Preparing For a Talk

I began to speak at conferences a little a year ago. I remember the first time reaching out to people and asking how they prepared for talks. I went through several recommendations before finding the one that I use today.

I’m wrapping up my newest talk: Tune-up Your Stand Up for Lean Agile US

What I Tried

The first time I gave a talk of any length was internally at a company I was at. I co-presented our findings after attending a conference.

Thankfully, the person I presented with had done all of this before, so she walked me through what she described as the Decker Grid. The idea is that you have three points with three sub-points. You open the talk with three talking points as well which include the topic, a sharp to grab attention and you close in a similar way.

I went back to this style and began to try and lay out my talk. I couldn’t do it. I found myself forcing material into this 3x3 style of a format and searching for a “Sharp,” to open and close with. I was consumed by the format instead of the content.

Then I called another friend who recommended that I do an outline. The outline he recommended also followed a guideline for three points with a few details.

I tried outlining but found myself experiencing writer’s block as I struggled to search for sub-points to my three main points. I also felt like I was having to say no to ideas because it didn’t fit.

Some advice that I did get that was very helpful was to ignore the clock. I was preparing for a 45-minute talk. He told me to talk for as long as the material fit. If it was 20 minutes then that was it and there was time for questions. If it was 30, then that might be great since it would leave 15 minutes for questions and transition time.

I shouldn’t create more material just to fill the time. Don’t watch the clock, and say what I need to say.

What I Do Now

As I fumbled with the outline I bumped into an article from Gary Bernhardt about how he prepares talks. His process is intense, but I find it effective.

It takes 20 days.

For the first few days, I get up in my room and talk about the subject. I don’t worry about what I’m saying or the time. The point here is for me to get comfortable talking and just to get everything out of my head into spoken word.

After a few days of this, I will converge on some points that keep coming up. I’ll notice phrases that actually sound smart!

I’ll begin to write those things down or put them into a Keynote. These slides and notes are scaffolding that the rest of my talk clings to.

I continue to do this basic process: Do the talk, refine my slides.

Throughout the process, I run a stopwatch. I don’t look until I’m finished. It gives me an idea of my overall timing. I find that at some point near the halfway mark I’ll begin to talk over time consistently. I then cut my material back.

By the last week of this process, the talk is natural for me. It fits the time almost naturally, and the slides are a reflection of what I say. I don’t need to look at them. I built my slides around my own natural speech.

My first talk clocked in at 72 slides I think. Each slide reflected my story and information naturally. I wasn’t worried about what was on the screen. The slides reflected my story, and my cues to advance slides felt like the next beat in a rhythm.


There is a lot of advice and stories about people preparing for conferences. Beware the people who say they prepare the night before. They may be highly practiced and excellent. They may be lazy and bad.

Try outlines. They may work well for you even if they didn’t for me.

Try the Decker Grid. It’s great when it works, but I couldn’t get it to on my first talk. I still use that format for other things, but not conference talk.

If you want to try making your talks into something that is a daily routine, try the method I learned from Gary Bernhardt. It takes time, it is practice, and the end of it will be a refined version of your story as you would speak it.