Speaking: Two Questions to Ask Before You Give a Talk

If you’ve had a talk proposal accepted or been invited to speak at an event, you’ll usually get a chance to chat with the organizers before you show up to give your talk.

While you probably have a good idea of the topic of your talk (if you don’t, that’s a post for another day!), event organizers can be invaluable in helping you frame a talk that will succeed with their audience. They are on your side and they want you to do great, or they wouldn’t be hosting you at their event.

These are two questions that I always ask the organizers before I speak.

Question 1: Who will be in the audience?

Knowing the basic demographics of the audience is necessary to make sure you’re speaking at the right level and tuning the cultural references and humor for the room. I often speak to audiences of highly technical engineers and to audiences of business folks about the same topics. These are very different talks.

You may already have a good sense of who will be at the event, but getting the organizer to tell you explicitly also tells you which population they are crafting the event to serve. It’s helpful to know who they consider to be the most important people in the room.

Question 2: What does a win for my talk look like to you?

This question prompts the organizers to tell you what they are hoping people in the audience will take away from your talk. Their response gives you more information about how you can successfully fit your talk into the overall event and specific goals.

For example, responses I’ve gotten have ranged from “I want people to feel inspired”, which tells me to emphasize the forward-looking optimistic topics that I plan to talk about, to “I hope they learn one practical trick they can use in their work immediately”, which tells me to focus on clarifying specific techniques, and so on.

The event organizers know their event better than you do, so anything you can learn from them ahead of time will be useful.

Should you attend Hadoop World? Yes.

I received this e-mail via my contact form:

I just discovered you via a Google search because I’m highly considering attending this year’s upcoming Hadoop World in NYC. I appreciate your page that you wrote up after attending last year’s event. I’m wondering if you feel that Hadoop has enough momentum and support to be a “here to stay” technology worth investing one’s time and education into, or is it possible it might fade and be deprecated by something else as the need for big data analysis continues to grow? …

I’ve had a few similar conversation with people lately, and I thought posting my response might help others making similar decisions. The e-mail is referencing my post from last year’s hadoop world NYC.

Thanks for reaching out. There are several questions in your message
and I hope that this will address them all.

This IS an extremely exciting time to be alive and working with data.
We now have the capacity to learn thing about our systems, people in
general, and the world that we simply couldn’t know before — the
field is only going to keep growing.

Hadoop is currently the primary tool framework for this kind of data
analysis. It’s certainly worth learning now, especially since Amazon’s
elastic mapreduce makes it very easy for individuals and small team to
get started without a large investment.

I’m also not a huge fan of Java and I wish more resources were going
into non-Java alternatives. Fortunately, you can use hadoop via the
streaming API in most any language you choose.

I do think it’s important to separate the discussion of tools from the
larger philosophical discussion of open problems, algorithms, and
techniques. You can learn the tools from books and blogs. The real
reason to go to a conference like Hadoop World is to meet the people
who go to conferences like Hadoop World and get into those deeper

I do hope this year’s conference will highlight the difference between tools and methods, and will also provide plenty of space for those casual hallways conversations.