Developers who have written and presented a great tech talk get front row tickets to the best jobs and opportunities. Companies looking to hire remote developers look for evidence online of their skills and personality. Tech talks, and their accompanying blog posts, are hints that a developer is competent, confident, and unafraid to speak in front of an audience.
But not many developers give tech talks. There's this idea that tech talks are reserved for the supernaturally gifted, those who can write C before they can walk. Nothing could be further from the truth. Anyone can give a great tech talk, you just need to know how.
This article will walk you through the step-by-step process of giving impactful tech talks. By the end of it, you’ll come away with 3 specific steps you can take to prepare yourself for giving a tech talk.
P.S. This process works for both in-person and virtual meetups and conferences. Additionally, all steps except the last one work if you want to publish blog posts too.
Step 1: Build the Courage
Here’s the real reason why you haven’t done a tech talk yet: you don’t think anyone wants to hear your ideas. I admit, in today’s world of social media, it’s intimidating knowing that anything you say online is visible. Trolls are lurking in the shadows, ready to lash out at any time for something you said a long time ago.
I nearly stopped giving talks because I thought: “What’s the point if only 1 person of the 50 in the audience will really appreciate what I have to say? I don’t want to disappoint 49 people!”
But then I realized how fortunate I am that I have the opportunity to inspire even a single person. Because the reality is that the other 49 people will forget about your talk before the day is over while that 1 person might go on to do great things personally or professionally because of you.
You can’t ever satisfy everyone. Most of the time, it's hard to even satisfy half. But if you inspire just one person in the world, that’s enough reason to try. It’s a great feeling, I promise you that.
Step 2: Decide What You’ll Talk About
Before you can write your tech script, you need to decide what you want to talk about. The key here is not to force yourself into an idea. If you aren’t naturally inclined or passionate enough to write or talk about a particular topic, it most likely won’t be worth your or anyone else’s time.
But there’s no excuse for “I have nothing to write about.” You do. You have lots of interesting thoughts, whether that’s after reading something interesting, while programming, or during a great conversation. Every day, you come up with ideas that are begging to get out.
You’re just not writing them down.
So start paying attention to your thoughts and write down your interesting thoughts as they happen throughout the day. Don’t feel the need to write down everything. Just jot down a few sentences in a note-taking app or where you track your to-dos. Enough to bring back the thought when you review your notes.
If you’re unsure whether a thought is worth writing down, write it down. You can delete it later. Alternatively, you can ask yourself this question:
“Will a talk about this idea add value to the community?”
This question will help differentiate between the thoughts that are hidden rants and the gems that contribute something positive, genuine, and valuable to the community. If you want more validation, you can always put a quick post up on social media to ask if people are interested in hearing more about the topic you had in mind. Even a few yes votes should be enough to validate your idea.
Once you have a good idea, here are a few ways you can structure your script & talk:
A popular and flexible way to structure knowledge. You can give a how-to on something that:
- hasn’t been explained particularly well in other articles or talks
- hasn’t been explained in your particular context yet
You’d be surprised at how much knowledge you have that others would like to know about. It could be small things, such as how you can be productive at 3 AM, or it could be repackaging old tips in a unique way to refresh people’s memory.
This is perfect if you’ve discovered how to do something faster or better than conventionally known and you can explain it easily. Just make sure that you explain in which contexts the trick works (and when it’s appropriate) and when it does not.
Experiments are your opportunity to explore something from a different angle. For example, if you know people generally say that React is faster than Angular, you can perform experiments to see whether it’s actually the same. You can present your findings and, if the findings are surprising, build your tech talk from there.
Experiments are generally used to play around with new technology.
This is the extension of a how-to. These are pretty common, but there are usually only a small number of actually good, up-to-date introductions to any programming topic. There’s quite a big chance that you can write a better, more digestible, and possibly even a more entertaining introduction to a particular tech topic.
Time For Change
You’ve had a revelation about a community, framework, industry, etc. Something needs to change in order to move forward in that area. You can write a talk about that. Be careful though, because these types of talks or blog posts can easily become rants.
Make sure that you keep things positive and collaborative. It should sound like “We can make this better together” and not like “This sucks and here’s why.”
Step 3: Outline Your Idea
Once you have some courage built up and have thought of a reasonably validated idea, it’s time to create an outline of what you’re going to talk about. This needn’t be hard. Your structure should have the following elements:
- Main Idea
- Audience Participation
Set the stage, but don’t spend too much time doing it. People didn’t carve out time from their busy calendars to sit around while you talk about your background and company for twenty minutes.
Give them enough context to understand why your topic matters for them and why you’re worth listening to. Nothing more, nothing less.
This is where you put the majority of what you want to say. Use sections and subsections. For example, a section might be “Secrets to being a Great Remote Developer” and then a sub-section could be “Secret 1: Be Proactive.”
Sections make it easier for people to digest all the information you present them. Our brain retains info better when information is compartmentalized. It’s why listicles work so well and why this article is neatly structured too.
At this point, you can also think about the type of images that you want to associate with each section. Images help break up blocks of information that might otherwise be pretty overwhelming.
Once you’ve unloaded your great idea, it’s time to wrap things up and ask your audience to contribute to the conversation. If you’re talking about an open-source project, invite them to submit issues or a pull request. If you wrote about a programming trick, ask them if they have any tricks of their own that go along with yours.
This is also your chance to be humble and admit you don’t know everything. It’s a way to point out that you’re contributing to a conversation instead of giving a lecture.
During your tech talk, try to be unique. It’s quite likely much will have been written or said about your topic already. You can still stand out by giving your unique spin to the topic. Can you add something that’s more up-to-date? Can you explain something in a better way? Can you be more entertaining about it?
The point is that you want to figure out how you can make your tech script and talk your own. Because that’s likely where you’ll add most value to the community.
Step 4: Publish
People prepare their tech talks differently. Some people figure out what they’re going to say by creating slides. Other people write down key sentences and wing the rest of it while on stage. Other people write a fleshed-out blog post of their talk and publish it before giving the talk. We believe that the last approach is the best one.
Not only will writing out your tech talk help you better understand what you want to say, but you’ll also reach many more people by publishing your masterpiece online. Creating a blog post and a tech talk from one idea is a great way to squeeze more juice out of your idea.
Make an English Version
It’s great if you prepare your talk in your native language. But if you want those ideas to have the biggest impact online, you will also need an English version. If you don’t feel like your English is good enough, ask a friend to proofread your script or article before publishing it!
Review What You’ve Done
Once you’ve posted your article, you might be tempted to completely ignore it because you’re afraid that what you’ve posted is downright terrible. But I recommend doing the opposite. Read it a few times the same day you post it. It won’t be perfect, but that’s okay. Nothing ever is.
Then wait a few days and read it again. You’ll notice things you wanted to have written differently every time you read it. This is good, because that’s the feedback you need to get better every time you write a new tech talk or article.
Step 5: Take Your Show on the Road
Now you’re ready to take your show on the road and prepare for a talk. Here’s how you go about it.
Apply to Speak
For small meetups (virtual or local) you can usually just message the organizer and give them the gist of what you want to talk about. For bigger events, you’ll need to send through your proposal during a particular period of time called “Call For Papers” (CFP). Make sure you check long before a big event when their CFP period is.
From my experience, it helps if you show the organizer the blog post of your tech talk. Particularly if it received a lot of engagement from the community, your blog post will:
- show the organizers that the community is interested
- show them a meatier version of what you’ll talk about
Build Your Slides
At some point in your professional career, you’re going to need slides and you’ll have very little time to prepare them. So you might as well start building them already. Here’s how.
Two words: Google Slides.
Keep it Simple
I can’t stress this enough. Tech talks work best when the information on each slide is as contained as it can be. The smallest idea possible. In other words, lots of text on a slide is no bueno.
This being said, you still want each slide to make enough sense that someone who wasn’t at your talk can understand it when they’re reviewing your slides on Slideshare/Speaker Deck.
For years, I created slides that couldn’t be understood out of context. I wasn’t able to share those talks and use them to build my reputation online. Needless to say, that was a mistake.
To create your slides, go back to your outline and find your main sections. Give each section its own slide to introduce it as the next topic you want to talk about. This makes it easier for your audience to digest as you switch from one section to the other.
Design is Important
Design scares developers, but it’s important nonetheless. Thankfully, you can keep it simple here too. The key to good slide design is consistency with your colors, fonts, and layout.
Don’t use more than 3 different fonts (1 serif font) or 3 different colors on slides. For fonts, your safest bet is to use Google Fonts over any Windows-based or Mac-based fonts.
For colors, Colourlovers has some great color palettes to help you find 3 colors that go well together. Or, if you don't mind putting in some extra work, you can code your own color palette generator. We are developers, after all.
I also highly recommend using Unsplash for beautiful Creative Commons photos that work as great backgrounds for your slides. Although not all these backgrounds have much meaning to them, a good visual metaphor makes the point you attach to it much more memorable.
Funny is Good
As I’m sure you know, slides shouldn’t be 100% serious all the way. It’s okay to include a meme or something funny to help explain your point and get a “smile break” in. This being said, don’t go overboard with it either. Flooding your presentation with memes won’t save your tech talk. Find the right balance.
Go Easy With Code Blocks
If you’re showing code to explain something, try to only use a small snippet of code per slide. People really don’t want to stare at giant blocks of code on a slide.
Look at the slides of other talks to get inspired. They don’t even need to be other tech talks. Before putting together slides for my tech talks, I always spend a few hours watching Simon Sinek to remind myself that my primary purpose is to inspire at least one other person.
Check out Speaker Deck for slide inspiration. In comparison to SlideShare, Speaker Deck tends to have more beautiful and entertaining presentations. Browse them to get inspired!
Practice. A Lot
Once you’ve built your slides, it’s time to practice. Hopefully, you have the weekend to yourself, because you’ll need to practice a lot. Every time you practice your talk, you’ll find something you want to do differently. Change your talk and practice some more. Then practice in front of a mirror. Once you’re starting to feel sick of your talk, you’re ready.
The beginning and end of your talk are the most important parts, because they’re what your audience will remember. Blame the human brain for that. So make sure you practice the beginning and the end of your presentation most.
It’s always a good idea to start and end your tech talk with a story or big idea. Just make sure it connects with the rest of your talk. I’ve seen talks that started with stories about the speaker’s drive to the conference that had no tie-in with the rest of the talk. Confusing and not what you’re looking for.
As you practice, it’s also good to keep track of how long it takes to present each slide. If you’re going over the time limit of your talk, you can much more easily cut out things to meet the time requirements.
Don’t Forget to Network
Once you’ve given your talk, you might feel tempted to leave and let your nerves calm down. But you’re not done yet. Now comes the most valuable part of all: networking.
Depending on the event or meetup you’ve presented at, there will always be some kind of opportunity to hang around and talk to the people you’ve just presented to. Because you’ve just done a talk, they’ll usually see you as an expert on some level. Many people will be eager to talk to you. Connect with them. Who knows what opportunities might arise?
Review Your Performance
Just as you did with your blog post, take some time to review your performance once you’ve given your talk. If possible, have someone record your talk so you can watch it afterward. You’ll find it pretty eye-opening and will probably discover many things you can improve upon.
If you don’t have a recording, try to find time after the event to write down as many thoughts as you can about the things you wish you’d have done differently. Make sure to do it the same day, because those thoughts will quickly flee from your mind.
Don’t worry about the “mistakes” you made during your talk. Mistakes are human. It’s more important that you’ve tried and that you’re ready to improve upon those mistakes for next time.
Let’s Do This
There you have it. How to go from an idea in your head to a published post to sharing your passion with people in a room. To make this post as actionable as possible, here are 3 things you can do right now to get started:
#1. Track Your Ideas
Get in the habit of tracking your ideas. As I mentioned at the start, every time you have one of those fleeting thoughts, write it down in a note-taking app. Just the core idea and a few sentences will suffice.
At the end of each week, take a look at what you’ve collected and see which ideas are worth writing a few paragraphs about.
#2. Work Through a Topic
Take the topic that you think has the most potential from your list and write a few paragraphs about it in a Google Doc. This is your chance to fail fast. If it seems like your idea isn’t going to add value, drop it and move on to the next idea. It’s at this point when you’ll realize whether a thought is more of a rant or a valuable idea.
Once you have a few paragraphs about an idea, see if you can take it further. Build a structure around your idea and follow the steps I covered earlier.
#3. Discover Conferences or Meetups
Start browsing Meetup.com or look for conferences to speak at once you’ve written a successful blog post about your idea. Meetup groups are usually very welcoming, so just hang out with them for a while. Before you know it, you’ll have the courage to start sharing ideas with them.
Inspiring one person is all that matters. Don’t let trolls or haters stop you from inspiring that one person. I’ll leave you with the mantra that has kept me giving talks for many years now: Be inspired. Create. Inspire the world.
There are plenty of tricks and tips that make posts and talks look cooler, but it ultimately comes down to what you’re passionate about. That’s what will help you create something that’s truly your own and that will inspire others. Good luck.