9 point breakdown of 68 hours of my preparation for conference talks

I take my prep seriously. Why? I was doing talks for a long time and thought I would never bomb. I did. In 2017. At a conference that my favorite. I was at a personal tough phase and had taken the prep lightly. Till then, my worst talk was still very highly appreciated. I thought I could not go lower on that and there was limited prep.

I did not feel bad and go to a guilt loop. Instead, I studied myself and found out what made my good talks great. As a part of the study, I decided I will evolve a framework for myself to consistently be able to do good talks.

Since then to now – I never bombed at any talk. My personal best kept improving. I thought I should share my 68 hours of prep that I put into any conference talk that can simplify it for others to not bomb and do consistently well. Here we go >

Step 1 : The Vision

I begin with a vision for a talk. A talk has to bring an insight to audience that enables them to go beyond their own thinking. Otherwise it becomes a FYI talk. That’s not bad but if there’s an opportunity to help the audience deeply, why not use it.

My vision of a talk comes from my own personal experiences and reflection. It mostly comes from my view that is different from everyone around me. The audience will be interested to know a unique perspective and not a perspective that is common and that they might hear from 10 other people at the same conference.

Once I have firmed up the vision – I write a note about it. I give a title to the talk. The title becomes a key part of the vision. The audience read the title and should be keen to sign up. Conference organizers are putting in a lot of work to make the conference happen. They want speakers who can bring more signups and create great audience experience. I want to deliver that. I do everything possible to make that happen.

~ 4 hours 

Step 2 : The Imagination

Imagination is one of the most powerful super powers I have. I want to put that to use. I stand and try to give a mini talk about it imagining I am on the stage and checking the audience reaction to the talk. I use this to manifest how I would be on stage and how the audience might react to it. 

This step is an important step. If I am not convinced seeing myself on stage, listening to myself speak about this topic – I would go back to step 1. I imagine to as much detail as possible to see my dress, the microphone, the space around me, my talk, the lights flashing at me, the camera and the audience filled across many different rows. Their reaction, cheer, silence to certain things I am saying. A vivid sense of imagination at 4K clarity. 

~ 20 hours

Step 3 : Writing the abstract

Once I am convinced of Step 1 and Step 2 I begin writing the abstract. By this time, there is sufficient clarity to write the abstract. I use simple words, straight to the point, little bit of drama in the flow to drive the right emotions into the reader. I prefer to write a bio that suits the title and abstract of the talk instead of a standard one. Not everytime I achieve to do it but this makes a a lot of sense to tell the audience that I am the relevant guy to speak about this topic. 

The simpler it is, the easier it is, the deeper it is, the better it is.

That’s my principle to abstract writing.

~ 10 min

Step 4 : Story Outline

If I am convinced – I write a high level story outline on my Notes App. This story outline has the summary of the talk organized in the flow of how I am going to narrate it. 

This is the most important step in my talk preparation. I break down my talk to 2-5 min chunks and write the story for those chunks. Each chunk should have an insight that is critical for the audience.

The beginning of my talk is super important part. I spend hours thinking about the best start to this talk. The start is the biggest critical piece. I need to say something that hooks the audience very deeply for the next 30 minutes.

I write and re-write and re-write the start till I am super convinced of it. I imagine what the speaker before me would say and the kind of speaker before me. What would be the audience psychology if the audience is just out of a great talk or a bad talk. How do I keep them hooked onto to the next 30 minutes.

~ 10 hours

Step 5 : Slide deck preparation

Some talks don’t require slides and some do. For those talks that do, it consumes a hell lot of time. I am a simplcity freak when it comes to slide deck. The last 5 years, I have made some very simple clean decks.

My definition of clean

  • Simple images
  • People sitting from far should be able to read
  • More the text on slide – more ugly it becomes
  • Slides are side dishes of the talk – not a main course
  • Flow is very predictable

0 Storyline and slide deck matches

I iterate this. I want to get the flow crystal clean.

~30 hours

Step 6: The Rehearsal

I rehearse the talk with the deck.

I know the talk before the deck but the deck is a new dimension.

I rehearse the talk half a dozen times.

At least 2 times with a sense of clock or a time in front of me to see if I am not not overshooting the time given to me. I have to be as respectful as I can to the conference organizer and the speaker next to me. I am not the most important person in the conference. I remind myself of that.

I practice my jokes, I practice my pauses, I practice how I handle questions, I practice how I handle some unforseen incidents.

~ 6 hours

Step 7 :  Dress Selection

I have to pick my most comfortable dress to be speaking.

I could be using a wired microphone and sometimes I can have wires dangling around my body. I need to wear a dress that suits me, comforts me and keeps me not focused on the wires or my dress. I have to dress in a way that I forget myself. I need comfortable shoes. I should have worn this dress before and I must know this is comfortable.

~ 15 minutes

Step 8 : Sleep

Sleep is the most important part of my talk. As surprising as it can be. Preparation can lead to success but preparation without sleep leads to me not being able to enjoy my success.

A good night sleep the previous day to my talk is critical for me to perform.

~7 hours 30 minutes

Step 9 : Enjoy

Nothing. Just go enjoy my own talk. If I am not enjoying giving this talk, chances are the audience is not enjoying listening to it either. I have to enjoy. I am super joyed that I am doing this talk. I am so looking forward to it and that moment has finally arrived so I am supposed to enjoy this from deep within.

This preparation routine has helped me immensely.

Bonus Point : The Music

Music plays an essential role in my prep, especially when writing the story outline or preparing my slide deck. I have iterated a lot with music and found that if a music play list makes me force to skip a music or change or get to the player for whatever reason, it is unproductive.

After much iteration, I found a 2 hour buddhist meditation chant on Youtube and stick to it. I loop it so it goes on and on and on and I never go back the player. Each of us need to find something like that.

Semi Final Thoughts

An important aspect in life is to not conclude unless absolutely required. In this blog, I have practiced semi final thoughts to enable my readers to understand that if they conclude something – they stop learning about it.

As a semi final thought about the prep for conference talk, I am assuming this post has laid a foundation for you to build your own framework and prep. It is important to note that there are people and sometimes me who does a good talk even without a prep but there is a lot of uncertainity. A prep is a way to respect the time that audience is devoting to you. A prep is a great way to express gratitude to everyone in the conference organizing committee and everyone who enabled you to become a speaker.

A good prep is an expression of gratitude.

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