Tuesday, May 14, 2013

#SpeakerU - First Step: Picking a Topic

OK, so you've decided to take the plunge and become a technical speaker/presenter.  Excellent!  Well, the obvious question must be this: on what subject(s) will you speak?

This question is not as simple as it might seem at first glance.  Most of have a mental library that looks something like this:
We all have some old volumes (ask me about provisioning cylinders on a 3380 DASD sometime...), some nifty books that are rarely used, stuff we thumb through regularly, and new stuff that we haven't really read through just yet.  Now, your first urge will be to find something new/hot/shiny to talk about and/or something with which you are familiar in great detail, but there are three things you MUST consider:
  1. Know your audience.  Are you speaking to a highly technical audience, a management-heavy audience, a room full of "just want it to work" end users, or a combination of the three?   Some events (notably larger regional/national conferences) may have separate "technical tracks" and "executive sessions," but that won't always be the case.  You may need to pick a topic on which you can (potentially) engage a broad range of listeners.
  2. Know your limits.  I'm not referring to your skills in public speaking or slide layouts, or even your knowledge of the subject matter; rather, I'm talking about the simple mechanics of the venue.  Will you have a projector available?  How much time will be alloted to your presentation?  Will there be a mandatory Q&A period that cuts into your speaking time?  Will you have network connectivity for use in live demonstrations?
  3. Know what fits.  You may be the world's leading expert on foobiebletches, but you won't be invited back if you run out of time, lose half of your audience halfway through, or rush through a massive deck of slides in an attempt to "cram it all" into the alloted time.  As an experienced speaker, I can tell you that there are few things more painful than watching a speaker who has bitten off more than can be chewed...
So, this boils down to a single statement - "Pick a topic with which you are familiar, but also which can be discussed in some detail in the time alloted, in terms that most of the audience can follow."

A few suggestions:
  • New speakers are often comfortable with a "tips and tricks" presentation; most of us have favorite configurations/tweaks for various applications and/or devices.  If you stop to think about it, "12 Neat Things You Can Do with Your iPhone" or "What You Don't Know About Hotmail" would be great presentations for the local Toastmasters, school groups and the like; something like that would be a good "hip pocket" presentation to keep around for short-notice speaking opportunities (especially since they can often be "trimmed to fit" different time limits!).
  • Brainstorm with friends and colleagues.  Ask them, "what would YOU give up an hour to hear?"
  • Draw upon your own experience, for better or worse.  I've seen some EXCELLENT presentations on topics such as, "10 Things I Learned While [fill in the blank]"...if you happen to write a blog, go back and review your old articles; you may find raw material there that can be refined into a great presentation.
  • Take a look at sites like Slideshare, where thousands of presenters have posted copies of their slides.  Take a look at their topics, and think about whether you could take a slice of that pie and run with it.  (NO, DO NOT JUST COPY THEM WHOLESALE - you will be found out...)
  • Search for meetings/conferences in your field, and check out the presentations being made at those events.  You don't have to start at that level of difficulty, but it will give you a good idea of topics that made it through the selection gauntlet.
Well, that's simple enough - so go do it!

Next up: the art of writing abstracts...

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