Publishing Talks

I used to blog a lot more than I do now. There’s a couple of reasons for that, not least that a lot of the discussion and engagement that used to happen on blog post comments has now moved to Twitter and StackOverflow. But mainly, it’s because these days almost all of my ‘writing’ time goes into creating talks for conferences and user groups - and that takes a huge amount of time.

Most of my talks start life as an outline - a title and a very broad overview of what I want to talk about - and an Evernote file full of code snippets, web links, observations and notes and scribblings. The first stage of turning that into an actual talk is to sit down and write it. I find it much, much easier to develop, edit and restructure ideas when they’re still text, before I’ve got as far as any slides or visuals or anything - and that means ending up with a written version of pretty much the entire talk, or one possible version thereof.

This is not an article or a report. It’s written for a very different audience, and intended to create a very different kind of engagement. When you’re talking on a stage, you have a connection with the audience. If something doesn’t work, you can normally tell immediately and can explain, clarify, apologise if necessary - live presentation is a daunting medium, but it’s also a very forgiving one if you know how to work with it.

It’s also not a script. Every time I deliver a talk, it’s different - there will be phrasing and jokes and references in the written form that get skipped because of timing, or because they didn’t fit with the context of a particular event, or because I just plain forgot to mention them. It happens.

It might help to think of it as an essay, in the original sense of the word:

Essayer is the French verb meaning “to try” and an essai is an attempt. An essay is something you write to try to figure something out.

Figure out what? You don’t know yet. And so you can’t begin with a thesis, because you don’t have one, and may never have one. An essay doesn’t begin with a statement, but with a question. In a real essay, you don’t take a position and defend it. You notice a door that’s ajar, and you open it and walk in to see what’s inside.

​ - Paul Graham, The Age of the Essay, 2014

Now, I’ve written five new talks this year - six, if you include collaborations. I write the way I talk, and I talk at about 200 words per minute - so a 60-minute talk is roughly equivalent to writing a 12,000-word essay. And that essay then forms the backbone of the talk itself - the structure, the flow and the narrative; it’s what I use to create slides, work out where to use code samples, animation and video. But until now, I’ve never actually published it.

So I’m going to try an experiment. I’ve taken one of the talks I prepared this year - a talk called ‘The Cost of Code’ - and cleaned it up a bit. I’ve added most of the slides used in the live presentation, incorporated links to my source material, and put it all online.

It’s at - check it out, and let me know what you think.