How to Talk the Talk
At the end of October, I attended two conferences. I had the opportunity of speaking at Bend WebCAM and I was at Seattle Interactive Conference as an attendee, and I walked away from my four days of watching people speak with an overarching observation of optimal organization for these kinds of sessions. How to talk the talk, if you will.
There's no recipe for a perfect talk. Speakers have different personalities, audiences are in different moods, and subject matters vary. Over the course of the four days, I might have been sitting next to a long-time print designer who's transitioning to interactive in one session, next to a developer straight out of college in the next, and in a half-empty room full of unemployed project managers in the third. Even with these differences, though, some things bubble to the top.
Whether a speech is about process or content, and whether it's about design or development, four general elements should be present.
The speaker should answer questions like "Who am I?" "Who do I work for?" and "Why does any of this matter?" Without context, attendees don't know whether to trust the speaker and don't know how the points from the talk fit into a bigger picture.
There should be a hook. Some challenge or anecdote or joke or something to get people perked up and paying attention in spite of their laptop and/or mobile device being in easy reach.
Give Useful Info
The speaker should relate the talk to the attendees. People
who listen to the session should walk away thinking, "That makes sense.
I am going to do ___." It might just be a reinforcement of how they do
things, or it might challenge their current thinking--either way, it
should be something practical.
People who attend conferences and sessions aren't robots (or
at least very few of them are, as far as I can tell) and few want to
walk away with a mere punchlist following a session. By providing
listeners with something to reach for or something to be inspired by, it
helps motivate and adds to the value of the talk.
Even assuming those four elements are correct, complete, and understood by the speaker, knowing them is not enough. Like baking a batch of cookies, it's not enough to know the ingredients--it's critical to know the relative measure of each.
I think that the four elements can best be portrayed in pyramid form... or, rather, triangle form since I didn't want to go to the trouble of making the triangle look 3-D. In the spirit of Maslow's hierarchy of needs or the old nutrition pyramid (I think there's a new one, but I am too old to want to change my eating habits now and too young to have to change my eating habits now), allow me to submit my breakdown of the four elements for a good talk.
Why this breakdown? Because while there is value to each of the four elements, too much of any of them can dramatically detract from the value of the experience and you can end up with one of these situations:
A Sales Pitch
We care about the speaker, and we care about who she works for. We are interested in it... to an extent. If 40 minutes of an hour-long session turns into an extended sales pitch for her company, then she's wasting our time and she ends up looking petty and the sales pitch she intended probably just backfired.
Thursday Afternoon at the Improv
A hook is good. A joke is acceptable. If it's all flash and no substance, though, we're going to walk away feeling empty-handed and wishing that we had attended another session.
Useful information is, in my opinion, the most important element. Without context, an interesting presentation, and a dash of inspiration, though, a talk turns into something that could have been more easily communicated with a printed packet.
An Ivory Tower Talk
Part of the interesting part of our industry is that many of us do the same things on entirely different scales, and seeing what major players are doing can inspire us all to do better work. There is a limit, though, to the value of aspirational speaking... an entire hour talking about Super Bowl commercials and international photo shoots might not yield anything that attendees can use.
Again, there's no perfect recipe (or even triangle) for a great talk... and I know that I need to put all of this into practice at a higher level than I currently do. By focusing on Context, Interesting Presentation, Useful Info and Inspiration, though, speakers everywhere are much more likely to provide value to all of us who attend conferences.