Mark Kirby - mobile, cloud, voice and IoT

How to write a BarCamp talk

I’ll be going to BarCamp London 5 this weekend, its Tuesday, so I’d better start preparing my talk. I thought I’d blog the process I’m going through to prepare the talk to help others prepare talks for BarCamp.

A bit about BarCamp

Anyone who goes to BarCamp can speak, in fact everyone is supposed to speak! You get a half hour slot, and this is picked by you at the start of the event.

BarCamp isn’t like other conferences - you don’t get paid to speak for a start - and expectations are different, that said you want to be an interesting speaker, otherwise people will be bored and may just vote with their feet.

Talks should be 15-20 mins long to allow time for questions and discussion. Ensure you bring the discussions to a close when the time is up though, so people can get to the next talk or meals.

You don’t have to do a talk, a session or activity is fine - I’m going to be preparing a combination of the two.

Preparing the talk

1 - Choose a subject

I started selecting a subject by thinking about the audience - who is going to be at BarCamp? Making some assumptions:

  • Web people
  • Developers
  • Music fans
  • Film fans
  • Gaming fans
  • Business owners
  • People working for large companies
  • People in small agencies
  • Busy people

Think about your area’s of expertise and more importantly - interest, especially those that might also be interesting for some of the above people, here are a few of mine:

  • Developing for mobile devices
  • WordPress
  • Lifehacks
  • Running a local music/film site
  • Usability

From the above, think about which, if any of these, allow you to throw new light on the subject through personal experience or new ideas. It might be better to talk about something new or in a new way than go over ground well covered elsewhere.

I think I’ll talk about Lifehacks this time. I’ve come up with a few of my own over the last few months, and people might be able to take something from them. Whilst there are lots of articles and sites about lifehacks, the fact I thought of these myself should make for a more useful talk. I can also ask people to come up with some of their own in the discussion after.

2 - Pick an angle

The topic selected could be very wide. You can’t talk about much in 15-20 mins, so come up with a more specific subject for the talk. Ideally this will be something very concise which can be expanded on - this makes picking a title easier. For example, instead of talking about WordPress, talk about WordPress theming, or an introduction to WordPress, or using WordPress as a CMS (a talk I gave at the last BarCamp I attended).

For my talk, I’m going to select my favourite lifehacks - and focus on one or two aimed specifically at developers. I might dress the talk up as Lifehacks for Developers or something, although I’m sure anyone could take something from them.

3 - Design the structure of the talk

I’m going to build my talk by selecting 3 or 4 specific lifehacks to discuss - each to last around 4 mins. I’ll probably make a slide for each of these later on. Your talk will probably have a similar number of points, there won’t be time for too many, but if you only have one or two you probably haven’t broken things down far enough. People seem to like clear concise points they can write down or remember.

I’ll construct the talk as follows (bear in mind I’m not thinking about specific words just yet, just rough points)

  1. Introduction to lifehacks (what are they)
  2. My inspiration - sites, books and software which lead to me working and living differently
  3. Work timeboxing hack - this focuses on work, and can be described in coding specific terms so a good start - should be relevant to most people there, and keeps the tech influence
  4. Keeping in touch hack - this one helps maintain business contacts, keeps you in touch with family and friends - a controversial one, could be seen as manipulative, but should also keep people interested as its probably a new one to them
  5. Minimise the mundane hack - this is about automating regular tasks, might be familiar to people, but I should have given them some new ideas by now so its a safer bet
  6. The classics - zero inbox for gmail and zero reader for google reader - these are both well known, but putting these in should set people off thinking about their own, and if I run out of time I can leave them out.
  7. Now I’ll ask everyone else for their input - I’ll learn something now

I might change the order later, but this seems like a good start.

4 - Flesh the talk out

Next for each point, I’ll add in bullet points of everything I’m going to say (for this stuff - come to the talk or keep an eye out for the accompanying post). This will form the basis for my notes - but not the slides. I’m going to experiment with them a little more than usual this time.

Don’t write everything down you will be saying - much better to have a structure to hang some improvisation on. I even start by speaking out loud something I might say about each topic - whatever comes naturally. Then if I like it, I note it down.

5 - Create some slides

Slides can help focus attention and add emphasis to your points. Slides should not simply have all the bullet points from your talk, but instead select words and images which will stick in the minds of the audience and help them remember your points. Choose wisely, but as this is an informal environment, don’t worry too much - the projector may not even be working!

For my slides I tried to find images on Flickr that represented how the audience might feel after adopting a certain lifehack, amusing images, or images which illustrated the point I was trying to make very well. There is an excellent book all about slides - Slideology, which I consulted.

Here are the slides I selected:

[slideshare id=616561&doc=lifehacks-1222293407303534-9&w=425]

6 - Create a title for your talk

A good title is what will sell your talk to people - as there isn’t much room for descriptions at BarCamp, the title is essential to get right. Try to come up with one that sounds fun, and if possible add some air of mystery. Using the words ‘you’ and ‘your’ will also help, people will be more likely to come along as they will feel the talk can benefit them directly.

Its best to try and think of a few titles, and then ask friends which they would most be interested in attending, if they were all separate talks. Here are some titles I came up with for my talk:

  • ‘Pimp your life’ - lifehacks to minimise the mundane, keep your mind clear of crap and power through work
  • ‘Lifehacks for busy geeks’ - minimise the mundane, keep your mind clear of crap and power through work
  • ‘Automate your life’ - lifehacks to take care of the dull stuff and free your time to do whatever you like
  • ‘Clear your mind of crap’ - lifehacks to help you think more clearly and free up time for the fun stuff

7 - Rehearse

In the days before the talk, I recommend you try to run through the talk 3 times. Each time, see how long it takes to go through from start to finish. It will need to be roughly accurate - on the day you might speed up or waffle due to nerves, so the actual length could differ, but more rehearsals should minimise this. Make adjustments to the talk each time, extending or reducing sections.

After 3 times, its probably best to stop - you don’t want to get sick of the talk, and it should remain fun, as its a BarCamp not a marketing presentation!

Giving the talk

When BarCamp starts, get your talk up on the board, and try to promote it to people you meet (unless you run it first thing on the Saturday). Having gone to all this effort, it would be a shame if nobody turned up.

Get to the room the talk is in 5 mins early to set yourself up, await the attendees and when the clock strikes, make a start. Some people will come late, but they won’t mind missing the beginning - you don’t want your session to overrun.

Get through the talk, take the questions, and if you’re done early that’s great - short and concise wins the day.

My talk went relatively well, around 10 people came and we had lots of input. In the end the talk filled the allotted time slot of 45 mins, and I ended up talking for around 25-30 mins. I underestimated the time the talk would take - thankfully I was able to limit the talk as each lifehack was independent, so could be removed on the fly. If I ran the talk again, I would have left more time for others to talk at the end - perhaps limiting my lifehacks to one or two.

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