If you're curious about doing tech talks, chances are you're stressed out about preparing for it. Let's see how it's done.
9 min read
By Kristofer Giltvedt Selbekk
December 14, 2020
First, a few lines about myself. I'm 33 years old, and I've done about 100 presentations and talks throughout my life. Some of those talks have been for four or five colleagues in a cramped room, and others has been in front of hundreds of live spectators. Although the amount I prepare vary based on the impact that particular presentation has, I follow about the same procedure.
This article will show you what I plan to do, what I actually do, and what separates a great performance from a lackluster one.
Before you even get started on the actual talk, you need to figure out what's in it for number 1. What do you want to get out of doing this talk? Do you want to learn something new by doing a talk about it? Do you want to position yourself as an expert on a particular topic? Do you want more visibility internally to get that promotion? Or do you have some other ulterior motive?
Discovering what lays behind your wish to do a presentation can help you decide on a topic, a format and even a way of structuring the talk itself. So I always reflect a little bit on why I want to hold a particular talk.
Choosing the right topic to talk about makes a great presentation much easier to achieve. Hey, I'm sure I could've done a great talk about Java ServerFaces or my wife's skin care routine, but it would require me to put a lot more effort into getting my own excitement up.
Good talks are built on excitement, and if you don't have that initial spark, it's going to be a long steep hill to get there. You can get there eventually, sure, but it's much easier to just start out already excited.
So pick a topic you're passionate about. Excited about. Or perhaps just interested in getting leveling up in yourself!
Once you've settled on a topic, write an initial outline of what you want to do.
I always start out with the same outline. It works with any topic, and gets me into the right frame of mind
- introduction - <topic> - summary
It might look like a joke, but it's an integral part of my routine to create an outline. Next, I break that
<topic> into a few more pieces, like so:
- introduction - <main point> - <secondary main point> - <third point> - summary
The amout of main points you want to make might differ depending on how long your talk will be, but try to break down your topic into at least a few sections.
Once you've gotten this far, fleshing out your outline is pretty simple. Below each of your main points, try to list a few "headings" of slides you want to show. Next, flesh those out with more detailed notes, and continue until you're happy with the level of detail so far.
Remember not to go too deep into the material though, this is mostly a tool to help you structure your talk and order your slides.-
I admire people that put a lot of effort into their slides, but I never do. At least not to begin with.
Before I even think about design and transitions, I just jot down my outline on slides, and go through them a few times. This is your initial first draft of your talk! It's not the best talk of all time, sure, but it's your talk, and people would learn from listening to you mumbling through it. You've already created shareable value, and if that's not an agile approach to talk development, I don't know what is.
You're going to iterate through this draft a couple of times, mostly to figure out what pieces you want to put in, and what now seems irrelevant. Perhaps you'll add a few slides in one section, or rip a few out of a different one - just work on this thin draft until you have something that feels about right.
Remember to keep the content of each slide short though! We'll address that in the next step.
The next thing I do, is to have an initial pass at how the slides look. Decide on a theme you like, and apply it to all your slides. Note that you shouldn't start optimizing this too much yet, since you're still probably going to change a lot.
To me, slides is just a way to create mental "hooks" for people to relate what I'm saying to. I rarely use lists, and if I show code, I prefer to either type it out live or go through it with a highlighter tool line by line.
I'm a huge fan of having either no words or a single phrase per slide. Most people in the audience has a habit of zoning out of what you say to read what you've written on your slide, so if you keep it short, you'll have their attention back quicker.
I try to keep the font size legible, my transitions to a minimum, and avoid any animated "funny" GIFs if they're going to be on screen for any period of time. Outside of that, though, I'm sure you can find much better articles on creating pretty slides.
When you've gotten this far, you're ready to prepare what to say. You've created an initial structure, you've mumbled through your main points a few times, but this is where you have the opportunity to create something really extraordinary.
The speaker notes is your actual talk, and where you'll write your nifty wordings and memorable quotes. You might not need them as much when presenting, but it's a great tool to use while writing and rehearsing your talk.
I always start out by typing out the bullet points I want to say. If I'm doing a longer talk, I often leave it at that, and just fine-tune their wording a bit as the talk progresses. If i'm doing a lightning talk, however, I often write the complete sentences I intend to say, and use bold text or other text styling to make the main points easier to find when I'm scanning the notes.
As a last tip on speaker notes - I always leave a single sentence in the first slide's speaker notes - "Relax buddy, you got this". It's both a great pick-me-up when I'm nervous to begin, and it's a funny "gaffe" if you just happen to put the speaker notes on the wrong screen when connecting your laptop to the projector. 😅
I once got a tip to spend 1 hour rehearsing every minute of my talk. So if I was doing a 40 minute talk, that meant a full work-week of rehearsing. I have never even come close to that.
I always run through the talk in its entirety at least 3 or 4 times, and then I start iterating on the parts of the talk that makes me a bit nervous, or that I am the least happy with. If it's a lightning talk, I often do up to 10 or 12 iterations of the whole thing, but if it's a long-form talk, I rarely do more than 3 or 4.
The reason for not rehearsing too much on the longer talks is that I have… well, more time! If I mess something up, I can always get back on track by taking a couple of seconds to read the speaker notes, without the audience noticing a change in the tempo of my talk.
The amount of rehearsal needed can differ from person to person, from talk to talk and from format to format. If you're live-coding a lot, you definitely want to have that code in muscle memory, and a strategy to bail out if you're stuck on some typo. If you're doing a terse 10 minute talk, you definitely need to work on timing your pauses, and getting them to sound just right. If you're doing a longer talk, you might want to put some extra emphasis on your body language, too, since you'll have the opportunity to walk around a little bit more.
I mean, you could rehearse in front of an audience (I often do it in front of our 8 month old daughter), but what it really comes down to is just stepping onto that stage and saying the words. It's the most scary thing in the world until you get started, and then things just happen to unfold.
If you want to do what I do, these seven steps will make it happen.
Oh - and perhaps an eight rule of presenting like me: Repeat. Present often and about new topics. Pitch your talk to your team at work, to your local meetup and to the large international conferences. Do it again and again, until you feel you've done it too much, and then do it one more time just because.
And in no-time, you'll have the audacity to write articles on how to present stuff. Just like me 🎉
You're the only person that cares this deeply about this talk, so please remember these parting words: No-one cares if you screw this up. As a matter of fact - if you screw up royally, people will probably have forgotten as soon as they leave the room. If you do a great job, however, you'll get a ton of applause, praise, and people tend to mention it for the next time you catch up.