The Elements of a Good Conference Talk

Warning This article was written over six months ago, and may contain outdated information.

Recently on Twitter a few people, myself included, had a short conversation about what we like to see in conference talks, prompted by Sara Soueidan’s question:

I’ve been wasting a lot of time lately trying to decide which talk topic to do at which conference. Any tips, fellow speakers?

My advice was to choose a topic you’re enthusiastic about and believe in. If I watch a talk where I learn one or two things but the presentation is captivating, I’m much more likely to remember it than one where I was presented many new ideas but which bored me.

Paul Kinlan said (and many people agreed) that it should be something with “impact. What needs the most attention to help change in an industry”. Christian Heilmann advised to study what the other speakers would talk about and find a unique topic, or a different angle.

Jake Archibald added that the product of all of these approaches should be inspirational, and it’s true that inspiration should come from the talk itself, not as a call to action — I find the often-repeated ‘get excited and make things’ about as inspirational as its source maxim, ‘keep calm and carry on’.

So that’s: interesting, impactful, unique, and from that, inspirational. Here’s a quick illustration of the importance of all four:

The first presentation I saw about Web Components was completely underwhelming, and as a result I came away uninspired. The potential impact was utterly lost on me, and it was only when I heard more about them that I realised how exciting they were, and later started to talk about them myself.

The unique angle? In my first Web Components talk I also focused on the technology rather than trying to draw out the potential, and managed to even bore myself while I was talking; I can only apologise to the audience who had to sit through that. After some advice from Christian I re-ordered the talk to focus on the benefits and I had much more success with it.

Anyway, hope that helps you if you’re doing, or thinking of doing, any conference or meetup speaking. I’m always trying to do better, so will be following this advice myself in the future.

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