Monday, July 7, 2014

Giving a great talk

These are a few of my thoughts on how to make any talk you're giving great.

  • Practice! (something like 9/10 people don't do their presentation ONCE before giving it)
  • Practice doesn't just mean run through the whole thing. It means trying little paragraph-sized parts over and over again until you get the timings right. This can be done in the shower, while running, on the commute, whenever! These short, punchy parts of your talk will have the biggest impact on your audience. 
  • The title of your talk should be short and to the point. "Intermediate Graphite" is good. "Automating metrics with graphite and collectd: How I learned to stop worrying and love the data" is bad. For one, every talk these days seems to be titled off of a movie. For two, your talk title will be printed on a tightly-jammed conference schedule, compressed into 30 pixels on a mobile app, and the very top of your title slide, making it longer makes it harder to tell what's going on. For three, shorter phrases just pack more punch. You don't have to tell everyone what will be covered in your talk in the title, you can let the title be mysterious. This will both bring in more audience members who want to see what is going on, and increase your chances of being accepted to talk because conference organizers will be curious as well. 
  • Carry in your own water, a bottle, a pitcher, several cups. Whatever. Just make sure you are well prepped for hydration. Rule of thumb is 1 8 oz cup per half hour of talking. This water should be room temperature. Don't drink cold water before or during your talk. Cold water freezes the vocal chords. 
  • Take water sips in between paragraphs or sections. Stopping mid point or sentence to drink pulls your audience out of the narrative. 
  • Print your speaker notes. I'm serious. Kill a tree. You do not want to be at the mercy of your laptop, conference wifi, or power problems. 
  • Most projector systems are powered of VGA. Make sure your laptop has VGA out or you have the appropriate dongle. Don't loan this dongle to anyone. Guard it with your life. 
  • Give your laptop a full charge and resist using it until showtime for your talk. 
  • Have a local copy of your talk on your laptop, if using google-docs, download a pdf and present from that. 
  • Email yourself a copy of the talk. If your laptop totally sparks up on the day of, you can use your phone to quickly forward the talk to a buddy who can set it up on their laptop. 
  • Use the restroom before your talk. Wash your hands, splash some water on your face. Get pumped. Men: sit down for this bathroom break, this is no time to tempt fate. 
  • Bring a friend to the talk. If you're alone at a conference, make a friend and have them come to the talk. Install this person in the front row nearest to you. 
    • If this person is paying rapt attention, the people behind them will instinctively follow suit. The same is true if that person is playing with their phone. 
    • This person can ask a question at the end of the talk, even if no one else does. 
    • If you have projector trouble, after 3 minutes of working on it, you can begin your talk from your printed notes and your buddy can fight with the projector. 
  • Think about the best teacher you had in high school or college. What did they do in their lectures to engage you? 
  • Slides suck. But you have to use slides. Most audience members expect slides and if you literally don't have any, the audience will be confused, and it may become unclear when the talk is starting and stopping. 
  • I am a big fan of split talks. Start the presentation with 5-10 slides. These slides introduce you and your content, define terms, provide links and generally set up the talk. Then you can go to the whiteboard/chalkboard or draw on your tablet, or step out from behind the podium and give a more personal, engaging talk. 
  • Start the slide deck with a graphic or gif slide that fills the whole screen, usually this is a funny picture or a gif of a fireplace. This allows everyone to relax, including you. It is obvious that the talk hasn't officially started yet. It provides a good color and sizing match for when you are setting up the projector. If there is trouble with the projector, the humorous image you are trying to present will take the stress off of everyone. 
  • The next slide should be the title page of your talk. This should include your name, your contact information, and your affiliation (work, school, foundation, etc.) Some percent (0.5% or so) of people who will see your talk will find something wrong with it and NEED to correct you. Providing a twitter handle or an email address gives people an outlet to contact you with questions, comments, and criticism. This is vastly preferable to someone raging on the comments section of the youtube/slideshare or whatevers.
  • You should expressly invite feedback in your dialogue, because we all need feedback as a speaker.
  •  Depending on the context and topic of your talk, you should provide the audience with your slides. For open source conference talks, this is as easy as putting your slides up on  For more private talks, emailing out a pdf of your slides is appropriate.  
  • During question time, always repeat the question. This will take time and practice. In todays world, most talks are video recorded and put up online. Repeating the question is the only way for the at-home viewer to know what the question you are responding to is.  
  • At question time, you don't need to be an expert at everything. Often people will ask you a question you don't know the answer to or know that some friend of yours in the audience is the person to ask. You can call on this person. This has the nice effect of making the talk feel more like a dialogue. Still, you should give this person a few seconds to prepare and swallow their food and so forth. Say something like "You know that question is really best answered by my friend <friendname>. We've known each other since we worked at <company> together, where we developed <something random>. Since then they're now working at <new company name> and has become an expert in <question>. <friendname>, do you have an answer to <repeat question>."
  • Your last slide should be 'Questions?' and your name/contact information/affiliation.

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