What I learned doing 125 public talks - Part I

Edit · Nov 26, 2020 · 4 minutes read · Public speaking

Over the past 7 years, I gave over 125+ talks for 20 countries in front of over 50,000+ people. By any means, this doesn’t make me an expert in public speaking, but I had the opportunity to learn a few things that I’d love to share.

I’ll spread the content between a couple of different posts covering everything from planning, preparing the talk, rehearsals, and presentation at the event. I’d not discuss research, but this phase will naturally produce artifacts for the planning process.

In this part, we’ll focus on the talk planning process.

Talk planning

Planning is a process which varied a lot for me over the past 7 years. Initially, when I had a less formal preparation, I did not have a planning phase, making things harder, less organized, and inefficient. Planning back then was a cross-cutting task that I was doing in parallel with the slide preparation.

Since I moved to a more organized structure that starts with planning, depending on my level of experience and familiarity with the topic, talk planning could take any time between 15 minutes to a week.

I’ve had only a few instances where I spent more than 30-60 minutes in planning, but this strongly depends on the essence of the topic, the story, and my confidence level. For example, before my first international conference - ng-vegas, where I flew from Sofia, Bulgaria to Las Vegas, USA, I spent over a week preparing an outline and double-checking the results of my research. After that, I spent at least 2 more weeks in rehearsals.

Picking the topic

I’m feeling very fortunate to speak about my passions. At the same time, some subjects are closer to my heart than others. In most cases, we have the flexibility to add personality to the presentation and make the topic exciting.

For example, I like finding interdependencies between web development and fundamental computer science concepts. The deep theoretical understanding helps me get more passionate about a topic and lets me get more in-depth knowledge on a fundamental level, and provide more complete examples.

Talk goal and outline

Giving a talk without specific goals could result in a confusing experience for the audience.

The goals I focus on are:

  1. What should the audience know after the talk?
  2. How should the audience feel after the talk?

Ideally, we should be able to express the first goal in a single sentence. Expanding it to a few bullet points will give us the individual parts of the presentation. More than 3-4 goals could make things complicated, so don’t be greedy :).

Once we have the goals, we can list a few non-goals. I find this necessary because it helps me be more focused.

As the next step, we can focus on the outline. I usually build the outline incrementally. Initially, it consists of just two bullet points:

  • Introduction
  • Thank you

These are the same for every talk, but having them in front of me gives me a sense of progress. Between the two bullet points, we can fill the blanks with the talk’s goals and make sure they logically follow each other.

Once we have 5-6 bullet points, we can start expanding them by adding nested subtopics. I usually continue this expansion process until I have a list of ~30-50 items. Later on, they map well to my slides or talking points.

Once I’ve finalized the outline, I sanity check if the structure makes logical sense. There are other opportunities to completely mess up the logical sequence of the ideas we introduce in the talk, but making sure the outline makes sense is an excellent first step.

Everything we described so far fits really well into a document with the following template:

Talk title

Talk abstract...
  1. ...
  2. ...
  3. ...
  1. ...
  2. ...
  1. ...
  2. ...
  1. ...

For example, here, you can find the outline I wrote a few weeks ago for the talk “The State of Angular.”

Next, I think of ways to make the content more personal and engaging. Initially, I thought of this as a selfish approach when preparing a talk. I was exclusively focusing on technical content and facts with zero storytelling. Later on, I found that having a story could help with:

  • Being more passionate about the talk - this could completely change my energy while presenting
  • Higher audience engagement - people remember facts better when connected to familiar feelings or concepts. For example, talking about my personal story can help people relate to my experience, remember more content, and generally extract more value from the presentation
  • Non-technical content allows the audience to relax - it’s hard to listen to a 20-40 minute technical presentation about algorithms or web performance without losing focus. Having an engaging story every 5-10 minutes could help people be alert for the technical bits

At this point, I usually have a good understanding of the overall structure and a vague idea about stories that I can include in different parts of the talk.

The next step is to start putting slides together!