Giving talks is a part of being an academic, and it crosses over into industry software engineering too. We often have ideas or vision that we want to share, and talks are a good way to do that. I’ve found over the years that I view talks differently than what I typically see in academic spaces. I think a talk should be entertaining, and tell a story. If I want to know the technical details of something, I don’t need someone to read me equations or bullets off of a slide. Sure, when you are a student there is value in the practice of communicating ideas verbally and visually, however beyond graduate school, the talk changes into a means to attract the attention of someone so they look more closely at the details later. If you make them fall asleep because you try to deliver the details upfront, you are hurting yourself. The reason is a bit of a catch-22. In trying to deliver them the full picture, you jump right into details and fail to capture their interest. They zoned out on slide 10, and the question of “Why should I care” was never addressed. And thus they don’t. On the other hand, if you hit them in the head with a compelling story (that catches their interest) and then key in on a few simple, relatable points, their interest will be peaked to explore your topic later. Thus:
A talk is a form of entertainment with the sole purpose of telling a story, inspiring, or leading someone into caring about something.
A talk is a performance. To give a good talk, or I should say a great talk, you must be comfortable with yourself and be able to extend your excitement about an idea beyond yourself. A talk is absolutely not a place to share technical details, unless it’s with your small team and that turns out to be the sole purpose. I was reflecting on this today, because I worked 8 hours (yes, on a Sunday) to finish up a set of slides for one of two talks that I need to prepare. The first is for Kubecon America in Chicago and the second (the sooner one that I worked on today) is for an Open Source Summit. I’m not sure if my thinking might be useful to anyone, but I want to share this reflection here. I want to reflect on what it takes to make a talk, and why it can be good to turn them down sometimes.
Should I accept the talk?
Early in our careers, saying “yes” to speaking opportunities is easy. We haven’t had many before, and any opportunity to share our work, network, or practice our presentation skills should be embraced. Now that I’m mid-career, I find myself turning down a good number of asks. Why? It started perhaps in 2018 or 2019. For some reason, I got asked to present a lot. I wound up saying yes to 8 or 9, and by the end of the year I was exhausted. I never wanted to go through that again.
1. Bandwidth is limited
The most important reason to turn down talks is because you have limited bandwidth for the time and energy that it takes. Now, some advice I’ve heard a lot is something like “Just re-use the slides!” While I could see using an image or maybe idea in two places, I don’t generally like the idea. I want to have really high quality talks over quantity, and I’d rather turn down a talk entirely than present it twice. I’m sure this opinion differs from many that might say “Try to maximize visibility at the lowest effort!” However, I want people to know that when I say yes to a talk, I’m going to give it my all. I’m usually going to make entirely new content, make it fun, and practice the hell out of it until it flows from me effortlessly. This means that in an ideal year I’ll give 3-5 talks. That number really varies based on a few other factors like content, impact, and visibility, which I’ll discuss later in this post.
2. Enable others to have opportunity
Often when I get an offer to speak on a topic that I have some expertise in, my mind goes to advice that was given to me by @rowlandm. He offered me the perspective that I might raise others up, meaning looking around for those that haven’t had the opportunity to speak yet. Indeed I’ve had a lot of opportunities, for example, to talk about containers. But there might be someone that is still a student that hasn’t yet. I can support them to help them grow, and they will benefit much more than me giving “yet another containers talk.” So if you are mid to late career, this is a question I’d pose to you, and suggest that it’s one of the first things you ask.
3. Impact and Visibility
The next important factor to decide is impact, and this goes hand in hand with visibility and having something important to share. For example, if my team is working toward a shared vision, and there is a highly visible conference where I might present our work? You can bet I’m going to pursue that opportunity, and then try to kick ass. By doing so I am supporting my team, our work, and this trickles down to the level of the institution. A young engineer that sees our work, and my excitement, might say, “Wow, that’s really cool! I didn’t know about employer X. I should check them out.” It’s an indirect way of recruiting. And despite giving the talk by myself, I feel the energy of my team with me. In the same way that my favorite races as a competitive runner used to be the relays, these kind of high visibility, impactful talks feel the same. I may be running alone, but I’m out there representing my team, and our vision. If I have some kind of super-power for engaging people in this way, this is how I want to use it.
Finally, impact means visibility, and this often translates into effort. If the inviters tell me the venue is in-person only, no recording, and with maybe 30 people, I’ll know the overall potential impact is small. The talk will only hit those 30 people, and once. That’s fairly low impact. It also means I couldn’t watch it after the fact to critique myself. So that’s not great. If you are providing the venue and inviting speakers, make sure that their effort can be extended to reach those that aren’t directly present at the event. It’s an issue of inclusivity, really.
This may sound obvious, but I don’t like giving talks if I feel that I don’t have something important to say. Sometimes if you are invited, there is a back and forth conversation with the people that invited you to brainstorm topics. Sometimes you can hit a vein that speaks to you strongly, and other times not. I also think it’s OK to select for opportunities that speak to you, because your talk will be more genuine. Often groups are looking for “filler content” or someone to show up and talk about a topic that needs a speaker. Others might disagree, but giving these kind of talks is not for me. If there is an existing, online documentation base or a talk someone has already given on the same topic, why don’t you just use that for learning instead? I do think these opportunities can be good for early career folks that just need the practice. The reason is because the content is clearly laid out, and they just need to put it together and practice it. The burden is lifted off of them to know what to talk about, or even sometimes how to structure it. They can just practice the very practical parts of giving talks.
The last note about content that I think might be useful is not something I’ve ever done, but an idea that I like. The idea is based on the realization that the slides we physically present serve a different purpose than the ones that are given to the venue to provide statically later. The idea that I like, and especially for technical talks or those with details you want to be made accessible, are to actually create two versions. The first version might be dense, content wise, but for the second, not. Thus I can see creating the dense version first, making a copy, and deleting most of it aside from pictures and main points. That way, you can deliver a simple presentation, but provide details in your deck later.
Another logical question is to ask if a particular venue is the right place to say it. And thinking about this question can be in opposition to what you are assuming. You might assume that we should present content to audiences that will be interested in it, or agree with it. I would argue sometimes talks are more impactful presenting ideas that might not sit well or be familiar to everyone. Sure, maybe a group of circles does not want to hear about squares. But what if circles have something to learn from squares? 🟦🟣 I sometimes will give a talk to a community that I know has a bit of controversy in it, or say something that I know some people won’t agree with. But I fundamentally believe that we need to raise up and talk about things openly that are hard. Disagreement is opportunity for discussion and growth. Having different ideas, priorities, or incentives is often how we grow as communities and people.
To summarize - give a talk when you feel that you are particularly oriented to deliver an important message. Give a talk when you can make time to make it awesome. Don’t give a talk if you don’t have something to say, or can give the opportunity to someone that hasn’t had it yet.
How do I make it?
I like to give minimally a month of time to create, practice, and (sometimes) record a talk. Could I do it in 2-3 weeks? Possibly, but it would be more stressful. I usually like to have a few days to just ruminate. I’ll often wake up in the night with an idea, and write it down. Or I’ll write an email to myself at dinner. I’ll think about it during runs, and change my mind many times. Then at some inflection point, I have an “Aha! This is it!” moment, and I first just make a slide template, add a title slide, and stare at it. The process has begun! For those inviting speakers, although you probably have a lot on your plate, why not give them a few months advanced notice? Sure, some people won’t use it. But some of us definitely will!
1. A Simple Style
If you’ve ever seen one of my slide decks, they are ridiculously long. I am saying like, a minimum of 150 slides. Often my count goes into the 200s. The reason is because I want simplicity, and I want someone in the future that reads a static version to see the content as I presented it. While animations are fine, what they essentially do when you save as a PDF is squash everything. The flow that you presented one piece at a time is gone, because only the final slide (with all the pieces) is there. I “animate” my slides by adding more slides, and I don’t see any issue with adding to the count. I also tend to have a lot because I minimize text and maximize images. I’ll have many, entire slides just for a single statement. This hugely contrasts the dense, multi-bullet and busy slides that I often see in academic talks. The problem with these dense slides is that the viewer doesn’t know what to focus on. Should I be looking at a piece of the figure or plot on the right, or the words you put next to it? If there are 8 bullets thrown at me off the bat, how can I concentrate on what the presenter is saying if my mind is also trying to make sense of what I see? Thus:
We use the slides as a medium to direct attention and focus.
I’ll often also decide on the amount of time that I’m going to spend on the detail of the slides based on the venue. For larger, more important or visible talks, I’ll spend more time making customized graphics and even adding easter eggs for others to find (or not)! This is a decision point that is largely up to you. Again - you have limited bandwidth and can’t spend inordinate amounts of time on every talk.
In the same way that the presentation is a story, you as the speaker want to have complete control of the viewer’s attention. This means showing a line or picture at exactly the moment it is relevant - no sooner or later. It means minimizing text and showing a lot of pictures, because the story is coming from you. Thus, I advocate for a simple style that maximizes the entertainent and flow of the talk. I like making my own templates, typically choosing a main color for the theme, and looking to public images or (more recently) using DALLE-2 or stable diffusion or memes of my own creation.
After you have a template and an idea of what you want, you then create the skeleton. For me this means making slides with just headings, and then I go through and add notes in the comments. I want to see and feel the flow or the story before I start working on details. And I do this understanding that I’ll probably blow up the entire thing and change it as I go. When I’m done with this early step, it is basically an outline in some slide software. This might take me a few days, and I do it in a relaxed fashion so I do as much as I have idea for, and then stop when I need to let my subconscious (or conscious) think about what comes next a little bit more.
But what about the content of the skeleton? I try to find a unifying story. If it is a keynote type, I like to talk about the self, or personal growth or challenges. If it’s a technical venue, I like to take a piece of work and present it like an adventure, or the story of a challenge we endured, and what we learned. I try to convince the listener of the “So what” or why they should care and look more at our work. We are taught in graduate school to present introductions, methods, results, and conclusions, but I find that boring. I’d rather make up fictional characters and tell a story, or present a series of projects in the larger context of a fun idea or vision.
The next step (and this is what takes the longest time) is to fill in the details of the talk. This is when I go back to the beginning, and I focus on the core message that each slide or set of slides is trying to share. I’ll possibly get through 10-20 slides in a working session, and I might have multiple sessions in a day. There is a lot of copy pasting or re-organizing here, because as I am making it, I’m talking to myself and starting to practice what it might be like when I actually present it. Yes, if you catch me during this phase you will find me talking to myself in strange and confusing spurts. It’s part of the process! 😆️ I’ll finish off a session when I get tired of that kind of work, or again, if I need another round of thinking. Usually it’s the first. Unlike programming (which I have infinite energy for) making slides does tire me out, or just gets boring. I can only handle talking to myself so much in one day. This entire “fill in the meat” usually takes me about a week. For many talks I might start this kind of work after my run and before dinner (the second work day?) and then (akin to the Developer Stories Podcast) spend entire weekends doing it. For example, this week I worked on my summit talk in the evenings, and today was able to push out 8 hours straight to finish what I consider the meat. 🥩️
There are also strategies for putting together the content. An obvious factor is the expertise or breadth of your audience. If you are presenting to a wide variety of people, you need to find a way to speak to most of them. This often means getting at the big picture over technical nuances. I like to add visual elements that give the viewer some hint about where they are. In my first Kubecon talk, I showed them a little gopher in a moving ship across the bottom of the screen, from left to right. When we got to the right, it was an indicator that the talk was coming closer to an end. People have mixed feelings about this, but sometimes I think presenting the “so what” up front with a table of contents (to set expectation) is an OK thing to do. There is nothing worse than being a listener in a talk and having no clue if you are 5 minutes from the end or 15. But maybe that’s just me - I used to get really bored in talks, and be screaming in my head. Sure, I looked composed (or maybe I’d be falling asleep) but I assure you being forced to sit still and listen to something boring is pure agony. 🥴️
4. Partitioned Practice
My goal is usually to have 2-3 weeks left when I start practicing. The reason is because practicing is best done in pieces. I may practice a section a day over a week, and then do the first “full runs” over a weekend. Then I usually want a break from it, during which time (for one reason or another) I actually learn the content better. I imagine my brain is doing some sort of hardening pathways, and they will endure at least long enough to deliver it in entirety! Side note - the first time I realized this was practicing a poem in high school. I absolutely didn’t have it, and was frustrated and went to sleep. When I woke up? I could recite it perfectly, like some kind of spooky magic. ✨️
If I’m recording the talk, I can start practicing as soon as I’m done with the meat, because I can record it (and get it over with!) as soon as possible. If I’m going to be presenting in person, I won’t start practicing until possibly a week and a half before. The reason is because I want a few days to go through sections, and then possibly a weekend to put that all together, and then I want a day or two where I don’t even look at it. After that 1-2 days of break I’ll either record or present it live. I absolutely will not practice it verbatim again the day before or the day of - that feels like a bad omen. And I must say, I’ve been enjoying just recording talks during the pandemic, the reason being that it’s less stressful for me to prepare, and the day of the talk I can actually watch and enjoy it instead of having to “watch” from inside my head. It also makes sense, from a technical standpoint, because a talk played directly from the devices at the venue will have much less issue with audio or video connectivity!
And look, the reality of talks is if someone totally nails it, and makes it look easy, you know they practiced. Details like inflection, gestures, and transitions are really important. I think about these a lot and have preferences, and try to do my best to nail it. This factor alone may be what distinguishes bad talks from good, and good talks from great. Can I wing a talk without a lot of practice? Absolutely. Will it be a lot better if I spend the time to practice? Absolutely positively yes!
In terms of what it means to practice, this has changed for me over time. All through my school years and early in my career, I took a route memorization approach. I would make flash cards and angst over every line. I would require myself to memorize it perfectly. I was just repeating words that I had previously written. I now believe flash cards, and trying to repeat something verbatim, is a bad idea. First, the flash cards serve as a crutch. You know if you have them, you can always look down, and so you don’t practice enough and inadvertently look. The talk isn’t as good. It’s also not as good to be seen having the cards physically in front of you. Maybe people get away with remote talks and reading, but I think I can tell when this happens. Now what I do is remember the “gist” of a slide and then go with the flow of the moment. This means planning slides in terms of content and take home points and then allowing for flexibility. While you might see this as similar to planning content and memorizing it, I do believe that there is a difference, and that difference is mindset. For the first memorization approach, I used to get anxious about forgetting one word or line, or “messing up.” With the second “go with the flow” approach, there is no such a thing as messing up. You have a general idea or point to make with a slide, and you talk through it. You have confidence that you know the material well enough to speak comfortably about it. You may never present the same slide in the same way twice, and that’s OK. However, with this mindset it is much easier to be relaxed. There is no failure state as there was before.
What do I do after?
1. Share away!
The best moment, by far, is after you’ve given the talk and you can share it. I don’t see my parents a lot, but I want them to be proud of me, so I typically send it to them first, and you can bet I want to know if they liked it. It’s one of those “I know you have no idea what I do, but I made this thing I’m proud of, and there are parts that are pretty funny, and please watch it and I hope you are proud of me?” things. I also hope it’s some way to share what I do with non-technical, non computer scientist or non academic folks. It’s the best I can do to package my daily thinking into a fun parcel to deliver to the masses. It’s something that I can look at years later and feel proud of.
2. Critique Yourself
Let’s be real - watching ourselves can be rough. We tend to see all the things that went wrong. For me, I make a LOT of faces and expressions that I’m just totally not aware of. I watch it after and it’s a combination of humor and horror. I think this reflects that I’m a very expressive person. If I feel a particular way, I can’t hide it very well. In fact it’s the exact opposite - it’s written all over me! But regardless of how we judge ourselves, the reason we should watch it again (and ask others to watch it critically) is to do better next time. There are often points where the transitions aren’t great, or you think you lose the storyline, or some other fault that you didn’t see before you actually delivered the talk. This is how I noticed my verbal tics - I say “So” too much as a transition word. I need to get better at that. This insight is important to have because when you see it, you can do better next time.
3. A Notch in your Belt!
And now congratulations - you gave a talk! You can add it to your website, or resume, or whatever records you keep. I might watch talks a few years later and be tickled by what I see. A warning - in the same way we look back at old code and it’s never good enough, the same is true for talks. As we get better, our previous talks (that we thought were OK) no longer are. I watched a talk I gave in graduate school recently, and was really horrified, but at the same time, I appreciate how I’ve grown. I also believe that I did the best job that I was able to do at the time. It’s no small step to go from anxious memorization to more of a comfortable performance where you are having fun.
What do I want to do in the future?
I’m really loving talk venues that are fun, and where there is freedom to share your ideas and be creative, so I’m hoping to be able to participate in conferences like that in the future. I am also still on the “We are in a pandemic and I’m not changing my behavior based on wishful thinking” bandwagon, so remote-friendly talks are essential for me. At this point in my life I’m less concerned about my career progression or academic result (publications, conferences, etc.) because I find myself really happy where I am. I still want my work to be properly represented - I’m not going to be a push-over and be OK with someone taking credit for it, or a myriad of other things that have happened to be before, but I don’t feel like I have to prove myself to anyone anymore. The only entities that I want to make happy are the people that I work with (that I care about immensely) and myself. I’m grateful to reach this point of self-acceptance and comfort in my career, and I do believe it’s going to allow me to be more creative and exploratory than I would have otherwise. And hey, maybe someday I’ll give a talk… about giving talks!! I hope some of this might be useful to you. Present on, friends!
Sochat, Vanessa. "Speaking Opportunities." @vsoch (blog), 03 Sep 2023, https://vsoch.github.io/2023/speaking-opportunities/ (accessed 04 Sep 23).