My TEDx talk

The videos from TEDx Winchester 2023 are now live on YouTube – including a recording of my talk. This feels like a good point to look at back at what the experience was like.

I’ve done a lot of conference presentations before, and they’re all a bit different. Every conference has it’s own tone and vibe, and every event has a different atmosphere. I tried to describe this for some of the events I spoke at last year, but my point is that no two conferences feel exactly the same.

But if I say that speaking at TEDx was different, I don’t just mean that usual sort of different. It was almost alien, in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on. In this post, I want to point out some of the things that contributed to that.

In no particular order…

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Fifteen minutes

Conference presentations are normally about an hour. When I’m writing a talk, I’m normally trying to come up with an hour’s worth of content. Occasionally, an event will give you a 45-50 minute slot, so they can leave time for people to move between tracks after each talk. But I’m still writing about an hour’s worth of material, and I’ll adapt how I present as I go to fit the time.

I hadn’t realised how much I was used to that. I think in terms of an hour. I feel like I need an hour to properly explain something.

TEDx talks are about fifteen minutes.

That was hard. Fitting something into that short a time is a different sort of talk, and feels like a different skill.

My first draft of this talk was, unsurprisingly, about an hour long. After a dozen rewrites I was getting close to fitting in 30 minutes, by which point I’d felt like I’d had to cut so many essential points and examples – and I was still over double the time limit.

Making a concise point in fifteen minutes is not the same as explaining a topic at a conference in an hour. It took me too long to properly recognize that, and not to just try to give a one hour talk, delivered at 4x speed.

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Generalist audience

I normally know who my audience is. If I’m speaking at Kafka Summit – I know the audience is interested in Kafka. If I’m speaking at AsyncAPI Conference, they’re interested in AsyncAPI. Even for a more general event like Devoxx, that’s an event targeting a particular Java community.

That helps when writing a talk. I have an idea of the community I’m aiming the talk at, and I tailor it accordingly. I can guess what things the audience will likely already know, and what things I will need to explain. I have an idea of what they will find interesting, and what will seem irrelevant. It’s not set in stone, and I get it a bit wrong sometimes. But I at least have a place to start.

The TEDx audience is hard to define. They come from all backgrounds. It’s hard to make any assumptions. I basically knew nothing about my audience. I didn’t know what they would already know or what they would find interesting. That made writing the talk so much more challenging.

People know what it is

The weird flip-side to that is that people know what it is. When I mention “Kafka Summit”, if you’re not a Kafka person, you won’t really know what I’m talking about. Even a lot of Java developers haven’t heard of Devoxx. And if you’re not in tech, even the words “Kafka” and “Java” will have lost you.

TEDx has been different. Everyone seems to have heard of it – whether in tech, education, or charity – everyone has understood what it meant. I can’t think of any other event I’ve done that has cut across every community I’m a part of. It feels unusual to have done an event that I don’t need to explain to most people.

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I never script my talks.

I’ll have an outline – I will know the main beats that I want to hit. But they are brief bullet points at best – I don’t script verbatim what I’m going to say. The actual words I say on the day will be the thoughts that are going through my head at the time – it’s spontaneous (albeit following a prepared structure).

Crucially, this means I react to an audience and improvise as I go. If an audience feels uninterested in a point I’m making, I can wrap it up and move on. If they’re looking confused, I might go back and explain something again in a different way. If they’re looking particularly interested or engaged in a topic, I might linger on it for a bit longer and go into more detail than I had planned.

(Brief tangent… this is why I found online conferences during COVID so difficult. I find it so much harder if I can’t see the faces of the people I’m presenting to, because I can’t get a sense of whether what I’m saying is landing properly, which I normally rely on to know how to continue.)

TEDx talks are strictly pre-scripted. You provide the script for what you’re going to say ahead of the event, and you pretty much stick to it verbatim.

As a speaker, that felt like a completely different experience to what I’m used to.

Memorising a talk

The need to stick to a script brings another new challenge – needing to memorize the script!

You don’t get notes or prompts on stage, so you have to hold the script in your head and be able to recite it from memory.

I don’t think I’ve ever had to memorize such a long chunk of text before. (I never had any major parts in school plays which is the only other time I could think of where you might’ve had to memorize thousands of words to recite.)

It was a weird and amazingly difficult task. Putting that many words in my head took a ridiculous amount of effort.

I ended up copying the entire talk onto a thick stack of cue cards, which I brought with me everywhere for months.

Weirdly, some of the bits of this that helped the most weren’t even intentional. For example, the cue cards were a variety of colours, just because I didn’t have a single set of cue cards of one colour that was big enough for the thousands of words I needed to write. That ended up helping – I learned which bits of the talk were on the yellow cards, which bits were on green cards, and so on. The colours of the cards became part of my visual memory of the talk which helped me hold it in my head, and remember what bit came next.

Few slides

Part of the need to memorize what came next was that I couldn’t depend on my slides to be the prompt.

I don’t tend to have a lot of words on slides. I’ve long been a fan of slides with an image and no words (or only a few words) that I can talk to. My slides are there to illustrate what I’m saying, not replace or duplicate it.

That still brings me a few benefits…

First – that structure I mentioned before, that outline with the main beats that I want to hit – the slides are there to remind me of that. When I lose my place because I’ve been riffing on some particular topic, the image on the next slide is the reminder of where I am heading next, and gets me back on track.

Second – it means the audience don’t look at me all the time. They look at the slide. I can point and gesture at the slide to get them to look at it more.

But TEDx don’t like a lot of slides.

The safety net of reminding me where I was going to go next in a talk was gone – as I would have several more points to make before my next slide.

And worse – it was just me talking for long stretches of my talk. I think that’s kind of intentional. TEDx talks are meant to be someone on stage telling a story. They want the audience looking at the speaker, not looking at a screen. They want a captivating storyteller holding the audience’s attention. I found that super uncomfortable. I wanted the audience to have a screen to look at!

I made things a little hard for the organisers by failing spectacularly to stick to the limits they have for the number of slides I was supposed to have. I used way more slides than I was supposed to. (And that’s after cutting literally dozens of slides out of the earlier drafts of my presentation. There are so many slides I made for that talk that never saw the light of day, in an attempt to get closer to the limit.)

Even with my failure to stick to the limit, there were still whole chunks of the talk where the screen behind me was blank. It was just me talking. That felt weird… I felt exposed without a screen to gesture at, and (metaphorically!) hide behind.

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This was a flattering expression… although to be fair, I’ve had worse

So much preparation

Conference talks always take a huge amount of time to prepare. Giving the presentation is the tip of a large iceberg.

TEDx was an order of magnitude more than that. I lost track of how many hours of work went into giving that talk… however much you’re imagining it might’ve been – it was more than that.

Everything above really explains why. I’ve never spent so long writing and rewriting a talk. I’ve never scripted a talk and spent so long choosing words. I’ve never spent so long memorizing every word.

Plus there is a load of stuff you need to deliver to the organisers in the weeks and months leading up to the conference. I can’t think of another conference I’ve done that is so thorough, or that asks to see so much of the prep work ahead of the event. I can’t even think of another event I’ve done that has gotten all the speakers in the venue the day before to do a run-through on the stage. (Don’t get me wrong… there are benefits to that sort of preparation. But it’s a time-sink… and I’m busy at the best of times!)

It was a massive time-commitment, far more than I probably recognised before I started.

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It’s done now

I’m not sure all of that explains exactly why it was so different. It was all of those things, but also different in so many other ways I can’t properly articulate.

I’m glad I did it. It was a new experience, and that’s always a good thing. If you ever get a chance to do it, I’d definitely recommend it… just be prepared for it to eat your life for a few months!

Now I just need to work up the courage to watch my recording and see what I can learn and improve from it.

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