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How I prepared for my first big conference talk


Last Friday, I gave a talk at AnDevCon Boston. I had about 4 months to prepare since the conference's Call for Proposal(CFP) deadline was in March and the conference was in July.


I have broken down my entire process of giving a presentation - from writing an abstract to giving the final talk into the following steps:
  • Choosing a conference and submitting a proposal
  • Breaking down the topic into smaller components
  • Giving my talk at a local meetup
  • Prepping for the conference
  • Prepping hours before the talk


Choosing a conference and submitting a proposal

The whole process of giving a talk started at the Write/Speak/Code conference which happened earlier this year in March. On Day 1 of the conference, I wrote down several topics that I have expertise in. I settled down on one topic which I knew would benefit several Android developers: Monetization. I wrote a quick abstract which was reviewed by attendees and mentors at the same conference. I was paired with a mentor and we quickly put together some slides and gave a 5 minute lightning talk on Day 2. I looked up upcoming Android conferences and AnDevCon Boston's deadline was a few days away so I went ahead and submitted the abstract I had written.



Now, not everyone has access to mentors or peer review when writing an abstract for a conference. So for those who are starting out, an abstract is generally about 400 words long that describes what you are going to talk about in your tech talk. Here's my abstract from AnDevCon Boston.

Time spent to write abstract and get it reviewed: 2 hours
Time
 spent to prepare for a lightning talk: 2 hours
Time spent to give the ligthing talk: 5-10 minutes
Time spent to submit a proposal to a conference: 15 minutes 




Breaking the topic down into smaller components

When I first started out writing down my main talking points, I wanted to cover a lot of things. I jotted down all my thoughts on paper and on a giant google doc. I went through the documentation, code and Google I/O videos, discovered things I hadn't known before, and recalled a lot of the challenges and solutions on the topic. I gathered all of these notes into 7 smaller components.

Time spent to prepare: 8 hours


Giving my talk at a local tech meetup

I got in touch with the organizers of Android Alliance Philly where my talk was most relevant (since it is about monetization on Android) and told them that my proposal had been accepted. I was given a time slot of 45 minutes. Once I had the deadline and time limit, I refined my lightning talk slides, added new diagrams using websequencediagrams.com and practiced my talk. I audio recorded myself and made sure to continue even when I made grammatical mistakes or struggled with segues into the next slides and sections. I listened to my recordings a few times to improve myself. The third time around, I was confident enough to give the talk without looking at my notes and without stopping.
I gave my talk at the Android meetup as mentioned in one of my older blog posts. The audience asked a lot of relevant questions which I noted down so I could cover them in my AnDevCon talk.



I also asked the attendees to fill up a feedback form with these questions and some of them actually did!
  • How did the speaker do?
  • How was the pace of the talk?
  • Did you get a better understanding of monetization on Google Play?
  • Would you recommend this talk to someone?
  • Was this talk useful to you? Why or why not?
  • Do you have any other comments?
Some of the feedback was that the code was too hard to read from the back, the diagrams weren't clear enough and that I needed to spend some time talking about the big picture before diving into the details.

Time to prepare slides: 4 hours
Time to practice talk: 3 hours



Prepping for the conference

AnDevCon Boston had a deadline for slide submission two weeks before the conference. A few days before the deadline, I refined my slides from the local talk and used Google Draw to draw new diagrams. I googled around to figure out the minimum sizes for font and lines on slides and went with 24 point for fonts  and 4 px for lines in diagrams. I tried to transition to Keynote but settled on Google Slides since I was already familiar with it. I practiced my talk before submitting slides to make sure the transitions between slides were smooth. 

Once the slides were submitted, I had two weeks to practice my slides. Since the time slot was for 75 minutes, I could only practice once every few days. I audio and video recorded myself every time so I could keep track of the time, my nervous ticks and my filler words (umm, uhh).

I also emailed the conference organizers to ask them logistical questions such as microphone availability, audience demographics, wi-fi access, number of projector screens and so on. A complete list is available at Questions to ask Conference Organizers

Time to prepare final slides: 4 hours
Time to practice talk: 3 hours






Prepping hours before the talk
I had the last time slot on Day 3 of the conference for my talk. I practiced once every night after Day 1 and Day 2 of the conference without my notes. I audio and video recorded myself to make sure I was within the time limit and had about 10 to 15 minutes to spare for answering questions. 

I also incorporated some of the tactics used by other speakers to engage the audience like asking them a few questions so that they could answer with a show of hands, asking them their names when they asked a question and repeating audience questions. (I vaguely remember doing some of these once I was at the lectern talking.) On the morning of the conference, I got up early to practice one last time. 

Time to practice talk: 3 hours




Over the months leading up to the conference, I read several blogs and email newsletters about public speaking and this amazing book - Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun twice! I have listed some helpful links below:

My motivation for preparing so much was because I wanted to make sure I gave a good talk that would show that I had done my research and was worth everyone's time. 

I hope it was great so I'm invited to speak again. It was a fun and harrowing experience but I would do it all over again!





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  2. Talent becomes excellence through practice. I have lot of respect for well prepared presentations.

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