On Motivating first-time Speakers

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I sometimes see conferences or user groups trying to solicit new, i.e. first-time speakers. It's easy, they say. You don't have to talk for an hour, they suggest. Try giving a short talk about something that you're familiar with.

While this is well-intended, I found that it's actually pretty hard to give a good short talk. I'm wondering if it wouldn't be easier for first timers to start with a longer talk.

The First Time doesn't have to be Perfect

Keep in mind that we're talking about people who probably never gave a talk in front of an audience before, at least not outside of a relatively safe environment such as work or school. We're trying to get them to present at all, about a topic that they're already familiar with. We're probably not going to get them to read up on a lot of theory first, at least not for their first attempt.

I'll leave whether that is a good approach for another time. The fact is that everybody started somewhere and often these - more or less spontaneous - talks about a specific familiar topic are what gets people into speaking. I don't think we should put up any more hurdles by asking them to read through Presentation Zen first. I'd rather see someone muster up the courage to talk about something they're enthusiastic about in a less-than-perfect way than not seeing them at all because they thought it would be too much work. Let them "smell blood", so to speak, and then gently steer them towards methods for good presentations.

And what about the Length?

Back to the question of length: If you look at some of the more famous formats, you'll notice that they are often very short. TED talks are 18 minutes max. Pecha Kucha has an even more strict limit of 6:40 minutes. These restrictions make it more of an art to make your point within this limited amount of time.

On the other hand, at many conference there are lightning talks, often meant to be held spontaneously, which are usually only 5 minutes (sometimes 15 minutes) in length. While the mood at these talks is often light-hearted, I've seen quite a few people run against the time limit without getting to their point. Even if it may not look that way - short talks are hard.

Which brings me back to the initial statement: Maybe first-time speakers should start with a longer talk. In my experience, it's relatively easy to talk about a topic that you're already familiar with for something like 30-45 minutes while still staying focused. Any longer than that, though, and people tend to drift off to side issues and lose their focus.

Some Preparation required

While I mentioned above that the sort of first-time speaker we're trying to motivate here probably won't be willing to read up on too much theory, they still need to sit down and think about what they want to talk about and how. But if you're familiar with a topic, this is something that comes almost naturally: First I need to explain this, then that, and then I can show my main point. For a non-trivial topic, this will usually take about 30 minutes or so - and it won't bore the audience to death just yet, even if accompanied by slides full of bullet points (or maybe people attending the sorts of talks I'm thinking of here are simply used to sit through such talks).


Again, the point here is to encourage people to give a talk at all. It is important to then gently show them ways to do better - build a story arc, use fewer bullet points, and so on. Now that they had some fun in giving their first talk, they will usually be more motivated to try and get better at it for the next one.

(Image Credits: "Orator" by southtyrolean, from Flickr)

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