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How Giving Lightning Talks Helped Me Gain Technical Confidence

jessicagarson profile image Jessica Garson ・3 min read

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When I first started learning how to code a friend suggested that I attend a meetup called Hack&&Tell. Hack&&Tell is a meetup entirely devoted to lightning talks based on cool things people are building. At the time of my first Hack&&Tell, I had never seen anyone give a lightning talk and I had never even been to a technical meetup before. I wasn't even sure I could call myself a developer. I was still at the point where I was struggling to figure out what I was capable of building. While I was so inspired by everything I saw, I felt overwhelmed by the concept of building things and talking about it to a room full of people.

What are lightning talks?

Lightning talks are a great way to give a talk on any topic. They are quick 5 minute talks with a built in period for Q&A. It can be a wonderful introduction to public speaking for beginners or an engaging way to share your knowledge for more advanced speakers. Most tech conferences have a round or two of lightning talks.

I gave lots of lightning talks and slowly started to feel more confident

For me, giving lightning talks often while I was early in my journey as a developer helped me grow and share my knowledge. I had a goal of speaking every month at Hack&&Tell. The more I spoke, the more technical confidence I gained to continue building interesting and creative things.

How I come up with topic ideas

To come up with ideas for lightning talks I keep a notebook while I debug problems so that I have talk ideas ready to go. Anything that I can't easily find the answer to by googling can make a good lightning talk topic. Keeping good problem solving notes can help you come up with an interesting and memorable topic for your first lightning talk.

Tips on giving a lightning talk

After 2.5 years of giving lightning talks monthly, I have compiled a list of ways to help you prep for your first lightning talk.

  • Be on deck while the person ahead of you on the line up is speaking
    Since lightning talks are quick talks, make sure you have your slides, websites and everything you are going to share pulled up on your screen so you can quickly make your way up to the stage.

  • Have a narrative arc
    Have a story you are telling throughout your talk. While prepping, a good first step is to create an outline in 30 second increments of the key points you'd like to make.

  • Give yourself a minute
    If you have 5 minutes to talk, give yourself a spare minute in the case that something unexpected happens.

  • Time yourself
    While most lightning talk events have a person who will be timing you, I personally prefer to time myself so that I can see where I am as I'm going. Therefore if I'm running ahead or behind, I can quickly adjust my talk if needed.

  • Be concise
    With lightning talks, the key is to make sure your talk has only the key elements that are critical to the topic you are covering.

  • Rehearse
    Since this talk is only five minutes, plan to rehearse your talk before the event so that you can catch any potential pitfalls. The more you rehearse, the more confident you will feel once it’s time for you to give your talk.

  • Record a video of yourself rehearsing
    Using a screen recorder you can record a video of yourself presenting on the topic at hand. This is a great way to prep for your talk. It's surprising what these videos can be used for in the future.

  • Have your slides and related materials available publicly
    Make sure you post your slides to a website. I use GitHub pages, so that my slides can be found at jessicagarson.com/name-of-talk. My code that I'm discussing is usually also found at that repository as well.

  • Include a slide with your contact information
    Posting your contact information at the end of your talk allows for some opportunities to continue the conversation later on.

Conclusion

It is my hope that giving lightning talks is as enriching of an experience for you as it was for me when I was first getting started writing code.

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Jessica Garson

@jessicagarson

Jessica Garson is a Python programmer, educator, and artist. She currently works at Twitter as a Developer Advocate. In her spare time, she is on a never-ending quest for the perfect vegan snack.

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