No one really asked for this, but I’m sharing it anyway.
I’ve been trying to get better at preparing my conference talks. More effective. Less overwhelmed. I think I’ve finally figured out a process that keeps me organized and helps me feel like I’m on top of things. It’s not the ultimate guide, but it’s been working for me. Maybe it’ll help someone else out there too.
I typically begin five weeks in advance when preparing for a new talk. This isn’t set in stone. The exact timeline may vary depending on the topic and if I have other presentations to prepare at the same time. Or other bigger projects to attend. Like a vacation 🏖. Though, I try to stick to these five weeks as my process has five stages: research, content, narration, slides, and dry runs. I do this to ensure I always find the time for each. Sometimes it’s difficult, considering I prepare most of the talks in my free time and try to have a social life outside of work. A full week gives me room to adjust if unexpected life stuff or my day job shuffle things around. In reality, I work approx 8 hours/week per talk.
I use FigJam extensively. I use it to brain dump all my notes and thoughts and figure out the narration of my presentation. I also use it to visualize deadlines 👇
If I have more time, I spend more than a week researching. It’s the creative part, so sometimes it doesn’t really feel like work. It’s also difficult to estimate how much time it takes, as it’s a very unstructured time when I can go in different directions and play with ideas. It consists of the following:
- Just thinking
- Talking to people
- Playing with projects/tools
- Tons of reading
- Tons of googling
- More thinking
- More talking to people
Once I’m done, my FigJam looks like this:
For that part, I reserve one week, which usually means 4-20 hours of work, depending on the talk. I combine everything from the research step into something that makes sense. I filter all my notes and collect what I can actually use (disclaimer: it’s usually 5% of everything I came up with during the research phase). If I need to create a demo app, that’s the time. It’s time to ensure that everything I want to show is ready.
My FigJam is usually more organized after this stage:
Again — one week and usually 4-8 hours. This phase means writing the script, figuring out the flow, and sometimes adjusting the content. I keep rearranging cards in Figma into something that makes sense. Then I go over it in my head (or at loud), and if that doesn’t make sense, I rearrange it again. And again. Until I’m happy or until I face the theoretical deadline I put upon myself. I keep the narration flow in FigJam but write the script in Google Docs or Dropbox Paper.
Here are some examples:
One week, ∞ hours (as there’s always something to improve, but also, I love this part). Once the narration is ready and I know what to say, I can make slides from the narration. That’s important. Not the other way around. If I start with slides, I’d either rely on them too much or would need to redo them from scratch after writing the script. Slides are the addition, not the central part. Slides should enhance this narrative, not dictate it. I’ll keep repeating that — Don’t do slides before narration. And believe me, I started with slides many times in the past, and every single time I was highly frustrated and unsatisfied with my talks afterwards.
I usually start a few days before the talk; this phase often overlaps with the previous one. Though, I didn’t master that one yet. I always tell myself I’ll do many of them but end up with 2-3 at most. My goal is to do one per day one week before the conference.
Of course, it could be better, and I procrastinate, push deadlines, etc. But this process lets me ensure I deliver the talk and what’s important — I worry about one thing at a time. That’s a lot of stress that you can get rid of. I don’t have to think about slides for the first few weeks. Similarly, I don’t worry about the narration or the flow during the first phases. And when I’m doing the narration, I don’t worry about the content because that phase is done. It used to be overwhelming to focus on everything at once. Knowing that I have dedicated time in my calendar to stress about a particular thing can make the present way more enjoyable.