This could be a book on its own. I’ve probably written 30 talks for myself, 10 for others, and gave advice to an uncounted number of speakers on their talks.
I can recommend you watch a lot of other talks. The internet is full of great content. Get inspired how other people build in the flow for their talks. Have you seen a talk that you thought was great? Try to analyze that one, write down the outline, note when you got excited, when you were entertained, and try to find the overall message.
Where to start
Some recommend to start with the outline but this is just the 3rd step for me. The first would be to nail one thing:
“What do I want people to take away”
I’m thinking deeply about this. When people get back to their work the next day after hearing my conference talk, what do I want them to remember. To get this straight: You really can’t teach a new technology in 45 minutes. You can make people interested, show some hints how they can get started, and inspire them with the value this provides.
Plan the flow
Before you plan the flow do your research. What topics would be interesting for your talk? Where can you find good examples? Where do you get inspiration?
- Search articles from the internet that covers a similar topic.
- Talk to people. I do a lot of video interviews with experts for my talks.
- Think deeply. What stories can you tell? What have you experienced yourself.
Now here’s my secret on how I plan the whole talk: I put every idea, example, anecdote, demo, etc on a sticky note. I may have 100 sticky notes. I don’t try to think of an order in which the different topics appear in a talk for now. I just write everything down I want to say and even those things that doesn’t fit very well.
In the next step I try to group those sticky notes. What belongs to each other? What is the topic that connects the different post its? I try to use my whiteboard for it because I can actually add additional thoughts. Often the white board is too small and I use a whole wall in my office.
Great, but how to stitch the different parts together? I have 3 criterias for that:
- How exciting is the topic compared to the other stuff I want to say
- What could be a natural flow that leaves to great transitions between the sections and plays along with the overall message
- How do I want to end the talk?
Build up excitement
We all wish that the interest and excitement of the audience is constantly on a high level. This is pretty hard to achieve and maybe also not what you want: There should be a dynamic in your talk where you surprise, inspire, and educate your audience.
At the bottom of the whiteboard you can see an excitement chart. Think about the audience: What would excite them? You don’t want to give away all your cool things at the beginning. People could be bored throughout the rest of the presentation. You also don’t want to leave all the cool stuff for the end: People will leave the room before you come to it.
A good rule of thumb is to start with something exciting, let the energy maybe drop a bit and pick it up again at the end. Even if you just think about your excitement curve and adjust the flow a bit to it (if possible) you’re doing probably 80% more than the rest of the speakers at conferences.
The first 5 minutes
It’s very important to capture the audience right from the start. The first few minutes are important. That’s where people decide if this is going to be interesting or not. It’s harder to convince an audience later in the talk that the topic and the presentation matters to them. You might have lost the listeners by then.
What is the best way to start a presentation? Start right with why the topic matters. Don’t start with your speaker details, the agenda of the talk, or that you’ve been working on the slides the whole night. The audience didn’t came for that. Some thoughts here on traditional starts of presentations:
- Bio – Start with the topic and than explain why you’re qualified to speak about it. Don’t mention every stop in your career or technologies that don’t have anything to do with the topic you’re presenting.
- Agenda – Maybe tell the audience what to expect. Make it short. Don’t come back to it in the talk. Guide your audience through the talk and better work on transitions from section to section than repeating the agenda slide again and again.
I normally start with a short story. Mostly something that I experienced myself or something that everyone can relate to. Pick a story or intro that really resonates with most of the people in the audience. Touch on a pain point that the audience might also have experienced.
Another way to intro the talk is the absolute opposite: Start with a story everyone disagrees with. It can be powerful when everyone don’t really know whether you’re sarcastic or really mean what you’re saying. Especially the relaxed moment when you reveal that this is not your opinion really wakes up the audience.
Inspirational and practical
Don’t just present your solution. Make it real. Make it matter. Tell stories that resonates with the audience. My topics in the talks follow mostly a simple flow:
When explaining a certain topic I always start out with the problem. I try to find a story people can relate to. A pain that everyone feels. It’s also very powerful to be honest and tell a story of a failure or struggle. Make the frustration of the present real.
After that you introduce your solution. This works great with new features of a product or a new way of working. Explain in detail how this new thing works, a step by step guide how to do it. Mix this with stories about how this makes their lives or work better. Be concrete. Inspire people with a success story.
If you look at some important presentation or speeches: This is the recipe to follow. The bigger the gap between Before and After the larger the a-ha effect. The secret is always to be real. To admit failure. Tell an honest story about the success.
When telling stories your audience should be able to dive into it. Make them feel that they’ve been a part of it. Simply follow (some) of these rules:
- Time – have time references in your story. Something could be like “it was 2008 when we first tried…” or even better “it was right after iPhone was launched”. People can relate better to stories when they have a relation to it, e.g. they remember when they first heard about the iPhone, what they did at that time, and maybe the feeling of the time
- Place – have place references in your story. I was at the time square or I was cycling the Golden Gate Bridge when I had the idea to… It helps people to get a better feeling for the story. It makes it more real.
- Emotional – be angry, funny, surprised, etc. Show your feelings. This also makes a real story. Tell the audience how frustrated you were when things didn’t went so well. Not everyone is a born actor but you can talk about your feelings.
Stories were for a long time the only way for us humans to teach our knowledge to others. They were mostly told around a fireplace. Conferences usually don’t let you present at a fireplace but stories are still a good way to teach people something new that they’ll remember. Use the ancient technique for your advantage.
Ending on a high note leaves the audience with a good feeling and some thoughts. This means you should summarize your talk in one single statement, one single slide, or reveal your conclusion at the end that you worked towards the whole presentation.
I had a lot of success with talks that were telling different stories in a specific field. At the end I tied together all the strings and provided the one glue between my stories. This ended up in a great a-ha moment for the audience.
Let the people leave your talk with some thoughts how or why that should follow your advice.