How to write a talk

Posted on by Rachel in speaking tips.

This method of creating a talk is the one that I find gets me from blank page to finished slide deck most effectively.

I’m often asked how I put together my talks. How do I get past the blank page and make a start on a deck that might contain well over 100 individual slides? I usually start by asking myself a few questions. The main one being - what do I hope the audience will learn? Following on from that I consider which examples will best demonstrate that point.

As most of my talks are technical, those examples are often worked code which I’ll use during the talk. In that case I’ll usually build my code examples first, making sure that they illustrate the teaching point I am trying to make.

For a non technical talk I might end up with a list of main points that I’ll cover rather than a list of code examples I’ll be talking about.

I then write the talk out pretty much as an essay. This isn’t to create a word for word script. This way of working is because I’m a writer first. I organise my thoughts by writing. As I write I can start to create a flow through my examples or main points. With a technical talk I am often trying to layer on the concepts, showing the audience one thing, then building on another. In many ways this process is the same as writing a long form article or tutorial.

I’ll often find that the examples need adjusting at this point, or as I write I’ll come up with some new example to add. Ultimately I end up with a rough draft of my talk in essay form.

The nice thing about writing out a talk like this, is that you get a good idea of how much material you have. If you read the essay aloud at a steady pace, you can see how long that takes. The act of reading aloud will also show you places where you might want to make a point in a clearer way, or something that needs an example.

Putting it together

I don’t start on slides until fairly late in the process. After writing out my long form version of the talk I’ll go back and tidy up the code examples, I usually put these onto CodePen so attendees can take a look afterwards. I’ll choose a colour scheme for them and try and make what is usually a set of little boxes look pretty for the screen grabs!

I then start breaking my essay up into a talk, deciding how to best walk through each example and adding chunks of the essay into the presenter notes.

As I go I’ll often rehearse sections, find out how long they are really taking once I have the slides to talk about. I’ll often make fairly heavy edits to my initial script as my rehearsals show me where things don’t flow well. I find rehearsing the talk in sections very helpful. It seems less overwhelming than running through the whole thing each time, and allows me to concentrate on getting that one point across perfectly.

Once I have the full slide deck, I then do some run-throughs of the full talk, and edit as necessary to make sure it all flows from section to section.

This process works for me!

This process is very much personal to me. I was a writer long before I was a speaker, and I organise my thoughts through writing them down. This method of creating a talk is the one that I find gets me from blank page to finished slide deck most effectively. What works for you might be completely different. We asked the question on Twitter:

“How do you write your presentations - longhand like a script, mind maps, straight to the slides or something else?”

And here are some of the answers we received:

Many of these people are established speakers. As you can see there is a whole range of ways of approaching writing a talk - and procrastination and panic plays a part even for people who have many hours on stage behind them!

The key thing is to find what works for you. Try writing a talk out longhand, try using a mind map, or putting ideas onto cards or sticky notes. As you become more experienced you’ll find the methods that work well for you.

If you are stuck, and your usual method isn’t working, don’t be afraid to try a different approach even if just to get the ideas moving and take you away from staring at the blank page! You might discover that some types of talk benefit from an alternate starting point. There really are no rules here, other than that you do end up with a talk before you need to walk out on that stage.


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