Before I gave my first ever talk at a conference, I read any post I could find from other speakers about their process for preparing. Some of the steps I incorporated into my own process, others I decided probably didn’t really fit. But they were all helpful and gave me a little more confidence.
It’s for that reason that I have decided to write this: for anyone who is about to give their first presentation, or is considering doing so. Not as a set of rules, but as a set of ideas that you may or may not find work for you.
So, in all its glory, here are the same (rough) steps I find myself going through for every new talk.
- Consider the conference and attendees. How many people will be there? What is their experience like? Why are they there? I often do a little research to see what I can find out about past versions of the conference from folks I know who attended/spoke, or from reviews people wrote on their blog somewhere. From there, I start thinking about a topic I really think should be discussed and would be a good fit for the conference.
Question my ability to give said talk, and in fact any talk at all, and almost give up on the whole thing.
Decide to do it anyway.
Email my speaking coach and book a bunch of hours so that he can help provide feedback on my talk as I’m preparing it. This also doubles as a really good way to make sure I don’t procrastinate.
I really value this step, by the way. Attendees are spending good money to come to conferences. Organizers are being kind enough to give me an opportunity to talk about something I love. I want to make sure I nail it.
- Start considering what my primary message is. If there’s only one thing attendees remember about the talk, what do I want it to be?
Post-it notes everywhere. If ever there was an office supply that deserved to have a sonnet written about it, it would be post-it notes.
For the first week or two, anytime I think of something that might be related to the talk and interesting (a story, a phrase, a technique) I write it on a post-it note and put it up randomly on my wall.
- Once again consider that perhaps everyone will hate this topic. Decide to plow ahead anyway because backing out of the conference at this point would be rude.
- When the post-it notes are plentiful enough, start sorting them. What ends up happening is that many of the ideas can easily be grouped together which starts to bring some cohesiveness to my scattered thoughts.
- With the post-it notes sorted, I start re-arranging the order of the groups on my wall to find an arc for the presentation. If a group is a bit sparse, I might also spend some time digging into that idea a bit more to see if there is enough meat to make it worth discussing.
- After getting a logical order in place, I start looking at the post-it notes to come up with potential slides. Sometimes a phrase or idea on the note itself is already slide material. Sometimes I have to add another post-it note to suggest to myself that I might need an image here or a code snippet there to demonstrate things.
Take my post-it note storyboard and put it in Keynote. This is the first time I open Keynote during the entire process. At first, I just get all the ideas in place. Then I start worrying about the design of the slides and finding images to put into place.
I also work throughout the process to make sure that the key ideas are distilled into bite size chunks. I want people to easily remember them, so while I may elaborate on them more in the presentation, the hope is that there is at least one sentence that will stick and anchor the idea in their memory. I work closely with my speaking coach to fine-tune these ideas.
Now comes a lot of rehearsing. Often I find that during a practice run, I’ll ad-lib a line that I really like, so I always have a notepad right in front of me so I can quickly jot it down. I also note anything that feels messy—a phrase or idea that doesn’t seem fleshed out enough or a transition between ideas that feels forced.
I also use notes heavily in Keynote at this stage. I find it’s helpful while I’m still juggling with the flow of the presentation.
I never stop the presentation while rehearsing. No science here to back it up, but my thinking is that forcing myself to plow through even really rough runs or distractions makes myself that much better equipped to get through rough spots on stage.
- Redesign my entire deck because I see someone else’s far more gorgeous slides.
- Go back to original design because it’s clear I’m not a designer and I should just stick with what I know.
- When I’m confident with the flow of the talk, I kill the notes. From then on, I rehearse blind. When I use notes on a stage, I read them. Not exactly a great experience for attendees. So instead, my goal is to rehearse enough now to know what I’m going to say and free myself of the need to stick to a script. It sounds backwards, maybe, but the more I’ve rehearsed my talk the more ad-libbing I will do and the less rigid the presentation will sound.
- Shortly before the conference, start panicking again as I realize that in fact, yes, people are definitely going to hate this talk.
- At the conference, I’m a pretty bad slide tweaker. Typically a few talks will touch on things related to my talk. I try to find ways to reference them where appropriate because I think it makes the talk feel more personalized and creates a much more cohesive narrative.
- Right before going on stage, take a deep breath and hold for a few counts. It doesn’t do a ton to calm my nerves, but I do take that moment to refocus on the talk instead of anything else that may be on my mind.
- Go on stage. I’m one of the lucky ones. Being on stage typically calms my nerves. My nerves don’t stem as much from public speaking (which I’ve always enjoyed), but from the fear that what I say won’t be relevant and interesting to people. There’s not a ton I can do about that after stepping on the stage so the nerves fade away.
Immediately following the presentation comes the self-loathing. It’s at this point that I start hating myself for all the little mistakes I know I made along the way. I hide this step from everyone except for folks I consider trusted friends, but it’s usually there. In fact, I can only think of a handful of times that I have given a talk where this step didn’t immediately follow it.
In just about every case, attendees didn’t notice any of them. The reality is that those little mistakes are always worse in your head (so I’ve been told) because you know what perfect execution would have sounded like.
The loathing eventually goes away, but usually not until I start seeing that no one has mentioned the mistakes in their feedback or tweeted “OMG WORST TALK EVAR”.
Post-conference, I eagerly get my hands on any feedback I can about the talk. (Note to organizers: please, please, please gather attendee feedback. It’s so helpful.) I match that with my own perception of how things went. What jokes landed? Which ones resulted in crickets? What ideas did people seem to focus on in the feedback, the recaps and on Twitter? What ideas do I wish they would have honed in on, but didn’t?
If I’m giving the talk again, I use this to start tweaking to make sure the next time I’ve addressed those weaker points.
If the talk was recorded, watch/listen to the recording. This is a very cringe-filled 45 minutes to an hour as I relive every mistake (not to mention hearing your own voice can be disconcerting). I do find it’s valuabe though as I, once again, get to review what worked and what didn’t so that I can touch things up for the next go around.
I know I mentioned panic and self-loathing a few times, but I don’t really want to scare anyone off from speaking. The reality is that I really enjoy public speaking and have ever since performing my first comedic monologue in junior high forensics (I believe it was the story of Little Red Riding Hood from the wolf’s perspective, if I recall correctly). I’m incredibly blessed to be able to share with others the ideas I think are interesting and important. It’s a privilege.
But leaving those low points out of the process wouldn’t be showing you the full picture. In her talk “I Suck! And so do you!” (must-watch material, by the way), Karen McGrane talked about how we compare our worst with other people’s best. That certainly applies here. We see speakers giving amazing talks at conferences around the world and don’t realize that they may very well be having the same doubts and fears that we are about our own talks. Some appropriate fear is good; letting that fear stop you from sharing what you’re learning with others is not.
Preparing and giving presentations takes a lot of time and effort, and it can be a little like a roller-coaster with highs and lows along the way. But the thing about roller-coasters is that they’re kinda fun.