No Time to Prep

How I put together a conference talk in record time.

A big beige blobby illustration

For a lot of reasons (COVID-19, restricted travel, a history with the organizers, etc.), I jumped in at the last minute to fill in for a speaker at UNSPAM (a Really Good Emails thang). Although I've filled in for other speakers plenty of times, there's usually a week or more of prep time involved and I'll sometimes recycle an existing talk so that I don't have to create everything from scratch.

This time around, Mike asked if I could step in for a 3:30pm session at... lunch time.

Always up for a good challenge and happy to help, I gladly accepted. I was then immediately faced with the ridiculous question of, "How the hell do you put together a brand new conference talk in three hours?!?"

For anyone in a similar situation, I decided to document the process in the hopes of helping alleviate some stress.

Know Your Topic

When prepping for any talk, the biggest help is understanding what you're going to be talking about. While I can confidently talk for hours on design and development topics, the UNSPAM agenda promised attendees a talk around subscriber acquisition, retention, and engagement. Three things I've thought a lot about over the years, but nothing I've ever given a public talk on.

Fortunately, the UNSPAM team and original speaker were happy to share the existing slides and Mike quickly walked me through what was originally planned (and bought me a great sandwich). Both allowed me to get up-to-speed on the topic, how it was framed for the UNSPAM audience, and gave me some valuable examples to use in my version of the presentation.

If the talk was on anything outside the email world (except maybe ukuleles or comics), my limited knowledge would never allow me to take on such a challenge. Knowing your topic—deeply and through various lenses—will allow you to tackle any presentation on the subject. Not exactly stress-free, but with reduced stress.

Mine Existing Resources

A lot of the prep for a talk (at least for me) is getting slides together. I freaking love a well-designed slide deck that doesn't draw attention away from what the speaker is saying, but helps illustrate and reinforce those ideas instead. More often than not, it takes significant time to put a deck like that together.

On the flip side, I'm a designer and lover of design thinking, design systems, and problem solving. So you'd better believe that I've been working on streamlining my slide creation process. Over the years, I've built and rebuilt default slide templates for both personal and work uses. So, I hopped into Google Slides (my current tool of choice), made a copy of my default deck (which is still in progress), and started dumping in ideas loosely based on the original speaker's structure.

Having existing resources to build on is a massive lifesaver. Without a slide deck theme largely built out, I probably couldn't have delivered this talk on such short notice. And if I could, it'd be a much, much shittier version of it.

Building on that, I mined two of my favorite resources for content for those slides: My email account, where I keep a folder of interesting emails for exactly this type of situation, and the Litmus blog, where we keep a ton of resources on damned near any topic related to email marketing.

Combined, these three, existing resources allowed me to quickly work through ideas, find compelling examples, and design a presentation that looked good and supported those ideas.


I don't normally get too nervous talking in front of people, but with zero prep time (or only three hours...), the butterflies were definitely acting up. I hadn't given a talk on exactly this topic, I was sharing some ideas from another speaker (who I've never met in person), and I was doing it to a room full of email geeks (my people).

While outwardly calm, inside I was a mess of nerves.

Before walking on stage, I did two things:

  1. Focused breathing, concentrating on the feeling of my breath moving in and out.
  2. Reminded myself that everyone in the audience wanted me to succeed.

Whether or not you're all-in on meditation or think it's hippy-dippy bullshit, focused breathing is a proven technique for calming nerves and helping to manage strong emotions. There are a lot of different techniques for breathing, so pick the one you like best and work it into your speaking routine.

And, it's always good to remind yourself that no one is out to get you (usually). Everyone in the audience is there to learn and have a good time, so it's unlikely that they're actively wishing for a speaker to fail. Because of that, they're likely to be understanding of the situation and forgiving of any mistakes during a talk.

Feel Like a Boss

The final step is to feel like a complete boss afterward. It's stressful getting up on stage in front of others in the most ideal situations, so you can imagine what it's like without much notice.

People will praise you, call you a legend (thanks, Dan), and congratulate you afterwards. Don't minimize what you did, accept that praise, and feel good about accomplishing something instead.

Even with little prep time, I hope that I was able to both educate and entertain my new friends at UNSPAM. Based on Twitter activity, I get the feeling that I did. It wasn't my best talk ever, but I'm glad I was able to help out an awesome team and conference.

Note: Yes, the illustration up top is a reference to Cristina Gómez's excellent design trends talk that kicked off the conference. Beige, blobs, plants...

Read More:
Next post: Nine Minutes
Previous post: Keeping a Speaker Profile

Keep Up:
Subscribe via RSS
Sign up for my email newsletter
Follow me on Twitter