Foundations of a good conference talk

In non-pandemic times, I speak at a lot of conferences. While there, I attend talks.

There are two ways to look at every talk at a conference.

a. It is adding on to a topic or area that you already know well. As a CSS expert, any CSS talks usually fall in this category for me.

b. You know nothing about the topic, but you’ve heard about it peripherally and have some curiosity in this area. I’m not a JavaScript expert. However, I’m curious about what problems the latest JavaScript framework addresses. What are the advantages of React over Vue? Vue over React? Why do we need all of these frameworks anyway?

In the first 3-5 minutes of your talk, you can satisfy both of these audiences quickly and easily by grounding the audience in the technology you’re presenting.

Amazing! How do you do it?

  1. “The technology I’m talking about today is Y. Y is {type of technology} that addresses ABC problems. It’s put out by JKL Corporation/open source project/whatever, under a DEF license. It requires GHI technologies to configure and run.” (describe dependencies, technology stack, or server configurations here)

  2. “Y solves the following types of problems…”

  3. “You may wonder why we need Y, when we already have X, which addresses the same problems. X and Y are indeed similar, so let’s compare their strengths and weaknesses.”

  4. “Now let’s get into the meat of Y.” (Time to go geeky wild!!!)

This formula conveys all kinds of background information about your technology very quickly. In 5 minutes, as a geeky person fluent in web technologies, I’ve got all of the high-level details I need to decide if Y is any interest to me at all. That is an excellent talk already. Five stars!

What if you already know X? Well, in 5 minutes, you may still pick up a nugget you didn’t know before, or make a connection you hadn’t previously made. For example, when you look at strengths and weaknesses of various technologies, you may not have been able to articulate why you’re so excited about Y to your boss. Now you have the argument to do it.

By the way, the true experts in technology never mind these high level discussions or think less of you for giving them. Everyone must learn sometime. If you can explain a technology in 5 minutes, that’s mastery in action.

The next time you give a talk, internally at your company or externally at a conference, keep these points in mind.

You don’t have to be comprehensive in your presentation. You need to be memorable.

And being comprehensive means you’re not memorable.

Present so the audience learns and remembers, not like a specification. We can always look up the specification later.

Jen Kramer @jen4web