My talk writing process

Shamelessly ripped off from my colleague, Tammie Lister, who has written a similar post, I thought I’d write a little more about my process for preparing for talks.

Okay, so, unlike Tammie, I’ve not done that many and my process is probably very new and unrefined. My intention is to re-visit this post at times, though, and update it as I go on.

Along the way, I’m also going to add some tips that I’ve learnt along the way.

The Idea

When an idea for a talk comes to mind, I add it to a folder that I keep in Apple Notes. All of my suggested talks are there and, as time goes on, if I find a useful titbit of information that related to it, I’ll add it into the appropriate note.

I don’t create my talk until it’s been accepted somewhere, so these on-going additions are useful. Even when written, I’ll continue to add anything like this so that if I deliver it again, I can make tweaks and improvements to is.

Right now, I have 5 full time talks and 7 short talks in my repertoire. However, only the larger WordCamps generally accept the shorter talks, so I’m looking to reduce these in preference to the longer ones.

The Sell

No talk will happen if I don’t submit it anywhere. And crafting a title and summary for any talk is possibly one of the most important things that you can do – it needs to sell itself to anyone looking at your application.

For the title, don’t make it negative and use a Buzzfeed-style approach (I’m resisting the term “clickbait”, but you know what I mean).

Pitch it to colleagues, which I do. Many of mine have done talks and some have even been those choosing the applications in the past, so they’ve been an amazing resource to really help me hone the results.

All the Notes

At this point, I’ve got the go ahead to do one of my talks, so I can start creating it.

Again, stealing from Tammie, I use post-it notes. Mine is less hectic than hers and involves less paper and considerably less music.

I divide general ideas into sections – for example, audience questions – and use different colours notes. I then put a very general point on it, often just a few words.

For my talk, “Remote working: How to make it work for you”, it ended up looking like this…

Yes, my handwriting is poor. And, yes, that is a unicorn.

At this point, I structure it horizontally in a timeline-like fashion, with sub-points hanging off a central note. Here is what the same talk ended up looking like…

The 4 notes at the top are just reminder of what each colour post-it represented.

You may also notice that there are now more notes – I’ll be referring back to these notes constantly during the preparation so, as I think of something I missed, I’ll add a new note. This isn’t even the notes at the end of the process, so more may have been added by completion.

Now, I have an outline of the talk and a timeline.

Right now, I could use these as prompters and actually do a very rough and rambling talk based on them (probably without any specifics, such as statistics). But I won’t. Instead, this is where I do something quite different to Tammie.

The Script

Now, this is where I definitely “do my own thing”.

I write a full script. And, by that, I mean I start writing the talk out as if I’m adding it to a book. Using the post-it notes as a guide, I take each in-turn and write it out, performing any extra investigation required (following related links that I’d saved, getting statistics, etc).

Every so often, I’ll stop and read through it as if doing the talk, using this like an autocue. This gives me an idea of how long the talk takes but also makes me realise when some content may be missing.

Full length talks will vary in length from 20 to 30 minutes. So, I ensure I script for the longer – when transferring this to slides and key prompts, I can then scale this down appropriately.

A few tips on the writing that I always try and remember…

  1. Don’t focus on yourself
  2. Use stories to connect with the audience – start with one, if you can
  3. Be wary of making use of local expressions and complex English when you’ll potentially be presenting to any audience where English may not be their first language
  4. Have audience participation where you can – ask them questions, for example

The Slides

It’s only now that I have a full script that I start looking at slides. I’ll have identified in the script where slides can go and so I transfer the content into Keynote (which is my slides presenter of choice at the moment).

You need to grab the audience so…

  1. Use images and video wherever possible. Make the slides stand-out
  2. When using text, make it as short and “snappy” as possible
  3. Use one idea per slide – keep your audience curious
  4. Remember that when you put text on a slide you lose your audience’s attention – they WILL read what’s on the slide and stop listening to you
  5. Make sure your slides can be understood (and, particularly, any text is readable) by anyone from the back of the room

I also go through the images on my slides to ensure they’re as inclusive as possible.


I really admire the speakers who can go and stage and just speak, without notes and prompts. But that’s not me. There are two reasons why this is…

  1. My memory is terrible
  2. I simply don’t have the time available to learn my talks to that extent. To give you an idea, for my talk at WC Glasgow 2020, it took me over 20 hours to get to the point where I had a script and slides.

Of course, the more times I get to deliver any talk, the more likely I’m going to remember a lot more of it.

The way I therefore present is with the script in front of me. I’ve done this with the laptop but also with an iPad as well (with Keynote you can use an iPad as a remote – showing you speaker notes and allowing you to control the slides too). However, my delivery isn’t too stilted as a result and I’m able to deliver it more natural than you’d probably expect. Using the iPad, rather than a laptop, allows me to move around a lot more too.

When delivering your speech…

  1. Don’t speak too quickly – be clear
  2. Emphasise important points

Ensure your laptop is fully charged and that you have any required adapter to connect it to the projector. Also, make sure you have your talk on a USB memory stick (in case you have to run it from a different laptop – it happens!) along with any fonts that may be required. Assume, too, that you may not have WiFi!

Talk to me!

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