Acing The Technical Talk: Preparation

Posted on Jun 1st, 2012
Categories: explaining

Recently I’ve had a steady trickle of people asking advice on how to put together a conference talk. I’m not sure I’m the right person to answer this question: After all, there are some truly great speakers out there. But since people are asking, I’ll do my best to provide an answer. Let’s start at the beginning: You’ve landed a spot at the upcoming <Clojure/Ruby|Javascript|CSS|FORTRAN> <Conf|Meetup|Hoedown>. How do you get ready?

It’s Called a Talk for a Reason

Tee sad truth is that I grew up - and learned the basics of public speaking - in the days before Keynote and PowerPoint. It’s sad because it means that I’m unlikely to take that vacation in space or to be around for the widespread adoption of flying cars. As for the public speaking part, I’ve come to look at my slide-less formative years as a huge advantage. Since I learned to speak without slides, it’s easy for me to see them for what they are: A nice addition. People do not turn up at your talk to see your slides. People come to hear you talk, to listen to the words form into interesting ideas as they come out of your mouth. Yes, pretty pictures chained together with cool transitions are a nice bonus, but in the final accounting it’s the talking that counts. What this means is that you should not prepare for your talk by making slides. Instead, spend the bulk of your getting-ready-for-the-talk time thinking about what you are going to say and practicing how to say it.

There are probably a million ways to go from the title of your talk to enough words to fill your allotted time. Mine is to sit at the dining room table with a marker, a pack of index cards and a trash can. I write the points I want to make on the cards and then deal them out on the table like a giant game of solitaire.

Once I’ve got most of the cards down then I start thinking about arranging the cards in some kind of logical order, occasionally adding a new one or tossing one that just doesn’t fit. Eventually I’m happy and there’s my talk. It’s only then, after I feel like I know what I ‘m going to say do I fire up Keynote and start turning out slides. Mostly my slides are very simple, each one just a single picture or a few words lifted directly from the cards.

Now the whole thing with the marker, the dining room table and the cards is just me: I like the gritty reality of physical things, they help me think. You should use whatever tools help you think, but unless you regularly use Keynote or PowerPoint to help you work out hard problems (and if you do you have my admiration or sympathy, I can’t decide which) stay away from them till the end.

Practice, Practice, Practice

So what are you going to do with all of that time you saved by not slaving over your slides? You spend it practicing. Let me say that again: You practice your talk. Find a quiet corner of the basement or attic and start talking. You can talk to your computer, you can talk to the wall, you can talk to your teddy bear collection, doesn’t matter. Pick an inanimate object and run through your talk from top to bottom - out loud - and keep doing that until you can deliver it smoothly, so that one idea flows right into the next.

Usually my first run throughs are terrible, full of repetition, hesitations and me muttering no, that doesn’t fit there. So I make adjustments and do it over and before long it starts to sound like a real talk. The goal of all this practicing is to ensure that you don’t work out the bugs of your talk in public. I’ve seen it done and it’s not pretty. Screw up in private so that you will look like a master in public.

A couple of tips for practicing: First, try to make your practice sessions as close to reality as possible. If you are going to have a podium, then stand in one place during your run-throughs. If you are going to move around during the real thing then practice that. If you are planning on doing any live coding, then by all means practice the heck out of that. Second, once your talk settles down into something resembling the real thing, time it so that you know how long your talk will be and if it fits into your allotted stage time. I find that I talk a bit faster on stage than in my practice sessions, so I try to adjust my talks such that my practice sessions last just a bit longer than planned for the real thing.

And now you are ready…

So there it is: Focus on what you are going to say first, and let the slides flow from there. And above all, practice! Next time we will look at what to do on game day…

Russ

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