Talks evolve

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My background is in talks at technical conferences where the CfP, the infamous "Call for Papers", rules. When a conference is announced, a call goes out to potential speakers to submit a proposal for a talk. When following that call, you are confronted with a form that you have to fill out. Specifically, it asks you to submit a title for the talk and a short description of the content (commonly known as the "abstract"). Once submitted, you wait for the conference committee to accept your talk - and only then do you actually start working on it.

There's a flaw in this approach. Can you spot it?

With most conferences, the topic and focus of your talk is pretty much set in stone once it is accepted. But what if, while working on the talk, you discover that it doesn't quite work out? You may come to a different conclusion than originally envisaged. A lot of time may pass between the CfP and the moment when you give your talk. Just recently, I was involved in the selection process for a technical conference. We decided on the programme five months before the actual conference is to be held.

What happens during that time? People learn and - especially in the fast-moving world of technology - new facts emerge that may make the original point moot or contradict it. I've written about this problem before, but don't really have a good solution. I'm not aware of any technical conferences that handle this problem proactively either. There's usually a handful of such talks at every conference and, from my experience, the speaker either follows through and confronts the audience with a talk that's not quite in line with the announcement or they find ways to hide the changed views, which usually results in a muddled talk lacking a clear focus and message.

The one conference that does handle things differently, and I only came to realise this very recently, is TED. Now, TED is not a technical conference (despite the "T", which stands for "Technology"), so their approach is not really suited for them. But you can certainly draw some lessons from TED's approach.

TED is all about "ideas worth spreading". The idea is at the centre of everything - the speaker (and especially the speaker's name) only comes second. So when TED looks for talks, they look for people who have an idea - and then they try to get them to express that idea in a new way. The interesting part is that sometimes the speakers themselves don't know how to phrase their idea. They just happen to be working in a certain field. They are enthusiastic about their topic, they love their work - and it shows. Which is why TED became interested in them in the first place. But many people haven't bothered to sit down and come up with one or two sentences explaining what it is that got them into this line of work and why they continue working on it.

As a result, this idea often only emerges while they are working on their talk. But TED has the same problem that every other conference has: They need to give their potential audience an idea about the talks they can expect to see at the event. So how do they handle this?

When you check the announcement for a TED conference, all you find is what looks like a speaker's biography. There's no title of the talk and neither is there an abstract. You have to read the biography of the - often unknown to the general public - speaker carefully to find out what their passion and field of work is. This will give you a rough idea what the talk could be about. But you won't know until you hear the actual talk.

The title of that TED talk that you find on YouTube? That was only selected after the talk had been given. The video records a state of that process; sometimes, that wasn't even the final stage. The speaker may not have gotten to the point where he or she was able to express their idea just yet. The talk may evolve further, to be given in a different form at a future event. TED curators and speaker coaches try their best to get the speaker to the point where they can express the idea at that TED conference, but they don't always succeed. These "near misses", by the way, don't usually get to be shown on the TED homepage.

Back to technical conferences: Would such an approach work for your typical tech conference? Probably not. The audience comes to learn about a specific technology or concept. Attendance fees are often covered by their employer, who wouldn't want to pay for the vague idea that something of interest would potentially be covered at that conference.

However, the TED approach could work for keynotes at these conferences. A keynote is meant to be inspirational, uplifting, point out a problem (and hopefully a solution), look ahead, etc. Exactly the sort of thing you'd expect from a TED talk. It'll require a different approach from the conference committees, though. They can't just select a keynote speaker based on reputation and then hope that they are going to deliver a good talk. They would have to coach them, help them get to the point and express it in a clear way. That, from my experience, is not how technical conferences usually work.

Having one or more speaker coaches available for the speakers would not only benefit the keynote speakers, but also the talks I mentioned earlier; the ones where the focus changes. These speakers need help. Should they try to deliver the talk they promised to give or should they go ahead and rather prepare a good talk about a slightly different topic? Or maybe there's some middle ground. Speaker coaches could help here and I think conferences - all conferences, not just technical ones - should encourage their speakers to make use of coaches and, if possible, provide some for their speakers.

Talks evolve. The content is the responsibility (and the expertise) of the speaker. A speaker coach can help them to stay focused and clearly express their point.

(Photos by yours truly.)

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