Giving a Talk – Lessons Learned Along The Way

1. Overview

Public speaking can certainly be daunting. It can also be a great learning experience and a lot of fun.

I gave my first international talk last month at Spring IO in Barcelona and learned quite a bit by preparing for the event. Here are some of the steps that helped me be confident in my content and my delivery, when giving a talk.

2. The Slides

You have two simple options when it comes to the design of your presentation – you can go with a clean, simple design or you can have a professional designer do it.

My suggestion – especially if you’re just starting out – is to pick a simple stock template and move on. Overall, the design of the presentation is a lot less important than you might think.

If you do chose to go with a designer, you need to keep two things in mind.

First – aim to have the full design finished at least 1 month before you have to deliver your talk – design projects take more time than you originally think, much like software.

And second, as a reference point, having a 30-40 slide presentation designed (well) will cost you about 300$ or more. You might think that I can go to – your designer friend/brother/Odesk and pay less – but, speaking from experience, that’s almost always a mistake.

3. Speaker Notes

The first time I wrote the speaker notes for my presentation, they came out long and conversational – as if I was reading them word for word on stage. But after several trial runs of the talk, I started to see how these weren’t worth a damn when moving around.

No – speaker notes should be list-style and short – enough to remind you of the main points of the slide and get you back on track after a quick glance.

4. Preparation and Trial Runs

With the speaking notes dialed in, you need to start practicing and honing your delivery.

The first thing I learned through practicing was to do full passes through the entire presentation.

A practice run doesn’t mean starting from slide 15 and taking a coffee break on slide 30 – it means a full pass. Piecing things together has it’s use but ultimately you want to get familiar with what it means to actually delivery your talk start to finish. Out loud.

Next – I found that the transitions between slides are the hardest but also the most impactful – get these right and the talk will flow. So one type of practice is only do the transitions; skip the content – just go from one slide to the other and run through your transitions to make sure there’s a natural progression to them.

Another nuance of the preparation process is movement – don’t practice sitting down in front of your computer. If you’ll be moving on stage when you give the talk, so move around your room when you’re practicing. That introduces a lot more constraint in the process and it will naturally shape both your delivery but also the content of the presentation. Constraints are good.

5. Story Time

I was on stage hitting my points and going through my talk – when my speaker notes died out! The slides were up and perfectly fine on the main screen, but the speaker notes on my laptop were just gone.

I was on slide 7 out of 55.

I did briefly consider fumbling around to re-start them, but that would have messed up the flow of the entire talk. On video. Luckily I was reasonably confident that I can deliver the talk without them – and so I did.

Do a few runs without looking at your speaker notes. Don’t rely on having these available during the event – they might not be.

6. Webinars

Trial runs are a useful tool, but nothing can replace the real thing. Delivering your talk to an actual audience is the best thing you can do to prepare – and webinars are a great way to do that.

I did 3 webinars in preparation for my Spring IO talk – and looking back I see that I learned the most by doing these. I saw exactly where the talk wasn’t moving naturally, where I was taking things for granted, where people had questions or concerns. I also saw where my timing was off – the first webinar took me an hour and a half for what should have been a 50 minute talk.

I learned what worked and what didn’t, and integrated what I learned back into the talk each time.

7. Conclusion

Conferences are a fun and useful experience, and the best way to get the most out of one is to be a speaker.

Hopefully my notes here will come in handy if you’re preparing for an upcoming talk or just thinking about it.

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