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On delivering your talk

June 20, 2014

There are two programming talks I absolutely loved:

There are tens of others that I’ve enjoyed watching, but only those two have everything I’m looking for in a great talk. So, what makes them so good? First, go and watch the talks now. Then come back here and we’ll go through the list:

  • Content

    Both of them are filled with stuff that interests me deeply. It’s not some basic syntax of some new software library or endless diatribes on the virtues of test-driven development. It’s pure meat without an extra large theory salad.

  • Experience

    Both of them know what they’re talking about. They’re not afraid somebody in the audience will raise their hand and ask a question they don’t know an answer to.

  • Humour

    If you’ve taken the time to see the talks, you’ll know what I mean. It’s not the „funny” pictures in the slides.

  • Practice

    Their delivery is flawless. It’s like they’re having a normal (fast-paced) conversation. I bet it’s neither the first nor the tenth time they deliver this exact presentation. They know their slides, remember what they wanted to talk about exactly, what kind of interruptions to do and when.

Now, let’s take a look at things that don’t really matter:

  • How pretty their slides are

    Nobody really cares that Simon’s slides are made of yellow font on a blue background. Of course they could be made of nicer colours, they would be easier to read with more contrast, but his talk is still brilliant.

  • If the presentation was made in Keynote or using the newset deck.js library out there

    I’d actually hazard a guess that both of them were created using Powerpoint that is considered to be the cause of all the bad presentations that we see.

So, how do mere mortals like us get there? There are a few things any spealer can do to improve his talk. Let’s go through the basic process:

  • Check the real length of your presentation

    If you’re about to deliver a 30-minute talk then take your slides and go through the whole presentation out loud as if you were giving the talk to an imaginary audience and time yourself. The first time you do it, you’ll see that it didn’t take you 30 minutes, but 50. Adjust the slides accordingly. Repeat.

  • Practise

    Once you get that out of the way, keep on practising till you know by heart which slide’s going to come up next and get rid of the pause that happens between pushing the change slide button and looking at the slide to know what to say.

    Pro level: Get to the point where you know what’s on the screen at any given moment without looking at it at all.

  • Practise

    Then repeat it enough times to get rid of all the „ummm”, „eeee” and „… like… ” that come out of your mouth.

    Pro level: Synchronise the slide appearances with specific words that you say.

  • Real practise

    When you finally think you’re golden, deliver this talk to a work colleague or two. Then to a local XUG (X User Group). Don’t immediately go to the Important Conference (tm) thinking they’re gonna love you. They’re probably gonna check the email during your talk instead. Which is fine, next time you’ll do better.

  • Know what you’re talking about

    If at any point you hope that nobody raises a question about a particular thing you mentioned, go and learn it. Make sure you’re not afraid of the audience. They are probably smarter than you, which just means you have to prepare better.

  • Talk about something interesting

    Raise the tlk subject in a conversation with your colleagues. Sent a talk proposal to a local user group. Write a blog post about it. If nobody’s interested maybe it’s better to approach it from a different angle.

PROTIP: You might have noticed that starting with a lightning talk is probably a good idea judging by the time you’ll spent practising. It is and I’ve written earlier on why you should be doing shorter talks. It’s not just your time that will be saved.

Now, seriously go and watch the two talks I’ve mentioned. They truly are awesome.

Written by Wojciech Ogrodowczyk who takes photos, climbs mountains, and runs Brains & Beards to help companies deliver better mobile applications faster.

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