My last few weeks have been consumed by conferences — hosting, attending, speaking at, and planning for. As a developer I appreciate not only great technical talks, but also great speakers who can deliver them. I’ve been attending (and sometimes speaking at) tech conferences since the late 90s, but it wasn’t until the Web 2.0 days when I really started paying attention and appreciating great talks by great speakers. Unfortunately, most conferences are riddled with boring, uninteresting talks and are only ever redeemed by hallway conversations.

Last week, I attended a public speaking workshop held by our very own Don “Toastmaster” Brown. Don is a fabulous speaker and very much a pro. There are very few developers in the industry who are great at the craft of building software and public speaking. Hell, there are very few people in the world who are great at public speaking. Don is one of them.

This morning, I tried to remember the best technical talks I’ve experienced in the past few years. In jogging my mind, the talks that stood out didn’t just have good content, but were also delivered like a well rehearsed performance. As a matter of fact, one talk I remembered was from 2008 by Giles Bowkett. Giles is a Ruby developer (or at least he was back in 2008). Sadly, I’ve never met Giles or even attended the conference where he spoke, but I remember seeing the video of his talk and was completely floored by how great it was.

The crazy part about Giles’ talk was it was about a topic I likely wouldn’t care much about (a MIDI generator he hacked up in Ruby), but his delivery was so captivating that it drew me in. Great talks can draw people into the most mundane topics or at least topics you may have previously thought to be mundane.

Another wonderful talk was from Mike Lee, “The World’s Toughest Programmer.” Last year, Mike did a talk at QCon (and at our recent AtlasCamp in Germany) about “Product Engineering.” It’s about what happens in between the time an idea is conceived and when the resulting product ships. Mike’s talk was entertaining and highly relevant for software practitioners today, but what made it really good was the way he “performed” his talk.

Mike Lee @ QCon

I’m not an expert at public speaking or public performance, for that matter, but I’ve seen enough tech talks in my career to be able to spot the characteristics of a really good talk. All memorable talks I’ve experienced are:

  • delivered with passion
  • stories worth hearing
  • performed flawlessly
  • funny, sad, entertaining
  • personal

Conference attendees are looking to learn something new from their speakers. I’ve experienced too many conference talks that I’ve failed to remember the day after hearing it — including my own. These days it’s easy to learn by Googling. I don’t want to go to a conference to experience a talk that I could have easily learned through Googling. Even if the topic is so technical that the speaker needs to dive deep into the subject, there’s still an opportunity to make it really memorable for those who have to experience it. Regurgitating the information that can easily be learned through reading is not enough.

Here are a few other inspiring and entertaining talks I’ve seen in the recent past that are worth remembering (not all tech talks):

So, for those of you speaking at a conference soon, get inspired and give your audience something to remember. Those of you attending need to demand more from your speakers and conference organizers. We’re lucky that today events like TED and Ignite exist to inspire the world. I hope to see more great tech talks coming from our industry.

BTW, we’ve got some great speakers lined up for Summit 2012. Are you registered yet?

What do you think? Have you heard any great conference talks worth mentioning? Add it below…

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