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“I don’t have anything interesting to talk about…”

11 things I’ve learned from the experts about how to choose a topic for your first tech talk

“How can I choose something that I know will interest the audience?”

  1. How to handle the nerves
  2. What topic to pick

Over the last month, I’ve been speaking to lots of keynote and conference speakers and have asked their thoughts around these questions and more.

I’ve been through all the discussions I’ve had and pulled out some highlights from the experts on how to approach this. I hope some of the lessons I’ve learned help you on your journey to start speaking.

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Let’s start with what NOT to do, then cover some ideas of topics you could choose

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1. Talks don’t have to be about the latest technologies

Richard Warburton commented that a lot of people think that talks have to be about new and exciting things. In the tech industry, there is always a lot of buzz around the early adopter technologies but these do not always make the most effective or useful talk subjects. The best advice is to go back to what you’re familiar with. Richard spoke about how some of his most popular talks were based on ten-year-old technology, in which there was a lot of misunderstanding. This is a point that has been echoed several times.

*See below for the point of the roundtable in which Richard is discussing this:

Jim Gough said a similar thing, that there is always this feeling that you have to do something new or something exciting but went on to say there are loads of really good talks at conferences on things that have been around for ages like test-driven development or object-oriented design.

*See below for the point of the roundtable in which Jim is discussing this:

2. Don’t assume people know what you know

A common mistake amongst new speakers is to assume that because you know something, everyone else knows it too, so it wouldn’t make a great topic for a talk.

Robin Moffat spoke about how initially he thought he had to talk about something really techie and even obscure to prove his credentials. He would assume people would just automatically know certain things because they were obvious and written in a manual but then he realised it’s not about that. Robin said,” You’ve been through an interesting experience and you’ve got something to talk about and people are ultimately there to learn.”

*See below for the point of the roundtable in which Robin is discussing this:

3. Don’t wait to find the perfect topic… just get stuck in

Jim Gough said it’s easy to say that you’ll wait for the perfect topic to emerge but that sometimes you just have to pick the first thing that comes into your mind and go for it. Many people never jump into speaking because the perfect topic idea never comes along. Instead, you just need to find things you’re interested in and get started.

*See below for the point of the roundtable in which Jim is discussing this:

I have noticed even in the short time we’ve been running the aspiring speakers group that many people get stuck trying to figure out the right talk to give, or are convinced they have nothing useful to share. The truth is that you don’t just have one great experience to share, but hundreds of experiences and these could be of great interest to others that are curious about them.

4. Don’t try to please all the people… try to teach some of the people instead

Cesar Tron-Lozai made the point that ‘what is interesting’ is half objective and half subjective. With that in mind, you should not try to write something that appeals to everyone instead try to write something that is interesting to you on the basis that some people will share your interest in it. Once you realise that you only have to be of interest to those that are already curious about a topic it’s extremely empowering. Your enthusiasm for this subject will come through in your preparation for the talk and your presentation of the topic.

*See below for the point of the roundtable in which Cesar is discussing this:

Jim Gough offered some advice on this too, he said that after years of speaking what he has started doing is to try and decide on a ‘persona’ to aim his talk at. He wants to not just come up with a topic but make the talk hit home. He does this by thinking about the audience and trying to make sure that they walk away with something that they didn’t already know. This level of thinking is what got him one of the most popular talks at QCon.

*See below for the point of the roundtable in which Jim is discussing this:

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So that covers what NOT to do, here are some topic areas to get you started on planning what you COULD speak about

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5. Topic Idea 1 — Something you’ve just learned about

Daniel Bryant speaks about the fact that many people don’t feel experienced enough to speak about something. He says there is an irony to it, in that once you become an expert in a subject it can be hard to relate to those that are just getting started because of all the things you’ve internalised. He believes that the best people to teach beginners can be other beginners that have just learned something because they’re familiar with the pain points and mental models it takes to get through them.

*See below for the point of the roundtable in which Daniel is discussing this:

6. Topic idea 2 — “Beginners guide to…” or “Getting started with…” are often the most in-demand talks

“There is ALWAYS something you can teach, and you’ll probably do a really good job of teaching the basics of something if you’re new to it,” Daniel Bryant said this in our LJC Panel Q+A.

Trisha Gee agreed and went on to discuss that almost everyone has a “getting started with…” talk in them about something. She put it nicely when she said: “there are way more people that don’t know about something than do know about it”. This could be for many reasons, but she drew attention to the fact that in this ever-evolving world of technology there are always people that will feel late to the party, those that haven’t yet learned about the seemingly mainstream technology everyone else is talking about. You could write a presentation to help them catch up.

*See below for the point of the roundtable in which Trisha is discussing this:

7. Topic idea 3 — Things you know well or are developing an expertise in

Trisha also said that it can be a good idea to pick something that you know better than most. Even if it’s not a red hot topic, if you use a technology more than others and know it quite well then it can be a good topic to choose. There will always be developers out there looking for an alternative way of thinking about something. If you pick a topic you feel confident with then you will feel great about delivering the talk.

*See below for the point of the roundtable in which Trisha is discussing this:

8. Topic idea 4 — “So, we tried X…”

If you have tried to implement a specific technology and learned things you didn’t know, especially if they were unexpected then this can be a great topic to share. You can focus on the challenges and solutions, the lessons you learned or the unexpected sides to it.

Matthew Guinard spoke about how he’d seen some great talks about something that someone had tried that didn’t work. He commented about how everyone could relate, having been in a similar position themselves. This kind of topic can lead to funny and educational talks.

*See below for the point of the roundtable in which Matthew is discussing this:

9. Topic idea 5 — Things you have a strong opinion on

Trisha said that she saw someone give a very effective talk about “My experience getting started as a DevOps developer”. She said it was very well received and that the best bit about giving one of these talks is that no one can tell you you’re wrong… because it’s your opinion. Trisha loves giving “my opinion” talks on “why code reviews suck” or “Career advice for programmers” based on her opinions.

*See below for the point of the roundtable in which Trisha is discussing this:

10. Topic Idea 6 — Address the FAQs

One thing you are always taught in content marketing is to start with the frequently asked questions about a subject. So if there is a broad subject you know you would like to speak on but you’re trying to find the angle then it could be worth looking at the forums or Slack groups and try to find some FAQs people ask when learning about the subject. This should give you some common pain points and ensure your talk will be effective.

11. Always speak about something you’re interested in… not something you feel you should talk about

Many of the speakers echo the point that you should try to find something you are personally interested in, your interest will seep out in the talk. Jim Gough has found from experience that if you’re talking about something you’re enthusiastic about it will make it 10 times better.

*See below for the point of the roundtable in which Jim is discussing this:

Robin Moffatt also covered this and mentioned the opposite, saying that if he was asked to talk about something that he found boring he expected it would show in his talk. His advice was to find something that you really want to talk about not something that you feel you should talk about. Here is some of the feedback we had about Robin and why he felt he was able to achieve it by speaking about something he really enjoys speaking about:

*See below for the point of the roundtable in which Robin is discussing this:

I hope this helps you get started with your first talk. If you’d like to give a talk at our lightning talk sessions at the London Java Community, or you’re considering getting involved in tech speaking but do not know where to start then let me know @bcrecworks (DM’s are open).

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