Talking at Technical Conferences Part 4

Fred Tingaud · May 9, 2021

How to prepare my talk?

If you are not already a seasoned speaker, one of the most important advice I could give you is to start preparing your talk as early as possible. Preparing a talk well takes a lot of time. You sometime see figures like “expect one hour of preparation for one minute of presentation”. That fluctuates of course a lot depending on the subject and the speaker, but that is not an unreasonable order of magnitude.

The Three Stages of Writing

While you write your talk, you should expect to go through three stages. Do not let them unnerve you, as they are quite universal and will look with experience like healthy checkpoints on the progress of your writing.

There is not enough content

When you have your first idea of a talk and haven’t written anything down, it usually seems like a subject might be too narrow to make for a full fledged talk. At this time, you might be tempted to ask for a short time slot or to broaden the subject. Don’t do that until you have written down everything you wanted to say on the original subject. That will usually lead you to the second stage.

There is too much content

Once you have written down everything, it will probably look like there is too much to say and the time slot will be too short. Try to always keep your key message in mind while you remove parts that deviate from it or are too advanced. Be careful during this stage to not remove explanations that are necessary for attendees to understand the rest of the talk, especially as you are probably approaching the third stage.

The content is too basic

When you have spent dozens of hours on a specific subject, even if you were new to it to begin with, you are now if not an expert, at least very familiar with the subject. At that point, there is a high risk of falling into the “Unconscious Competency” that we mentioned previously. If you started writing thinking it was not an obvious subject, remember that the rest of the world didn’t learn with you and it is still a new subject for your audience. Don’t try to make it more advanced unless you are targeting the top experts on the subject.


If you are not giving presentations regularly, it is absolutely necessary to rehearse your talk. And by that, I mean actually rehearse, out loud, preferably to an audience.

Our inner voice is an incredible speaker with perfect delivering. Sadly, for most of us, the actually embodied delivery does not live up to it. When doing your talk out loud, you might realize that the witty joke to start your talk is in fact extremely hard to deliver well under stress. It’s better if this realization is not done in front of your target audience.

If you feel silly rehearsing out loud alone or in front of your friends, use it! The embarrassment you are feeling at that moment is a good substitute to stage fright. If you manage to present well in a situation where you feel embarrassed, you will present well under other types of stress too.

If you can, try to have a “main rehearsal”, in front of an audience, where you deliver the talk in the same kind of conditions as the official talk. User groups or company presentations are perfect solutions for that. If you can’t, try to reach out to friends or people you know to organize something. Many people are happy to listen to a conference talk in advance.

Last Minute Improvisers

Some famous speakers like to joke publicly on the fact that they don’t start preparing until the last minute. You can sometime see them writing their talk a few minutes before going on stage. I would definitely not recommend it to most speakers for two reasons:

  • Sometime, when a famous speaker boasts about not preparing a talk, they actually don’t need to because the audience already noticed it. Being very knowledgeable on a specific subject doesn’t always make you terrific at talking about it and I’ve sadly sat more than once through the talks of famous speakers who should have prepared their presentation more.

  • When a famous speaker with 20 years of experience says they prepared their talk in the day before, it’s not true. They prepared their talk in 20 years and wrote it down in the last 24 hours. They know exactly the gap between their inner voice delivery and their actual delivery and worked hard to reduce it, they know exactly the time they need to deliver something and they often delivered a big part of the new talk in one form or another in the past.

Let it go

A presentation is never perfect. You could spend ten hours for each minute of presentation and still find things to improve. If you started your preparation early enough and did your public rehearsal(s), there is a time where you need to call it done and stop iterating. Don’t update your slides at the last minute unless something changed completely. You might see the little imperfections, the audience will see the big picture and all the work you put in it.

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