How to get started on the tech speaking circuit

amy cuddy at poptech 2012

Amy Cuddy speaking at PopTech 2012

Credit: flickr/PopTech

People get into tech speaking for a lot of reasons. It could be for recognition, to build their personal brand, or to establish their thought leadership position in the market. Or, it might simply be part of the job.

If you’ve been thinking of giving it a try, now is a great time to get rolling for the summer/fall conference season. Here’s what you need to know to get started.

The proposal

Conferences publish a set of proposal guidelines, typically on their web site. Make sure to follow the guidelines closely and cover all the requirements. The speaking committee relies on proposals to ensure that the conference provides quality and value to their audience.

Missing the submission deadline is a talk killer. Requests for proposals occur anywhere from three to eight months before the conference date. Search the Web, talk to your trade associations, and ping your personal network to find opportunities in your niche. Make sure to submit your proposals before the deadline.

Also, some conference organizers want a video clip with your proposal. Putting a clip together takes organization and time. Plan accordingly.

Another thing you'll have to think about is the type of talk you want to give. There are keynotes, breakout sessions, lightning talks, and panel discussions. It's very important to create a proposal that you know you can pull off.

For example in a breakout session, you might want to show off some hardware component. While it's exciting and sounds fun to demo a cool new cutting-edge piece of equipment, making it work reliably in a 40-minute talk might be pretty tough. My recommendation: Don’t propose anything that you haven't actually already done in real life. Make sure what you promise in your talk is possible.

Proposals generally have three parts, an abstract, a description and your bio. The abstract summarizes the target audience and what benefits they can expect from attending the talk. The description details areas that you will cover. You might list the coding methodology, the features of an application or perhaps make mention of your hardware demo. The bio is a description of the speaker and might include your background, credentials, and past talks. You might also mention your published works, books, articles or special affiliations. Be sure to include contact information. Keep selling to a minimum.

Presentation basics

Begin gathering material on your topic early, but don't start creating slides just yet. Find interesting photos, graphs, code snippets, and Web links that you think your audience will appreciate. Ask yourself, “What would I like to see in this presentation?”.

Organize your presentation into an introduction, three main points, a conclusion and Q&A. Imposing this structure will help you make sure that you deliver on your proposal.

The introduction might include an attention-grabbing opening. I recently started a talk with an out-of-focus picture of an Arduino micro-controller board. I explained that the micro-controller landscape is changing super quickly and the lines between these devices and nano-Linux modules, like the Raspberry Pi are blurring. Start out strong and move rapidly into your talk. Somewhere along the way, work in your name, the talk overview, and why you are in front of the audience.

Limiting presentations to three main points will also help you manage your time. It’s easy to include way too much detail, but a 40-minute talk only allows 30 minutes of talk time. That's about 7 minutes per point. Not enough time, to get very deep. Order the three points logically and make them crisp and interesting. Experiment with using dramatic pauses, surprises, plot twists, and speech cadence to keep the audience involved. See what works for your style.

The conclusion should wrap up your topics and call your audience to action. Tie the end back to the beginning, to close the loop.

Q&A can be the most fun because it's a chance to connect with the audience. If you have them thinking, they'll have plenty of questions. Be the expert that you are. The caveat: Make sure to keep track of the time, so you don't run over into the next speaker's setup and session time. Running over time won’t get you invited back. 

Rehearsal

I recommend rehearsing a talk in real time a minimum of three times, and ideally more. Load a timer app on your phone, time each run-through, and record the duration of each in a notebook. Do the first run-through end-to-end, without interruption or live editing. Make mental note of rough spots or slides that are out of order and apply fixes in subsequent runs. Get a colleague to listen to your first run and make notes. The first run will probably be way too long, but it’s important to get a baseline for the length, because you absolutely have to stay within your session time.

Don’t be fooled, rehearsing takes a lot of time. My technical talks might take from 30 to 40 hours of prep work for a 40 minute talk. Out of that I might actually spend 8 or 10 hours rehearsing. That's 8 or 10 real-time runs through my presentation! Extreme? Perhaps. Other successful speakers have similar habits, so I know I’m not too far out of line.

Spend the time and effort to put on a good show and you'll find it's all worthwhile.

_________________

Rob “drtorq” Reilly is a consultant, writer and speaker. His practice “transforms people's biggest fear into having fun with the audience.” Check out his site at http://drtorq.com. Contact Rob at doc@drtorq.com or 407-718-3274.

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