Creating Conference Talks

Whether you’ve been coding for a while or you are early in your career, putting together a conference talk and proposal is not an easy task. For the more outgoing of us it’s exciting to think about getting to speak in front of a room of people but we still have to put in the focused work to get to that point. For the more introverted it’s may be a way of stretching yourself so that even the thought of giving a talk is stressful.

“You’ve mentioned your conference talking engagements on several shows, and I was wondering if you would consider making a show about how you go about creating your talk and getting it accepted by a conference?” ~ Johan Wigert

A lot of hard work goes into planning, submitting, and creating a conference talk that doesn’t even include practicing and giving the talk. If you are considering giving a talk you can use this information to better prepare yourself for the process by understanding how it works and what you are getting yourself into. If you aren’t considering speaking, we highly encourage you to give it a try. Even at the local level it can be very rewarding.

Episode Breakdown

How do you go about finding a topic?

Start with what you are good at doing. This is your power base. Where are your strengths, what do you do best? This may be what you do daily or what you are specially trained to do.

Next look at the areas you are passionate about. Think about the things that you can talk about for hours. What do you most look forward to doing in your job? These are the things that help you get through the rough parts.

If you are feeling bold, go with an area you are interested in learning. This is more of an advanced concept in talk creation. The best place for these will be in your local meetups or user groups. Find an area you want to learn about and then build a beginner talk in that area. The easiest way to do this is to create a tutorial or “what I learned doing…” talk. Emphasize that you are a beginner in this area. People will be more lenient if you make a mistake. You’ll set the right expectations for the talk.

Look at your intended audience and see what they need or ask for. If you know where you want to speak aim your topic for your audience. This will help narrow the list of potential topics. If it’s a user group, that will likely tell you the general area to focus. For example, in Nashville we have a lot of .NET and Angular jobs so those talks are well attended. The best talk ideas solve a problem for the attendee. What problem do you solve in your talk? Can you teach a unique way of solving a common problem? Problem solving is a great way to get a good talk idea together.

How do you find relevant conferences?

Start with local user groups, schools, or conferences close by. The best place to learn about speaking opportunities is meetups and user groups. Usually the local groups are looking for speakers each month. You can get practice with a talk in a smaller environment. Local conferences usually announce when they open for CFPs at user groups. Schools and bootcamps also have local developers come and speak to their classes.

Talk with speakers at conferences you attend. Even if you aren’t a speaker they will help you learn the process. People are excited when you show interest in something they are passionate about. Many of them attend conferences to hear other speakers too. These are the people that have been through it and know which conferences are available. They will likely know which ones are open to newer speakers.

Sign up for email lists of conferences. Almost all conferences have email lists. Some even have lists for speakers that send out reminders of when the CFP starts and ends. Most of developers are on a lot of email lists so be sure to check the emails from these conferences.

Expand out to the surrounding area or even across the country. This goes back to starting local. Once you’ve spoken at some local events start looking to conferences within driving distance. This will open up more events in those locales for you to speak at user groups and meet ups.

Start applying to international conferences. Go big and apply for conferences in countries you wish to visit. Even try for countries where you don’t speak the language.

How do you structure the CFP (Call For Paper) or abstract?

Begin by looking at the event and the Call For Papers. The CFP will have the relevant information about the talk. This includes the length of talk and type of environment. It will also tell you requirements for the abstract such as word limits. The CFP should contain all the information you need to address your abstract to the right people.

Start your abstract with the most interesting aspect of the talk. Be bold in your opening sentence and paragraph. You only have 3-400 words to convince the reviewer to select your talk. Lay out your argument or the problem you are solving with your talk in the first paragraph. This is your chance to convince the reviewer that they will benefit from what you have to say.

Make it into a teaser. You need to grab the reviewer’s attention immediately. They are likely reviewing hundreds of abstracts. You want yours to stand out from the crowd. You don’t want to give your solution or conclusion in the abstract. The goal here is to tease what you will provide in the talk. If you can tell it in an abstract what is the point of the talk? You want them to want you to tell them more.

Avoid focussing too much on one area. Unless, of course that is the focus of the talk. Don’t let yourself get bogged down in the details. That’s what the word limits are there to prevent. Keep the abstract as abstract as possible. Stick to and use the word limits. If it’s a 300 word limit use all 300 words, only half looks like you did half the work. Don’t go over the word limit, if you can’t keep to a word limit you likely won’t keep to a time limit. Basically it’s a respect thing in both cases.

If not accepted ask the organizers how you could improve. Most conferences, especially smaller ones, will work with you to better your abstract for next year. They may explain why they didn’t pick your talk. If you ask they will even tell you what they were looking for in a talk.

How do you prepare your slides for the presentation?

Spend time preparing and creating each slide to be unique but consistent. Don’t copy and paste your slides. Use a template for consistency across slides. Powerpoint has them built in or you can make or buy more. You can work within the template to make each slide unique but uniform.

Select easy to read fonts and use them consistently. Choose professional looking fonts, for most cases. Make sure you can tell a size difference from headers and text. Use the same fonts for the same things (headers, text, lists, etc.). Don’t fill the entire slide with text. Leave some breathing room between your text for ease of reading. Also allow space for visuals such as images or animations.

Make your text stand out from the background. Black text on a white background has the best contrast. It’s also the most boring possible. Use some color when creating your presentation. Keep your presentation easy to see with contrasting colors. There are several online tools for selecting colors that work together. Powerpoint and other tools have built in design menus to help.

You can also use color to highlight parts of your slides. Varying colors can make things stand out from the rest. Avoid using it too much or you drown out the highlight. You can find professional color palettes online. These will tell you which colors to use for background and foreground. They will also have suggested highlight colors. One of the best benefits is the list of colors not to use.

Keep the content of your text simple. Only have the keywords on your slides. Avoid full sentences unless you are showing a quote. The slides are there to emphasize the talk, not be the talk. Don’t read your slides. There’s no point in a presentation where all the presenter does is read the slides. Tell a story with your presentation and illustrate it with your slides. Close with a strong take home message. Summarize your key points in the take home message. This is a summary of your data and story. Make your message memorable.

Create visual aids such as images, media, and animations. Have more images in your slides than text. Visuals are your best friend. The point of the slides are to emphasize your talk. Don’t use images to decorate text. Instead use them to reinforce or illustrate your message. Use animations and media sparingly in a presentation. Use them to draw attention to something specific. They can help to clarify a model or emphasize and effect.

Add in title pages and break your talk into sections. You will likely move the slides around as you are building them. Wait until the end to create section headers and summaries.

How do you interact with the audience?

Audience participation turns a lecture into a discussion. Conference talks can take on the feeling of being in a classroom. Especially if the speak isn’t engaging or comical. Some topics are important and interesting but still a bit dry. When the audience interacts it breaks up the monotony of a single speaker talking the whole time. It can be as simple as getting the audience to raise their hands in response or as complex as a guided discussion.

This is easier with demos or workshops. Workshops are built for audience participation. That the whole point, you learn by doing something. The speak plans to answer questions and help the audience. Similarly demonstrations can involve audience members. People remember better when they are involved in the process.

It can be simple or as complex as you are comfortable. Simple audience participation involves polling the audience or asking yes/no questions that most people will answer the same way. You can typically assume the majority answer with simpler polls. Complexity evolves the talk into a discussion which means you now have more work than just speaking.

Book Club

Power Talk: Using Language to Build Authority and Influence

Closing out the book Dr. McGinty writes about the the differences between the way that men and women communicate in chapter 7. She talks about how the study of sociolinguistics is related to gender studies and how men and women communicate in different ways. In chapter 8 she goes into cultural differences. Even within the same country we have several cultures here in the USA. She also talks about the politics of language and how it can affect the way we view other people. Finally she ends to book with a chapter detailing the study of linguistics and it’s history as a field.

Tricks of the Trade

Just ask. The worst they can say is “no”.

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One comment on “Creating Conference Talks
  1. Johan Wigert says:

    Thanks a lot for dedicating a complete episode to answering my question! In the time that passed since I sent you the question a few weeks back and the episode release, I sent my first CFP to a national user group conference in Sweden taking place in November, and I just heard back from the organizer last week that my talk got accepted! The experiences you shared in this episode will be a great guide for preparing my talk. I especially enjoyed the parts “How do you prepare your slides for the presentation?” and “How do you interact with the audience?”. Thanks again!