Heaps of public speaking

February 13, 2015

An embedded.fm podcast listener posed a question:

What tips do you have for preparing for an event that you’re speaking/presenting at? Tips for first time presenters (like me)?

Tips for when you’re speaking about something that’s a bit technical, but you don’t want to spend too long explaining everything. ( Do you just assume people are following along, and let them ask questions later?)

Let the pictures in the presentation do the talking?

I wrote Stuart back but I was typing on my phone, delaying getting out of bed, so I did a somewhat terrible job. It is a good question, one I’m pondering since my Intro to Inertial talk was accepted at Solid (June 23-25, SF, CA).  (ESC won’t be returning results until the end of the month though I have it on good authority that I’m in.)

Speaking tips: I can tell you what I do. I can’t tell you if it is the best thing for you. There are different speaking styles and that’s a good thing.

I once suggested a person not read word-for-word off their slides, trying to be, you know, helpful. That person became very argumentative and explained that was the best, perhaps the only good, speaking style as it was how people retained information: visual and audio together. Uhhhh, hmmm, uhhhh. Yeah, sure. Seriously, I thought we might one day be friends, that was the only reason I worked up the courage to gave unsolicited advice. I see that’s not going to be and I will back away slowly. (I hate, hate, hate being read to. Unless it is a bed time story.)

(I had a bad, unrestful night with a sick dog and then a bad morning with the IRS whose operators won’t even let me wait the two hours they did last time to talk to them, this time they just say no one is available and I should call back some other time. I’m not coherent. I’d be working if I was coherent.)

Ok, so first, I can tell you about my style. I can point to other styles I like. TED talk videos are good styles. I saw Simon Wardley speak at OSCON 09 and it changed my speaking style. He does a constant barrage of somewhat-related visuals along with his talk. His slides are relatively word free. The whole thing feels a bit like drinking from a firehose. I dig it. It is a heck of a lot of work to put together so I tend to only go halfway there.

I have my slides and talk from the Embedded Systems Conference 2014 on Element 14. It is about consumers and the internet of things. It isn’t as rapid fire as Wardley but I hope it has the same visuals are another channel of information, supporting the verbal (text) but providing more dimension as well.

I’m slightly addicted to clip art and visual eye candy (stupid but pretty tables! marginally related charts!). I’d prefer they look at the slides than me. You can see this in the (not very technical) talk I gave at Silicon Chef last fall.

Don’t put together a presentation for idiots. For book writing, O’Reilly says to assume your reader is a smart person, just not well versed in your topic. I think that is good advice for all audiences. To consider an audience member, consider yourself before you learned this topic (you minus a year).

Slides should be visible to average vision from 20-60 feet away (depending on size of speaking room). Stick to big fonts and simple diagrams. Colors with some differentiation. If it gets too detailed, break it into multiple slides (and/or take off the words and say them instead of putting them on the slides). So squint at your slide while it is on your screen and take off (or enlarge) the pieces you can’t make out.

Some slide decks are documents unto themselves. Mine are not. If yours are intended to be, you probably will have your visuals and audio match more. (Or you can use the speaker notes section in your slide prep program in case people ask for your slide deck.)

Have cues for yourself on your slide deck for whatever will keep you amused/cogent. For example, consider putting in one or three that tell you (in a non-obvious to the audience way) to take a drink of water. This lets the audience catch up and keeps you hydrated.

My cues are usually small, marginally related icons, reminding me to slow down / breathe / smile. (I once gave a talk at full speed and it was very fun but I gave it to a very small, very smart group.) If you put something that makes you less nervous (a picture of your kid on slide 3; secret, hidden cats on every slide; etc.), do so. It will make you enjoy the presentation more and that will make your audience enjoy it more.

I’d like to say “have fun” but that is so hypocritical I can’t even. And yet, a few jokes to yourself are worth it. I once made bullet points on every slide have haiku form. No one noticed but it made me happy: slightly more relaxed. A happy speaker makes for a happier audience.

I strongly suggest watching this TED talk from Amy Cuddy about posture. It is because of this talk that I can be found doing superman poses before the talk starts. (Ok, usually found in the ladies room.) Whether it is meditating or breathing or putting a pencil in your mouth (forcing you to smile), do something before talking other than thinking yourself into a dither. I do a few voice exercises (most saying “red leather, yellow leather”) to get it so I don’t stutter and so my voice doesn’t crack when I say hello. (If I can just get through slide one, I can settle into the rest.)

Stuart asked about questions. At the start of the talk, I usually request folks ask clarifying questions as we go along. But then when someone asks a discussion or argumentative question, I’ll say “That’s a good point, let’s hold it for the discussion at the end.” Don’t hesitate to push back if a question isn’t at a good time (“If I haven’t answered in 3 slides, please ask again.”). You probably want to think about likely clarifying questions as you do your slides. There is some nice satisfaction when someone asks a question and you flip to the next slide and there is the answer.

If you can get them mentally asking questions and then you, as though reading their minds!!, answer the question, well, all the points to you. They will really remember this stuff and they’ll think you are clairvoyant. Feel free to set them up for this. You have to spend some time thinking about how your audience will think but it is worth it.

One way to get started on a talk/slide deck is to pretend interview yourself about the topic. Then you get a nice rhythm of questions and answers. If you can also build in a beginning, middle, and end, that is better. Jokes are a good way to let your audience mentally breathe.

You will forget an important point during your presentation. Accept that. It is ok. If you have 20 important points, forget to cover one, that’s a 5% loss which is pretty good. (Your audience only got 80% if they were really interested and paying attention, the one your forgot is not worth agonizing over.) It is also ok to have 30 points and give yourself permission to only cover 20, the talk ends up being more fluid and variable (depending on the audience and your mood).

If you have 100 important points, your talk is a Wagnerian opera: consider splitting it into multiple. Your audience will get too tired and tune out. This is why talks are usually under 60 minutes.

I write out my talk. Wait. I write an outline, usually bullet points in Powerpoint. Then I write the talk. Then I redo the powerpoint to not have many words, adding pics and clip art. Then I practice my talk 3-4 times, editing the talk and the slides, not worrying too much about total time. Then I cut the written talk down to an outline and practice 3-4 times, checking to make sure I’m in the right time range. I do the final outline form so I don’t read my talk (which tends to be more monotone and tough to listen to). See notes above about being ok to forget things.

Expect to give the talk aloud 7 times (magic number learned in Mr. De Graf’s public speaking class in high school). This makes 60 minutes talks take at least 10 hours to prepare, usually double that. (Urk! Why do I sign up to speak at conferences? They are such time sucks.) Also, with talks longer than 20 minutes, sometimes in practice I start with the second half (or third third) so I don’t always work on that section when I’m tired.

I said this about pop science books recently: “The key to a good pop science book is > 40% good science, ~30% good explanation & metaphors, ~15% personable-ness, and < 10% politics.” That’s not a bad ratio for prepping a technical talk. Yes, do have a large portion of material but you need to budgt time and space for explanations. And your audience will like it better if you toss in an anecdote or two. Finally, you probably do need some bit about what you want them to do with this information (politics). Brain dumps are great but if you can add some encouragement or next step, even better.

Whelp, that’s all I can think of and my mind is clear enough to go play with some electronics.



  1. Hi Elecia,
    any thoughts on presentation style difference if giving a talk for one hour versus a half day technical training session on a product? How would you approach the half day session?


    • Hi Punkie,

      Being 4 years old (mentally), I’d design a half day or day long technical session around recess.

      Many times the breaks seem to be inconveniences to the presenter. However, those breaks are needed mentally and physically by the presenter and the audience. If you start with “here is a good time to take a mental break, do something other than lecture, maybe a lab or discussion”, “here is a good time to let them all go off and check their email, totally breaking their concentration before we do something else”, “my blood sugar will be low around then, how can I incorporate snacks here without starting a free for all?”, and “after two hours of sitting, can I make this next section kinesthetic: get people out of their chairs without losing information flow?”.

      That said, I haven’t done many half day (or longer tutorials). Though when I had to do 4 hour long preschool lessons, this was the approach I took so I figure it is about the same.

      • Thanks Elecia for your thoughts. I have had to give a few of these over the years (in some case over 1/2, 1, 2 or more days!) and have tried many different ways of keeping interest with the audience. I agree with you that – by a long way – making the session kinethestic adds value for everyone and adds reinforcement to the learning experience. Having sessions where the audience has a hands on gets everyone some experience (at least) and familiarity with the product or concept. It takes a lot of time – prep wise – but the results are well worth it if the concepts are absorbed. It’s great if you are a born entertainer, but unfortunately we don’t all have this gift.

        Great post, please keep them coming 🙂


Comments are closed.