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.

Speaking: Explaining Technical Information to a Mixed Audience

It’s a challenge to present deeply technical material to a room of people with varying expertise levels. If you leave it out, you’re abandoning the substance of your presentation. If you focus on it exclusively, you will lose most of the room.

Instead, include the material, but plan to repeat it two (or even three!) times.

The first time you explain it, explain it for the expert audience.

The second time you explain it, walk through an example of what the system enables.

If you’re audience is on Twitter, throw in a third version — the concise and tweetable one!

Let’s say we were giving a talk about a machine learning system to classify puppies.

Slide one would have a technical diagram of the architecture of the system, and you might explain it as: “We use a naive bayesian classifier over two hundred features to discriminate between puppies and non-puppies in our data set. As you see, our system is 85% accurate and each analysis takes 300 milliseconds. We implemented the classifier in Python, using the scikits-learn toolkit…” Don’t skimp on the details, but don’t use more than one slide for this part if possible and the explanation shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.

Slide two would have images of puppies and non-puppies, and might be explained, “This means that we have an algorithm that can distinguish between the puppies you see on top and the other objects quite accurately and quickly using features like ear floppiness and nose size.”

Slide three would be the cutest puppy you can find, and you might say, “Yes, we’ve created the worlds fastest cuteness identifying machine!” Only include the third version if the audience is online anyway. They’re probably only paying half-attention to you as you speak and this gives them something concise to share and take away from your talk.

The technique of repeating the information at varying levels of intensity has the side effect of walking people through to understanding. They may still be puzzling through the technical material when you explain it non-technically, and this seems to help the meaning snap into focus.

Break up your technical material with layered explanations and you’ll keep the audience entertained while maximizing the amount of information that each person takes away. Win.

Speaking: Title Slides + Twitter = You Win

Your title slide should focus on the title of the talk. It should also include your name and affiliation, your logo if you have a cute one, possibly your blog or e-mail address if you want people to get in touch, and your twitter handle.

Here’s one of mine:


I usually mention that the beginning of the talk that if people have questions they can tweet them at me. This isn’t just because Twitter is a great way to get questions from people too shy to speak up (or who don’t get an opportunity). Here’s the hack: letting people know that you’ll be reading everything they say about your talk on Twitter makes them more likely to say nice things.

Further, in a multi-track conference, people who weren’t actually in your talk (or were there but not paying a lot of attention) will judge your talk based on what people on Twitter say about it. Get a few good tweets, and you’ve created the wide perception that you’ve given a good talk.

Of course, it helps to actually give a good talk. More on that soon.

This article is part of my series of speaking hacks for introverts and nerds. Read about the motivation here.

Speaking: Pick a Vague and Specific Title for Your Talk

Your title should be both vague and specific.

First, vague. You generally have to commit to give a talk months in advance of the actual event. You do not, however, generally have a talk written several months ahead of the actual event. You may also have a particular talk accepted, and then arrive at the conference and realize that what you had planned isn’t ideal for that audience. A vague title offers you a lot of flexibility in altering the content of your talk as conditions change without betraying the expectations of the audience based on the materials published earlier.

And then, specific. If your title is too vague (“Stuff and Junk”) people won’t be excited for your talk, and you’ll lack an audience entirely or won’t make it through the CFP process at all. Be specific about the frame of the talk, but leave the details vague.

For example, I recently gave a talk called “Human Behavior and the Social Web”. The title gives you a good idea what the talk will be about, but doesn’t commit me to sticking to any particular set of stories or material.

A particularly excellent example of this is Paul Graham’s PyCon 2012 keynote titled “Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas” (which was also a really fun talk). That title gives you a specific frame to get very excited about, while leaving him with complete flexibility to alter the content up until the moment he got on stage.

This article is part of my series of speaking hacks for introverts and nerds. Read about the motivation here.