I’ve given a number of talks, and over the years I’ve made the journey from completely unprepared to mostly knowing what I’m doing. After a lot of trial and error, I’ve settled into a routine that works for me. This has been the advice I’ve given to a number of folks who are looking to start speaking, or improve their existing technique.
I’ll break it down into three posts:
This is the fun part! You get to go enthuse about things that interest you – and have people listen to you while you do it. It’s a captive audience of people who are interested in what you have to say. Pretty cool.
Unless you know your talk inside and out, and are experienced at extemporaneous speaking, you probably want to rehearse. The first few times through your talk, run through it by yourself. Some find it useful to record yourself and watch it afterwards, but I never could get past thoughts like “you should stand up straight” and “does your face always look like that?” so I tend to do audio recordings if any at all. Once you have the delivery in a place where you don’t forget what you’re trying to say, bring other people in to get some feedback.
Feedback, Flickr image CC-BY-ND
I typically recommend giving your feedback sessions a structure, with time at the end for questions and feedback (~talk length + 20 minutes). Tell people:
- What the expected audience of the talk will be
- If you want feedback in the moment, or at the end
- What kind of feedback you’re looking for
Give them a way to record feedback in the moment, without interrupting you. This also means you don’t have to scramble to take notes while rehearsing! I find a shared document among all the attendees is useful. You then can review it later, in private.
Some people (including me) need some time with critical feedback to digest it. The feedback document helps with that.
Designate someone to time you. This is also a good reason to ask for no interruptions during the rehearsal; you’ll get a better idea of how long you typically take to run through the presentation. Don’t be surprised if you run anywhere from 5-10 minutes under the time you took when practicing solo. People almost invariably speed up when in front of others.
This is my template for collecting feedback: bit.ly/talk-rehearsal
Have a couple of rehearsals, and work to improve the talk to a point where you’re happy with it. Make sure that you have at least a couple of days to fine-tune it on your own after your last feedback session, before you deliver it.
Lots of conferences will have tech checks. They let the presenters stand in the space, display their slides, and make sure everything looks okay. This is an invaluable time investment that can help you to avoid missteps the day-of, like:
- Freaking out at how big the stage is
- Freaking out at how small the stage is
- Finding out your presentation is in the wrong aspect ratio
- Finding out you were going to play a video but have no audio out
- Finding out you won’t be able to see your notes
- Realizing that your outfit is the same color as the backdrop
- Realizing that you flew into Portland, ME not Portland, OR
Microphone, Flickr image CC-BY-2.0
Do the tech check. Jump up and down on the stage. Flip through your slides. Make sure your font is legible from the back of the room. Introduce yourself to the A/V folks. Find out where the cables are buried on the stage so you don’t trip over them during your talk. The tech check is well worth your time.
Everyone has their own day-of ritual. Figure out what that is for you – eating a good breakfast, not looking at your slides, looking at your slides NONSTOP, listening to “Call Me Maybe” in the bathroom 12 minutes before your talk (wow, that last one was oddly specific for no reason at all) -- and roll with it.
The only tactical things I make sure to do are:
- Close all but relevant windows on my laptop
- Make sure my phone is charged
- Silence all noise-making devices
Then, I remind myself that no one can tell me to shut up during my talk and that tends to calm me down.
Questions & Answers
Why / How, Flickr image CC-BY-2.0
Q&A is my all time least favorite part of giving talks. There’s only so much you can prepare for this. I try to run through the following list to get ready for Q&A:
- What sorts of questions did you have when researching the subject?
- What did you mess up when making your demo?
- What would you have talked about if you had more time?
- What would you do differently next time?
This (plus questions during your feedback sessions) will give you a pretty good framework for answering questions that attendees might have. And even if you haven’t prepped for the specific question you get, you likely can relate it to a question you *have* considered, and then bring it back around to the original question.
Two points of advice:
If they aren’t asking a question, but instead trying to present from the audience’s seat, you are well within your rights to move on: “I didn’t hear a question; does anyone else have one?” (Underrepresented minorities in tech get this a lot by people who don’t think we know what we’re doing.)
If you don’t know the answer, “I don’t know, but now I’m curious!” is a perfectly good response. Plus, then the audience feels like they’re in the journey of learning with you, which is pretty great for everyone.
It gets easier with practice. Promise.
Giving talks can be a great way to get out into the broader community, share experience, get feedback, and meet new people. You’ve got this!