The Art of Talk Design — Melinda Seckington

June 14, 2019

Author Matthew Revell

DevRelCon founder and CEO of Hoopy, the content agency for the developer economy.

Following from her excellent talk “The Art of Slide Design“, Melinda Seckington spoke at DevRelCon London 2018 on how to design the talk itself.

Drawing on her extensive experience of conference speaking, Mel shared insights that are a must-see for anyone working in developer relations.


So, imagine the following. You’re speaking at a conference at 4:30 and you’re one of the last speakers of the day. The audience might be a little bit tired, a little bit unfocused, a little bit ready to zone out of your talk, and they don’t want to listen to you just ramble on about something that they don’t care about.

So, how do you keep them engaged? How do you get the message across that you’re hoping to? So I think everyone here has at least one of those talks where despite all your work on it, it just didn’t have the impact that you were expecting it to have, where the audience just stop listening or just didn’t get it.

And I think this often happens when the speaker makes it all about them, where the talk is something that they think people would want to hear but without really understanding whether or not it’s something that the audience wants or needs to hear. So whenever you create a talk, it needs to be focused on that audience.

It’s up to you to figure out how to get your message across as effectively as possible. So, last year here at DevRelCon, I spoke about how do you create effective slides in the art of slide design. So this year, I want to look at how you create effective talks.

So rather than focusing on how to tell an effective story, how do you figure out what story to tell in the first place. And reflecting back on my own experiences and my own process of coming up with talks, I realized that a lot of it, I was basing on was my past experiences as a developer.

And it requires a bit of a mindset shift. But for me, designing an effective talk, it’s the same process as designing an effective product, only in this case, the end product is your talk. And so it always surprises me when I talk to friends or to colleagues, when I’m helping them with their presentations, that they’re not really approaching it already in this manner.

These are people that are part of product teams and are part of building products in real life, well, in their daily life and they’re not applying that same approach here in their talks. So it’s rare that a company will launch a product without doing the research of figuring out whether it’s a product that people want, yet, it’s something that happens all the time in our talks.

So that’s kind of what this talk is about. How do you apply design thinking when creating a new talk? It’s not the only way of creating a talk but if you’re struggling with it and want a process to follow to make it all easier, why not one that you might be already a bit familiar with.

So there are different definitions out there of design thinking. And it is a bit of a buzzword right now. But, my own take on it is this, design thinking is a way of thinking deliberately about what you’re creating and constantly reacting and reflecting on that. So it’s not just for designers, design thinking is more about the mentality of how you approach problems.

And there’re quite a little different variations, frameworks and models out there to achieve all that, that get put under the big label of design thinking. So to keep things a bit simple here, I’m sticking in this presentation to the five-phase model of design thinking. As the name says, there are five phases.

Empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and tests. So I’ll be talking a bit about each of these areas, and how you can go through and apply each phase with some practical exercises. So I’ll be going through each of the five phases separately, sequentially, but in real life, they don’t really necessarily always happen in that order.

It’s the most logical and easy way to explain it but in reality, some of these might happen in parallel or you might be jumping back and forth between some of these. And for some talks, you might cover all of this in a single afternoon.

For other talks, you might do this process over several weeks. It really depends on you and it depends on the talk. So first, empathize. So, we had a good talk from Leslie this morning that was all about empathizing and I think it applies to this as well. So typically, when we’re building a product, we first try to understand who our users are and what our user needs are.

It’s all about doing the research beforehand so you know what your starting point is. So the first thing we should be doing when creating talks is researching our users, who will be listening to it, who is the target audience? For instance, the audience at a local community hack day will be quite different from the audience at a big corporate marketing event.

Equally important, I think, is what is a talk context. So, what I mean with that is what are the logical constraints, so, logistical constraints. A 50-minute presentation, for instance, will need a much different approach than a 2-hour long workshop. So, the first phase is all about putting yourself into your audience’s shoes and collating as much info as you can.

So one exercise that I like to start off with, it’s just collating and gathering all the information that I can about the audience, the formats and the topic. So start with your audience. So what do you know about the events, the organizers and most importantly, the attendees.

So think about things like what the background is, what prior knowledge they already might have. So this lines up with what Joe said this morning about learning paths and what the person might know already. So figure out what other speakers there are and also what they are talking about because that also influences people’s prior knowledge.

So the people that have been before you are all contributing to the things that your audience will know. So next, understand what the logistical constraints are. So things like how long is your time slot, what time you’ll be speaking at, what type of stage you’re speaking on, whether you’ll have access to Wi-Fi or audio.

So these are all things that can influence the structure and format of your talk. And finally, write down what you already know about the content of your talk. So what’s the title, the abstract, the key takeaways. If you don’t have any of this yet at this stage, that’s okay. We’re just collating as much information that you already have, mainly because it helps frame all the next phases, especially if some of these things are things that you can’t change.

For instance, if you submitted to a CFP and are kind of stuck with the description that you came up with months and months ago. So a second phase is about defining your talk. So in this phase, when we are building a product, we analyze all the observations that we’ve made so far and define what our core issues are. So what are the problems that we’re trying to address with this new product?

So with the talks, we should pin down what we want as outcomes of the talk and come up with a single goal. So at its heart, it will always be about convincing the audience of whatever message you’re trying to get across but the angle of that message can be quite different.

It might be about teaching a new skill, it might be to convince people to use a specific product, it might be to inspire or motivate or frighten people to do or change something. So the way you should look at it is what type of impact do you want on your audience. Because if you don’t define this, that’s when your talk can become unfocused and unclear.

I’ve seen too many talks, and to be honest, I’ve given that talk where I just spoke about something cool that I had done, but wasn’t really relating that to the audience and thinking, “What would they learn from it? What would they benefit from it?” So, in this stage, I’d like to start with an exercise called “Think, Feel and Do.” So I normally do this with Post-it Notes or in a Google Doc, but it basically consists of making three different columns, and then filling up those columns of as many ideas as possible with the following questions.

So Think is what do you want your audience thinking about? So what mindset do you want to change? Feel, what do you want your audience to feel? Do you want them to be inspired, motivated, scared? And then finally, what actions do you want the audience to take?

So it really depends on your talk and on you. But for some talks, you might just have one element in one single column where you’re quite focused on one thing. For others, you might have a road that nicely lines up all together. So, going a bit meta, with this talk, I want my audience to think about their process of designing talks and learn how to apply design thinking.

I want them to feel inspired and encouraged to actually go and do that. And then I want them to actually go and apply that the next time all of you work on a talk. So, if this overview fills up really, really quickly with lots of ideas and it starts feeling busy, that might be a sign that you’re being too unfocused.

You need to ask yourself, “Can you cover all the results in a single talk?” If you can’t, you really need to be brutal and drop the ones that you won’t get around to. You need to focus on what you can achieve. So the next step is figuring out what journey you want to take your audience on.

You know now what the outcome should be. How do you get there? So what that really goes into creating presentations and figuring out that journey is <i>Resonate</i> from Nancy Duarte. So one of the things she mentions in there is the idea of starting with the “what is” state and then going to the “what could be” state.

So going back to the outputs of the previous exercises, you need to be able to map that first exercise of who your target audience is and what their start state, their “what is” state is and then map that to their “what could be” states. So where do you want them to end up? And they need to decide, is it possible for you to do that in your talk in the time that you have?

And then again, if the answer is no, you really need to be…you need to limit down to the scope that you have and where you want your audience to end up. So finally, based on the outcomes, what’s the main goal of your talk? So final exercise for this phase is write down a one-liner of your main goal, what’s the elevator pitch?

And once you have that, you can come back to it constantly within your talk but also weaving like CFPs and stuff like that. So going about that, again, for this talk, it’s for you to understand, be encouraged to apply design thinking to create more effective talks. So again, once you have a goal like this, you can make sure that you come back to it constantly and ensure that everything that you put into your talk is helping to establish that single goal.

So our third phase is ideate. So in the ideate phase, it’s all about generating as many ideas as possible and then limiting and choosing. So this is the idea of diverging and then converging. So first going wide and making sure that you don’t overlook ideas and then really narrowing it down and highlighting what’s really important.

So in terms of talks, it’s about collating all this information. So all the possible ideas and all the possible content. So first, diverge, try to generate as many ideas as possible while keeping the goals and the audience outcomes in the back of your mind. So write down all the possible ideas that will help achieve those goals and those outcomes.

So we don’t care about structure yet, just write down anything. Again, I tend to use Post-it Notes, but any format that you like will work for this. We then want you to converge so distilling all that information into something more usable. So, the three techniques that I use at this point are prioritize, filter and cluster.

Now you don’t have to do this in this specific order, it happens a little bit more messily kind of for each other but all these three together will help you distill it down. So prioritize is really about just putting the ideas that you have in order of importance, highlighting which ideas are the most important ones. And it makes it easier to see which ones you might need to drop if you need to.

Filtering is the actual dropping of the talk, so which ones just don’t fit in, or things that aren’t as important as the rest, or that you know that you won’t get around to. And then clustering, which ideas go naturally together? Now, once you’ve done this, this will also help you make your talks a little bit more modular, especially with clustering, it can help you identify maybe the three topics that you can cover in a 20-minute talk and maybe you can know from…you can find out from it which topics you might need to ask for a 50-minute talk.

So, our fourth phase is prototyping. So, with products we’re prototyping, we normally mean creating a scaled-down version of the end products, which you can then put in front of users and test with. It’s about creating the bare minimum that will get you useful and valuable feedback without really wasting too much time.

So with talks, it’s easy to think that your first prototype is your first finished set of slides, when you’re ready to practice your talk in front of people. And I think that’s not true because that’s kind of already your end product. So I want to talk about what I think are two different prototypes for your talk that you should be creating first. So, first, prototype your talk structure.

So before even creating any slides, I always like to create an outline first. So sometimes this will be with Post-it Notes, sometimes it will just be in a list or a notebook or in a text editor, but I’ll start just floating out what I think the structure of the talk will be.

So, once I’m happy with it, I’ll show it to someone and get feedback at that point. And it’s normally quite quick, because you’re not going through the entire talk, you’re just highlighting what your outline is. And it’s enough for people to see whether you might be missing any gaps, where you might be filling it up with too much information or whether the story is being told in the best way.

And you want to do that at this point because if you do that later down the line, once you put a lot of effort into creating actual slides, it can feel like a bit of a waste to suddenly cut out an entire section or just remove it completely. So you want to do this early on. So what I normally start with, figuring out is, what is my beginning, my middle, and my end.

So again, keep in mind what you came up with in the exercises previously. So your audience at the start of the talk will be in that “what is” phase, and you want them to go to the “what could be” phase, and having that framing in mind will really help with that structure. So, I then break it down even further, typically following this pattern.

Again, you don’t have to do it this way necessary, and I’m not claiming that every talk has to follow that pattern. But, if you’re struggling with where to start, this is a good place to start. So, at the start of your talk, you have the hook, something that grabs the audience and has them interested, then you have the goal.

So convincing your audience why they should listen to you. You then have the long bit in the middle that actually takes them on that journey. And then finally, you have your summary at the end to recap, and a final kick at the end that makes your audience remember your talk. And finally, I like mapping it then out on Post-it Notes and trying to highlight common elements.

So identifying what recurring patterns you have in your talk. So for instance, going a bit meta, again, in this talk, you have the five phases, so, five separate sections and each of those sections have one part that’s about product design, one part about how to apply it to your talk, and then one part around exercises.

Again, doing it this way helps you think in a little bit more of a modular way, like, what are the building blocks that make up your talk? So the second prototype of your talk is of your content and flow. So this, for me, is about creating the minimum viable version of your talk.

So we all want to spend time on creating good and pretty slides that are helpful and useful for people but a good way to start is to just turn your outline into the simplest slides that you can think of. So for me, that normally means grabbing whatever I wrote on those Post-it Notes and I’m putting that on a slide and then spend time filling out my speaker notes with what I actually want to say.

Because at that stage, it’s more important to do that than focusing on the slides. It’s all about having something quickly so that you can test out the content in real life in a practice run. Which brings us to the final stage of testing. So going back to what I said at the start, I’ve been going through this phases sequentially.

And in reality, though, that’s not what really happens. And I really want to especially highlight that when testing. So, I try to get feedback as often as I can during this process. Every previous phase benefits from just talking it through with someone and getting someone else’s perspective on it. So the testing phase is all about getting deliberate feedback about your product and then making sure that you ask the right questions to get that feedback.

So main thing here is to prepare your feedback sessions. So testing doesn’t just mean doing a practice run or showing an outline and then seeing how it feels. It’s about actively questioning whether there are parts of your talk that you can improve or do better. So first, prepare your feedback givers.

So explain to them who the target audience is, what the goals and outcomes of the talk should be. And if you don’t share that with your feedback givers, it becomes tricky for them to actually give advice as to what you want your talk to be. And next, prepare actual feedback questions. What areas do you want feedback on? Is it about the timing of your talk, specific sections that you don’t feel are quite right?

So the more specific your questions are, the more likely you end up with feedback that is helpful to you. So, those are five phases that I think will help you create better and more effective presentations. So try to empathize with your audience, define what your talk should actually focus on, then ideate on all the different ideas and content that could go into your talk, so prototype the outline and the slides, and then test it and get actual feedback.

The thing with these phases though is I don’t just apply this type of design thinking to just my talks. I think any type of content that you create that is meant for other people would benefit from you thinking through how to make it more effective.

Whether it’s a blog post on your company blog, documentation about your APIs, an email that goes out to your entire team, conversation you need have of a colleague or a commit message explaining that tricky thing that you did. Good presentations, good blog posts, good documentation, they’re all about understanding your audience and building the right message for them.

And it’s up to you to discover what that message should be and make it as effective as possible. So, that’s it. Thanks for listening. ♪ [music] ♪

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