supporting ideas as the natural conclusion. Telling a story is like positioning the nail, the conclusion slide in each block is the hit.
Make it tweetable
The audience is going to use twitter anyway, so at least give them something they can tweet about easily. Short, punchy conclusions are great for this. As you finish each story, pause to present the conclusion. I often stop and say something like ‘The moral of the story is…’ and show the conclusion slide. Apart from giving the audience time to reflect and shift gears, this is great because it also expands the reach and impact of the conference session.
People will hopefully tweet about the key ideas, expands my audience from the room to the rest of their sphere of influence. I make sure to provide my twitter handle prominently at the start. I’ve also seen speakers show ‘conclusion slides’ in the middle of the talk with a mock twitter UI showing the message.
I often close the presentation with a slide that shows the five supporting ideas as short messages, then the key idea at the end. This provides a good summary and an opportunity for people playing with their smartphones to take a picture. Those things often end up on blogs and social media sites as well, expanding the impact even further.
I often use mind maps to structure the presentation. Here is a template for everything in this post that you can use easily to structure your next presentation.