How to Give a Great Tech Conference Talk

People come to tech conferences for many reasons. They want to hear about new ideas and technologies, to be inspired with the latest and greatest of what the programming community has to offer.

But once people are actually at a conference, especially a larger conference, the number of things to do and to absorb can be overwhelming. There are talks, maybe even multiple talks at once, there’s the hallway track, vendor booths, and of course the great big world outside where people escape when they want a break. Everyone competes for attention, offering excitement, swag, fun hacking activities, and/or the alluring prospect of job opportunities.

Then there’s the new practice of posting talks online. This opens up talks to new audiences who couldn’t make it, which is fantastic. It also means that if the community loves a talk, it could be see by thousands more people than were at the conference! The downside is that conference attendees may be more likely to skip talks because they’re all online later anyway, meaning that speakers lose the opportunity to build off the speaker-audience interaction.

What’s a speaker to do?

One Core Principle

I have to admit something upfront. This post isn’t really about how to give a great conference talk per se. It’s about how to give a conference talk I’m going to want to watch. And as a conference-goer, I want to watch a talk that tells a coherent, interesting story.

The good news is that, according to science, the other attendees think the same way. Stories impact the brain in a truly wild fashion.

Of course, much of this makes sense if we reflect on our own lives. When you watch a movie, you worry about what will happen to the characters, even though you know they’re not real. When a character is maimed or killed, you feel pain, even though no one has hurt you.

When you read dry statistics about suffering, it probably doesn’t motivate you to action. When you see a video with a tearful person describing some horror they suffered—well, that’s another matter entirely. This is why charities seeking donations rely mostly on monologue videos, stories, and even handwritten thank-you letters, rather than facts and figures. Stories motivate people to act.

Think about how many religions don’t have founding myths. Can you think of any? Me neither. People don’t dedicate their lives to ideals, noble though that may sound. A compelling story, though… now we’re talking.

You want to give an interesting talk. You want the conference attendees to come, and you want the online crowd to hear out the whole talk, not leave the video after 2 minutes.

You want your conference talk to make an impact. You want people to remember it and talk about it. You want people to learn from it and apply your ideas in their own lives.

Tell a story.

Story Type 1: The Audience as Protagonist

No blog post about stories would be complete without a few personal stories, right? Well, get ready, because here they come!

My first conference talk was at RailsConf 2016, where I spoke about Rails engines. This was the abstract:

Want to split up your Rails app into pieces but not sure where to begin? Wish you could share controller code among microservices but don’t know how? Do you work on lots of projects and have boilerplate Rails code repeated in each?

Rails Engines may be your answer.

By building a simple Rails engine together, we will better understand how this app-within-an-app architecture can help you write more modular code, which can be gemified and reused across multiple projects.

It doesn’t appear to be a story at first glance, but read it again. In case you missed it, here’s the story:

Once upon a time, you had a messy app that was suffering for lack of modularity. Or, you kept writing the same boilerplate multiple times.

Then, a conference talk showed you how to build Rails engines, and you were able to take control and conquer your mess. You were awesomer and your apps were healthier.

The end.

One of the best stories you can offer people is that you will make their lives happier and better. (Unfortunately this tendency can be abused by ill-intentioned people out to make a buck.) In this case, though, I made a simple value proposition which I truly believed in, and the result was that every chair in the workshop had a butt in it, and 130 people walked out having built their first Rails engine.

Story Type 2: The Code as Protagonist

I’d like to focus for a moment on a feature of the Rails engines talk which stood out dramatically for me.

In the introductory portion to my workshop, I had to convey that Rails can route a request to any Rack app. This point is critical to understanding Rails engines, because they take advantage of this feature of Rails to tie into Rails apps. I wanted my audience to build an accurate mental model of how Rails engines are integrated under the hood, and this was the critical point for them to understand.

I could have thrown that information on a slide, said a few words about it, and moved on. But information conveyed that way is easily missed, and I didn’t want to lose people through confusion about this point.

So I told a story.

I told my audience I would build, before their eyes, a perfectly functional Rails application without using models, views, or controllers. I created a new, blank Rails application, and added an empty lambda to my routes.rb file. Then, step by step, I let the errors guide me to building out that lambda into a minimal Rack application serving a response to a single endpoint.

Could I have just pre-built a Rails app containing a Rack app? Yes, of course. But building up the tension through live code, and letting errors drive the coding, let the audience discover with me the ability to hook Rack applications into Rails apps.

After the talk (as well as in practice runs before), this was the part that generated the most positive feedback. It wasn’t all that difficult to do, but the experience of watching code develop incrementally was riveting for the audience. It has all the parts of classic storytelling: Facing a seemingly impossible challenge, a hero must discover heretofore unknown abilities, and then is able to surmount the obstacle. In this case, the impossible challenge was building a Rails app without controllers, and the unknown ability was using a barebones Rack app.

That talk unfortunately wasn’t recorded, but I can give a favorite example: the late Jim Weirich’s legendary talk on the Y combinator. The experience of watching a master develop an idea through code is enough to send chills down my spine.

Of course, live coding isn’t for everyone. But if you present code in your talk, I’d strongly recommend starting with the problem the code has to solve, then building out the solution incrementally. Don’t just show what your code does; talk about the obstacles it has to overcome, and the process of getting there.

Story Type 3: The Speaker as Protagonist

My most recent talk was given at WindyCityRails 2016 then repeated (and improved!) at RubyConf 2016. The approach here was different. The subject of the talk was improvements to Ruby’s OpenStruct library, but I also came in with a lot of personal experience. I had dealt with OpenStruct-related performance problems in the past, which let me to publishing 2 alternative solutions.

In the first half of the talk, I established the importance of OpenStruct to the Ruby ecosystem, and the reasons for its performance problems. Then I made it personal, by talking about how these performance issues affected my company’s projects.

With the tension established, I spoke about 4 different approaches to the problem, framing it in terms of my own experience with each solution, and how they succeeded or failed in solving the problems I was having.

Since 2 of the approaches were libraries I had personally written, I was able to convey a sense of personal triumph in the degree of success they achieved. And when I concluded my talk with some lessons learned, they weren’t just logically derivable ideas; they were thing I had personally learned through my experience.

I was originally worried that the very personal nature of the talk would hurt its reception. Then something amazing happened.

WindyCityRails asks participants for written feedback after the conference, then collects and summarizes the responses for the speakers as an exercise in reflection and self-improvement. There were many really nice, general comments, but 2 specific responses stuck with me:

I enjoyed the narrative, “I tried, I failed, I tried again” aspect of this.

Best presentation of the conference. Connected with me.

It turns out, people really like hearing a good story. I didn’t just tell them about an abstract problem and some ways to handle it. (We’ve all heard lots of talks which do exactly that!) I told them the story of my problem, and how I used tools like benchmarking, profiling, and reading code to find a solution that worked for me. I told my story in a way that conveyed to the audience that they, too, can use these tools to solve problems they face.

As a speaker, you may be afraid to make your talk too personal. Some of the best talks I’ve watched mostly or entirely follow a narrative or set of highly personal narratives. And they’re all the more engaging for it.

A Story Within a Story

You don’t have to choose just one method or one story. Even within a story, you can use a deeper level of story to great effect.

In my OpenStruct talk, for example, I had to explain how OpenStruct—a hash-like data store—and its alternatives work. It’s generally notoriously difficult to explain code and algorithms in a short span of time.

To counteract the problem, I kept things as concrete and story-like as possible. I introduced the code one piece at a time, following the trajectory of a single key-value pair inserted into the OpenStruct (or alternative) instance. By following a linear narrative, I was able to convey the information to the audience quickly and effectively, without them realizing how much data I was streaming into their brains.

The same principle is at play when someone spends a few minutes of a talk live coding, or telling a quick personal anecdote to drive the point home. By incorporating short stories (or story-like experiences like live coding) into the framework of a talk, you can make your presentation more engaging, connect with your audience, and help them walk away having gained the maximum from your presentation.

One really great example is this talk about effective feedback, where (just after the 20-minute mark) the speaker uses a personal anecdote to illustrate both ineffective and effective feedback. The story drives home the ideas conveyed earlier in the entire talk.

Writing Your Story

Great talks aren’t made in a day, or even a few days. It can take years to write a great talk. The best talks aren’t from people who woke up with bright ideas; they come from people who experienced something over months and years, and share their experiences in a personal, intellectually and emotionally captivating fashion.

If you want to give an amazing tech talk, don’t start by making slides or sketching out bullet points. Go out and do something. Experiment, try a new way of working, build an OSS library or contribute to one. Get involved in your local tech community, be a mentor at work, volunteer in your free time. Do interesting things, have experiences, and then think long and hard about them, learn what you can, and synthesize your learning—along with the story of what taught you those lessons—into the next great talk.

People like to hear from experts. You are the world expert on your life, your emotions, your projects, your history, and your growth. And you’ll be surprised by how much people are interested in learning about that.

To give a great conference talk, take the time to build a story worth telling. And then share it with the world. But don’t just bring the facts and figures and details to the stage.

Bring yourself. Be yourself. Share yourself.

Written as part of the 2016 8 Crazy Blog Posts Challenge.