Finding Your Killer Talk Idea

By Rachel Nabors

So you want to give a talk? Excellent! More power to you. Maybe you want to give back to the community, boost your street cred, or meet people in a position to hire you. Whatever the reason, you’ve got moxie, and I salute you.

Now, what are you going to talk about?

Maybe you have no ideas or you have too many. Not to fear, I’m here to help you find your angle and choose a killer topic idea so you don’t waste time waiting for inspiration to strike.

Find your angle.

Everyone has an angle. My angle is comics. Actually, I am an award-winning cartoonist and once paid my bills with a weekly web comic before I became a front-end developer. When it got harder and harder to pay said bills, I turned to web development. What this means is that I see everything in a different light from most people in this space. I spent most of my youth intently watching people read my comics so I could tweak my style and timing to get the exact reactions I was looking for. Many of the lessons I learned apply directly to UX and UI design. Additionally, there aren’t many other award-winning cartoonists in this industry, so when I submit a talk that draws on those experiences, I’m the top choice.

Think about what you love, where you come from, where you are, what you do, what you wish you were doing, and what makes you special. Come up with a spread of information that answers these questions. My spread looks like this: visual communication, rural Virginia, UI engineering and front-end development, animation, and comics industry awards. What does your spread look like? Write it down and mull it over.

At the intersection of all these things you will find your strongest topic. You’ll have a lot to say, experience to back up what you’ll present, and eagerness to accept offers to do more work on the subject. I know people who’ve spun their angles into full careers in topics from accessibility to content strategy. So it pays to work an angle that you wouldn’t mind incorporating into a sales pitch.

Choose your topic.

Be wary of picking a trendy or popular topic. If someone more well-known than you submits the same topic or if there’s a huge amount of competition in that space, you probably won’t make the cut.

Right now responsive design is popular. This means there is a lot of competition for speakers of that topic. I submitted several talk proposals fo CSS Dev Conf 2012, one of which was on responsive design. Other, more established people proposed similar talks on the same subject. By comparison, I was just some front-ender with a cartooning background, an unknown quantity. My talk that did get accepted, Making Animated Music Videos with CSS3 and HTML5 Audio, won in a popular blind vote where I described the speaker as an award-winning cartoonist turned front-ender. No one else submitted talk ideas like that, and no one else was more qualified to speak about it.

If you do decide to develop a popular topic, make sure you have the muscle and credentials to make the case for why you are the perfect speaker. Also consider whether you’ll be speaking at regional small budget conferences that promote local talent, or larger or international conferences that rely on big names to sell tickets. If you plan on scaling up your speaking venues, keep in mind that while you might be the go-to source on a popular topic in your state, you’ll be up against people with much more industry cred in the big leagues.

Talk about what you know.

Does anyone say to you, “Wow! That makes total sense now.” This is the easiest place to start. What do you already know? What do you explain to coworkers, friends, and even family? These are topics on which you know you can deliver. They’re a safe bet.

My first talks were about things I was doing right that minute: WordPress security audits, advanced WordPress theme-ing, and even comics and UX. While the WordPress talks went over great locally, I knew they weren’t likely to get much traction out of town. There were already core team members speaking on those topics in other cities. I started to lose interest in WordPress and turn inward to my two loves: comics and CSS.

I ended up spending more time on Comics and UX speaking engagements, and it proved to be very popular on the UX conference trail. But, I was more interested in the talks happening at front-end oriented conferences. I knew I’d have to find a new way to apply my angle.

Talk about what you’d like to know.

The best advice I ever got on speaking was, “Talk about what you’d like to be doing next year, not what you are doing today.” This means that:

  1. You’ll be ahead of the curve. Everyone wants to talk about what they’re doing now. But industry leaders are planning out what everyone can do tomorrow.
  2. You’ll have an excuse to knuckle down and do those things you would put off doing otherwise.

When I submitted my talk on animated music videos, I hadn’t actually used any of the techniques I planned on demonstrating. I had only read the specs and imagined what was possible. This year, CSS Dev Conf is having open poll voting on talk ideas again, and there were many talks about CSS animations. There were even a few about applying traditional animation and film techniques to them. Because I was thinking about what I knew was possible instead of what I had already seen done, I beat everyone to the punch and now have a significant edge whenever I submit a talk on CSS animations and web audio.

Write the talk you wish you could attend.

Think of the conferences you’ve attended. Have you ever been let down that there wasn’t a talk on a specific topic, or that the talks you attended didn’t cover it in a certain way? This is the noblest way to find inspiration. If you don’t like what’s on the buffet table, then get in the kitchen.

I badly wanted to attend jQuery Portland, but I knew the tiny startup I was working for didn’t have a big conference budget. To affordably attend the conference, I’d need to be a speaker.

I’m not particularly active in the jQuery community, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to attend: to dive deep into jQuery and polish my JavaScript skills. What could I, a CSS and comics nerd, possibly bring to the jQuery table? I thought about how, at every conference and JavaScript meetup I went to, I’d meet these poor designers sent by upper management to learn jQuery. They had to sit through long talks peppered with terms only programmers understood, and they weren’t getting as much out of the experience as their managers would like. What they did get out of it would not help them become JavaScript ninjas or give them the tools necessary to dig deeper on their own after returning to the office. I know because I have been one of those poor designers.

What talk would have helped me get the most out of the entire experience? One that introduced me to all those arcane terms, one that showed me what an object looked like, and gave me the vocabulary and foundation I needed to understand all the other talks. My talk, JavaScript for Designers, promised to do just that and was accepted.

Go for it!

I hope I’ve gotten your muse off her butt and into action. If you find yourself with too many ideas, pull aside some event organizers or people from your target audience and ask them which are most appealing. Focus all your love on these winners, and you’ll be able to spread your ideas to eager minds far and wide.

Please share whether you found your killer talk idea in the comments below. If you see me at a conference where you’re speaking, let me know when your talk is scheduled so I can come listen!

11 thoughts on “Finding Your Killer Talk Idea

  1. Tim Cunningham

    And a great speaker you are too! Your design talk two years ago at NCDevcon was a breath of fresh air. We need more diverse topics in our industry and less “me too” topics. Thanks for promoting more people (particularly women) to speak at conferences.

  2. Jenn Lukas

    I LOVE the idea of finding your own “spread”. It makes so much sense. When you see keywords together, written down, it really helps to formulate ideas! Great advice!!

  3. Jessica Ivins

    Thanks for sharing this, Rachel. I’m running a public speaking program at work to help my colleagues get into public speaking. The next thing on the agenda is a workshop that will help people come up with speaking topics. I’m definitely going to steal some of your ideas. :)

    I love the advice of talking about what you know and also giving the talk you want to hear. Steering from trendy topics is also great advice. I was recently asked to recommend speakers for a conference, and I recommended a friend of mine who speaks about mobile and responsive design; but they already had enough speakers to cover that topic.

    Thanks again for this great insight!

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  5. WebGyver

    Rachel, what a great article! You have opened my eyes, and I’m seriously thinking about finding a niche and giving a talk or two in the not-so-distant future.

    I just wanted to ask you, how long should a good talk be? I would imagine that perhaps 45 minutes might be long enough (the audience can only endure as much as their bottoms will tolerate, or something like that), but perhaps I’m way off the mark.

    What’s your take on the length of talks?

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