Protips for Conference Talks

A few weeks ago I was sitting at the hotel in Zurich with Jacob Kaplan Moss prior to DjangoCon EU enjoying a beer, talking about Django, and discussing a bit about our upcoming talks for the conference. He talked briefly about his upcoming keynote and how he was doing something different, including essentially 5 mini-talks. This seemed interesting enough, but the part that surprised me was when Jacob said, “I’m among friends here so it’ll be a good place to test this format.” Many if not all in the community know who Jacob is as one of the creators of Django, though still to be “among friends” at a roughly 300 person conference surprised me. However, as someone thats keynoted several times, spoken at conferences for many years, and familiar with many people in the community; for the 150-200 people there he had not met before, he was still truly among friends. While giving a keynote is never an easy feat, it seems to ease the worry ahead of time of doing such.

Saturday night there was a bit of conversation on twitter that had some related discussion. In the last minute rush for DjangoCon US talk submissions a few that have been involved in the community for some time discussed submitting their first talk proposals. In parallel to that was some discussion around diversity, I volunteered the idea of not including presenters name’s in the list when reviewing and voting on talks. While both of the above are controversial topics alone, I hope that can be left to another later time. The key idea that emerged that can be helpful to anyone looking to submit a talk to a conference is how the “pro’s do it”, as Jeremy Dunck put it.

So without further adieu, hopefully without speaking too much for him here’s likely why Jacob viewed his 300 person keynote as being among friends:

1. Start small

Whether its practicing the talk itself or writing the abstract for a proposal practicing each step lets you refine this well ahead of time. In my experience, providing a talk description for a meetup can often be far harder than for a conference. For a meetup I feel confined to 2-3 sentences, versus an abstract a solid paragraph or two. Yet, I still have to make it as exciting, because of course I don’t want 4 people to show up to the meetup because it sounds uninteresting. In the case I’m most familiar with DjangoCon and DjangoCon.eu both happen once a year, though many smaller regional conferences related to Python exist and especially meetup groups:

Regional Conferences

Meetups

Other avenues

  • Ignite
  • At your office to colleagues

Check lanyard for a list of relevant events where you might be able to start at

Take your pick, there’s a conference or a meet-up near you. Even better if you can manage to do both at some point.

2. Get feedback early

If you’ve been around the community you may know what talks would be interesting. Though even if you’ve been involved in the community and not given a talk at a conference before, this may be harder to come up with than you realize. If you’re thinking about submitting a talk, its likely you have many you can get feedback from. Do this early and often, if you’re submitting a talk its likely you have something interesting to say, the hardest part can be having that succinctly come across in an abstract. Sure there’s certain hot topics, such as in the Django community:

  • Diversity
  • Class Based Views
  • Testing
  • APIs/Services

At almost every Django and Python conference there will probably be 3+ talks on each of these topics submitted. Why does yours stand out differently? Its likely in how you position the problem and the answer you can deliver in a talk, which isn’t a quality of the talk but the abstract rather.

3. Focus on your talk more than others

I’m not sure this is the case of all presenters at every conference, but every time I’ve paid attention to it; presenters seem to make themselves slightly less available during a conference. Or at least they do this up until they give their talk. Often you’ll have several of the presenters missing other talks while they’re holed up in their room prepping or maybe their enjoying a hallway track with other presenters. Either way they’re likely walking through their slides and talk key points in some form. As a presenter the dynamic of the conference changes ever so slightly, you spend a little less time on all of the talks that happen (fortunately videos help for catching up later). Though on the plus side, you also get the opportunity to have engaging conversations after your talk about a topic you hopefully find interesting.

4. Get the critical feedback

People know its nerve wrecking to give a talk in front of a crowd. Each time you do it, it becomes easier, but in my experience its never as easy as a conversation over a cup of coffee. Because of this, most people will be quite encouraging of any job you do. This isn’t a bad thing, encouragement is good, your talk will be better the second time you give it. However, by getting the critical feedback out of people you’ll be able to improve your talk much more the second/third/fourth time around.