How to prepare and write a tech conference talk

Why I’m writing this post

A few weeks ago, @Charlotteis asked on Twitter about resources for preparing / giving conference talks. Their tweet reminded me that I had meant to write down my process for a very long time. So here it is. I’m planning to write two posts about this topic – this first one will focus on preparation of talks (so basically everything that happens before I pack my bags to travel to the event). I’ll write about everything related with actually giving the talk in the 2nd post. 

Also: you can invite me to speak at your event. Topics I speak about include tech and Open Source culture, communities, diversity and inclusion, mental health and empathy. And I have a few open speaking slots in 2016 left. I’m also available for hire. But now, to our topic.

Almost two years ago, I gave my first talk at a frontend meetup, and, a few weeks later, spoke at my first tech conference. Since then, I have given six talks and three keynotes at tech conferences around Europe. I’ve also been parts of the orga teams of two conferences and have been part of committees that did the first blind-selection round of proposals.

There are a few things which frame my experience and capabilities in preparing and giving conf talks:

  1. I’m an introvert.
  2. I really love public speaking. But I get ~extremely~ nervous beforehand (more on that and how I (try to) deal with it in part 2).
  3. I’m not a software developer. With one exception, my talks are usually not technical, meaning that they usually center around human-related topics. This also means that there are some things you may be confronted with that I don’t have to deal with, like working demos, displaying code samples, or similar.
  4. Also, I’m a white, cis, able-bodied woman who doesn’t have to do care work, so I usually have more or less enough time on hand for my preparation. 

Given this, some of the things I outline here may not work for you. But hopefully, there are a few useful tips in there that come in handy for you. I’ve added a bunch of links to more resources at the end of each section. There are also several speakers that have inspired me and that I’ve learned from. If you have more useful tips or resources, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or get in touch!


This post has now turned out much, much longer than I had planned. So here’s a brief table of contents in an attempt to give you an overview. To skip the overview and get right into the post, click here


This is actually a part that is still very hard for me, but I’ve found some things useful for me in the past:

  • Writing down what I care about. I made lists of topics that matter to me and the reasons why they’re important for me. Topics that matter to me are e.g. diversity, inclusion, the effect of technology on humans, and working on being an ally.
  • Writing down what I’ve done in the past. I made lists of work I’ve done in the past. This also included that I tried to take a step back and look at my work on a meta level, and the high-level version of what the work included and meant. This list included: building and leading teams, contributing to Open Source projects as a non-programmer, and developing processes and structures for teams.
  • Writing down what I’m interested in learning more about, but don’t know so much about yet. For me, that’s e.g. psychology, sociology, and physics.
  • Discussing with people on Twitter.
  • Asking friends and co-workers what they think I could / should speak about.
  • Getting in touch with conference organisers and asking them for topics they’d like to have included in their conference. Last time I did this, the organisers asked me to give a diversity talk. I thought about an angle that I’d like, and came up with a talk that includes diversity, but extends beyond being purely about diversity.

Once I have a list of topics, I go through each topic and add why it would not only matter to me, but be relevant to other people as well (because this is what it’s all about in the end). I also try to find a good angle to make each topic unique. Sometimes, I combine a few topics to come up with one thing that includes several angles / sub-topics.

Another approach I’ve taken several times and found to be very helpful was using paper. I love big sheets of paper (my favourite format is A2, which is around 16.5 x 23.4 inches) that I can put on my desk, and then write on with nice pens. I write my main idea / topic in the center and do some sort of brainstorming / mind-mapping, where I use my associations to add more and more depth to my thoughts. Later on, I add more detailed notes and and add arrows to mark the order.



Well, “good” can mean a lot of things. For me, a good event is one that

  • cares about its attendees and speakers
  • … and their well-being,
  • has got a Code of Conduct and is prepared to enforce it
  • is accessible and inclusive,
  • deeply cares about and works on diversity in its speaker lineup and attendees, and, of course,
  • cares about creating a good environment in which people can learn.
  • It also should be an event that I can somehow relate to in terms of my work or interests (e.g.: I’ve been active in the JavaScript community for some time now, and I’ve spoken at JS-themed events).
  • And, of course, the talk topic should fit the event as well.

There are several further things that I take into account when deciding if I want to speak or not. I have experienced harassment in different forms at almost all events I’ve spoken at so far. This is why in the end, for me, finding a good event to speak at means that I’m looking for an event that will hopefully be a safe space.

One more important topic for me when I’m selecting events to speak at is about money and the question if I’ll have to pay to speak. More on this below.

I’ve found most conferences that I’ve spoken at in the past either on Twitter, through recommendations, and a few because I was approached by the organisers. In all cases, I’ve usually tried to get information about the people who run the event and their past events, and asked people I trust for their opinions.


Paying to speak vs. getting paid to speak

Preparing talks usually takes me a lot of time. I usually prepare talks at night and on weekends. This is unpaid time which I can’t use for my other obligations or for self care. I still like speaking and want to do it, but:

I can’t afford to pay to speak. I also don’t have an employer who could pay my expenses for speaking, and my income doesn’t allow me to pay .  Thus, I’ll need to get at least my travels and accommodation covered and get free entry to the event. Also, ideally also expenses on site for food and public transport are covered or arranged by the organisers. This is why I’ve decided to only speak at events that make sure my main costs are covered. I’m very thankful that some events even pay a small honorarium (I’ve heard of something between USD 150-700 so far). That’s usually of course not close to enough to cover for the time people put into preparation, but I think it’s a nice gesture, and hope that more events will do this in the future.

It’s of course completely up to you where you choose speak and how you finance it, and if you decide to speak at an event where you have to pay your travels, accommodation, expenses and ticket to the event, or if you have an employer who can pay that for you.

I just find it important to state that you matter. Your skills matter. Your time is valuable. And despite the attention and networking opportunities that speaking can give you, money is an important factor. It’s even more important for members of underrepresented groups in tech, who often don’t have the financial resources that other people may have.

Asking speakers to pay to speak puts the burden on them – a burden that adds to the burden and pressure of delivering a thought-through, inspiring talk, the possible nervousness, the (possibly unpaid) absence from the workplace, their families and friends, the emotional labour, the care work they may have to do, and the burden and cost of preparing for all of this.

This is why I think that conferences should at least offer to cover the basics (travel, accommodation, ticket) for their speakers. Speakers are one of the essential parts of an event, sometimes they’re even used to promote an event. And I think that there’s a fine line between promoting speakers by giving them a platform, and exploiting them – even more when they’re members of underrepresented groups.




I’ve written a few and helped others edit their own proposals. I’ve found the following process pretty useful for me. This process helps me focus on my talk content first, and also helps me put everything in there that I find important.

  1. Write down all your thoughts for the talk and all ideas. Use only keywords, no sentences yet.
  2. On a separate page, write down the following structure for the proposal:
    1. Title
    2. Context / problem statement or problem space / claim
    3. Teaser / solution (or your promise what the talk is going to be like)
  3. Take your keywords and sort them into the structure. Put them either into the “context” or “teaser” area and order them in a way that makes sense for you.
  4. Turn your ordered keywords into sentences.
  5. Edit.
  6. Think about and write the title. (More about titles in the next section.)

These are the main items I’ve usually been trying to answer in  proposals:

  • What is the talk about? – What will it mainly cover?
  • Who is it for? – What level of knowledge / experience do people need to have to be able to benefit from the talk? Is your talk mostly for experienced JavaScript developers, for people who just started getting into System Administration, for entry-level developers, for people who don’t write code, for parents or small children, for older people, …?
  • What will people (hopefully) learn from it? – What will be the main thing(s) that people get out of this talk? What’s the main thing they’ll think about after the event is over?
  • Why is it relevant for this specific audience? – When they learn more about your topic, what will it do for them in their daily lives? Will it help them improve a specific skill, or become a better human? Will it help them understand something, or get better at interactions with others, or do a better job?
  • What’s unique about this talk?, or: Why should I watch it? – This can be anything: from your past experience which shapes your perspective on the topic (which it will anyway, but maybe there’s something specific you can highlight), other topics that it’s related to and that you’ll reference in your talk, to an interdisciplinary approach that you may be taking.

Writing a good proposal is hard. When you’ve been working on the topic you want to speak about for some time, you may lose sense of what matters to people new to it. A few additional things you can look out for:

  • Start your proposal writing with only keywords or short phrases. E.g.: “Pizza, history of pizza, future, impact on body, humans and pizza, making pizza.”
  • Try to put yourself in the perspective of your future audience and keep that in mind when writing and editing the proposal. Think about what they’ll take away from your talk, what they’ll learn, or how it will inspire them.
  • Write a very brief abstract of your talk: write down how you want to address your topic and the main points your talk will cover. Use these to outline your proposal. E.g.: “This talk will take a look at pizza from the perspective of a pizza maker and consumer. By looking at the history of pizza and its current impact, you’ll learn what pizza can do for you, and which impressive effects it can have on your life.”
  • Try using “you” throughout your proposal instead of “I” – this helps a) emphasise that you’ve thought about your audience, and b) helps go for active voice, which usually makes content sound far more vivid. – E.g.: “You’ll learn how you can make your own pizza”, instead of “I’ll show you how I made pizza.”
  • Given that there’s often a character limit for proposals: You can also use questions that you leave unanswered, to show what you’ll answer in your talk. – E.g.: “How does pizza influence our daily lives, and what does it mean for the future of humanity? This is what you’ll learn in my talk.”
  • And, once you’re done, it also helps a lot if you can get a few people to edit your proposal (and check for spelling!).



Personally, I find it nice if talks have a catchy topic. I’ve not necessarily been great at that myself, see “A Talk about Nothing” and “A Talk about Everything”, ahem. But in my time working with media companies, I’ve learned how much of a difference a good headline can make. So: watch out for your topic. Here are some resources which I’ve found useful:



Either during the proposal process or after your proposal was accepted, you will likely be asked to provide a speaker bio. I’ve found the links below super helpful for me. If you can, you may also want to ask someone to write a bio for you.


Dealing with rejection

One more thing to prepare for in the talk proposal process is the possibility of rejection. Usually, there are several factors that determine if a proposal is accepted or not. There are some which you can do something about, and some that you can’t do anything about. Just to name a few:

  • Biases – Many conferences do an anonymous voting in the first selection round, here’s some details from JSConf EU. This can help reduce biases (but since we’re all humans and at some point during the selection process, names and possibly other factors become visible, so biases can still happen).
  • Talk topic – It may happen that someone else is proposing a very similar talk topic, and yours is just not chosen. Or your talk topic doesn’t work well with the whole topic of the event.
  • Conference lineup curation for a specific narrative – Some conferences curate for some sort of narrative, e.g. want “inspiring” talks in the beginning and end, and talks with different levels of technical depth spread across the day.
  • Low chances – If a one-day-conference with only eight speaking slots gets 100-300 proposals, there’s just low chances of being accepted, only by the numbers.
  • Talk proposal – Sometimes, it’s not clear from a talk proposal what it’s about, who it’s for, and what the talk will cover. Getting this information into it can help a lot. (More details on this below.)
  • Mismatch of audience – Your talk may be for advanced SysAdmins, while the conference audience is mostly designers. Then this can be a reason why it doesn’t work out. (Although I’m convinced that SysAdmins’ knowledge and perspective could be interesting for designers, if a talk is specifically catered for this audience.) This is an extreme example, but it helps to keep in mind which audience your proposal is for when you’re submitting it.

And this list is not even exhaustive. But, thing is, it can be pretty hard to get rejected. It’s not you as a person who’s rejected, but this specific talk proposal – and even if one’s aware of that, it can still hurt.

In order to make this a bit easier for me, I usually submit my proposal to more than one event. Last month, I submitted my current four talk proposals to three different events with different audiences / target groups and topics. This helps me be less disappointed if the proposals don’t work out for one (or several) of the events. If your proposals get accepted by several events (yeay!) and you run into scheduling issues, it’s still possible to tell organisers that you won’t make it (sometimes, acceptance is on such short notice that you may already have other plans also – that just happens).

If a talk is rejected, it’s sometimes also possible to ask the organisers for the reason. But many events get several hundreds of proposals though and are organised in the organisers’ spare time, so it may be difficult for them and I wouldn’t recommend expecting a detailed answer – some may even not have time to answer at all. Still, it can be worth a try, and some may find a chance to reply with details. Most conf organisers I know hate having to reject people and would rather turn their one-day-event into a whole conference week, which is just not possible most of the times.


After my proposal has been accepted, determining the talk length is one of the first things I do – mainly because it helps me figure out the scope of my task. When I know the length of the talk, I can estimate how much time I’ll need to prepare it, and can plan accordingly (the prep process isn’t so different for a 30 minute talk or a 35 minute keynote, but it *really* helps to know the scope).

Usually, I’ve been told the expected talk length by the conf organisers. If not, I just ask them about it. (I usually also ask if they will be doing Q&A, because reasons).

Now that I know the expected talk length, I calculate the number of words in my talk. From my past talks, I know that I usually speak around 130 words per minute. Ideally, I want to be comfortable when I’m on stage and not get stressed because I feel like I’m running out of time. So I plan with only 120 words / minute, to make sure that I’ll manage to finish in time. Then my formula looks as follows, for a conf talk of 30 minutes:

(120 words / minute) x 30 minutes = 3,600 words

Tadaaaaa. Now I know I’ll only have to write 3,600 words and I’m done. (Haha.) But, joking aside, this helps me a lot. It helps in the first place because I understand the scope, it helps in the next step when I’m writing the outline, and it helps me even more later on, when I’m actually writing: Knowing the number of words I have to write, I can precisely determine when I’m ready. And, in the end, it helps me when I’m delivering the talk – it helps me a lot having all my words actually written down. It keeps me calm, and provides a fallback option in case I forget where I am, what’s next, or I have a blackout.



As soon as I know what’s going to happen and how much of it, I set a short timeline. Basically, this means for me:

  • Check how much time is left to the event.
  • Check my work schedule, appointments, personal commitments for this time frame.
  • (Loosely) define when I’ll be working on the talk, and when I want to have the final* version. (*final_1.key, to be followed by final_2, final_final_1, final_final_really, …)


Next, I write an outline. The outline is based on my proposal and the items of which I said they’d be in this talk. For my last talk (40mins), the outline looked like this:

sample outline of a conference talk

As you can see, it’s very, very short. You may want to write a more extensive outline starting out. Throughout the talk writing process, I sometimes make my outlines longer and include all sub-items that go in there as well. The outline helps me keep track of my process, make sure I get everything  I want to say into the talk, and it also helps me keep my focus.

I also change the order of items quite often until I get to a point where it works (I’ve also changed the order only hours before giving the talk. Wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, but hey, it happens). I find “it works” pretty hard to define. In the first place, for me, it comes down to that the talk feels right for me, and that I feel that my message is conveyed as it’s supposed to be.




Aside from actually speaking, the research part is usually my favourite part about public speaking. I find doing good research very useful for several reasons:

  1. It helps me get a better understanding of my topic.
  2. It helps me find new / different perspectives.
  3. It helps me find things that I hadn’t thought about.
  4. It helps me find the voices of others whose thoughts I can share in the talk.
  5. It also helps me gain more confidence when it comes to speaking about the topic. Although I’ll only use some bits and pieces of these results in my talk, I will know that in case people have more questions, there’s a pile of things I’ve researched and that I will be able to use at one point. Or even if not – it’s just great to learn new things.


  • As soon as I know that I want to speak about a topic (even if a proposal hasn’t been accepted yet), I try to raise my awareness for possible resources. It sounds and is simple, I know, but it already helps just keeping my eyes and ears open when I’m online or talking with people.
  • I use Twitter quite frequently, and thanks to my superb timeline, I often read very interesting takes on things that are going on in tech (and that are useful for me).
  • I’m a big fan of the good old RSS feed. I use Reeder for iOS for reading the several blogs I follow, which mostly center around feminism, tech, design and food.
  • I’ve been using Pocket for more than three years. Pocket has become my main space for saving items I (plan to) read, and an archive with my favourite content, as well as tagged content with items about specific topics. Right now, my Pocket library encompasses more than 13,000 articles, which means that, by now, it’s not just a space for saving items for me, but also an archive and a resource itself. As soon as I start looking into a specific topic, I start saving content about it in my library (so I can read it when I have time) and create a specific tag for it, which helps me find and organise the content later on.
  • I Google.
  • I usually also try to find scientific research that is related to my topics. By the way, that works extremely well with all topics related to Open Source communities.
  • In preparation, I usually read around two to three books as well. I usually find them through recommendations or plain googling. I mostly just get the Kindle version which I then use in Kindle for Mac OS X.


I start by sitting down and writing down my thoughts – the things that matter to me most, and the things I want to get across.

Next, I write down the questions I have myself – the topics that I want to look into more deeply, things I don’t quite understand yet, everything that needs to be researched and everything that I find peculiar or otherwise interesting.

When I know I’ll have a few hours to spare, I start searching, reading, and putting everything that looks interesting into one document (for details on organising research results, see section “tools” below). This research phase can take a few weeks or months – depending on my topic, the time I’m able to invest and the time I have left to the event, it can be shorter.

No matter how much research you’ll do: try to stick with your outline.

But looking beyond your actual topic can be tempting, and it can be worth going down this road. This is why I also want to encourage you to look beyond your actual topic. Often, the things I’ve come up with have become important elements of my talks. The ideas for a research in other directions often just come naturally when you’re doing research. You can also make lists of possible metaphors or other ways to illustrate a specific point, or just look for associations you or others have with the topic and take it from there. For example, when I was doing my initial research on my first “Open Source community culture” talk, I read a lot about diversity. I then just looked for a definition of the word, and got into biodiversity, which then became an important part of this talk. – So things like word definitions, etymology, or even translations of a word can be nice to look up. They may point you into interesting directions.

Just make sure that you don’t invest too much time into them before you’re at least pretty sure that the investment is worthwhile. If you’re not sure about that (yet), just do basic research on it and get back to doing research on the items in your outline. You can just get back to it later, and then you’ll know if you can somehow make this new topic work for you, or not.

I also just look for funny things related to the topic. While I was doing research for another talk, I saw something in my timeline which I laughed about a lot. I saved it, and later on, it just so happened to become part of my talk, because it illustrated a point I was making:

I’ve also found it very useful to specifically look for numbers that can illustrate specific points I’m making.

I also look for evidence for the points I’m making – what does scientific research say, which arguments are supporting / destroying my arguments, etc.? This helps me get a broader understanding, and also helps me make sure that I get my content right. Thus, I recommend attacking your line of argumentation from your fiercest opponent’s point of view – and harden your line of reasoning against attacks.

In addition, I try to look beyond my regular paths and networks by reaching out on Twitter, . This is sometimes difficult, but it’s crucial.

Sometimes, I also just use Flickr and search a few words there to see what image results I get. Sometimes these are images that I can actually use in the talk (check the license before!), and sometimes this just helps me get new ideas.

The main thing I try to keep in mind is that, when I start out, I don’t always know which parts of my research will be useful. When I was preparing “A Talk about Nothing”, I ended up with 31,999 words of research results – for a talk that was supposed to be 50 minutes long, that was ~a little~ too much: remember, by my formula above, I should end up with 120 words x 50 minutes = 6,000 words. In the end, of course, all of it was useful in a way, because it helped me personally: I gained more knowledge, got more confidence about my topic, became pretty sure that I could answer questions from people after my talk, and it helped me make sure that I covered all important angles. But still, it wouldn’t have been all necessary.

Also: don’t overdo your initial research. It can be super tempting (especially when your research turns out to be extremely fascinating), but it can also make you lose focus and time really quickly, and can also be very intimidating (see section “dealing with feelings” below). Instead, I suggest getting started with writing the actual talk, and only coming back to research when you feel the need to (and you’ll know when that happens).




With all this researching, thinking and the goal to somehow turn all of this into a public presentation, it’s taken me a little time to figure out which tools to use for all of this. I’m not a fan of over-tooling, but I’m adding this here because these tools help me sort content, have backups and not lose it.

Whatever you choose in the end, make sure you have something that is easy to use for you, that doesn’t distract you (e.g. by over-complicating things), that helps you stay organised and focussed, that enables you to do everything you need to be done, and that helps you not lose data. So here’s how I do it:

Evernote (free desktop version) – I’ve been using Evernote since 2009. Although it’s not my main tool for note-taking anymore, I still use it heavily for my talk preparation, mainly because I can do formatting of text. I can add images / screenshots to my notes, which I usually do a lot, and it’s a cloud service, which I find useful in terms of avoiding a scenario of I HAVE PUT 20 HOURS INTO THIS AND NOW MY LAPTOP IS ON FIRE / SWIMMING IN COFFEE / GOT STOLEN AND ALL MY RESEARCH IS LOST.

  • Usually, I first dump everything in one Evernote note: my proposal, the outline, and all research results.
  • When adding research to the note, I try to sort it into sections based on the outline (so, e.g. everything that is related to trees goes together, everything that’s related to power dynamics, etc.), and
  • mark these sections with big headlines, so it’s easier to keep an overview.
  • I also add sources to everything (usually links or book references), because I’ll often need it to check for some context later on, or I’ll need the source when I quote something.
  • Same goes for images and screenshots – I just add everything with sources.

I’ve just recently tried Google Docs as an alternative to Evernote, which worked even better because of the table-of-contents-generator that helped me keep track of stuff. Not sure if I’ll use that again though.

Word count tools – Since I count the number of my words to determine my talk length, I check the word count quite frequently as soon as I’m editing the talk. I usually use (update 04-03: replaced link, since it was only displaying ads now) Word Counter for that.

Keynote – I mostly use Apple’s Keynote to get my talk into a format that I can use for the presentation. All writing and editing has happened before I open Keynote.

In short, my workflow is:

  1. Put everything into one note in Evernote.
  2. As soon as all research is (mostly) done, make a copy of this note for backup (I usually use a Pages file for that, which I put into my cloud storage).
  3. Write the talk and edit for length, content, order of items.
  4. Create a new Keynote presentation.
  5. Put all speaker notes into Keynote slides.
  6. Write quotes, statements, etc. on slides.

About data (loss): I’ve lost data in my life, and that’s  never good. It is hard to have to say goodbye to something that you’ve spent a lot of time on. As a result, I try to make sure that there are backups of everything I do that goes into my talk. I may be overdoing this a little, but here is my process:

  • I put all my research results into a cloud service that is convenient to use for me. I also do frequent backups of these results in a separate file that I store on an external hard drive.
  • As soon as I start working in Keynote, I put my Keynote file into a cloud service as well and get it to sync all edits.
  • Before I travel to the event, I put the following items on a USB stick (in case my laptop is lost or doesn’t work):
    • Keynote file
    • PDF version of Keynote, without speaker notes
    • Separate file with just speaker notes
    • All font files for the non-system-fonts that I’m using in the presentation.

This helps me make sure that the work is not lost, and that I can actually give the presentation, even if something goes very wrong with my computer (and yes, I’ve been on stage at a conference and my computer didn’t work anymore, so yay, backups).

WRITING THE TALK & Designing your presentation


I usually start writing by setting up the structure of my talk. I use roughly the same structure for all my talks, and their length is based on percentage of the total talk:

  • Intro – very brief version of my bio: 1%
  • Topic intro – what I will be talking about (and why): 10%
  • Main part – everything I want to say, ended with a short summary of everything: 83%
    • Often, I break down the main part into smaller chunks and define which parts will get which length – especially when I give longer talks of 40-50mins. This helps me stay focussed and keep my sub-topics balanced.
  • Outro – often calls to action in my talks: 6.5%

Then, I usually just calculate the length of each part in minutes and words, so I know how much content I need for each section.



I’ve been working as an author and copywriter for a few years now, and the most important thing I can tell you is: good stories matter.

When you start writing your talk, it can help to think about what your story is. No matter what your topic is, it can help if you see your talk as a story that you tell people – and keeping that in mind when you are preparing it.

That is why it can help to learn a bit about storytelling – the way you want to get  your message across to your audience. Think about what makes your story interesting, and how you can use methods like pacing when designing your presentation, or techniques to help your audience use their imagination. I’ve included a few interesting links about good storytelling below.

I’ve also found it very helpful to find a key element that I can use throughout my presentation, and that I can get back to several times. And your main narrative can be weaved around the key element.

In “A Talk about Nothing”, it was the element of “nothing”. Here’s how I established it as a key element and incorporated it in the talk:

  1. main intro: the stars and the universe – is there nothing, or something beyond what we can see?
  2. topic intro: “nothing” – its different meanings in maths, physics, computing; afterwards, I transferred this meaning to human interactions
  3. main talk: got back to “nothing” and its meanings again several times, and how the perception of “nothing” vs. “everything” differs between different humans
  4. outro: ended the talk by picking up the main topic intro again and adding some bits and pieces of the learnings from the main talk

The topic of “nothing” was a very lucky one for me, since it gave me so much freedom and was easy to incorporate, as soon as I had found a way to do it.

Depending on your talk topic, you won’t necessarily need to find an element like this one, or use it throughout the talk. In the end, ideally, it’s something that people can easily remember because it’s simple. Here are some examples of elements like this one that you can use in your talk:

  • metaphors,
  • definitions,
  • similes,
  • you can also use references to pop culture, but be careful with this one. Make sure your audience is versed in that part of pop culture, otherwise you’re likely to exclude people.
  • or use visual items (that you can also incorporate in your slides) like paintings, comics, memes, photos,
  • or audio items like sound recordings, or audio-visual (video).

Honestly, I still think that all of these can sometimes be hard to find, but playing with associations can help, or taking a break and going out for a walk. I sometimes also just find them not during my research phase, but when I’m writing the talk, or when I’m washing the dishes or doing something completely different. No matter where and how you find them: in the end, using elements like these can help illustrate your points and arguments, make your talk more compelling or help your audience gain a better understanding.


Please note that these are mostly from writing fiction / literature. Still, I’ve found many tips in there very useful, and others (e.g. about character development) can just be left out:



Now that you’ve got your outline, research and thoughts written down, it is time to write the talk. I usually write my talks like this:

  1. I go back to my outline and check if it’s up-to-date after the research.
  2. I pick one of the sub-topics from the outline and start working on it – adding all my thoughts, maybe quotes from the research, edit it – all I need to do to get it into something that will be part of the presentation. This means: in the beginning, I don’t treat my talk as an entity, but treat each sub-topic from the outline as an individual section. It’s only after working on all sub-topics from the outline that I combine them, change their order as I see fit, and include transitions (or sometimes merge the content of sub-topics to shorten or avoid overlaps). This has a few big advantages:
    1. I can work on each sub-topic individually, which means that I get smaller portions to work on (instead of a “OMG, I have to talk for 50 minutes and how will I ever get there???”-feeling).
    2. I can work on these sub-topics in an order I feel comfortable with: I can start with the ones that are easier for me and just later tackle the ones that are harder (or the other way around).
    3. I end up with all sub-topics of the talk as small chunks that I can move around. Then, re-structuring the talk and topic order is a basic drag & drop. That makes it easy for me to check which order works best.
    4. It also means that I treat each sub-topic individually that I can focus on. Sometimes this also means that I remove or add a sub-topic over time, because I realise new connections between them, or feel like I can remove something because it would only be a duplicate. Or I can merge content, because it works much better this way.
    5. It also helps me come up with metaphors or other key elements that I can integrate into the talk.
  3. After getting all my sub-topics written down, I read the whole, complete talk (which is currently still just a collection of sub-topics) and check:
    1. Is the content comprehensive?
    2. Is my message clear?
    3. Does the order work like this?
    4. Is there some sort of suspense in it?
    5. Is the pace ok? (Usually, it’s good to get a mix of shorter and longer sentences, to create good dynamics.)
    6. Are there duplicates?
    7. And, also: is the length ok and as I defined it? (Usually, my initial talk draft is around 3-4 times as long as the expected talk length.
  4. I change anything to address the above questions, and
  5. repeat step 3 several times. During each iteration, I usually change items, remove or add content, rephrase it, or change its order. Also, as soon as I start feeling sure about the order, I start adding transitions to get from one sub-topic to the next.
  6. I add signs for pauses to my speaker notes (during writing and later when I practice). These are super important for me, because they help me get into a flow, develop and keep good pace, remember to drink water and remember to breathe. (For those of you who asked in the past: these are also the reason why I’m usually so calm during my talks. Calm on the outside, while basically running in circles on the inside.) Over time, I have established a neat sign “system” that works really well for me. Here’s thet system (please don’t laugh about it. It’s really, really simple):
    1. – – – – veeeeery long pause: slowly count 21, 22, 23 in my head. Pause happens because a completely new topic will follow or I want to let the last sentence(s) sink in. These are also the breaks in which I drink a bit of water (which usually goes wrong, because I have personal issues with bottles, but that’s another story). Don’t have these too often in the talk.
    2. – – – long pause: make long pause, but don’t drink.
    3. – – pause: time to take a deep breath, but not much more than that.
    4. – > NO PAUSE AT ALL, GO TO NEXT SLIDE IMMEDIATELY WHEN YOU SEE THIS: only happens because my speaker notes are sometimes too long for one slide, or when a thought needs to be continued, or anything else that’s super fast.
  7. At some point during this process, I also write the me-intro and topic intro.
  8. Also, I ask myself “Who am I, why am I, and why the hell am I doing this????!” I repeat this several times throughout the writing process. (See “dealing with feelings” below for details.)
  9. I add a summary of my key points at the end of the main section.
  10. And finally, I write and add the outro. Often, it will have something to do with my topic intro, or will be a call to action, or anything else that makes the talk end smoothly.
  11. Aaaaaand that’s it. Pizza Party! ??? (More often than I’d prefer, step 10 is usually reached right before I actually give the talk. Oops. ¯\_(?)_/¯)


When I prepare my presentation, I always try to keep in mind what happens when I am on stage, presenting. A talk stimulates the audience’s senses: the main part of the talk reaches the audience through your speaking (and the audience hearing), plus visual stimulation through the presenter on stage and their slides (but the main message can be transmitted visually when the talk is given / interpreted in sign language).

There are also additional stimulations that you cannot influence, which will still affect your audience’s perception of the talk: someone in the audience coughing, mobile phones going off, sneezing or talking, people walking in or out, camera flashes, or even smells or tactile stimulations. These can distract you and your audience. The main thing you can do about these is trying to stay focused, regardless of what happens there. Or, if you feel comfortable going off-plan: integrate them into your talk.

In summary, the brains of your audience receive and have to process a lot of information. This is why, for those you can influence, I suggest to choose wisely which elements you want to use. I usually try to rather use fewer than more elements – to avoid distractions, and to make sure that people can focus on what I say.

Below, I’ve added some great resources on good slide design, so here are a just a few things I look out for when I prepare my presentation slides:

  • Make sure to check with the organisers about projector resolution early on, so you can design properly.
  • Try working with Master slides, or just build one slide that has everything in it that you need, and then always duplicate it (to make sure everything is where and how it’s supposed to be).
  • For figuring out where to put your stuff on the slides, you can also just use the Golden Ratio or the Rule of Thirds.
  • I try to use only few words / illustrations in the slides.
  • Whatever is in the slides, people usually read it first as soon as the slide appears – which is especially important when you have longer quotes or so that are in there. Thus, when I work on the order of my slides, I try to make sure that, when a slide appears, I start with what’s written on the slide as well.
  • I don’t use GIFs on my slides, but I love it when people who have GIFs announce them by using #dzy on the slide before, or announcing them verbally.
  • I use rather big font sizes – last time, it was 80pt for quotes, and 100pt for normal slides with just a few words.
  • Use the full slide for your content, don’t design with margins on the top, bottom and edges. While it might look cramped on your computer screen, most projector screens have a natural margin around them, and using the margins allow you to use bigger words, illustrations and generally increase legibility and impact.
  • I try to get good contrast (while also trying to not always end up using only black background and white font colour).
  • When choosing colours for the slide design, I use Adobe Color CC (formerly Kuler), or a photograph that I’ll use in the slides as a base. This post on colours in data visualisation has great links to other tools for finding and picking colours.
  • When we’re thinking about stimulating elements, switching to the next slide is also one. I’m usually trying to limit my number of slides.
  • I don’t use animations (flying objects, explosions, or so) for elements on my slides. Both to avoid making people dizzy, and also to avoid distractions. Or use them only carefully (once or twice) for emphasis.
  • When I use photos in slides, I usually only use some that I’ve taken myself (I’m a photographer though, which makes this part easier for me). But there are also great sites with high-quality photography like Unsplash, or Psiu Puxa, if you want to go for a space feeling, and the amazing WoCinTech Stock Photos. Also: please always make sure to credit appropriately <3

I’m still working on improving this one (ha, and everything else).




There are a number of feelings I often experience over the course of weeks or months when I’m preparing talks. Here are some of them and how I try to cope:

  • Stress
    • Since I usually don’t get paid to speak and I can’t prepare my talks during my work hours, I have to prepare my talks in the evenings and weekends, which means that they create extra workload (although talk preparation has its fun parts), and also that I have even less time to relax.
    • A common pattern is also putting things off until the last minute, and having the resulting pressure fuel your creative juices. This isn’t me personally, but I’ve seen this a lot.
    • By planning and starting as early as possible, I try to avoid running into time pressure and stress in the first place. That usually never really works out since I get stressed anyway, because there’s SO MUCH TO DO AND SO LITTLE TIME.
    • Regardless of how stressed I am, I try to sleep enough, drink lots of water, eat properly and healthy, and go out for a walk from time to time. I also try to sleep well and stick with a few sleeping tricks that help me achieve this: I try to be on a regular food schedule and not eat in the 4-5 hours before going to sleep, not look into screens in the 2-3 hours before going to sleep, not drink too much before sleeping. Some people have also made good experiences with natural sleeping pills, listening to audiobooks / podcasts to fall asleep to, or developing other sleeping habits that work for them.
  • Nervousness
    • My nervousness usually sets in around 2 weeks before the event for the first time, and then increases slowly until I basically almost burst of nervousness on the day of the event. Over time, I have developed a few coping strategies for my nervousness, which I’ll write about in the next post.
  • Imposter Syndrome
    • This is one of the strongest feeling I usually experience when I’m preparing and giving talks. It often gets worse, the more research I do.
    • I haven’t found ways that always help me to deal with it yet. I mostly try to talk about it with people I trust and somehow work around it (as in: suppressing it by avoiding to think about it. That’s probably not the best way to deal with it, but it sometimes helps me to just avoid it). I can also really recommend the links about Imposter Syndrome in the next link section
  • “Who am I, why am I, and why the hell am I doing this????!” – The feeling of questioning myself, my skills and abilities, the whole idea of being a public speaker. The idea of being completely inadequate for this task, and not being able to do this AT ALL.
    • Mostly, this feeling is a strange sauce of nervousness, time-pressure-induced stress, sometimes bad planning or organisation, imposter syndrome and general self-consciousness.
    • It usually pops up several times throughout the whole talk preparation process. I have illustrated this development with the following tiny, mathematically completely incorrect graph:

graphic illustrating the increase of "why am i doing this?!" over time before a conference

    • As visible from the fabulous graph, this feeling of “who am I, and why am I doing this??!” really intensifies over time. Usually, it still lasts when I pack my bags and travel to the event location.
    • As with most other feelings, I haven’t found a good way to deal with this one yet. The best thing to deal with this, that I’ve found so far, is knowing that I’ll meet people at the event that I like, and / or travelling there with someone I trust. And actually looking forward to giving the talk (and the moment when it’s all over). 

.concat() 2015

(Photo from the super sunny day after .concat(), which we spend relaxing by the river.)




After preparing a talk, I find it helpful to practice it. “Practice” means for me: I stand in front of my laptop, open Keynote in Presenter Mode, I use the clicker that I’ll use later as well, and give the talk to my wall, a mirror, a lamp, or a poster.

I usually practice with a few goals in mind:

  • Checking for flow: does the talk “work” as it’s supposed to be? (See also the questions in “Writing, Writing, Writing”.) These slides about “Cohesion: making connections between speech and writing” may help you with that.
  • Checking for pace: where do I need to pause, speed up, slow down?
  • Familiarising myself with the content and its order.
  • Making sure I have a good start by ensuring I know at least the first ~3-5 minutes of the talk by heart. (I’ve noticed that it makes me feel super insecure if I run into issues in the first few minutes. So I try everything to get a good start. If the start goes well, I usually build up enough confidence to be able to speak more freely later on.)
  • Making sure I can focus on the audience when actually presenting and also look at the audience, instead of having to focus on my notes.


I also try to get feedback on a presentation before I give it for the first time. This is extremely helpful for me, even more since I often run into issues with the talks I give, and want to make sure they’re as comprehensive as possible. Here’s what I do:

  • Send someone the presentation.
  • Practice the presentation in person and ask for detailed feedback.
  • I’ve also found practicing in a Hangout very helpful, because sometimes the best people in your life right are remote.

If you have found someone who gives you feedback (yay!), I really recommend they read this post by Lara Hogan before: Giving Presentation Feedback, and use the suggestions there as guidelines. I usually ask the lovely people I practice with to also point out my grammar and pronunciation mistakes, because I’m not a native English speaker and PRONUNCIATION IS LITERALLY THE WURST (h/t Lewis).



This is it. All of this is just me, documenting my status now – and me, still learning. This post you just read was part one of two about my experiences as a public speaker in tech. Thank you for reading! <3

If you have additional links, comments, or feedback, please contact me, or add a comment below or on Twitter. And you can invite me to speak at your event – I have a few open speaking slots in 2016 left. I’m also available for hire.

With thanks to everyone who gave me feedback to my past presentations and is helping me learn – and everyone whose presentations have inspired me. Special thanks to Jan Lehnardt and Lewis Cowper for their editing and incredibly helpful input on this post – and to @Charlotteis for the inspiration.

22 thoughts on “How to prepare and write a tech conference talk

  1. I guess there’s more to come on this topic, and this is a brilliant writeup! My tip would be: after the event is done and people (hopefully!) enjoyed your talk, when it comes to sharing your work, my tip is *don’t* just export your Keynote/Powerpoint slides to a PDF and upload them to Slideshare or something.

    If you’ve followed Lena’s advice here you will have written your talk as notes before hitting the slides, and your slides themselves shouldn’t be overly text-heavy (it’s a *talk*, right!). This means that a collection of slides alone won’t really tell the story of your talk.

    If you don’t have video/audio of your actual, live talk to go with the slides, I’d suggest publishing the notes themselves. I write all my talks as articles/blogposts, convert the major points into slides, and verbally deliver the article (but not reading it out or duplicating it word-for-word! argh!) on the day. After I’m done I can just publish the article version instantly (often with key slides embedded as images where I need use visuals to make a point), and share that on Twitter etc. This is much more useful for interested people who couldn’t make the event, or want to remind themselves of something I said. Also, if I skipped out a section (forgetfulness, time limits, whatever) then the article version should have a proper version of what I intended, which is nice too.

    Great post, thank you for these tips!

  2. Wow, I’m so deeply grateful for this amazing article. Just a while ago I talked to a friend, who recently got into speaking more or less be accident. She encouraged me to give it a try, too, but I was a little bit intimidated by all the unknown factors: What to talk about, how to even begin and now this pops up on my twitter timeline. Thank you a bazillion times for a fantastic starting point that answers a lot of questions for me! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  3. Thanks very much, I’m so happy to hear that!
    If I may (and if that’s even possible), I’d also like to encourage you to not get intimidated by what was planned to only be a very short post. I ended up trying to write down everything in as many details as possible. But if that seems like it’s too much, you can also pick what’s interesting for you and what works.
    And, most of all: good luck and all the best for your first speaking endeavours!

  4. That’s a super cool tip, thanks for sharing that!
    And I *really* need to get better at this myself. Sometimes I get so overwhelmed by the “IT’S FINALLY OVER!!!!”-feeling right after the talk that I totally miss out on that. I still have an only half-finished blog post from a keynote I gave a year ago 🙁 This goes definitely on my (long) list of things I need to work on.

  5. Great post! A lot of good information and links. I want to add an idea (maybe you are going to talk about it in the 2nd part):
    I think it’s important to remember what you want to say, but for me, it’s more important to remember the key words/concepts of your speech. Even if you go blank, just remembering these words you’ll be able to continue with your talk. So, first, it’s really important that you really know what you are talking about and with this confidence you can only practice with the key words/concepts that guide your content.

  6. Thanks for this detailed article. Really enjoyed reading it. I sometimes do work related scientific talks, I learned much more about finding topics and structuring them. Thanks again

  7. Great guide. My only comment would be that really *writing* down the talk beforehand creates a risk that one will actually end up *reading* instead of *delivering* it, unless you completely memorize it.

  8. Imo this risk can be minimised, and I also think that a lot of it comes down to personal presentation style, and what you’re used to.
    I highlight the key words in my speaker notes for all slides. This way, I always know where I am, without having to actually read it out – but I know I always have the fallback option of full text.

  9. Thank you for sharing this. I’m currently in the process to prepare my first talk for a larger audience, and judging from the time that has passed and the rapidly approaching date it seems that I’m of that wait for the last possible moment breed. And I am very relieved to read that my feeling of omg what am I doing is growing more and more the more research I do happens to others as well. I have difficulties to get the scope, and what fits into the ~40 minutes, so your formular of % and words-per-minute sound like a good tool, even when I am not planning to fully write/script the talk… On the other hand, to marshall the thoughts this could really help, even if the talk itself will hopefully be more free speech than reading.

  10. Fantastic post! Now this comes in at the right time that I’m an introvert and have to create a talk. Thanks for collecting this all together!

  11. Thanks a lot, I’m so happy to hear that. I wish you all the best for your upcoming talk, I hope it all goes as you want it to!

  12. That’s great to hear, I hope it helps with your next talks (even though it sounds like you’re a very experienced speaker already). All the best for you and your next presentations!

  13. Great article Lena, this really stands out from from the common place stuff you usually find about the topic, bookmarked and I sure will refer to this again, thank you!

  14. Thanks for pulling this together. This is amazingly thorough. Did you ever write the post about actually giving the talk? If so, I can’t find it.

  15. Thank you Camille, that means a lot! <3 I still haven't finished that post, it's about 3/4 ready and still sitting in my drafts, I'm afraid.

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