How to prepare your first conference talk – 1. Getting started.

Following on from my last post about my Unicom talk (and ahead of my National Software Testing Conference talk tomorrow), a couple of people have asked me for advice about becoming a conference speaker, and the qualities and skills that are needed.

I thought it might be helpful to share some of my thoughts, in case anyone else finds it useful, and I’ll tackle it in a number of sections.

Initial hurdles.

As a starting point, it’s interesting to note that there are a number of things that prospective new speakers are concerned about, and these are along the lines of:

  • Do I have something relevant to say,
  • Do I have the confidence to speak in front of people,
  • Will I be good enough.

I felt the same way when preparing for my first talk back in 2011, and its perfectly natural.

My response to any concerns is that everyone has a story to tell based on their own unique life experiences, so that means that everyone has something relevant to say. That includes you. If this is a concern of yours, then please don’t worry. We are crying out for new speakers to come and share stories and experiences that we haven’t heard before.

In terms of building confidence, it takes time, but it can be done (and I’ll go into that in another part of this series).

Lastly, as to whether you are good enough or not, how will you know if you don’t try? We all fear failure, but actually, I find testers to be hugely supportive of each other. You may be nervous, you may trip up, but you are human, and therefore fallible. Don’t expect to give a 100% perfect delivery on your first attempt. just aim to do the best that you can.

Getting started.

At this point, I am going to assuming you have decided to go ahead and prepare to submit a talk, so the first question is, how do you get started?

Firstly, you probably have an idea of what you want to talk about. Something that I have got into the habit of doing is to have a few ideas on the go and writing down what I want to cover for each one. Having a number of possible talks can help determine where to submit to, depending on the conference themes.

For each topic, I jot down some of the things I want to say, and work backwards. I think about the 3 things that I want the audience to take away from the talk, and then work out my route there. This may not work for you, so try out your own planning strategies until you find something that works you are comfortable with.

A useful tip I was given when I started out was to think of a talk as 3 separate parts:

  1. The introduction – who you are, and what you are going to talk about.
  2. The talk itself – delivering the message you want in detail.
  3. The summary – recap what you just told them, and reiterate the 3 key take-aways.

I don’t think you can go far wrong if you have this as a template to work from. Getting stuck in without any intro, or finishing without a recap will leave the audience somewhat bemused or confused, so at the very least, work on these first and make sure you dont skip them.

I use a mind mapping tool to expand on the particular theme, drawing out the important parts. As an example, doing a talk on the 3 skill areas that testers should work on, I broke my talk down like this:


The main parts are in blue with the grey areas going into a bit more depth. I haven’t added in the intro and summary, but you get the idea.

It’s at this point where the idea is well formed, but there are no slides, which is the time to submit the talk. Conferences will have different time slots – as little as 25 minutes or as long as 75 minutes in some cases, so there is little point in writing a lot of slides in detail until you know how much time you’ll have. 

Submitting your ideas.

Having decided on the topic, and the key message, it’s a good time to submit the talk to one or a number of conferences.

Consider the conference themes, and ensure that your talk fits in with them. It gives you a better chance of success, and is better than a ‘scatter-gun’ approach.

Submissions usually need a bio – a summary of you and your career, and a brief description of the talk. This is your marketing opportunity, and where you will outline what the talk will cover, so that prospective attendees can decide if it’s a talk they want to hear. Don’t forget a photo – something professional looking is best, as it’s going to be on marketing material and the conference website too!.

Don’t be too concerned if you are not successful the first few times you submit, as there is a lot of competition for spaces. (Eurostar is one of the biggest conferences and has many more submissions that there are spaces – I couldnt even guess as to the ratio of speakers to spaces). Keep plugging away until you receive your first acceptance email 🙂

Congratulations – you have been accepted!

Wow! This is a real mix of emotions – the joy of being selected versus the sudden realisation that you have to complete and deliver a talk!

But don’t panic – there will be plenty of time to get the slides written, work out the flow and to practice timings and delivery. More to come on this in the next blog post.

5 thoughts on “How to prepare your first conference talk – 1. Getting started.

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