Navigating A Technical Conference Talk From Submission To Delivery

GraphStuff.FM Podcast Episode #2

In the latest episode of GraphStuff.FM: The Neo4j Graph Database Developer Podcast, Lju and I shared some of our learnings and experiences from speaking at developer conferences. If you’re thinking about presenting at a developer conference, then this episode is for you!

With the submission deadline for NODES 2021 (The Neo4j Online Developer Expo & Summit) coming up we thought this was the perfect time to dig into how we think about submitting, building, and delivering technical conference talks. Be sure to submit your talk proposal to NODES before the deadline if you’d like to share your graph story with the world!

Lju Lazarevic (00:00:01):
Hello, everybody. Thank you very much for joining us today. This is GraphStuff.FM, our very first live episode. So a little bit quickly for those of you who are wondering what’s GraphStuff? So this is a new podcast that we’ve put together, and we’re mainly going to be talking about graphs from a developer’s perspective. So we’re going to be your co-hosts: Lju Lazarevic and Will Lyon.

Lju Lazarevic (00:00:29):
And just very quickly for those of you who are wondering, this is not a replacement for the podcast of Rick Van Bergen does. So this is very much us looking at more of the developer point of view with regards to things around graphs and what they’re encountering around that. So the things we’ll cover in these areas will be graph native under the bonnet, for example. So how exactly does Neo4j work? Thinking processes around growth modeling, so what decisions did you go through? What considerations? What about the Neo4j graph platform or the various bits and pieces in there? What do they mean? How they work together? And so forth.

Lju Lazarevic (00:01:11):
And this is going to be something we are going to be doing on a regular basis. And if you would like to be notified as episodes come through, do check out GraphStuff.FM and you will be able to follow us in your favorite podcast provider. So the main driver behind today’s episode is all about how to get started when you put together a presentation. So what is the whole journey behind that? And a lot of this is being driven by our upcoming conference NODES. So I’m going to hand it over to Will, who’s going to tell us a bit about NODES.

William Lyon (00:01:48):
Yeah. So NODES is the Neo4j Online Developer Expo and Summit. This is coming up on, I think the third edition of NODES, this is basically Neo4j’s online developer conference. The date of NODES is June, 17th — when it will be live for everyone to join around the world. But the call for proposals has been live for a few weeks now, and the deadline is April 5th for the call for proposals.

William Lyon (00:02:24):
So if you’re interested in sharing your graph story with the world, definitely please consider submitting a conference proposal. And we’ll talk a bit about how do you structure that conference proposal? What motivates you to put a talk together? How do you come up with ideas? So we’ll go through all of this to give you ideas of how to structure your proposal.

William Lyon (00:02:54):
But then also, what we want to talk about today is: Okay, you’ve submitted your proposal, it’s been accepted, and you now have a month, two months, a couple of weeks, whatever, to think about putting your talk together. How do you approach that? What are some things that Lju and I have learned? And hopefully, some of this will be useful for you. So if you’re interested in learning more about NODES or submitting your proposal, go to We’ll also link in the show notes the link to the call for proposals and all of that. Cool. So let’s get into it, maybe to kick off the discussion. Lju, I thought of a fun question to start with. Do you remember your first conference talk?

Lju Lazarevic (00:03:44):
Oh my goodness. Yes. So this was quite a while back in a different lifetime and it was an academic conference that I was presenting at, and it was all about detecting birds through wing oscillations. So the idea that you could try and identify different bird species effectively based on how they flap their wings. And it was quite interesting because there were lots of people there and it was bit of a daunting one as well.

Lju Lazarevic (00:04:14):
So the first time I did this, it was a bit daunting, because I’d get a bit nervous. But, I’ve had practice now. I was in front of a large group of people, I was talking about a subject where some bits I was quite familiar, but other bits, it was like, whoa, there is so much about this that I don’t know. And always had a bit of the back of my mind going, “Oh my goodness, what happens if somebody asks me a question that I can’t answer?” So it was an interesting experience. It was a fun experience, but yes, I remember it well. What about yourself?

William Lyon (00:04:53):
Yeah. So for me, the first conference talk, the meet-ups blur together and I’m not sure exactly which was first. I gave some talks at some of the local meetups and there’s a local community conference as well, that I’ve spoken at for a few years. And I can’t remember exactly in what order, but for me, when I think of my exposure to public speaking more broadly, the thing that was much more impactful for me was I spent a year teaching introduction to computer science at my university when I was working on my master’s degree, I had a teaching scholarship or whatever you call that.

William Lyon (00:05:40):
And this I think was really quite a challenge for me to give a lecture three times a week about intro to computer science and it was a pretty large class. So it was very intimidating for me initially, and I remember just being very overwhelmed initially and very scared, it was in the forestry building, which was across campus from the computer science building. I think we didn’t have a room big enough or something, and just going over into the forestry building was intimidating for me at the time.

William Lyon (00:06:13):
So anyway, this was, I think a really good experience for me and this really informed how I think about things like connecting with the audience and making sure that I’m engaging my students and a lot of these things were really formative for how I think about public speaking. So anyway, thinking about, yeah, first public speaking exposure, that’s what I think about.

Lju Lazarevic (00:06:41):
It’s a great experience, it can definitely be scary to begin with, but it’s a fantastic experience. And what would be really good now is to talk about why would you sign up for this? We talked about being a bit nervous, or a bit frightened, or worried what people are going to ask us a huge audience. Why would you step forward and do a conference talk?

William Lyon (00:07:04):
I think there’s a lot of reasons, right? I think that, especially for developers, you see a lot of these very technical conferences out there and people sharing knowledge, sharing what they’ve learned, helping others build new skills. And I think it’s seen almost as a step in a career development phase, right? Being able to present technical material to your peers, sharing something that you’ve learned.

William Lyon (00:07:35):
So I think you can really benefit from a professional perspective by being able to hone and exercise that professional technical communication, right. Because I think this is an important skill to have just day-to-day right, as being able to communicate about technical topics with your peers. So I think that that can be a big motivator.

William Lyon (00:08:02):
I think for me, really the biggest motivation is the learning process. They say that you really haven’t learned something until you can teach it to others. And I found that this is really, really true. If you really want to learn something yourself, try to teach it to someone else and giving a conference talk, really gives you the opportunity to go through that exercise. So for me, that’s the number one motivation.

Lju Lazarevic (00:08:33):
I think another element as well is personal development. So you’ve touched on that with the idea of how do you reinforce that you’ve really learned the subject and understand it, but there’s another reason as well. I think when you present, which is, if you do have a phobia of meeting new people, what happens if a group of people that you’re unfamiliar with, or you have an idea or an opinion and you feel a bit nervous about sharing it? This is a really great way to be really structured about how you approached that and getting that exposure. It’s a really great way to just keep doing it over and over, and it gets easier over time.

Lju Lazarevic (00:09:16):
And that also fits in with career development and being more at ease at being able to present your ideas and thoughts to an audience. And it works on the personal level as well as the career level. It also reinforces that learning, and I think that’s really important. And another relevance as well, I think it’s really important to promote your brand. So especially now, as we’re ever more connected and it’s not just, here’s my CV, and this is what I’ve done. I think it can be very important as well — to demonstrate your thought leadership, where your skills are, and being able to be confident in a presentation format to be able to do that really helps define your brand and who you are.

Lju Lazarevic (00:10:01):
And if you don’t want to do it for yourself again, it’s something really useful to define the brand of your company, or if you’re working on a project within your company, being able to maximize your awareness of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it and why you are doing it. So I think there are many reasons as to the benefits of why you should go and do a conference talk.

Lju Lazarevic (00:10:25):
So, I guess another element that might come up where something would go, okay, you’ve sold it to me. I get the value of doing a presentation, but you know what? I am absolutely terrified. And I’m terrified because I get nervous of presenting to people, I don’t know how to come up with ideas for a conference. What if I don’t absolutely know my subject inside out or the terror, the fear of fears? What happens if somebody asks me a question that I can’t answer there and then? So what approaches have you come across? What do you use to manage these hesitations?

William Lyon (00:11:12):
Yeah, that’s really common, right? I think there’s a saying that more people are afraid of public speaking than there are of dying or something like that. I have no idea if that’s true or not, but it’s certainly something that is scary the first few times you do it. Right. And I think it’s fundamentally, it’s something that from my perspective, anyway, I had to practice doing, and once you’ve done it a few times, then a lot of that nervousness and terror goes away, at least I’ve found.

William Lyon (00:11:48):
And for me going back to teaching a class, the first few lectures I gave I was very nervous and yeah, like terrified to get started. And I found giving a lecture to a group of 60 or 70 students three times a week — once you’ve done that a few times, then it starts to smooth out and get easier and you enjoy a lot of the feedback that you’re getting and engaging with your audience is a really rewarding experience.

William Lyon (00:12:20):
And so once I had done that a few times, I would just think, well, okay, I’ve done this before, this is nothing that I should be nervous and terrified about. So I think it’s something to think of it as an achievement to overcome and just some practice to get in. And once I think you’ve started to experience the benefits of seeing folks that are engaged and seeing some of that feedback is really, really reinforcing. And I think the feedback can be a big help.

Lju Lazarevic (00:12:57):
Absolutely. I think the important thing there, as well as just keep doing it. The more times you do it, the easier it gets, the more comfortable you will be, the more confident you will be as with many things in life. The more times you do it, the easier it gets. And whilst you don’t have that experience yet, whilst you’re quite new practice, practice, practice. I think I read somewhere, you get some seasoned keynote speakers will spend something like three, four times the amount of time that they will be delivering their speech to how much time they spend practicing it.

Lju Lazarevic (00:13:39):
So if your keynote is 20 minutes, you could easily be spending up to two hours plus the number of multiple times, you’re practicing it over and over again, so you’re comfortable. So that is a key thing to do so that you know your content inside out. So it’s not a surprise when you’re delivering it. So that’s one thing that you’re certain about in your environment and the other thing as well, it’s your story.

Lju Lazarevic (00:14:08):
So even if you’re nervous and you’re starting, it’s your story, you came up with it, you know it well, and just tell it and you’ll find that you’ve started to settle into a groove. And then you may even shock horror even be enjoying the process because people are there to hear your story. So yeah, many things you can do to counteract that. I guess another big one around that is what do you do if you’re asked an awkward question?

William Lyon (00:14:42):
There are questions that you have no idea how to answer. Right. A lot of questions are actually comments and maybe feedback. So I think for those kinds of questions where someone is maybe making a comment or a statement that you know, rather than them trying to share something, rather than digging deeper into a subject. I like to reinterpret their question and comment as the question that I would like to answer. That’s somewhat related to what they’re discussing. Right?

William Lyon (00:15:18):
And there are lots of examples of this, but I think it’s really important to remember that during the conference presentation and even the Q and A, that you’re speaking to the larger audience, right? You’re not… It’s not beneficial for the larger audience necessarily to go on some tangent that you maybe don’t know anything about or something that’s maybe only relevant for the person asking the question.

William Lyon (00:15:45):
So I think as you’re thinking of how to answer these things, try to think of that context, does… If it’s something that you don’t know anything about, I think maybe the audience doesn’t either, right. And they lack that context. So I think taking a step back and maybe saying, okay, well, we’ll add a higher level here’s the context around the question that you’re asking, and I don’t really know anything about the specific thing that you’re asking about, but here’s how I understand that it fits into the larger context and lay things out that way.

William Lyon (00:16:17):
I think is actually really appreciated for others in the audience watching who maybe don’t really understand maybe the specific thing that the person is asking about. So rephrasing taking a step back, setting some context I think it can be a helpful way to just rephrase it and think about things. But also fundamentally, if someone asks you a question that you don’t know the answer to, it’s perfectly reasonable to say I don’t know the answer to that, let’s move on to something else, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I’ve done that, I’ve seen people do that.

William Lyon (00:16:51):
From the audience perspective, it’s more helpful for them to have you identify something and say, “Hey, that’s not something I’m an expert on, let’s move on to something else,” rather than waste their time trying to, I don’t know, trying to make something up. So perfectly fine to say, I don’t know, let’s move on to something else.

Lju Lazarevic (00:17:12):
And it’s also perfectly fine to say, let’s exchange details I can come back to you on that. So if that’s something you want to explore, you don’t know the answer, but you can look that up, how to look that up then again, that’s perfectly fine. And touching on something as well you said there about the audience. It does happen where somebody asks you a question, you don’t know it, but sometimes it’s okay to ask the audience because there may be somebody there who can answer that question.

Lju Lazarevic (00:17:43):
So you’ve got so many options that you can engage the audience. And again, if you have that person who asks that awkward question, you have the option as well to turn it back to them and say, well, what are your thoughts on this? If there’s somebody who’s trying to give their view, you have a number of ways to answer it.

Lju Lazarevic (00:18:04):
But if you’re thinking, this is too hard again, it’s perfectly okay to just say, I’m not too sure I can get back to you on that, as the easy of the options, you’ve got many different ways to tackle that fun, fun topic. Okay. So hopefully we’ve put you all at ease when it comes to thinking about why you should do a presentation and how would you tackle some of those awkward situations if you’re a bit new to presenting. So the next one is coming up with that killer idea that you’re going to do a presentation on. So how do you approach this normally?

William Lyon (00:18:47):
I think there are a few fundamental ways to come up with ideas for conference talks. I think there’s sort of looking at some of the interesting problems you’ve solved, some of the challenges that you’ve overcome recently like wanting to share some of that I think is a great source of inspiration for conference talks, because if it’s something that you’ve learned, something that you’ve struggled with, some challenge that you’ve overcome, some application that you’ve built, some design pattern that you’ve learned, that’s evidence there that it’s something that will be of interest to a larger group, right?

William Lyon (00:19:24):
So I think that that is a really great area. There’s also the area of I know something about this, I’d like to learn a little bit more, why don’t I just challenge myself to learn enough about this to be able to give a conference talk about it, right? It goes back to a point we made earlier about being able to teach something to someone else as the ultimate form of learning it yourself.

William Lyon (00:19:58):
So I liked to joke about this idea of conference-driven development that once you have committed to giving a conference talk about this, you have this forcing function now of making sure that you actually can build this thing and give a presentation about the topic. I think that there’s a fine line here though between choosing something that you’re not really is realistic to dig into and go into the depth of building a conference talk around it, versus something that you have some tangential familiarity with, and it’s something of interest for you, right?

William Lyon (00:20:40):
So there’s a fine line there, but I think that can be to just having that conference talk, if it’s something that aligns with your professional goals, right? Maybe you have an OKR with your team, a goal of something that you need to build, something that you need to dig into any way from a technical perspective. If this aligns with that, then that can be a great motivator for you to dig into that topic in a lot more depth.

Lju Lazarevic (00:21:09):
Absolutely. And the other one can be, you see a common problem coming up over and over again. So let’s say you’re active in a community and you keep seeing the same question come up over and over again. And you go, you know what? I think there’s a gap here. Maybe this is something I can put together for an educational talk. So you want to get your community friends, have the understanding about how to come over that. So that’s another great way you can come up with some ideas for a talk.

Lju Lazarevic (00:21:43):
Another option too is to have a look at past talks and this doesn’t have to be necessarily around Neo4j. This can be any technical talk or any non-technical talk. Is there something that inspires you? Is there a speaker that inspires you? What is it that inspires you? Is it because they’re solving a problem? Is it because there’s a specific call to action that they make? Is there something there that helps trigger some thinking around what you can do as a result? So is there something you can follow this style or you follow the way that they discover a problem and have to solve it? So that’s potentially another way of finding some ideas for inspiration.

William Lyon (00:22:22):
So let’s talk a bit about the process of submitting a proposal. Most conferences have what’s called a CFP or call for proposals or call for papers. And this is basically, the conference putting out this open call for submissions, for proposals, for conference talks and speakers. And every conference does it a little bit differently, but I think there’s a common structure and a common theme to the CFP.

William Lyon (00:22:54):
So let’s maybe spend a few minutes talking about, how do we write a good proposal? What are the basic components of the proposal? How do we make it compelling? Because I think this is the first step really of going down that path of giving a conference presentation of making sure that it’s compelling for the organizers of the conference to say, “Hey, this looks really good. Let’s accept this and put it on the agenda.”

William Lyon (00:23:23):
Because I know conferences get a lot of proposals, and a lot of times it can be difficult to sort through the proposals and identify the talks that are really going to stand out and that the organizers want to have in their conference. So I think it is important to make sure that your proposal really does stand out and makes it clear who you are, what you’re going to talk about, and that this can be a compelling talk for the audience.

William Lyon (00:23:56):
So those are the things that I think the organizers are thinking about as they’re going through the CFP. Let’s talk at maybe just a high level, what are the individual components of a proposal? And then maybe talk about how to structure each one of those to make it compelling and stand out.

William Lyon (00:24:17):
So the basic components of every CFP are a title for your conference talk, and then a description, an abstract. Typically the title is a one-liner, Overview of Cypher Query Language, something like that. A description is something that the conference will put on the website or in the schedule, usually a couple of sentences like, “In this talk, we take a look at the Cypher Query Language and how to use it for writing basic queries.” Then the abstract is typically a bit more detailed and sometimes the abstract is not shared publicly. A lot of times, this is just for you to share with the conference organizers, here’s how I’m going to structure the talk, here are the main bullet points going into a lot more detail than what the description does.

William Lyon (00:25:26):
So that’s how I think about it. And again, this can be a bit different. But I write the description for the prospective attendee who’s trying to see, “Is this a talk I’m interested in going to?” I read the abstract almost as an outline of what the talk will be. And then the fourth component of a proposal is your bio. So who are you? What experience do you have? What’s your job? Why are you qualified to give this talk? So those are the basic components. I think then it’s important also to think about how to make each of these compelling and how do you structure these? So do you have any thoughts on that Lju and how to make your, your CFP compelling?

Lju Lazarevic (00:26:14):
I think the easiest way to make it compelling is to be really clear in your mind who your audience is? Who do you want to come to your talk? Be very clear about what you want your audience to go away with. Do you want them to be enlightened? Do you want them to be going away thinking about something, something that’s triggered a thought function that they’ve not considered before? Do you have a call to action? So what exactly do you want your audience to go away with?

Lju Lazarevic (00:26:55):
And I think that goes a long way towards driving what your title is going to look like, because if the title doesn’t give a good view of what your audience is going to go away with, then you keep iterating until it does. Same idea with the description in the abstract. Does it give you a clear view when you look through that? What kind of audience you want and what you want them to go away with, I think just having those two questions and cycling through and checking that will get you a long way there.

William Lyon (00:27:34):
So let’s say that your proposal has been accepted. The organizers have said, “Yes, this sounds like a great talk. We want you to come to speak at our conference either online or in person.” Now we need to think about actually building the talk, right? And hopefully, we have some time ahead of us to prepare, we don’t need to rush this. I’d say this is probably an important thing to note is the more time that you can take to start building out the talk, I think the less stressed you will feel and ultimately, the higher quality the talk can be.

William Lyon (00:28:15):
Do you have a couple of months, do you have a month, do you have a few weeks? Whenever you have gotten that acceptance from the conference organizer, I would say, start building your talk then, or you can even start before that if it’s something that you’re truly passionate about.

William Lyon (00:28:35):
But anyway, let’s talk a bit about that process of how do we build the talk? And I think building the talk is a good way to think of it because there are several important components to the talk, right? It’s not just the presentation itself, it’s the assets around that, right? Are you building a demo? Are you creating slides? What is the delivery mechanism that you’re going to have? Are you having visuals and diagrams? Is there a report that you’re sharing along with us? There’s a lot of things to think about.

William Lyon (00:29:16):
Just to kick off the discussion here of building the talk. In my view, I think that the narrative or the story is actually the most important fundamental part of the talk and everything in my mind is secondary from that. Of course, it needs to be technically accurate, it’s having a working demo, having nice diagrams and visuals. Those are all important, but fundamentally you’re telling a story here, and figuring out what that narrative is for me is my fundamental starting point.

William Lyon (00:29:56):
So what I like to do is I think there’s a very important creative exercise and creative connection between visual thinking and the tactileness of drawing something out, almost like mind mapping. So for me to figure out what the narrative is, I do a couple of different things. One is, I start with a few bullet points of what are the key takeaways? So Lju was saying, when you’re writing that proposal, think who are the audiences? What are the key takeaways for them going to be? And write that out. And that forms the fundamental sort of heart of the narrative.

William Lyon (00:30:42):
And then, I like to go to a whiteboard or a paper, and just diagram out the different components, the different pieces of the talk that I want to share and what sets the context. So for me, it’s a very creative process to find that core narrative, and that really drives a lot of my process. How about you Lju, where do you start with the building of the talk process?

Lju Lazarevic (00:31:16):
The story, there always has to be a story. And in my mind, there’s a number of reasons for this. I think a story helps your audience because there is a journey here, there is a lesson to be learned, and you think across history, stories are the best delivery mechanism for that. How do you deliver learning through a story? Another really big reason for it is it really helps you to think about how are you going to put together a presentation? So a story innately gives you structure.

William Lyon (00:31:54):
Maybe it might be helpful to share an example of what we mean by a story and narrative to put some context around this. So I’ll share an example from a talk that I worked on recently for the City JS Conference, and the title of the talk was a Graph Data Love story, and the narrative is, there are these two technologies that come from fundamentally different worlds. This was a talk about, GraphQL and Neo4j and how to use them together, and then the benefits you get from using them together.

William Lyon (00:32:33):
These two technologies, one is loved by front-end developers, GraphQL, and the other is a database that is serving a very different need, but when we take these two technologies together, they each have something to offer the other in the terms of applying a type-safe schema to the database and from Neo4j being optimized for the type of nested queries that you often have in GraphQL.

William Lyon (00:33:06):
So I’m telling the story of how these two technologies, what they are independently, but then when we use them together, here are the benefits that we get. And that’s maybe not a super complex story, but that’s the fundamental narrative that flows through the talk. So when we’re talking about a story and narrative, that’s the sort of thing that we mean.

Lju Lazarevic (00:33:32):
Yeah, absolutely. And again, I think certainly from a tech talk perspective, the story structures tend to be quite similar. So I’ll pick the example I used for my most presentation last year. And again, a similar process was I tell the story and my story was, I was exploring a data set. So this was the wine dataset for those of you who are familiar. And then we talk about the next point of the story, which is a pain, I came across the pain, my pain was how do I deal with dirty data?

Lju Lazarevic (00:34:08):
So I’ve poured on my journey, my pain is this dirty data. We then continued the story where we talk about the options we explored and how can we solve this. And then the story has a happy ending, which is we’ve successfully cleaned it using these methodologies, and if anybody else finds themselves in this similar predicaments, they can use the fables that the lessons from this fable to apply to their problem.

Lju Lazarevic (00:34:35):
So it doesn’t have to be a big intricate story, but there is a story there to drive it. And the nice thing about having a story, is it so much easier to deliver. You don’t have to memorize what you put on some slides. You can have image slides, you can have diagrams with no words on there, because you know that story, you can talk to your story, but it’s difficult to talk to a slide of facts, for example.

Lju Lazarevic (00:35:04):
So it helps engage your audience, it keeps it interesting, it makes the process of making the presentation interesting, and it makes it so much easier to deliver. It’s win, win, win everywhere. So I guess the next bit from here is how do you tighten up that story? We’ve talked about generating the ideas, we’ve talked about having a story to help drive that. How do you work through the approach of getting it a bit more polished up and making the story tight?

William Lyon (00:35:39):
I think a large part of that, of developing the story is this visual thinking exercise, right? So I go to the whiteboard or, lately I’ve been using a drawing app on my iPad for this, and almost just drawing a mind map diagram of the key points? So I have my takeaways as the center, right? So I have my three to four bullet points of the takeaway for the audience.

William Lyon (00:36:12):
And we’ll talk about the audience in a second, that’s another really, really important component. But, I’ve decided on here’s what I want the audience to get out of that, and that’s the core piece of this visual thinking diagram exercise. And then I end up drawing it… It’s almost like a graph. It’s like notes that are the parts of the narrative that I want to convey.

William Lyon (00:36:40):
So in my Neo4j and GraphQL, Graph Data Love Story talk, the key components of the narrative are, I want you to understand the benefits that you get from using these two technologies together. And then I have three or four examples. Then I expand on that a bit more and in this diagram, and see how those pieces fit together. I then start to think of how best to convey this point to the audience?

William Lyon (00:37:12):
Should I do this in a code example? Should I do this as a diagram? Should I do this as a demo? And I think it really depends on what it is, but I think you can clearly start to see where one of those formats is better than the other. Diagrams and visuals can be, I think, a really important piece of building the talk because that’s the visual aid for your audience.

William Lyon (00:37:41):
As Lju said, you know how to sort of tell this story verbally and having some visual cue to show how the pieces fit together, while you’re talking about this can be very helpful visual aid for your audience, and everyone learns in a different style, right? Some of us learn best from visuals, some of us learn better from hearing something explained to us, some of us are more experiential.

William Lyon (00:38:10):
So I think it’s more important to address those different aspects throughout your talk. So you want to have a compelling story and narrative, you want to have some visuals and diagrams that explain how the pieces fit together. And then I think it’s also useful to have code examples and demos where appropriate that are going to be more compelling for the experiential to take away from that where they need to see this, this more concrete example.

William Lyon (00:38:41):
And ideally, if there’s a GitHub repo or somewhere that those folks can then go, pull-down and play around with, to actually really cement those. So I think that’s an important thing just to remember, and again, this maybe goes back to the concept of empathizing with the audience a bit to really recognize that folks learn in lots of different ways and try to incorporate those different elements into your presentation. That will address the different ways that different people learn from those different styles.

Lju Lazarevic (00:39:14):
Absolutely. So let’s talk a little bit about the audience. So how do you target your presentation to your audience? What are you looking for? What approach do you use?

William Lyon (00:39:28):
Yeah, that’s a good one. We had a question on Twitter from Nathan Smith here. How do I judge the technical level of the audience of my topic, which I think is really important and a fundamental thing to think about upfront as you’re structuring your talk. What do I expect my audience to know? Who is my audience? Who am I speaking to?

William Lyon (00:39:56):
I have a default persona almost that I think of when I structure my talks and that persona is me immediately before I didn’t know the thing that I’m talking about. And so looking at my background, I’ve worked as a software developer for a few startups, full-stack sort of thing. So not too deep in any one area, but more experience with the breadth and how the pieces fit together.

William Lyon (00:40:28):
So that’s how I think of my audience. And then I refine it from there. But I think also a lot of conferences have more formal ways for attendees to self-select into the talks. So there’s often tracks at conferences where it’s clear, okay, this is the track for the high level architect, this is the track for the data scientists, this is the track for the front-end developer.

William Lyon (00:41:09):
And if you know ahead of time what these tracks are going to be, and oftentimes this is part of the CFP process where you’re specifically indicating what track or multiple tracks that you think your talk would fit in. That can be really helpful for you as a presenter to understand. Here’s the structure that the conference organizers are setting out. So I know what audience I’m speaking to based on who’s going to be interested in that track.

William Lyon (00:41:39):
And then a lot of conferences will also have a level. So this is a beginner talk, this is the intermediate, this is advanced, and use that to then structure your talk based on the audience that you expect would be interested in that. To give you an example, I gave a talk at GraphQL Summit last year, two years ago.The title was something like, GraphQL Resolve Info Deep Dive, okay, so that you’re talking in the title, you’re talking about a very specific piece of GraphQL implementation. You’re saying this is a deep dive. Okay. So this is not going to be a beginner’s talk for someone who’s completely new to GraphQL.

William Lyon (00:42:23):
So I think I would try… Try to allow your audience to self-select for what group they are. Okay, if we’re talking about the GraphQL resolve info object, well, I have to know what GraphQL is, I have to know that this is probably something to do with implementing GraphQL backends. So maybe I’m targeting backend developers who are at least intermediately familiar with GraphQL. Do anything you can to allow your audience to self-select, and then, that can help you to inform the technical level of your audience.

Lju Lazarevic (00:43:00):
Absolutely. So then there are two takeaways there. So number one, have a look at what the conference is asking for. So if the conference has made it explicit that it’s going to be beginner-level content, or if they’ve made explicit, it is advanced-level content, then you’ve been told what the audience level is. If you’ve not been given that specific instruction, then you pick your audience.

Lju Lazarevic (00:43:27):
So you decide which audience you want to target, and then you do the material around that. And please help your audience out as you’re talking about that, make it clear in the title or the description who exactly that talk is for. And then, the audience can self-select whether that is the right tool for them or not. So many options there. And we talked a little bit about the different ways you can use content for your talk.

Lju Lazarevic (00:44:00):
So we talked about the use of visuals, diagrams, people may put in videos, sounds demos, also helpful. Looking at the different ways of engaging with your audience, the one thing I’ll say very quickly about slides is try to be sparing with them. I have noticed you get a lot of conferences where you have a lot of slides. And I came from this old school view, that’s each slide should be a minimum of two minutes in length.

Lju Lazarevic (00:44:38):
So I think just a quick comment on that, less is more, and this is where diagrams are amazing. So if you’re looking at a big block of text and this is where it all comes into the whole idea of the more time you can spend to prepare the better. I’m just highlighting this because you do see at some conferences, you get slides and it’s just full of text and ask yourself, can that be represented as a diagram? Can you bring a theme together?

Lju Lazarevic (00:45:06):
Is that information that you want your audience to sit there and read? Or do you give them a picture and provide them with a link? So that’s one thing I will mention quickly there because you do see a lot and it’s an easy way to lose the attention of your audience if they suddenly are not listening to you anymore because they’re quickly reading a slide of text. So that’s one thing I quickly wanted to flag. Is there anything that you would suggest as well as sort of things to be aware of when putting together a presentation for an audience?

William Lyon (00:45:39):
I think that’s a really good observation about the slides. I think of slides as they’re providing the basic structure for the talk. So I like to have these section subheading slides. Make it clear how to structure the talk and then in between those diagrams that show how the pieces fit together.

William Lyon (00:46:09):
Your point of linking to source material to references is really useful. If there’s some blog post or page from the documentation that has the information that I’m talking about. Rather than duplicating that onto the slide, I will just put a link to that on the slide as well. And I think that that’s really important as well to think about, how should the slides be treated after the talk? Right.

William Lyon (00:46:44):
So another question we got from the chat here is should there be handouts? How pretty should do my slides need to be? If I think they’re not pretty enough, how can I make them better? So this I think is drawing on a couple of points here that are really important. One is yes, think of your slides as handouts that someone can refer to later.

William Lyon (00:47:09):
So I like to use Google Slides for all of my slides because it’s very, very easy to share. So I’ll make them public, I’ll put a short Bitly link at the beginning so that anyone can just go to that link at the beginning, and they have access to the slides with links and treating it as reference material for them to take away and go home with.

William Lyon (00:47:36):
But then also, of course, you’re using your slides during the talk and you want them to look nice, you want them to be functional. I probably, tend to more to the functional aspect than making sure that they’re pretty and visually compelling mostly because I don’t have a lot of expertise or skills in that area, but I know some folks that will use something like Fiverr. So they’ll do an initial pass of maybe a diagram or the slides, and then go on to Fiverr or Upwork to have someone with more visual skills, do like a more in-depth, high-quality version of the visuals, or even just touch up the slides in general. That can be one option that I’ve seen folks do.

William Lyon (00:48:28):
I think another important aspect when we think of how to structure our talk and then what components to include in it? Is the question of, to include a demo or not. So I think that there are lots of different viewpoints here that there are advantages and disadvantages. I think oftentimes in a technical presentation that having at least some code samples to put things in a more practical context is useful.

William Lyon (00:49:02):
Oftentimes what I find myself doing is building a demo application that is like a reference architecture, reference application for the talk. A while ago, I think this was at the Kafka summit talk, Dave Allen and I, who gave a talk there, built a fraud detection application using Neo4j and Kafka and graph data science and in a GRANDstack application to build the front-end dashboard.

William Lyon (00:49:34):
And so we built this thing and there are a lot of pieces to it and it worked and we used it mostly though as a reference, here’s the repo for all of the pieces, you can pull it down and see how it works. It’s not something that we walked through each component of it live during the talk, we just wanted to show here’s at a high level, how the pieces fit together. If you want more detail, go find the code on GitHub.

William Lyon (00:50:06):
So I think it’s a balance there, because you have limited time to present your demo. You want to make sure that you’re not wasting time trying to set up configuration if something breaks, fixing it live. So I think some combination of screenshots and minimal examples that you want to show, but then also making sure that the code is accessible for folks, later on, is how I like to approach demos.

Lju Lazarevic (00:50:35):
And I think another question we’ve got here resigned to both through some of the Twitter questions I’ve been coming in, is should I try to be funny?

William Lyon (00:50:45):
I have a strict rule that I follow for this one. I think it really depends on your personality. I think that if you are, having that personality that is really engaging and you’re comfortable being funny and telling jokes and connecting with your audience, that can be a great way for your audience to engage with you.

William Lyon (00:51:13):
I don’t think I have that personality. I think I typically have a dry sense of humor that can come across as unintended sarcasm and whatnot. So I typically don’t try to be funny throughout the talk. I think there’s nothing wrong with that though if that fits your personality, but I would say don’t try to force it. So the strict rule that I have is I limit myself to one joke per conference talk.

William Lyon (00:51:44):
And you may not realize this because maybe the joke is not obvious if you’ve seen some of my talks, but there’s at least one joke somewhere in all of them. And this is sometimes like a meme slide or something like that. Because I think that fundamentally your audience is interested in having a good time and connecting with you, and of course humor is a great way to connect with them. I don’t think that it makes you less authoritative of a speaker or anything like that. So yeah, if it fits your personality, sure go for it.

Lju Lazarevic (00:52:22):
Be yourself. If you’re want to be a joker and crack a joke, then be yourself. If that is not your personality, I think you walk in dangerous territory if you try and be an anti-pattern of yourself. So be yourself. it’s your story. Tou’re telling it with your true self.

Lju Lazarevic (00:52:56):
Let’s talk a little bit about what happens after the presentation. So you’ve put in a lot of work. A fair bit of work goes into a call for paper. Significantly more work goes into creating the content. And then a load of work afterward goes into practicing for the session and getting ready. So you’ve put this big investment of time into this presentation process. What do you do next?

William Lyon (00:53:19):
I think that fundamentally, think about how you can repurpose the content, right? If the talk was recorded and now a lot of conferences have moved online and the talks are on YouTube, be sure to share the recording with your network. Certainly, find the YouTube channel for the conference and share that with your network.

William Lyon (00:53:46):
But also think about how you can convert that content to other formats, could you turn it into a blog post? Could you turn it into a tweet thread? The sort of thing, because that you have made an investment in sort of building this, and I think certainly you want to be able to share it across different formats other than just the audience that will have seen your talk, right? So this I think is really important, not to treat it as just a one-off thing that you’ve built and thrown away, but really use it as a base to build on top of as well.

Lju Lazarevic (00:54:26):
I’m coming to the point you made earlier about some of the reasons why you might go through this process, why are you doing a presentation? If you’re using this as an opportunity to learn a new subject, then go share it with the world. You’ve made that investment, you’ve done the talk at the conference. And even in the unfortunate event if you don’t get accepted, you still invest a lot of time into this project.

Lju Lazarevic (00:54:51):
So are there meetup groups you can go to? Lots of meetup groups, depending on your technical area, would love to hear that story. So can you contact meetup groups, online, and in-person when we’re allowed to do those as well? You have got many options to share that. And the thing is as well, this is a journey. So maybe this is a project you’re working on, you’re going to have new installments.

Lju Lazarevic (00:55:15):
So that becomes now the next stage that you can then go off and do a presentation on. So you’ve got a lot of opportunities there to keep reusing and repurposing that content. So it’s not the case if you do it once and that’s it, there is a lot of things you can do with it afterwards as well.

William Lyon (00:55:34):
We should make sure that we answer any questions from the chat that we didn’t get to. I see one here from usernames second, asking how do we prepare for the talk for the technical part as well, and your recommendations? I mean, how long do we usually take to prepare?

William Lyon (00:55:56):
I think the second part of that, I think is really important, is how long do you spend preparing your talk? I think is a really interesting question. Lju do you have any guidelines there on the time you spend preparing for a talk?

Lju Lazarevic (00:56:18):
That’s a great question. The rule of thumb for me will be the less familiar I am with a subject, the more time I’m going to be spending preparing for it. So if it’s something that I’m really confident in, I know inside out, if it’s a 30-minute talk, I could easily be spending maybe a day or so, two days if it’s brand new slides for that. And then I could easily be spending maybe a few hours just going over the presentation over and over again, doing any iterations and changes.

Lju Lazarevic (00:56:55):
And that’s something that I know really, really well. If it’s something I’m less familiar with. So I mentioned earlier about if it’s a subject that I’m not familiar with, I will practice the content over and over again. If any curveball is thrown at me, that’s one less thing to worry about. But even if I’m familiar, a lot of time goes in so easily we’re talking, brand new slides, two and a half days at least, what about yourself?

William Lyon (00:57:30):
I like to spend a lot of time thinking. So getting back to the concept of the narrative and the story and developing that, I like to spend a lot of time just thinking about it and visualizing this, and working through different aspects. Almost I’m imagining what the talk sounds like and what the key points are. So I like to spend a lot of time in the background, I guess, just thinking about this and going through that process, even before I start to prepare anything, either on paper, or the slides, or the demo.

William Lyon (00:58:10):
So that process is sort of going on in the background, ideally for maybe a couple of weeks as I’m thinking about this in the background, but then when it comes time to actually prepare and build the materials, it really varies. It’s so hard to say, if it’s something where I’ve already built an application or something, and I want to pull out some of the interesting aspects from the project I worked on, that’s a lot less time because I have a lot of the source technical materials to build from there.

William Lyon (00:58:43):
In terms of how to build up confidence and not be overwhelmed with not having enough to talk about or not feeling completely confident there, I like to build lots of different demos and technical things that I often don’t end up having time to present during the presentation, but just having those there in the slides as a reference or a pointer and say, “Okay, so we didn’t get to talk about this, but for more info here’s example application on GitHub, here’s a demo of this aspect.”

William Lyon (00:59:22):
So in terms of helping to prepare for the technical parts and building up the confidence that you have enough material to talk about, I over-index on having that technical content there and oftentimes end up not even using it. But I think it’s useful to have as a follow-up for your audience to dig into more after the fact. And then also that then it gives me a lot to repurpose for content, for blogs and tutorials and whatnot. So, yeah, that’s how I think about it.

Lju Lazarevic (00:59:58):
Absolutely. And I think before we leave it there, I’m going to raise one of the comments that have been said by Zephis, which is a friendly reminder to look at the cameras. So we have been a little bit naughty during this session where we’ve probably been looking at our notes, but absolutely when you are delivering a presentation, either online, make sure you’re looking at the camera as much as possible and in person try and connect with your audience. So keep scanning and looking eyes. So that is absolutely a very good point. Well made and taken on board.

William Lyon (01:00:33):
Yeah. And I think that’s important to remember as well. No one is really an expert on giving these kinds of presentations. So we’re just trying to share what we think has been helpful. Hopefully talking through this was helpful, but take everything that we say with a grain of salt, right? Because these are things from our experience that work, but not necessarily will work for you and not pretending to be experts in this domain.

Lju Lazarevic (01:01:04):
Absolutely. With that, we’re going to call it a wrap. Thank you everybody for joining us. You can find the following episodes of our podcast on GraphStuff.FM.

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