How To Spend the 30 Minutes Before a Talk
I recently gave a talk at the inaugural Playgrounds Conference in Melbourne, Australia. In the days leading to my talk I was feeling nervous. I’ve taught classes and spoken at Meetups before but this was my first conference talk. At small events, it’s easier to express what you’re teaching in a very unique way to a specific space and moment in time. It’s harder to vibe with the audience at a large conference talk.
But I really wanted my talk to feel authentic and spontaneous while also teaching particular concepts in a clear and elegant way. To do that, I took a few interesting steps to mentally prepare. I thought it would be cool to share them here:
Fill your heart with love for your audience
When I want to give a talk that is passionate and genuine, I need to prepare emotionally. For the talk I gave recently, on using unit testing to teach mobile app designers about software architecture, I really felt that I wanted to get myself into a state where my heart was full, where I felt genuinely enthusiastic and full of love for the people I would be speaking to. Like the incredibly impressive woman I met who spent many years working in medical research and then started developing iOS apps one day to make administrating trials easier. And the self-taught indie developer with great glasses.
Allegedly, Edgar Allan Poe used to get himself into a freaky state of mind before writing by sleeping with a large, heavy spoon in his hand. When he reached deep sleep and his fingers lost their grip, his heavy spoon would fall, and he would get up, his brain sensitive and deep in REM, and he would write. Seems fake, but it’s still a pretty good story.
Meeting people at a conference and learning their stories is a great way to prepare for a talk. Later, when you get onstage, these are the people you will be speaking to. Feeling like you are speaking to real people gives your talk momentum and urgency.
Decide what fundamental idea you want to teach
Feeling like I am genuinely explaining something that needs to be explained is a requirement for me when I give a talk. Even a simple concept can be taught in a genuinely instructive and new way. Otherwise, my explanations lack structure and can ramble. I don’t feel the need to script my talks — as long as I feel like I’m actually trying to explain something, I can talk in a spontaneous way.
In preparing for my Playgrounds talk, I reflected on what central idea I wanted to teach the audience. Here’s what I came up with:
Software architecture revolves around preparing a system for change. It is a form of design. iOS developers should teach the designers they work with about it to demystify how features get built and enable close collaboration and innovation.
There are many other points I touched on in my talk, but I always returned back to the idea that software architecture, and in fact many other iOS concepts, are not too hard to explain to people without an engineering or iOS background. By continually returning to the idea that software architecture is a form of design, I hoped to make the developers in the audience feel that what I was urging them to do was possible, maybe even easy.
Remind yourself that you’ll probably make 80% of the points you are planning to make
Realistically, if you give a talk in a somewhat extemporaneous way you won’t cover all of the ideas you are so excited to share with your audience. Recognizing that before you start presenting is very useful because it takes the pressure off and makes your talk more focused and explanatory.
More generally, it’s important to set your expectations of yourself before you do anything, I think. If you’ve never spoken at a conference before, maybe your expectation on yourself should be to be enthusiastic and speak in a clear, compelling way. If you’re an experienced conference speaker, maybe your goal is to make very advanced ideas feel relatable and simple. Or maybe your goal is to urge people to learn different programming languages to influence their iOS work. It could be anything. But giving a talk with no personal expectations can be bad because afterwards it’s difficult to place your emotions and figure out how to felt about your talk and how to improve.
Figure out what makes YOU feel ready
Every person has their own way of preparing to give a talk. The key is to figure out what makes you feel focused and confident when you speak, and to put yourself in that state of mind before you get up there.