Acing The Technical Talk: The Secret Ingredient

Posted on Jun 29th, 2012
Categories: explaining

In the last two installments we talked about how to create a technical talk worth listening to. In this post I’m going to spill the secret ingredient behind all interesting public speaking. The good news is that the secret sauce is not something you have to practice or buy. It’s something you already have.

Zippo lighters and Russian novels

Back when I was still working for FGM, I spent a year running their lunchtime seminars. This was your typical volunteer driven ‘get up and talk about anything’ kind of program that you find at a lot of tech companies. Since I was running the thing, I sat through just about every lunchtime seminar given that year, which with holidays and the occasional cancellation was something like 45 talks.

What I remember most were the pleasant surprises. Like the guy who wanted to talk about his Zippo lighter collection. I went into that session thinking I’d rather spend an hour watching paint dry. But then he started talking about the history of the lighters, about the different models, about how they were the prized possessions of some Viet Nam vets, and about the clever ways that he hunted down rare specimens. I came out thinking that the world of Zippo lighters was actually pretty interesting.

I also remember the talk about Russian novels. Now I don’t have a thing against Tolstoy and his equally verbose buddies, but they have simply never been my cup of vodka. But there was this woman who wanted to talk about her love of – you guessed it – Russian novels. Again, I entered the room thinking, Oh God, anything but Russian novels. Except that it was fascinating. And so it went: We had surprisingly good talks about guitar repair, table top war gaming and Irish dancing.

The key factor

Now some of those 45 talks were really polished, done by people who do this sort of thing for a living. Others would have benefited from more planning, more practice and less PowerPoint. The funny thing is that some of the best talks – and here I’m thinking of Mr. Zippo and Ms Russian Novel – were not among the most polished. Some of the most interesting were delivered by people who mumbled through 200 busy slides while making excellent eye contact with their shoe laces. The thing that the best talks had in common was not presentation chops, it was passion.

It’s really not hard to understand: If you care about something it will come shining through when you talk about it. Not only that, but you are a lot more likely to do a good talk if you care about your subject. You can make your talk better by organizing your thoughts, by practicing and by taking command of the room, but in the end your passion for your subject is the energy source that makes your talk go.

Now passion can take a lot of forms. If you are an over the top arm waver, by all means wave your arms as you go over the top. If you are naturally more understated, then be understated, but make sure the thing that you understate is that what you are saying is important. Quiet enthusiasm is just as contagious as the louder kind.

So what do you do if you are stuck talking about some deadly dull subject, about something you don’t give a darn about? My advice is to find a reason to care. Dig into it. It’s probably, like the Zippo lighters and the Russian novels, important to somebody. Try to see the world from their point of view. If nothing else, you can care about your audience: I once got a round of applause from what started out as a room full of grim faced people resigned to sitting through a boring program review. The reason they all clapped at the end was that I admitted it all up front: This is going to be dull. But we have to do it, so let’s just get through it as quickly and painlessly as we can.

Wrapping up

So there it is: If you want to do a good technical talk, productively neglect the slides and instead focus on organizing what you are going to say. Then practice, practice, practice. When you get up there, take command of the room and above all, mix in some passion.


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