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How I prepare for and give conference talks

I thoroughly enjoy reading about how other people do their work, tackle problems, find productivity, and prepare for talks. So this is my contribution to this. Before I start however I want to acknowledge that this post is completely inspired by blog posts from Cate Huston and Liz Abinante who have written wonderful posts about their conference talk prep process. So before you go on reading here, I encourage you to read theirs first.

I have given a bunch of talks over the last 2 years. Most of them were last year where I felt like I was at a different conference every month. I have given regular conference talks, keynotes, and was on panels. Some of them were as short as 15 minutes with the longest one having been 90 minutes of me talking. The topics range from cultural talks about how we approach things like deployment or blameless postmortems at Etsy to somewhat technical talks about our stack and tools we use and have built. Before 2013 I had never given a public talk, save for some presentations at work and university with a somewhat mixed audience of coworkers or other academics. This means when I had my first talk over 2 years ago, everything was very new to me, I had no idea what I was doing and it took me a long time to get anything done. However I have learned a lot since then and have refined my skills to a level where I enjoy and feel comfortable preparing talks, creating slides, and speaking in front of an audience. And giving talks has been one of the most amazing experiences in my career so far. So I hope this post is useful in helping more people to also improve their presentation skills and encouraging more to also give talks. While you’re reading through this I also want you to always keep in mind that all of those things are very much a function of my character. I identify as an introvert and a highly-sensitive person (I haven’t been tested for it, so I don’t have conclusive proof that I am either one). A lot of things in how I prepare and give talks are to make this experience as good as I can for me as well as my audience. So while some things might work for you as well, I encourage you to take this as inspiration to find your own way.

Finding A Topic

The most important part about finding a topic is to remember that talks are about sharing knowledge and whatever seems obvious to you, is very likely pretty interesting to a lot of people outside of your company.

I used to have a pretty hard time with this as I did think all my work was obvious and nothing interesting. I was fortunate however that the way Etsy does deployment was something still very popular when I started giving talks and still is to this day. And since I also work on deployment tooling as my day job it was a very natural thing to talk about for me. So when I got asked to submit a talk proposal for my first conference, I could take the topic of Continuous Deployment and turn it into a talk that was appropriate for what the organizers were looking for. Since then I have given many variations of that talk. Depending on what a conference was looking for I could put more focus on the cultural aspects of it, the tooling, or how it fits into the bigger picture of software development and collaboration at Etsy.

However coming up with different topics has been a challenge for me. I gave two differently themed talks last year. One was focused on the Etsy monitoring stack and the other one on how we tackle blameless postmortems. What makes them both a little bit special is that they are not really related to an actual project I had at work. They are about existing setups and ongoing work we are doing to improve things. While this is great for getting out of the mindset that all your current work is obvious and nobody would be interested in hearing about it (two things that are basically always false), it can be hard to find your story arc in such a talk. Since you don’t really go from a problem to the analysis and research part, to the implementation and then the solution, you have to find another hook for your audience. In the case of the monitoring talk I chose Etsy’s technical architecture. We are for the most part running a monolithic LAMP application which seems surprising to a lot of people. So this was a good introduction in to the talk. For talking about blameless postmortems I just chose something everybody can relate to: failure. Most people in the audience have seen their stack break under surprising conditions and Etsy is no exception there. So I chose a familiar scenario to talk about how we deal with it.

Something that has helped in the past with finding a topic for me was talking to coworkers that are working on slightly different things and asking them what they think would be interesting to hear a talk on. There is also often an opportunity to follow trends on Twitter to see what kind of problems people are interested in and give a talk on how you tackle that. And if there is something you think is interesting, there’s a high chance others will to. And even if it seems obvious to you, people love to hear about how others tackle problems. So don’t think just because you feel like your work isn’t totally novel that others won’t be interested in it.

Writing The Abstract

When it comes to writing the abstract, there are two things I try to optimize for:

  1. Organizers should quickly get an idea if the talk is a fit
  2. Attendees should quickly know if they want to see the talk over another one

Writing the abstract for the talk proposal used to be a huge undertaking for me. I wanted to make sure all my ideas are captured and the conference organizers knew what they were getting when they accepted my talk. So I ended up with proposals that were sometimes 2 pages of a fully fleshed out talk (that would change until I give it anyways) and really elaborate. It took me a while to realize that conference organizers get a ton of proposals and they don’t have the time to read a novel of a proposal just to decide whether or not the topic is interesting (if you are a conference organizer and have gotten such a proposal from me: I’m sorry). So I eventually learned to concentrate on the main story arc and message the talk will have. So now when I write an abstract, it’s about 6 sentences to at most 2 paragraphs of text. It contains the title, the super high level outline and what the audience will be able to take away from it. Because the other part of this is that conferences often put the abstract on their schedule page and attendees use it to decide which talk to go to if it’s not a single track conference. So I want them to be able to decide within 30 seconds whether or not my talk sounds interesting. And not bore them with 2 pages of things they might not even be interested in.

Plus focusing on the main idea has a big benefit when writing the outline and the slides for the talk. I can always go back to the abstract and check whether or not my talk actually conveys the message I wanted it to bring across. And if I notice I drift from my original idea, I can correct that easily. There have also been occasions where I changed the story arc and message of the talk slightly as I found one I liked better while preparing the slides. This is ok most of the time, however if it turns into a completely different talk I’d check with the organizers if they are fine with this as well. If not, maybe I have a new proposal for a different conference :).

Prepping The Talk

The time leading up to the conference and preparing the talk is kind of a tricky one for me. I have a process there that works great for me, but which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend for anyone. The main reason for this is that I don’t write anything down until a week or so before the conference and I also don’t do any dry runs. However I want to emphasize that this is not because I think I don’t need all of those things. I’m very convinced my talks would be better if I did them. It’s mostly because of how my brain works and some of my personal anxieties.

Just because I don’t write anything down doesn’t mean I don’t think about the talk. As a matter of fact in the weeks before the conference I’m mostly forming ideas and shaping things in my head which then end up on the slides. I do think a long time about things before taking actions, this is just my nature so my talk prep follows this. Then about a week before I give the talk, I start to write my ideas down as slides. Refining them until (sometimes literally) I go on stage. I have used Keynote for a long time to do this. I sometimes wrote down my ideas as a Markdown outline in vim and then create slides in Keynote from this. However as much as I preferred writing the outline in vim, it being twice the amount of work - as I had to basically do the same thing in Keynote then - lead to me more often than not just starting in Keynote. Then in fall of last year I found Deckset. A wonderful OSX application that lets me write my slides completely in Markdown and then creates a beautiful presentation from them. Since then I have gone back to writing the outline of my talks in vim and then slowly transforming it into slides.

And as I said before, I never do dry runs. That’s not because I don’t think they are a good idea. They are and you should absolutely do them. However for me they never fit into my schedule. Because I work on the slides until right before I have to give the talk, there isn’t a version I’m confident in showing people early enough for dry runs. In addition to that if I prepared my talk sooner so I could do a dry run I would constantly think that I’m not giving my best because I’m not using all the time there is. Plus talking in front of people takes a lot of preparation for me (as you will discover later). So dry runs take a huge amount of energy. That being said it is something I’m not really happy about and want to work on getting better at in the future. There are so many things that other people notice about your talks that I think it is one of the things I’m doing that is keeping my talks from being better.

Slide Design

For the slide design I have come to heavily rely on Deckset to do the right thing. I’m a big fan of having only a simple statement or message on a slide to carry the story of the talk. Even when I was using Keynote I tried to have as few things as possible on each slide. Keynote makes it really easy to go overboard with effects, information, shapes, pictures, movies, bullet points, etc. I had a pretty good slides template that I got from a coworker and that has basically been adapted for almost all Etsy engineering talks by now. This made it pretty fast for me to iterate on slides. I would put the outline headings on a single slide in bold font and then fill in slides in between with content aiming for 1.5 slides per minute. When it comes to slide design I usually choose between either

  • a short statement or quote
  • a picture (optionally with a statement or title)
  • an animated gif

That’s it. Nothing more complicated than that. I sometimes have a short bullet point list but I try to keep that rare. If I can’t say something on a slide within those constraints, I very likely should rethink it or split it across multiple slides. I do use some font styles to emphasize words in a statement that I think should have more focus. But all in all I try to keep it simple. And Deckset makes that a lot easier with its constraints (generated from Markdown, no custom themes, etc) than Keynote. So I actually end up being able to iterate on slides much faster. I spent a lot of time trying to find the right pictures and animated gifs for my talks, often I even switch them out right before I give the talk (more on that later). Usually I look for things that are somewhat humorous and make the talk less dry and more enjoyable. I have a big weakness for pop culture references and so it’s not unlikely that my talk includes references to Gossip Girl, Vampire Diaries, Black Sabbath, Iron Man, MacGyver, or various internet memes. This is also how I ended up giving a talk at the USPTO with the Backstreet Boys and Avril Lavigne being part of my slides. I usually end up having enough slides for my talk (to satisfy the 1.5 slides/minute ratio) by the day before the conference or the day before I leave for the conference.

Travel (optional)

This should probably be its own blog post as there is so much I’ve learned about traveling in the last year. However this only has its own section here as I want to emphasize that I optimize for minimalism and worry free travel when I go to conferences. This means I only have my backpack, which can hold my clothes for at least a week, my laptop with all the cabling, and my Aeropress, grinder, and beans because I love good coffee and don’t want to think about where to get coffee when I’m in a hotel. I plan my travel so I’ll be at the conference on the day before I give my talk. Usually I end up working on the slides more on the plane and thinking about what message I want to bring across with each slide.

The Day Before

When I arrive at the conference, I check into the hotel, make sure to ask where breakfast is served the next day and when and then meet up with the organizers and try to get a feel for the atmosphere of the conference. This is all for me to get acclimated with the new environment and to minimize surprises and things to worry about. I try to find the room I’m going to give the talk in and if there is a talk I really want to see I attend it. But I don’t sweat that too much, if I have the feeling that I don’t yet feel good about my slides or that I will be more calm by hanging out in the hotel room, I will do that instead. After all I’m here for giving a kick-ass talk and I will do everything to make sure this is what’s gonna happen. Either way I try to be in my hotel room at 10pm at the latest. If I’m there sooner, I’ll go over my slides again and make some adaptations based on what atmosphere I picked up from the conference. By 10pm I’m usually exhausted from travel and/or jet lag and will fall asleep.

The Day Of

I get up between 6 and 6.30am, read a book or browse twitter or my RSS feeds to not yet think about the talk. As soon as the hotel breakfast restaurant opens, I’m heading down there to have an extensive and relaxed breakfast. I go that early for two reasons:

  1. I want to have as much time as possible to enjoy breakfast.
  2. Most likely there aren’t a lot of people around yet, so it’s quiet

After breakfast I go back to my room and go over my slides again. At this point I usually just do some minor changes. But I have also reworked a good chunk of the talk during this before. So there are no rules except that I have to feel good about the talk. I might look for a better picture or gif to support the message of some slides or reorder them a bit to make the flow of the overall talk better. I also make coffee as it’s another thing that makes me calm (oddly enough) and feel good. I keep working on my slides until 90 minutes or so before my talk. Then I try to take my mind of the talk for a bit, shower, listen to some music, get dressed (I always wear my Etsy Engineering t-shirt so I don’t have to think about what to wear) and head to the conference. I always try to be at the conference 30-45 minutes before my talk to acclimate myself with the atmosphere. This is a lot easier if the conference is at the same hotel obviously but the same goes regardless of where it’s at. I then find the room I’m giving the talk in, if nobody is speaking there before I find an organizer or other staff member and get set up. My favourite speaking slots are the first ones in the morning. The conference is still a bit empty, the rooms usually are. I just take 15 minutes or so to get a feeling for the room and watch the people coming in. While attendees are sitting down I try to spot 3-5 people in various locations that are evenly spread out and remember them. Those are going to be the people that I try to make eye contact with during the talk. Then 10 minutes or so before I actually am supposed to go on, I go to the restroom, even if it’s just to wash my hands, to have another couple of minutes of quietness before I’m supposed to talk to a room full of people.

Actually Giving The Talk

Once I’m on stage and have my slides up there and am ready to give the talk. Nothing matters except for the talk. I try to be my most energetic, friendly and enthusiastic self. I emphasize when I think how good or bad something is that we are doing or trying to solve. I might try to make some jokes about certain things that people can likely relate to, like how naming this is hard or how computers sometimes don’t do what you think you told them to do. I remember the 3-5 people from before and while I’m talking I switch between them, trying to make eye contact. Generally I’m really bad about making eye contact even in conversations within small groups. So by adhering to this pattern of looking up people beforehand I can just follow it without worrying whether or not I’m actually capturing the audience enough or staring holes into the air. I have my speaker notes on my laptop (I try to present with my laptop if at all possible) but I only usually have notes for the most crucial things or if I’m not confident I get some things right. English isn’t my first language so if things might get tricky with remembering an important word I write it down. Otherwise I tend to improvise on slides a bit. I generally know what I want to say and not having a strict set of notes tends to make it less dry and more lively for me. I tend to always have the last 10% of talk time open for questions. So once I’m done with my slides I let everyone know that I have time for questions. But also make sure it’s clear that I will be around after the talk and also have my (work) email address on the slides. So if someone in the audience has a question but doesn’t want to ask it in front of a lot of people, there is more than that one setting to ask about my talk.

After The Talk

If possible I try to stay in the room for a couple of minutes so people can come up to me for questions. If not I’ll try to be around the conference somewhere and - although I have the urge to - try not to disappear immediately. I won’t however attend a talk right after as I’m too hyped up and overstimulated from just having spoken to a room full of people. Once people are not coming up to me for questions anymore or it otherwise doesn’t seem like I’m running away from anyone I try to find a quiet corner and check Twitter to see how people reacted to my talk and what things they tweeted from it. This is a good indicator for me which parts resonated with people and which didn’t. I don’t over obsess on this but it’s nice to read about how people liked your talk and gives me a better feeling about all this preparation and over stimulation having been worth it. I then upload my slides, usually have a page written for it on my site which I publish and then try to enjoy the rest of the conference. I tend to only go into hiding for a bit and not go to my hotel room as there is a big chance I won’t come back to the conference. So I only take as much time as I need to be able to recharge and enjoy the conference again.

The Takeaway

Preparing and giving a talk is something I do very thoroughly. I do all those things mentioned here (which may seem like a huge set of preparations) because it helps me be and feel prepared. A lot of the preparation for a talk is psychological for me. As I said in the introduction, I’m very introverted and often have somewhat strong reactions to new and unknown environments and people. So having this framework helps me immensely feeling less overwhelmed.

However it’s worth noting that this is the absolute ideal plan. I try to make it work like that but if any of the things don’t work according to plan it’s not a catastrophe. I’m able to give the talk regardless, this is just the dream set up. It also varies a lot depending on how big the conference is and what kind of talk I’m giving. If it’s an internal lunch talk at work, it’s fairly low stress for me now and I don’t have that much prep time that I need. But mostly because I now have a ton of experience giving talks and it’s less scary than it was 2 years ago.

This year however I have decided to take a break from giving talks as it was just a bit too much last year. I’m looking forward to giving more talks next year and have spent this year so far helping others to give talks by connecting them to conferences I have spoken at, acting as a sounding board for talk ideas, giving feedback on abstracts and proposals and answer as many questions as I can about the process and nature of giving a conference talk. Learning how to give talks and giving them until I felt pretty comfortable doing it has been a great experience and definitely one of the most amazing things I get to do as part of my job.

Thanks to Bethany Macri and Lara Hogan for reading drafts of this and giving feedback