Conference talks: “how” versus “why”

Recently in the #public_speaking channel on Freenode, we were discussing two types of conference talks: the “how” talks and the “why” talks. SomeKittens said:

too many talks are “how” when I really want to hear “why”

I couldn’t agree more. I struggle with “how” talks at conferences because conferences are a fire hose of information and it can be hard to take it all in, never mind retain it. By the time I get back to real life and am ready to implement this new thing I’ve learned, I have forgotten so much. If I’m lucky, I can watch the recorded version a few months later. But then why did I go to the session in the first place?

“How” talks are also often meaningless without the context of “why”. What good is knowing how to frobble the bobulator if I don’t know why a bobulator needs to be frobbled in the first place?

“How” talks are often very specific. A certain person in a certain organization accomplished a certain task in a certain way. How much of that is applicable to another person in another organization? Even if they want to accomplish the exact same task, the conditions aren’t the same.

“Why” talks tend to be more about identifying and presenting principles that can be broadly applied. As genehack pointed out, they tend to be stories. Stories make for much more engaging talks.

If you were to think about a talk mapped to written form, consider a “how” talk like a blog post. It might give a bit of introductory context (and if not, it’s a bad post) but then it gets straight into the matter at hand. There’s a well-defined flow and set of steps. It’s very amenable to copy/paste-ing.

A “why” talk is more like a book or maybe a magazine. You’re not going to copy and paste from it. You may put it down partway through, mull it over, and then pick it back up later. The aim is less about accomplishing a particular task and more about developing a mental framework.

When you’re developing a conference presentation, come up with whatever you want. But at least consider making it a “why” talk.

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