Public speaking is something not everyone has mastery of, however I truly feel it is a skill that can be learned and practiced. This article contains tips I use when conducting brown bags and lunch and learns, discussions at MeetUp Groups, talks at tech conferences, workshops, trainings, and more. While I don't claim to be an absolute expert, I've gotten a lot of positive feedback from my talks and the audience seems to enjoy my presentation style.
Planning and Outlining
Getting started is the hardest part of any project. We've all been victims of procrastination at some point in our lives, and with public speaking, procrastination can cause nervousness, anxiety, and in general an unpreparedness that can throw your entire talk off.
Get started early, pick a venue and topic, then get to outlining!
Alright, we're ready to get into public speaking, but where do I even present? Picking a venue is not as hard as you may think. When you're first starting out, I recommend picking small venues that are more personable, then gradually increasing the size of the audience and venue space.
These small venues could include lighting talks (5-10 mins talks at an internal event) or brown bags / lunch & learns. These are typically delivered to coworkers and peers, so it eases the nerves and lets you perfect your skill.
Next, you can start with small public settings such as local MeetUp groups, or perhaps a local university CS Professor (or high school) will let you speak in their class. Perhaps there is a local, small, conference you can speak at as well.
As you gain more confidence, you can try for medium and large venues and conferences. These conferences are harder to get into, so having a bit of experience to list when submitting a talk proposal is great.
You can find lists of tech conferences through Google (or your favorite search engine), and MeetUps through their site.
Alright so I know where I want to speak, but what do I even talk about? When choosing a topic, you want to pick something you are an expert in. You don't want to be uncomfortable, having to do research and learn the material before presenting as that is not a key to success.
Now, when I say you should be an expert, I don't necessarily mean an expert with the specific thing you're talking about. For example, if you have been a developer for 10 years and just learned Ruby recently, you could give a talk on how you approached Ruby coming from a different language.
Being an expert and truly knowing your topic allows you to handle Q&A easier, handle one-off questions, and gives you the confidence to know you can handle the topic and share meaningful information.
As a final tip, I like to pick topics that I can tell a story with. If you're talking about shifting left with your test and security automation, have some stories to share about that work and what happened. Stories are core to the entertainment factor and appeal to human nature (we love movies, shows, etc!).
If you only take away one thing from this post, this would be my recommendation. Outlines are my key to success when it comes to prepping for a talk.
Start early, and setup an outline with the intro and outro, then 3 main points in the middle. You can do more, but the rule of 3 works well here. Once you have your 3 main topics, add some supporting points for each one of these.
A strong outline will write your slide deck by itself and get you 80% or more of the way done. Yes you need to design the slide deck itself still (which we'll talk about next), but all of your content can literally come from your outline and you just need to keep the discussion points in mind as you see your bullets on screen.
Building and Designing
Alright so you know where you're giving your talk, have your topic, and created a strong outline to translate to your slide deck. Let's talk about that slide deck itself.
There are a few things to keep in mind with the text on your slides that will make the experience better for your audience. The first is to use large, readable, fonts.
You want your slides to be able to be read from the back of the room. You can even take this one step further and ask yourself if you could EDIT your slides from the back of the room as well. The venue may be huge, you may have people viewing recordings or streams on smaller monitors and devices, and in general, no one is going to complain that the text is TOO BIG.
Using large fonts also helps you reduce the amount of words on your slide. This is key, because it forces you to really consider what you put on your slides, and to not read your slides when you're presenting. We've probably all attended a talk where the person quite literally reads the exact information on their slides; complete sentences and sometimes as bad as literally turning and talking into the screen instead of their audience. Reducing the amount of words on your slides by using larger font helps with all of this, and helps the audience keep their attention on you.
Picking font colors can be fun, but I find keeping things simple works best. I just have a couple tips regarding this and that is to use contrast, and make color change meaningful.
Contrast means putting light colors on dark backgrounds, or dark colors on light backgrounds. If you have a sunset in the background of your slide, you probably should avoid reds, oranges, and maybe pinks so the text stands off the background and is readable.
When it comes to being purposeful with color, I mean utilizing it for specific reasons such as calling attention to a word in a bullet point, or highlighting the line of code you are referring to on your slide. Too much color changing can be distracting to the viewer.
When it comes to transitions, I personally think you should completely avoid them. They can be distracting as well, and sometimes just look ridiculous. If you REALLY feel like a transition is needed, make it very purposeful and cut the animation time in half.
Presenting and Delivering
Alright, so we're all ready to present, right? Now let's lock in the last few steps of our talk. What do I need to do before I go to the venue, during my presentation, and after I finish?
One thing I like to bring up here is a check of your basics. Do you have enough slides? I recommend more than you need, as it's much easier to skip past slides than it is to stretch them out to extend your talk. This is where the stories come in like I've mentioned before, they are a bit of a get out of jail free card and allow you to kill time while telling something relatable.
There are a few gotchas that can really kill your talk when you get to the venue. Go through a bit of a checklist here to verify you're ready to go.
- Is your laptop charged? Do you have a place to plug it in with power or a backup battery pack?
- Do you need internet access? If so, do you have a good connection and possibly a backup (hotspot)?
- Have you tested the projector? Do you have the right display adapters, and do the colors of your slide deck work on the projector's background?
- Do you have a presenter remote? Does it have batteries? Do you have a backup copy of your slides in case your presenter notes aren't visible due to the projector's location?
- How large is the venue, do you need a mic? Is that mic a headset, or something you have to hold along with your remote?
- Will the talk be recorded? If not, consider recording using something like Quicktime Player (Macbooks) so you can review it later or post it somewhere
- Finally, what's the culture and environment like where you're presenting? If this is a very corporate event, maybe having a load of GIFs isn't appropriate. Maybe your jokes won't land due to a difference in local culture. Keep these things in mind and make slight modifications if needed
Practice makes perfect they say, and with presentations, practice helps a lot. I will admit that I am not one that practices as much as I should, but it doesn't mean it's not a useful tip.
The practice you do can be with a friend or a small group of colleagues, with yourself, recordings of your talk, etc. These all provide feedback that you can apply to your slides and talk in general to give a better logical flow, correct mistakes, etc.
The time is now, we're ready to present. Make sure you keep a few things in mind to keep your talk entertaining and interesting and you'll be fine.
Be excited when you deliver your talk. This is your talk, it's awesome, that's why you've worked so hard on it. Share some stories that help with the excitement. Being energetic helps with the pace and keeps the attention of your audience.
Vary the tone, speed, and pace of your talk. Monotone sucks, and you really want to control the volume to send home a specific point. You can build a subject up with a crescendo of loudness, and then soften, and speak more quiet.
Mixing the tone changes with variance in speed helps too. You can speed up lists in your speech, and then slow down to allow every, single, word, to be heard. Adding in a few pauses here and there can add dramatic effect and build anticipation while grabbing your viewers' attention again.
You may be thinking, "This is all great, but I'm really nervous about speaking in front of people!" I understand, I remember running for class president in junior high and my heart was POUNDING as I was trying to give my campaign speech. I was elected as vice president, which honestly didn't lead to anything, but that feeling of having trouble breathing, your heart racing, etc. has stuck with me all these years.
There are a few tips I have to combat nervousness:
- Water - Have a glass of water or water bottle with you on stage. You can take a pause, sip some water, take a deep breath, and then continue. No one will complain that "you're drinking water forever!"
- Breathe - This lowers your heart rate, calms you, and honestly it's surprising how often people forget to breathe while speaking, leading to a giant gasp for breath as they finally pause
- Embrace it - Nerves can be used to keep your excitement level. The difference between being scared and being full of adrenaline is minimal (in a general sense), and I personally try to shift my nerves to be motivation and energy I can use while delivering.
- Be comfortable being uncomfortable - Honestly, this topic deserves a post of it's own and I'll likely do one in the future. At a base level, the point here is that we are always learning, we always can improve on something, and being a bit uncomfortable in front of people is very normal.
All in all, remember that public speaking is fun and enjoyable, embrace the process.
Learn to repeat yourself during your talk. This helps reinforce the points and takeaways you want to portray. Including recaps and summaries (be it slides or pausing to recap throughout your talk) can add some length to your discussion and give your readers the main points again in each section.
"But what if I make a mistake?" Well, sometimes things just go wrong. It could be technical with fonts not being installed on the laptop you're presenting on, a dead battery, a BSOD, a kernel panic, a projector with terribly off colors, mics breaking, etc. This is where your prep comes into play and knowing you went through your checklist before starting can help. If you have a computer issue, roll with it, this is a tech talk and we all know computers can suck at times, no one will be mad at you as a presenter because your macbook had a kernel panic.
Outside of your checklist, take a few extra steps such as ensuring Do Not Disturb is on, printing your slides out, keeping a backup copy of your slides on the cloud or in your email, and pack spare batteries and cables in case something breaks or dies on you.
You finished your talk, now what? There are just a few things we need to do to wrap up.
Ensure you hold a Q&A session, and allow time at the end of your talk for questions as well if the venue allows it. These questions can be vital to feedback for future talks. Additionally, they help you stay relatable and maintain your status as the expert on the subject.
Remember to be comfortable being uncomfortable, and if you don't know something, say "I don't know" or "I'll look it up after the talk and get back to you" It's totally okay to do this, and adds to your credibility because they see you as a human.
Q&A is a skill in it's own right, and I personally have found that I do quite well nowadays with rapid-fire / trial by fire questions. With practice, you can do this too.
Finally, keep in mind that the Q&A session is a time for your audience to interact with you. I find this to be a lot of fun, though I will say unfortunately, there are sometimes trolls and jerks in the audience who want to embarass you or just drone on and on without getting to a point. Remember that you're in control on stage and can cut them off (politely) if needed with something like "let's take this offline" or "do you have a question?"
After you've finished up your talk, remember to post the content somewhere. Slides can go to a place like SpeackerDeck, a video can be uploaded to YouTube, and you can write a companion blog post that contains all of that. This blog post is actually originating from a talk I gave internally to my coworkers to improve their public speaking abilities.
The final step is to take the feedback you've received into consideration. Can you improve your slides, add content, or drop content? Maybe some of the questions from the Q&A led you to find that you need more slides on a certain topic. You can reuse this slide deck in the future and give the same talk (but improved!) at difference venues. Think of it as a living document, it will evolve!
Let's cover some general best practices that I didn't squeeze into the other sections that well.
- Silence your phone and put your laptop on Do Not Disturb. You don't want notifications showing up on screen or your phone going off while you're talking
- Crank up the screen brightness on your laptop and rearrange the presenter display so notes are on the correct monitor and you can keep track of a timer
- Verify all your equipment works before hand and have backup plans where applicable. Test the A/V and avoid live demos if you can
- Speak boldly and confidently, especially if you don't have a mic so you can fill the room. Be enthusiastic and excited when you speak
- Know your audience. Don't assume knowledge and use a lot of jargon if you're speaking to a 101 group. At the same time, if they are very knowledgeable and you're giving a talk on a more senior-level topic, consider skipping the break down of every little thing as the audience can likely follow without the hand-holding. Finally, remember the audience in the room is most important, but if you're posting the content online you'll have viewers that you need to keep in mind as well
- Finally, be personable and relatable. Connecting with your audience brings a new level to your presentation and helps get your name out there and gets your invited back!
I wanted to add one small section on the "why" behind giving these talks. Why do this? Why put yourself through the nerves, the work, etc?
For me, I have a few reasons that I think apply to many of us in the tech industry:
- Talks are fun, and they allow you to be a teacher in a sense
- Talks are beneficial to your employer as it reinforces a skill, can advertise that company, and even bring in potential recruiting opportunities
- Public speaking can also act as a form of documentation; a snapshot into the thoughts of the time
- Giving talks can build community leadership and open networking opportunities
- Finally, it's just something different and helps to break up your normal work
In conclusion, remember that giving talks can be a lot of fun, a learning opportunity for you, and a chance to share what you know with others. Proper planning goes a long way, and an outline will help your slides write themselves. Stay excited, be mindful of your pacing, and enjoy.