How I Made My First Conference Talk
Earlier this year I gave a talk called React Inline Styles and the Future of CSS at CSS Dev Conf. It was an amazing and terrifying experience, and the fulfillment of a goal I had been working toward for the past two years.
CSS Dev Conf opened their CFP in March, with the conference scheduled for October. I had submitted a proposal to speak the year before which was rejected, so I was eager to try again. I had been thinking about the topic for a while by the time the CFP opened, so my proposal came pretty easily.
As you would expect, many speakers submit proposals on subjects that they’re experts in. A lot of people submit talks on things they don’t know much about but would like to learn about, too, which can also be a great idea. Teaching something is an effective way to learn about it, and your excitement about the cool new thing you’re doing will carry over into your talk. My topic was half based on personal experience and half things I wanted to learn about, which felt like a nice balance. I had also reviewed proposals earlier in the year when I organized CascadiaCSS, so I had picked up a few ideas.
A few months later in June, I received an email accepting my proposal and danced around a bit. It was time to get to work.
A couple of weeks later, after stewing on the idea more and using up some of my last available free time for a while, I started the writing process.
My first step was to come up with a rough outline. I wrote a bulleted list of the main topics I wanted to cover, then started to fill in details, examples, and other ideas in each section. This process helped me find a structure for my talk. I reorganized the outline a few times as I started to think of how the ideas in it related to each other.
When the outline was done and I was happy with the general order of things, I grabbed a notebook and started writing a storyboard for the talk. I divided the pages into two columns. In the lefthand column, I drew thumbnails of each slide, and in the other I wrote detailed notes relating to it. This turned out to be one of the most helpful exercises in the entire process.
Making a storyboard got me thinking about how the slides would work as visual aids early, without letting me waste time trying to finish and polish them while I needed to be figuring out the general ideas. This also helped me avoid filling my slides with dense text and bullet points that I would end up reading, which I desperately wanted to avoid. I tried to make my slides as visual as possible so that they would help clarify what I was talking about without distracting.
The day after I finished the storyboard, I wrote the content out in prose as if it was an article for my blog. I find that writing about my ideas is one of the best ways for me to understand and critically analyze them, and I was glad that I did. By the time I was finished, it was the beginning of September, and the conference was just under two months away.
With my storyboard in place, making my actual slides came pretty easily. I started by getting the content and sections that I was sure about done, and left the rest in rough but functional shape. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t wast time on things that had a good chance of changing, or that I might remove. I avoided polish and minor design tweaks— it’s easy to spend hours adjusting type and color that could be better spent elsewhere.
Practice Makes… Something
Once I had a slide deck in workable shape, I started to practice as much as I could. This meant speaking repeatedly in my living room, which I’m sure my girlfriend appreciated. After a while, I had the bright idea to record myself. This let me see what bad speaking habits I was dragging around. (I’m pretty good about “um” and “ah”, but I stumble over my words sometimes, and tend to get ahead of myself.) Watching or listening to yourself is awkward and cringe-worthy, but it was helpful.
The week before the conference, I gave my talk at work as a brownbag lunch. My coworkers were an awesome test audience and gave me valuable feedback. I incorporated as much of it as I could and spend the last week finalizing and polishing my slides.
The next Sunday, I flew into LAX, made it to the conference, and had a ton of fun at the opening reception and speaker’s dinner trying not to think about the fact that I had to speak in front of a bunch of strangers the next morning.
The day of, I looked over my slides one last time, took a deep breath, and spoke. I’m relieved to say that I survived the ordeal, and wasn’t weirdly sweaty or anything. In fact, it went pretty well! My biggest problem was nerves, but they eased up a little bit as I got into it. I think if anything I probably sounded a little too practiced and not energetic enough. Oddly enough, I think that sounding over-rehearsed was something that I could have done better with by practicing more. If I was more comfortable and not so nervous, I think I would have done a better job with it. Next time!
In the end, I spent about 120 hours preparing for the talk, and practiced it about 15 times. For the most part I was happy with my process. Next time, I’m going to try practicing in front of more people earlier instead of only practicing it at home. I’m also planning to record myself a few times to see how the next one progresses over time.
I’ve got some new talk ideas kicking around now, and I think that next time will be even better. See you at a conference?