What length of talk should a first-timer go for?

conferencesspeakingfirst timer Sun 2 October 2016

If you're thinking about giving a talk at a tech event, one of the things you'll need to consider is what length slot to go for. While they vary, the most common options are lightning talk (3 or 5 minutes), 20 minutes, or 50 minutes. I've seen a lot of recommendations for lightning talks (LTs), since they're over quickly, but if you're nervous about standing up in front of your peers, lightning talks can be daunting, since you're generally talking to all attendees. So I asked a number of experienced speakers: what length of talk is best for someone's first talk at a tech conference?

Paul Fenwick (PJF) said:

A lightning talk, which I imagine will be everyone's advice. They're short, you can put your best material forward, and they're not too long to write.

Fifty minute talks are particularly tricky, because you have to keep your audience's attention for quite some time. I really like them because I can go into topics in depth, but almost all my talks start as 25 minute talks that I then bulk up to 50 minutes once I decide I really like them.

Rik Signes (RJBS):

Twenty minute talks are hard. I avoid them in most circumstances. It's too long to forgive your being lousy, but so short that you need to carefully get everything to fit and be comprehensible in that little slot.

Lightning talks are easy to do okay with. They're fine if you just want to get used to talking to an audience. They are quite different from a longer talk, because you don't have to keep the audience's attention long. On the other hand, they can make it clear how important it is to get timing right. I think I suggest a 45 minute talk to start. That said, I think different people might benefit from different pressures than I prefer.

Damian Conway (DCONWAY):

A lightning talk. It's less work to create; it's less scary to give; it's less of a disaster if it all goes horribly wrong (which it probably won't!); and it forces you to focus on a single core message...a good strategy for any talk, no matter how long.

VM Brasseur (@vmbrasseur):

There's no right answer for this. It depends entirely upon the presenter. My first talk was 50-minute (still my preferred talk length). Other people start with a lightning talk. Others start not by presenting something but by becoming comfortable asking questions in front of others. It depends entirely upon the person and where they are with the idea of public speaking.

New speakers: You do you. Don't do something just because it works for someone else. Do it because it works for you and can help you improve in some way.

John Anderson (GENEHACK):

Lightning talk, totally. It's short, so even if you tank horribly (and you won't), it's over quickly. Plus there's sort of a built-in expectation that some LTs are just going to go off the rails.

You'll get a pretty good idea about whether you want to keep doing this after just one LT, I think.

Stevan Little (STEVAN):

I find lightning talks very hard and not very conducive to polishing your speaking techniques. For me 20 minutes is just not long enough, I talk too damn much, but for others it might be a good starting point.

Personally I find 50 minutes to be a nice amount of time specifically because it really only requires about 40 minutes of content (assuming you are speaking about a topic which people are likely to ask questions about).

Curtis Poe (OVID):

A lightning talk can be a nice introduction to public speaking, but they're often frustrating laptops are being switched out, slides don't get projected, and speakers don't practice them very much, leading to lower quality talks.

For the first talk, though, I'd suggest "the amount of time it takes." Don't worry about the length, worry about having a topic you know and enjoy and then see if it's 5, 20, or 50 minutes. If you decide to pitch a 50 minute talk, you're doing to struggle if you realize you only have 20 minutes of material.

Sawyer X (XSAWYERX)

Lightning and 20-minute. It takes a very good speaker to do a 50-minute talk slot justice. It takes great effort to keep people's attention for 50 whole minutes.

Unless you have an inordinate amount of content to provide, and you know that people will definitely stay focused for the entire talk (because you're a good speaker and/or because the topic is fascinating), I would stick with a shorter one.

Conclusion

Surprise, surprise: there's no single answer. It depends. On a number of things.

If you've got a single key message you want to get across, a LT might be a good length: it will force you to distil your message down and not get distracted on tangents. But if you're really nervous about standing up in front of people, a LT might not be a good first choice.

If you've got a few lessons to share, or a module you'd like to tell people about (not necessarily your own), then 20 minutes might be a good choice. It's basically 15 minutes talking with 5 for Q&A or slack. If 5 minutes is about right for getting one key point across, you could think of that as 3 key points.

If you've got a lot of material to cover, or you need to work through a lot of examples to make your points, then 50 minutes is a good length. But as Sawyer said, it's hard work to sustain interest for 50 minutes. Several other speakers preferred 50 minutes, but remember, these are all experienced speakers.

You might also consider your potential audience. As an attendee, when I'm scanning the schedule, a 20-minute slot feels like less of a commitment than a 50-minute one. For the same topic, I've got to be more interested, or more confident of the speaker, to attend a 50-minute talk compared to two 20-minute ones, for example.

In a perfect world, you'd sketch out your talk and then work out the right length for it, and for you. But I suspect many people put their talk submissions in well in advance of writing them.

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