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Encouraging Shorter Tech Talk

3 min read

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Attending technical events, from the local after-hours meetups to the high-caliber and well-known conferences, becomes the usual part of a developer’s life. Generally, those events are packed with 45-minute talks, often also to the full one hour. I argue that there are more benefits of limiting such tech talks to a shorter duration, say 20 minutes (or even 18 minutes, in the style of TED talks). The most important is that it will lead to a more thoughtful, lean, and balanced content.

First of all, the presenter needs to cut to the chase. Long-winded introduction is out of the question. In the last few years, we have seen some tremendous improvement in the way the self-introduction was conducted. There is no more wasted minutes of credentials flashing (meticulous list of projects, certificates, affiliates), irrelevant funny story about someone’s Twitter handle, or any other conversational icebreakers longer than necessary. But of course it is even better if there is simply no room for those. After all, the audience can use their favorite search engine to look for more information about the speaker.

As a corollary, the speaker also needs to filter the content and condense it. During the preparation, careful thought needs to be exercised to pick the most relevant topics only, given the time constraint. It will be less of “How do I fill this 40 minutes” and more of “What will be the three important take aways for the audience”. Remember that the speech is for the benefit of the audience, it is not a vehicle to show off various domain expertise of the presenter.

A shorter allocated time naturally promotes to a more balanced composition. If the presentation is in the format of problem-solving (typical for a lot of tech talks), the speaker will not ramble too much on the initial sales pitch. How many times have you witnessed talks about web performance in which the first 15 minutes were spent only on explaining the benefit of performant web sites? Let’s get straight down to business, no need to convince us that we are in the right room.

Last but not least, packing different talks into an hour means more diversity and variety for the attendees. One hour is not enough anyway to make someone become really competent in a particular field. That time is better spent on giving the audience some use-cases, inspirations and pointers for further self-exploration. Even one convincing story will be more memorable than a long checklist of tips and tricks. Now, imagine getting three inspirational and memorable stories in one hour!

What if the topic can not be packed into a 20-minute session? Well, there is always a choice of splitting them into two parts, conveniently mapped (among others) into beginner vs intermediate level. Those who are not novice anymore but still want to enrich their knowledge can choose to only participate in the second part. Other curious minds who just want to get the taste of the field could focus on the first part, possibly even skipping the sequel. It is a better value for everyone.

There will be always the need for longer talks. However, those in-depth coverage are better handled in the form of workshops. Many conferences have this extra one-day, usually before the usual technical sessions start, dedicated for those long, lecture-style of tutorials.

These days, conference organizers often offers some extras to the standard technical sessions, usually in the form of lighting talks, unconference, Ignite, and other similar variants. In some cases, like JSConf, many talks finished in 30 minutes of less. At the last O’Reilly Fluent, we have seen two 20-minute talks packed into one usual slot. In the near future, hopefully more and more organizers will consider and give priorities to those short, high-quality talks.

Remember Pericles, Time is the wisest counselor of all.

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