Crafting the perfect 30 minute talk

As the organizer for the Magento South Florida Developer Meetup I find myself having to give short, insightful talks every 8 weeks. Part of my job as the Ecommerce Evangelist at Something Digital is to create deep and thoughtful presentations but they don't always lend themselves to the format or the audience of my meetup group.

So when a friend asked me how I am able to throw together quick 30 minute talks all the time I was forced to write down my process and approach. Hopefully this is valuable for those of you learning to speak or wanting to be more engaged in sharing your experiences in your own communities.

So here it is - 5 steps to creating an engaging 30 minute presentation.

1. Create an outline

The first step, to me, is the most important. Create an outline. Start with your main point and takeaway:

- Use Gulp to compile SVGs

Then work backwards to build up to the main point:

- SVG Merging
    - General use cases
    - Various approaches
    - Toolkits
    - Why Gulp?
- Use Gulp to compile SVGs

From an outline I like to write a manuscript. Sometimes I record myself speaking about the subject, listen back, and then take notes from it. Other times I write about it - like a blog on the subject, but meant for a spoken-word audience.

Manuscripting gives me a chance to have something repeatable to practice, and an outline gives me a solid approach to creating that manuscript.

The outline also becomes a punch list for identifying which slides are valuable for your audience.

2. State what you're going to learn and restate it often

In one sentence write down what the takeaway is for a member of your audience. This can follow a user story format:

As an audience member I would like to [learn something useful] so that I can [become more proficient at my job] by [attending this really short talk].

Talks with highly technical content or complicated case studies may require more than a little assitance to help people follow along with what they've learned so far and how much more ground there is to cover. I suggest you create guideposts for your talk to follow along with as you progress through your major points.

In short, create an agenda at the beginning of your talk and restate it throughout.

3. Don't be too ambitious

The biggest mistake I see speakers make is trying to cover too much ground in a short amount of time. You should pick a singular topic that has some name recognition with your audience so you can build on their familiarity.

Because I like to manuscript my talks I can consistently rehearse to determine the length of my talk. For me 6-7 pages of single spaced content is roughly 30 minutes. Anything longer than that I know that I don't even need to rehearse to know that it's time to liberally trim.

Take out history lessons (unless your talk is literally a history lesson); they're rarely useful. Typically "how to install" or "setting up your environment" sections are wastes of time unless, again, that's the entire motive for the talk. Instead you can replace those with very useful content like "why are we learning this?" or "what are the advantages to this approach versus others". As a broad rule for me: content which provokes audience input and interaction is good content.

Note: Beware soft surveys like "by show of hands - how many of you"-type questions, though. More on this in another blog.

Concise talks can teach a lot. Don't be afraid to move fast, but build foundations. This is one of my favorites, and it's less than 5 minutes long: https://www.destroyallsoftware.com/talks/wat

4. Make assumptions about knowledge level / prerequisites

When I was 12 years old I turned on Public Access television and there was a math teacher teaching Integral Calculus. It was fascinating. That day I learned the process for calculating the antiderivative of a function at a time when I was barely in pre-algebra.

However fun and interesting it was that knowledge was useless without understanding the principles required to apply that new skill. Thankfully he suggested some books and reading to go along with the course and I dove head first into mathemetics as a hobby at the age of 12.

My advice to you as a speaker is to state what your prerequisites are for your talk. It's safe to assume that your audience knows and understands them - after all they are sitting in your talk!

Just because it's difficult or terse subject matter doesn't mean they'll be lost from the get-go! Sometimes the mere fact that you're speaking about a subject they're not familiar with can pique curiosity.

5. Slides should stand on their own

Slides are a great medium to communicate your ideas long after your talk is over. At minimum your slides should include the high points of your outline. At most you should have 1 slide per minute. Slides are not your notes - you shouldn't be reading them.

Talks with hundreds of slides make for a fun or interesting way to interact with a live audience but I've found that they do very little to help someone who is reviewing the slide deck outside the context of the talk. Have you tried perusing hundreds of slides that all have one-word reactions like "NO" and "YES"? (don't worry - I'm guilty of this, too.)

Too many slides can be distracting and it's hard to find the key content in the slides:

  • code examples
  • quotes
  • screenshots
  • charts

This is usually the information people are after and this information is more easily found in a concise deck, making the slides that much more valuable to your online or social media audiences who may be viewing at home outside the context of your talk.

Conclusion

A 30 minute talk is the perfect length to teach new concepts and whet the appetite of a viewer to want to learn more. It's just long enough to pack in a wealth of content but short enough to hold someone's attention the entire time.

Do you have some tips and tricks for giving 30 minute talks? I'd like to hear from you! Leave your feedback in the comment box below.

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