Earlier in the year, I was delighted when UX Australia accepted my proposal to talk about a concept called ‘behavioural spillover,’ the basis of my PhD in social psychology. But then reality struck. How was I to fit my four-years-in-the-making thesis into a 20-minute talk? << Check out Elise's full presentation >>
A 20-minute talk is not long at all, whereas my thesis, needless to say, is quite the opposite. Here’s how I approached the challenge and what I learned from the process.
A 20-minute talk is not long at all, whereas my thesis, needless to say, is quite the opposite.
Workshop ideas the old-fashioned way
My initial approach was to throw everything I wanted to say into a slide deck and cull from there. But I quickly learned that approach wasn’t helpful at all. I tried to follow my thesis chapters, yet all that content simply wasn’t applicable to the kind of talk I would be giving – there was just way too much information.
Even though this was a topic that I had presented before, the last time I did it was at my thesis completion seminar in front of academic social psychologists. That audience cared about things like p values, effect sizes, and in-depth theory-driven reasoning for every research decision I made.
The UX Australia audience was going to care about different things, like the motivation for my research and the application of my findings to the digital experience. The approach I was taking simply wasn’t going to result in something engaging.
All that content simply wasn’t applicable to the kind of talk I would be giving.
Luckily, a collaborator from Swinburne University’s Design Factory Melbourne, John Eggleston, was able to help me workshop my ideas into a structure I was happy with. We found a room, armed ourselves with butcher paper and post-its, and workshopped my main ideas and the potential ordering of them.
Test-drive the talk with your target audience
When my talk got accepted, I wanted to have my presentation well prepared by the time the conference rolled around. To ensure this, I wanted to lock in a practice run with an audience of professionals other than my U1 colleagues. Getting early feedback on the impact and relevance of my talk was an important part of the planning process.
My collaborator at Design Factory Melbourne agreed to organise a pilot run-through with some of the Design Factory team with three-weeks’ lead time to my UX Australia deadline. I certainly didn’t want to look bad in front of this audience, so I knew that I had to have my slide deck and talk prepared to a decent standard.
Getting early feedback on the impact and relevance of my talk was an important part of the planning process.
The team at the Design Factory Melbourne had a great model of providing feedback:
Each audience member had a copy of my slides to jot-down notes during my talk. This was particularly useful as it ensured that I had a record of their feedback, including some of the smaller suggestions, and which part of the talk they referred to.
After an open floor Q&A discussion at the end of my talk, they went around the room and provided feedback in the context of “I like…, I wish…” This ensured that any criticism was framed as constructive, and I also had early feedback about what was hitting the mark and what wasn’t.
Practice, feedback and letting go
Having subsequent practice runs in front of people with different educational and industry backgrounds, who would give me a diverse range of feedback, was an invaluable next step for shaping up my talk.
I practiced my talk in front of colleagues, friends and family. This helped with timing, getting rid of jargon, and pinpointing content areas that I was at risk of over-explaining or places where the audience might get confused.
Yet the most important thing wasn’t receiving the feedback, it was integrating it. That might sound simple, but it’s easy to feel very territorial about your work. Even if you haven’t spent years on it, projects, case studies, or any piece of work we are particularly proud of, can easily get close to our hearts. As a result, we can become less receptive to feedback and less willing to integrate it.
The most important thing wasn’t receiving the feedback, it was integrating it.
There were certain pieces of information and theories that I was adamant needed explaining to the audience. When a colleague suggested “you should delete/condense this,” I was really hesitant to do so. Aren’t I the expert in this subject area? Shouldn’t I make the final decisions about what content to include?
But when I actually followed my colleague’s advice (all the while telling myself I could always sneak it back in later) and did another run-through, I realised that her feedback had significantly improved my presentation. The sooner I could let go of my attachment to my talk, the better it would become.
Did I mention practice?
UX Australia sent an email to the speakers including important information about logistics on the day, and some general advice including this article by ‘Wait But Why’ blogger Tim Urban about his experience of preparing for a TED talk.
The thing in Tim Urban's article that stood out to me was this graph:
I decided to aim for method 3C and memorise my talk to an automatic level of recall. Once I finalised my presentation slides, I wrote my ‘script’ as the notes on each slide. I read through the script enough times to feel happy with what I was saying and how I was saying it, and then recorded myself talking through the whole thing. At every opportunity, I’d listen back to the recording on repeat in the hopes of having it, as Tim Urban puts it, ‘Happy-Birthday-Level-Memorised’.
Final preparation and then, ‘Action’
My talk was on the second day of the UX Australia conference. My script was well-memorised by this stage, but I still practiced my talk out loud many times the night before to iron out any points where I was at risk of tripping up. After so much preparation I was feeling pretty comfortable with my talk, but I certainly hadn’t faced such a large crowd before, and was still quite nervous.
Despite my nervousness, when I got up on stage and began, auto-pilot kicked in and I was able to deliver my presentation just like I had practiced. The crowd seemed engaged with my topic, they (thankfully) laughed at my jokes, and I got great feedback afterwards.
So, what did I learn from my approach?
Overall, it was a fantastic experience and I’m thankful to UX Australia for providing me with the opportunity. I definitely believe that my approach and preparation were key to my success. In hindsight, here’s a summary of what I’d do next time. And, yes, there’ll be a next time.
1. Plan early, at least one month from the presentation deadline.
2. Organise an ideation session with a colleague to workshop and structure your ideas.
3. Map out the presentation outline before developing your slides.
4. Set up at least one run-through, preferably with a similar target audience, e.g. at a meetup.
5. Provide a copy of your slides for your practice audience to provide written, in-context feedback.
6. Let go of ownership and make a commitment to integrate all constructive feedback.
7. Script your presentation, record yourself and practice, practice, practice.
8. Aim to memorise your talk to a happy-birthday-level of recall.
9. Make a last-minute checklist of things to take, e.g. map of venue, back-up of the slide-deck, display connectors.
10. Enjoy your moment. Let auto-pilot kick in and be open to engage with your audience.