How to Prepare for a Talk

So you’ve been invited to speak at an event or you have an important business meeting coming up where you need to convince some bigwigs to give you what you want.

Congratulations. You have an opportunity to share your knowledge, make a difference, or change the course of your organization.

But it’s intimidating. You don’t know where to start. You’re busy. Preparing for a talk can easily become overwhelming. Fortunately, there is a process that you can follow to shorten your effort, reduce your stress, and strengthen your message.

I’ve used and refined this process for nearly a decade and it works well for me. Having just given a talk at a local university using this process, I took the opportunity to write down how I do it.

It could be useful to you too. Let me show you how.

Understand the context

This is what happens when you don't consider context
A comic strip taken out of context

Before anything else, understand the context. Why are you giving the talk, who is your audience, and what’s in it for them? Why should they listen to you? How much time do you have, how many will be attending, and what does the audience already know? What kind of content and style will fit the target audience? When all that’s clear, you can proceed to the next step.

For my talk, my audience were graduating Computer Science and Information Technology students of De La Salle University. I had 1.5 hours to speak and few of them have had subjects related to Human Computer Interaction. I decided to use an informal style with plenty of quirky visuals to engage them.

Select a topic

If you’re speaking at an event and you have some choice as to what you’ll speak about, then you’ll have to select your topic and give it to the organizers before you even get a chance to develop the content. That’s because the organizers need ample time to promote the event and they’ll need a title for the promotional materials. Depending on your situation, this part can be easy or very tricky. In case you have a hard time choosing, have a look at Rachel Nabor’s expert tips on finding your killer talk idea.

When I was preparing for my talk, I had several topics to choose from because of my mish mash of experience in software development, design, and digital marketing. I eventually decided to focus on User Interface Design because I felt that that was what my audience needed. It’s also a topic I feel strongly about.

I eventually ended up with the title “Don’t be BADUI: How to Avoid Building Bad User Interfaces That People Despise.” BADUI stands for “Bad User Interfaces”, which sounds like “Baduy,” meaning “tacky” in my native tongue. Looking back, I guess it’s a pretty bad pun but I was feeling pun-ny when I was preparing the talk.

Dump your thoughts


By the time you settle on a topic or title, you’ll likely have some ideas floating in your mind. Your fist task is to dump them all somewhere. I prefer Evernote because it allows me to keep dumping my ideas whether I’m using a smartphone, my trusty Macbook or my main desktop computer, but you can use whatever tool you are comfortable with.

Don’t try to organize or edit yet. It will get you stuck. The important thing is to just write them all down in no particular order.

Here are some of the ideas that I initially came up with:

  • the PEBCAK mindset – problem exists between chair and keyboard
  • design thinking
  • UX methodologies
  • Software developers can succeed as UX people
  • My story of going from software developer to UI designer and then product strategist
  • Some interesting projects
  • Why good interface and interaction design is important
  • Put some John Lax quotes
  • How we started with usability testing at Convene
  • Storefront analogy

I didn’t do it all in one sitting. I started one day for a few hours and skipped the next to let my mind simmer. While walking to work, waiting for an elevator, showing, brushing my teeth or lying in bed, I continued thinking about what I wanted to talk about and logging them in Evernote so I wouldn’t forget.

You may not need to simmer your ideas, but if you find that you can’t force them all out at once, try it out.

Identify the main sections


Next, you’ll need to structure the talk. I’d even go so far as to say that the structure is more important than the visuals. The structure is what ensures that your audience doesn’t get lost in the sea of your ideas and give your message the weight that it deserves. It’s what separates word vomiteurs from powerful speakers.

The Triad Method

Life Daily
A Chinese Triad, Life Daily

I prefer to use triads, but I don’t mean hiring Chinese gangsters. I mean dividing my content into three sections, and then dividing those sections into three subsections, and so on. I just call it the “Triad Method” since “Three Method” doesn’t sound so sexy.

The three main ideas should support the main point. Then inside each of the three main ideas, the tidbits should support that main idea. I made a graphic to illustrate this concept:

Triad Structure
Triad Structure

The main point of my talk was “avoid building bad user interfaces.” I chose these three main legs:

  • Why is it important? – where I make a business case for good UI design
  • Can I do it? – where I encourage them that UI design is a rational thing that can be learned by techies
  • How do I do it? – where I go through the techniques and resources available to them

Flesh it out

Cat skeleton, Wikipedia
Cat skeleton, Wikipedia

Make an outline, not a script

Once you’ve identified the main sections, you can flesh out the complete outline. I never write down what I’m going to talk about word for word, unless they’re part of a quote.

Here’s why I don’t recommend preparing the exact words to say:

  • It’s difficult to memorize and you’ll risk going blank on stage
  • Even if you can memorize it, you’ll end up robotic
  • You’ll have no flexibility to adjust the talk on the fly based on audience response

Having said that, it doesn’t mean that you don’t prepare. You do have to start thinking of what you’re going to say as you flesh out the content of your talk, but try to memorize the thought behind what you’re going to say and the transitions from one thought to another, rather than memorizing the exact words of the entire talk from start to finish.

Use a skeleton

You can use a skeleton to speed up your preparation. One basic skeleton you can use is from Jerry Weissman’s very helpful book Presenting to Win:

  • Opening Gambit (OG) – your intro and main hook
  • Main Point or Call to Action (CTA) – the point of your whole talk
  • Forecast – tell the audience what you’ll talk about and how long it will take
  • Main Content – the meat, but with its own internal structure (like the triad I showed you earlier)
  • Recap – recap the main ideas
  • Call to Action – tell the audience how the main ideas lead to your main point or call to action

Screen Shot 07-02-16 at 10.29 PM

At this point you’ll have a document with a lot of random notes roughly arranged into three sections. Move the ideas around until they fit into the skeleton while trying out parts by speaking out loud. I’ve found that verbalizing the different parts of the talk as I create them is immensely helpful. Doing this helps me remember what I want to say without having to memorize them word for word. It helps me refine the flow. I think of my presentations in terms of little blocks of ideas and transition points to help me go from one idea to another.

Here’s what my talk looked like when arranged according to the skeleton:

  • Opening Gambit (OG) – An anecdote of my attendance at Rise Conference 2016 and how the Filipino talent there inspired me
  • Point B or Call to Action (CTA) – Avoid Bad User Interface designs
  • Forecast – For the next 1.5 hrs I’ll persuade you (a) why it’s important, that (b) you are capable, and (c) how to do it
  • Main Content
    • Why is it important (to avoid Bad UI)? – Bad UI is bad for business
    • Can I do it? – UI design is a rational thing that can be learned by techies like you
    • How do I do it? – Techniques and resources available to them
  • Recap – summarize the key points
  • Call to Action – Avoid Bad User Interface designs

If some visual comes to me when while I’m developing the outline, I usually incorporate them using less than or greater than symbols to indicate that they’re the visuals and easily distinguish them from the verbal parts:

Example of my outline with less than and greater than symbols to indicate visuals
Example of my outline with less than and greater than symbols to indicate visuals

Make it logical and emotional

The structure will give your talk sense, but you’ll need an emotional core to give it power. Sense and power.

When I was preparing for my talk, I had already laid out most of the content, but I felt my opening was hollow. It was logical because point X was supported by point A, B and C, but I’ve discovered through the years that people are rarely swayed by logic alone. You need both aspects.

I deliberated invoking the idea of building a better world with user-centered design but it lacked the weight that I wanted. I reviewed the context: DLSU, graduating Computer Science, Robotics, and ECE students. I thought about how to relate to them and think about what kind of person I was and how I thought when I was still a fresh graduate programmer. The tendency to blame the user. The insecurities of going into design. I thought about how I genuinely felt about the state of local talent and my personal advocacies. I felt that I had a responsibility to inspire these kids, get them interested in the field, and elevate Filipino application development in the process. I weaved this core into my presentation and found the missing ingredient.

Collect the visuals


I abhor reliance on bullet points and excessive text on slides. If I wanted to read text, I’d read a book, not attend a talk. I come to talks to hear the words of people, not flesh loudspeakers. Slides are for visual support, with an emphasis on support.

But what if you’re not a designer? Not to worry. You don’t have to “design” slides. You merely have to look for good visuals to represent your ideas. These can be in the form of stock photos, memes, diagrams, charts, or existing illustrations. There are plenty of resources on the internet, both free and paid, where you can get photos. Here are some free resources:

Put them all in one folder. If you’re not sure whether you really want to include an interesting picture you’ve found in your presentation, just dump it there. We’ll do the filtering later.

Prepare the slides

Sundlaug Stykkishólms Water Slide, Wikipedia
Sundlaug Stykkishólms Water Slide, Wikipedia

By now you’ve got all the image files on a single folder and an outline that indicates what images go with each set of ideas. It’s time to prepare the slides.

Notice that I only talked about opening up the slide presentation software last. I highly recommend that you work on the story and the message first before working on the visuals. You’ll need a good foundation on which to establish your visuals. It doesn’t matter what slide presentation software you use. The message matters.

As a general rule, I recommend one image or photo per slide. Slides are not a scarce resource. It’s better to have less stuff per slide and just use more slides.

If you have a graphic designer on your team, you can also ask them to create the slides for you. If you followed my guidelines of first writing down an outline and indicating which parts need visuals, it becomes much easier to collaborate.



If you’ve been verbalizing what you want to say as you created your outline, you’ll find it much easier to go through the entire talk. Use a timer so you can measure how long each part takes and a recorder if you want to evaluate yourself. Don’t try to memorize the talk word for word, but remember the thoughts behind the words and the transitions between sections.

Practice for as long as you need to get comfortable, but don’t practice too much that your presentation loses all feeling. If you have any questions, feel free to ask me in the comments section. Good luck!

You can view the full outline of my talk on my Evernote: UX Talk at Evernote.

View the slides of my talk on Slideshare.