Rusty Russell's Coding Blog | Stealing From Smart People

Feb/11

7

On Conference Preparation Time…

Jokes aside, I don’t prepare my conference talks the night before.  I took a week off of work to prepare my linux.conf.au talk this year (two weeks before the conference, and I still spent a couple of work days in the week after completing it).  That kind of spontaneity takes preparation!

Here’s a rough calculator of preparation time for an LCA-style talk.  Make sure you finish at least a week before, to allow slippage!

Preparation Time for Standard Talk (~45 minutes)

If you have given it before:

  • If you were happy with it and not changing it: 15 minutes to re-check, change conference name and date.
  • If you were happy with it and changing it slightly: +1 hour for a complete run-through.
  • If you were a little unhappy with it, but content will not change: +5 hours for reviewing previous video and googling for feedback and taking notes, then running through changed sections twice and complete run-through once.

Prior work:

  • If you’re not the world expert on what you’re talking about, allow at least a week of research time.
  • If the topic is vague allow at least a month of mulling time, where the topic sits in your brain.  For longer periods I recommend jotting down your ideas.  (I did this for an entire year before my OLS keynote, and I knitted a theme from the contents of that text file full of thoughts and examples).
  • One hour to a day to plan your talk structure: what are your main points, what’s the extra magic?

Writing the talk:

  • 10 minutes per basic slide.  Usually I’d expect 25 slides, so say 4 hours.
  • 30 minutes per diagram (five minutes of this will be trying to figure out if you really need a diagram: you probably do!).  I’d expect five to ten diagrams, so say 5 hours.
  • Five hours per demo.  Not just setting it up in the first place, but making it robust and repeatable and practicing switching to and from your presentation adds time.
  • Two hours per run-through (since you tend to stop and mod the first few times).  You’ll want at least one more of these than you have time for, but I’d expect 8 hours for this.

Additional overheads:

  • Using new software: +4 hours if you’re on your own, +1 hour if you have an expert available.
  • Any project work where you have to document the steps for your talk: double your normal project time for the overhead, to ensure it’s comprehensible and maximally useful to the audience (vs. works).
  • Any new presentation technique you haven’t used before, add 4 hours for two additional run-throughs.

Preparation Time for A Tutorial (~1.5 hours)

Similar calculations, but you’ll have many more demos so it’ll be more than twice as long.  The real killer is that you have to practice timings with real people who are similar to your target audience.  This means in addition to everything else, you’ll want to give it for some local group at least twice, because there’s no way you can know what the timing will be like until you’ve done that.  Say +2 hours to organize the practice sessions, and +6 hours to run them (this includes transport, setup, testing and time overruns for each one).

Testing Time

Testing time happens standing in the venue, at the podium with your setup ready to go.  I allow 5 minutes for video setup.  If you’ve not presented on the laptop before, +15 minutes.  If you’re not always running 1024×768, +10 minutes.  If you want audio, +5 minutes. If you have a video to show, +5 minutes. If you have an interactive demo, +5 minutes to find a practice volunteer, +20 minutes to run through the demo with them.

In general, allow half your testing time the day before (ie. you’ll need to access the venue), the rest in the space before your talk.

An Example

So, this gives a preparation time for my LCA 2011 talk as:

  • 1 day planning.
  • 6 hours for 35 basic slides.
  • 2 hours for 4 diagrams.
  • 15 hours for 3 demos.
  • 8 hours for run-throughs.
  • 4 hours for messing with svgslides, even though I didn’t really use it in the end.
  • 3 days for coding up the example project, and documenting that code.
  • 4 hours for additional run-throughs because I hadn’t presented using a side-bar and emacs before.

Giving a total time of of 71 hours (assuming 8 hour days).  That’s probably about right.  And the required 30+ minutes of testing time explains why I didn’t end up having people telnet into my laptop for the demos; if I’d tested that the day before, we might have been able to organize something.

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3 Comments for On Conference Preparation Time…

Silvia Pfeiffer | February 8, 2011 at 9:01 am

Actually, I did prepare my slides on the two days before giving the talk, BUT I had prepared all the demos and an overview of all the things I was touching by writing a book for the 9 months before the talk. Also, I already had prepared the structure of my talk in my head and I knew what parts of the book I wanted to show off. So, it was a really simple problem. It still took me about 6 hours to do the 40 or so slides.

So, overall a fairly similar experience.

Brendan Scott | February 9, 2011 at 9:06 pm

My rough estimates are 30-45 hours for a new talk and 5-10 hours for an old talk. It would be rare for me to spend only 15 minutes on preparing for an old talk (the only exception is where I am repeating the talk in the same week/following week).

I think 70 hours suggests overcaution – but then, your talks are better than mine.

Author comment by rusty | February 10, 2011 at 11:02 am

That seems right to me: without demos or having to prepare code for the talk, my minimum estimate here is 18 hours, but that’s zero time for research, which only works on a topic where you everything is in your head, which is rare.

So your estimates seem a fair rule of thumb to me.

Thanks!
Rusty.

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