How much knowledge do you need to give a conference talk?

I was recently asked an excellent question when I promoted the LFNW CFP on IRC:

As someone who has never done a talk, but wants to, what kind of knowledge do you need about a subject to give a talk on it?

If you answer “yes” to any of the following questions, you know enough to propose a talk:

  • Do you have a hobby that most tech people aren’t experts on? Talk about applying a lesson or skill from that hobby to tech! For instance, I turned a habit of reading about psychology into my Human Hacking talk.
  • Have you ever spent a bunch of hours forcing two tools to work with each other, because the documentation wasn’t very helpful and Googling didn’t get you very far, and built something useful? “How to build ___ with ___” makes a catchy talk title, if the thing you built solves a common problem.
  • Have you ever had a mentor sit down with you and explain a tool or technique, and the new understanding improved the quality of your work or code? Passing along useful lessons from your mentors is a valuable talk, because it allows others to benefit from the knowledge without taking as much of your mentor’s time.
  • Have you seen a dozen newbies ask the same question over the course of a few months? When your answer to a common question starts to feel like a broken record, it’s time to compose it into a talk then link the newbies to your slides or recording!
  • Have you taken a really interesting class lately? Can you distill part of it into a 1-hour lesson that would appeal to nerds who don’t have the time or resources to take the class themselves? (thanks lucyw for adding this to the list!)
  • Have you built a cool thing that over a dozen other people use? A tutorial talk can not only expand your community, but its recording can augment your documentation and make the project more accessible for those who prefer to learn directly from humans!
  • Did you benefit from a really great introductory talk when you were learning a tool? Consider doing your own tutorial! Any conference with beginners in their target audience needs at least one Git lesson, an IRC talk, and some discussions of how to use basic Unix utilities. These introductory talks are actually better when given by someone who learned the technology relatively recently, because newer users remember what it’s like not to know how to use it. Just remember to have a more expert user look over your slides before you present, in case you made an incorrect assumption about the tool’s more advanced functionality.

I personally try to propose talks I want to hear, because the dealine of a CFP or conference is great motivation to prioritize a cool project over ordinary chores.