Some people have a talk preparation process that is super organized and runs like a well-oiled machine. Mine, on the other hand, is a bit messy, but it works for me. Even when a talk looks polished and put together on stage, it doesn’t mean the process to get it there was that way too.
When putting together a new talk recently, I noticed there was most definitely a pattern to how my talks take shape. Here’s how the talk-making process goes for me:
True to the nature of research, all my talks start by collecting articles, books, videos, and other things that relate to the topic of the talk. At this point in the talk development process, I usually only have a general topic idea instead of a fully fleshed out point-of-view or main message. That means I end up collecting things that might only be tangentially related to the topic and going down some strange topical rabbit holes.
I’ll save all these as a collection of bookmarks but usually also in a Google Doc with notes or quotes from the piece that seem most relevant. That makes it easier to keep a high-level view of what I’ve collected, and even discover interesting threads that connect some of the seemingly unrelated sources.
This initial phase is intentionally fuzzy on focus. Only a small percentage of the research I collect actually makes it to the end talk content. Sometimes the things that don’t make it spark ideas for other talks, or just gets filed away in my brain for future (hopefully interesting) things.
There’s probably a smarter sounding name for this phase, but for every talk I’ve done, there’s always a point where I step back and think, “Holy crap this is all a giant mess! What am I even doing with all this!?” So, that’s what I’ll call this phase. This is the phase where I make a general outline for the talk (again in a Google Doc or Word file) and start fitting my thoughts, examples or demos, and relevant research into it.
I outline the major points I think the talk should make and try to fit them into some sort of narrative order. These tend to change and morph a bit as the talk takes shape, but that’s OK because I’m still in the giant mess phase.
At the top of my document I have a three-part block that helps keep me focused:
What is the main question this talk answers (or the main problem it addresses)?
What is the main message of this talk?
Three points that support the main message:
(I started doing this on advice from Bill Smartt, and it’s been a huge help ever since.)
The rest of the document addresses the body of the talk with each main point as a headline and some notes underneath it. Personally, I don’t write out talks word-for-word and memorize them. I do write out an introduction and conclusion to make sure I’m setting up the topic and summarizing it well, but the rest of the notes are bulleted lists of points to make and references supporting examples, demos, or references. I leave space at the bottom of the document for random thoughts and notes as well as probably a few too many comments to myself on possible changes to make or different directions to take. Points that don’t fit into the main narrative get moved down to this section too.
Once I feel like I have a cohesive outline, or at least one that isn’t a total mess, I move on to making some visuals.
This is the point where I start making slides and such based on the outline. Some people leave slides to the very last thing, but I leave them more to the almost last thing and do some of my thinking and organizing while I build up the slide deck.
I’ll make slides for each point in the outline, take screen recordings of demos or examples, and start piecing things together in order. I tend to think of my talks in sections at this point and, as I create the slides for each section, I’ll try talking through them out loud to see how they flow. (It’s amazing how different things sound when you say them out loud!)
There is a lot of rearranging and cutting out during this phase to work towards something that feels cohesive. I keep working on adding, deleting, and rearranging slides until I’ve got visuals for the full narrative of my outline. Sometimes things fall into place quickly, but for most talks this part can take a while.
At this point I almost always have far too much content. I’ll run through what I have for the talk in 10 to 15 minute chunks, editing down and solidifying points until I’ve got something that fits neatly into the required time length. Most times this means a 30 minutes and 45-60 minute version of the talk depending on the format of the event where it’s being given.
Rehearsing is so important but it can also be very awkward. It seems like everyone has a different strategy for rehearsing talks, which totally makes sense. I have a really hard time rehearsing talks in their entirety when I’m standing in my office talking to the wall or to the dog, so I tend to rehearse in 15 or 30 minute chunks; practicing the first half then taking a break to do some other things and coming back to run through the second half. That way I know I have a handle on all the material, but haven’t driven myself (or the dog) up a wall with all that talking to no one in particular.
As often as possible I’ll try to give a new talk to a few friends or at a meetup before doing it on stage for the first time. Having a real live human audience can really help show which points are strong and which might need a bit more work to get across well. I also always run through the “final” talk from start-to-finish at least once in the 24 hours before I’ll be on stage to make sure all the content is fresh in my mind.
Seriously. They really never are. The funny thing about talks is that when you give them more than once, they’re rarely exactly the same. (Yes, it is totally fine to do the same talk more than once.) There is always something to improve, something to add, or new points or examples to add to the narrative.
I usually make notes for myself on what worked or what didn’t right after getting off stage. That’s a good time to recall which parts of the talk felt like they could use some work, but it’s not such a good time to actually make any edits. I’ll go back to those notes a few days later (having some space here is really helpful) and make adjustments as needed. Also, if I come across other relevant examples or research at any point in time, I’ll try to add them into the talk for the next time around.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned working on talks and talking to other speakers about their process, it’s that no two people work the same way. Everyone has their own way of putting together talks that they’ve customized for their own habits and preferences. If your talk development process looks nothing like mine, that’s totally fine. And if you haven’t found a process that works for you yet, keep experimenting with different techniques. You’ll find one that works for you!
For more on how to get a talk together, check out these other articles too: