Eric’s Advice For First-Time Technical Presenters

A few months ago an old friend had to give her first talk at a conference. Now, she used to do community theatre back when we were in school together, so she’s no stranger to standing up in front of a bunch of people and acting goofy. However there are at least a few differences between Whose Line Is It Anyway? and delivering a technical talk. So I wrote up Eric’s Advice For First-Time Technical Speakers.

Her talk went well. Any readers out there who have additional tips, please leave them in the comments!

Understanding PowerPoint

PowerPoint gets a lot of flak from people like Edward Tufte, some of it deservedly, and some of it undeservedly. The thing that you have to remember about PowerPoint is that it is not primarily a tool for communicating dense information to a technical audience. As you can see from the PowerPoint Overview, PowerPoint is all about impressing your audience, which is totally different.

PowerPoint is an amazingly great product for producing persuasive presentations; I’ve talked to many a businessperson who makes their entire living building highly crafted three-slide presentations about why your company should buy such and such a widget or why your family should invest in timeshares, or whatever. It should come as no surprise to anyone that persuasive advertising is about emphasizing the positive and disguising the negative – or, in other words, dazzling and obscuring at the same time.

Now, I’m not making a moral judgment here. Getting people to buy stuff is what drives our economy, and if PowerPoint helps people who sell things make a living so that they can feed their families, I’m pro that. Rather, I have a practical concern in this little essay: it is very, very easy to use PowerPoint to inflate weak ideas and convey thin data. If what you want to do is present difficult ideas backed by rich data, you can do that in PowerPoint too. But to do so you need to resist the temptation to add a whole lot of dazzle-and-obscure chrome to your presentation – animations, wipes, fades, etc, are extremely distracting.

When I write a PowerPoint presentation I do two things that help to keep it information-dense. First, write the presentation in black-on-white Arial, with no background, fancy fonts, styling, wipes, etc. Second, every time there is a graph, ask yourself how many words would be needed to describe that graph. So often I see PowerPoint presentations where there is a whole slide showing a graph that could be summed up as "2004 Sales: $400K , 2005 Sales: $430K". If the graph is so thin that it can be described in a six words then stick with the words.

Using Slides

  • Do not read the slides.

A common newbie mistake is to stand up and read the slides. Rather, the slides should provide talking points (to keep you on track) and key takeaways (for the audience). In a book you can go back and re-read tricky bits. In a live talk, you can't -- the slides should emphasize the triggers that will enable the audience to remember the details of your talk. Slides are the skeleton of the talk, not the meat.

  • Avoid deep hierarchy.

The points on the slide should be very brief. Do not make hierarchical slides with multiple levels of sub-points. We invented hierarchies thousands of years ago in order to manage non-linear complexity through containment and abstraction. Live presentations are inherently linear because they unfold over time, with a clear beginning and end. It is very difficult to linearize a hierarchy and have it still be understood. The talk itself needs to have some kind of hierarchy and structure, but anything much more complex than Introduction – First Point – Second Point – Third Point – Recap takes too much mental energy. People are bad at keeping a stack in their heads.

  • Slides are cheap. Do not cram two ideas onto one slide unless they are very closely related.
  • Talk to the audience, not the slides.
  • Assume at LEAST 120-150 seconds per slide, preferably more.

Dealing With Nerves

  • Practice in front of real people. Have them time your talk. Get them to give you their top two or three honest criticisms at the end. (Like "too many "uhs".) If you have some really bad habit like playing with your hair when you talk, have someone interrupt you every time you do it until the habit is broken. If, say, your spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend/etc gets really bored hearing your talk over and over and over again, do something really nice for them every time they listen to it. Like, bake them muffins or something. (Use your imagination.)
  • Use your nervousness to your advantage -- you can turn nervous energy into an energetic appearance.
  • If you make a mistake then keep right on going. Dead air is boring. The most dead air you should have is a brief pause while changing slides so that the audience has a moment to absorb the old slide and get ready for the new one.
  • Project your voice. Stand up straight. Smile. Continue to breathe at all times. Speak quickly and clearly. There's nothing more boring than a slow talker. Be energetic. Appear confident whether you are or not. Fake it until you make it.
  • Remember that you're talking to geeks. Whenever I'm going to give a talk, I'm always really nervous beforehand. And then the moment I start talking, I just look around and hey, check it out, it’s a room full of geeks! I've been talking to geeks my whole life. It's easy! Suddenly all my nervousness disappears.

Managing the Presentation

  • Start and end on time. Ideally leave some time at the end for questions. Keep in mind that your talk will probably be 20-25% longer in real life than in practice due to interruptions, etc.
  • The standard template for a talk is: tell them who you are, describe what you're going to tell them, actually tell them, describe what you just told them, take questions. The bookends are there to emphasize once more the absolutely key points that they've got to walk away with. You are not writing a mystery novel -- do not do anything that increases suspense! The whole talk should be predictable from the first few minutes. Keep their interest by having something interesting to say, not by springing surprising facts upon them without warning.
  • Get the audience to participate, at least a little bit. I like to start off by asking "How many people here have some experience with the CLR security system?" Raise your own hand, so that they know that it's not a rhetorical question. Questions like that early on can also help you gauge the level that the talk should be pitched to.
  • Funny is overrated. First off, it is hard to be funny under the best of circumstances -- it's very hard when you're nervous. Second, funny requires two things -- excellent timing, and a sudden unexpected irony. As I said above, you want to be predictable, and that's the opposite of sudden unexpected irony. Avoid humour unless you're really sure that it works.
  • Make eye contact with the audience. If you look directly at one person for just a few seconds, not only they but the six people near them will feel like you connected with them. Look around the room, not just at the front row.
  • I talk about Microsoft security systems. I know that this will be shocking, but believe it or not, there are some people out there who think that we make lousy security systems. If you end up with a hostile audience member, do not pick a fight. Thank them for their feedback and say that you will meditate deeply upon their pain and try to do better in the future. (Mean it! I do care very much about customer pain, but this is a tech talk, not a product support call.) If they keep on interrupting then tell them you'll talk to them later. Do not allow hostile or otherwise toxic people to derail your talk.
  • If asked a question by the audience, repeat the question. Not everyone will hear the question otherwise.
  • Do not say "that's a good question", just answer the damn question.
  • If the answer is complex or the question is incomplete tell them to come see you after the talk and you'll sort it out.
  • Make sure you understand the question fully before you answer it. If you don't know the answer, say so.
  • Thank the person afterwards briefly for asking the question.
  • If someone says "this is a stupid question, but…" tell them that there are no stupid questions, only stupid people. (OK, maybe that's not such a good idea.)
  • At some point say "I'll take one more question", otherwise you'll be there all night.
  • Thank the audience for attending.

That's all I came up with off the top of my head. Anyone else have good advice for first-time presenters?

Comments (22)
  1. Somebody says:

    "Assume at LEAST 120-150 seconds per slide, preferably more".

    1. I always count 4 minutes per slide. IMO,2 minutes is way too short if your slides have content.

    2. When counting the slides, count all of them, also that title page which you will ‘just skim quickly over’, that ‘Q&A’ slide at the end, etc.

  2. Somebody says:

    "Anyone else have good advice for first-time presenters"

    What about ‘Do not stand between the audience and the slides’

    Doing this wrong can be very easy in a classroom, especially if you use an overhead projector (because of this: do not use a pencil to point out details on your transparency)

  3. Adam Bomb says:

    I have a tendency to shift back and forth on my feet in a ‘dancing bear’ kind of way. Dropping a few coins into one shoe before hand helps me remember to stand still.

    Any time you advance a slide, give the audience a few seconds to read it before you begin speaking (they’re going to anyway, so talking over it will be lost). Make sure you’re looking at the audience, not the slide when you do it, otherwise they’ll get the impression that you don’t know your deck.

    Even if you don’t have someone to practice in front of, practice your speaking out loud, don’t just go through your deck thinking "on this slide I’ll say this, on this slide I’ll say that." Actually practice exactly what you’re going to say just like you plan on doing it in front of the audience.

  4. Robert Hahn says:

    I have two tips

    Ensure you have a healthy meal beforehand and ensure you’re properly hydrated. It might not hurt to bring up some water with you during the talk, but you shouldn’t be doing more than the extremely occasional swig to keep your mouth and throat moist. These things will help you speak clearly.

    If possible, ensure your audience has a copy of your notes. Some of your audience may have hearing problems and would appreciate having something to follow along with.

  5. Clinton Pierce says:

    Slides: Amen on the slides. I can’t tell you how many conference presenters I know that read from their slides and bore their audience to tears.

    Funny: If you have to try to be funny, you’re not funny. Funny cannot be planned, except by expert comedians. And how many bad comedians have you seen in your life?

    Toxic Audience: In the Perl community we have a villian named That Guy — ask any Perl Conference Presenter. That Guy can absorb an entire presentation or Q&A session with well meaning but offtopic or applies-to-me-only questions. You have to learn to say "thank you, but I must move on" and — if absolutely necessary — escalate your level of rudeness to keep the talk on track. It’s not just hostile folks in the audience who can derail you, sometimes it’s the nicest.

    I reccomend MJD’s Conference Presentation Judo to first time speakers as well. Mark’s a clueful guy. (Just keep in mind that the audience for this presentation may already be viewing it with a cynical eye, and this is geared at *conference* presenters.) Read the "details" links as well.

  6. Scott says:

    I don’t think funny is not overrated, injecting humor into a presentation (whether on purpose or by mistake) is like giving your audience a chance to come up for a breath of air. You can’t expect anyone to concentrate for prolonged periods of time in uncomfortable conference chairs.

    When you make a mistake (I didn’t say "if", I said "when"), a Fruedian slip, whatever, don’t freak. Everyone goofs from time to time, and even the most common knowledge can slip your mind at an inopportune moment. Especially in the geek world, where we have more acronyms than we know what to do with. When I screw up, I usually make a self-deprecating remark, let the audience have a laugh at my expense, and move on.

    Know your slides ahead of time. The last part of your talk on one slide should provide a segway into the next slide.

    MOVE. Walk from one side of the stage to the other. Use your hands. If your heart is going to be beating 90mph with nervous energy, channel that energy into your arm and leg muscles, not your mouth muscles. This also lets you make more contact with more of your audience.

    Listen to the words your are saying. Are you talking quickly? Are your words starting to run together? If so, then slow yourself down.

    Listen to your breathing. When you start talking fast, you tend to start breathing fast. Controlling your breathing rate will keep your speech rate under control.

    Never assume the audience "gets it". Ask, especially after revealing something fairly technical. This isn’t always an option with a large conference audience, but it is with smaller sessions. No matter how many times I’ve taught the same Microsoft course, I always wind up saying something a little differently to relate to the current students.

    If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t fake it. Say you don’t know and that you will find out. If you have a good idea but aren’t positive, say that you aren’t sure and give your idea, along with some reasoning behind your idea

    If you are happy to reply to emails, give your email address at the end of the presentation. If you have no intention of replying, then don’t.

    Don’t use "exclusive" tools for demos. If your audience doesn’t have access to your toolkit, it won’t do them any good.

    Rehearse your demos, and think about what can go wrong with them. Use snippets to save coding time and avoid mistakes. Have your code available to the audience. Depending on the venue, I have no problem "winging" a demo if I think it is appropriate, but I make sure the audience knows I’m winging it so they can at least laugh when it blows up in my face.

    Don’t let "sharpshooters" freak you out. These are members of the audience that WANT to trip you up, usually to make themselves look superior to their comrades. Most of the time a simple "Interesting question, but it’s way beyond the scope of this talk. I can talk to you afterwards about it if you would like." is enough to move on.

  7. Wei Cheng says:

    I’ve seen plenty of good speakers, a few terrible speakers and only a handful of great presenters.

    Some of the worst characteristics to find in a speaker?

    They read from their slides, talk marketing fluff instead of technical know-how, boring, inappropriate content for audience (beginner level for experienced programmers)

    Here’s a site that I found that has tips for answering audience questions. Seems right on target to me.

  8. This may sound obvious but I think beeing really well prepared and "into" the subject of the talk is *the* most important thing.

    Personally the only times I’ve feelt nervous about going up in front of a crowd was when I feelt like my knowledge on the subject wasn’t good enough. The nervousness then comes from being plagued by thoughts like "What if they ask this…?" Still even some of those cases could be managed by a counter-question, which is good as it makes you look more sage-like (hehe).

  9. Ovidiu says:

    Besides all the technical advice from above, which is very useful, I have a very basic one, almost too obvious to miss (and yet a lot of people miss it). A presentation has to have an objective – people will walk out of there remembering exactly one fact. You have to state from the beginning what your objective is, why those people are listening to you, what’s in it for them. Then, state the agenda and even repeat it when moving from one section to another (so that people who don’t pay attention can catch up, those who do always know where you are) and at the end, repeat the objective in the conclusion.

    Or, as the old saying goes, "tell’em what you’ll tell’em, tell’em and then tell’em what you’ve told’em".

  10. Mike says:

    * Nearly all the tech conferences I’ve spoken at, the text of the talk has already been published in the proceedings.

    This means you can do a quick summary of what you are doing and spend most of the talk giving a demo. If they need the detailed stuff, it’s in the printed version. Maybe I just like doing demos – it certainly has got me more feedback on stuff than anything else.

    * Demos have golden rules too though: write a script. Stick to the script. Never go off the script: as soon as you do, your software WILL crash. Well, mine does anyway.

    * If you are travelling a long distance to a presentation, take a backup on CD, or as physical slides. It helps to be paranoid. We used to travel with two identical laptops, but that was when what we were presenting needed at least two networked machines.

    * Be careful what you eat beforehand. Nerves can make your stomach somewhat unable to digest that oh-so-tempting peperoni pizza. Burping your presentation, whilst impressive, lends an amateur air to things.

  11. cirby says:

    I have to disagree with the black-on-white design scheme. Due to the way the eye works, and the way projectors work with the eye, light yellow text on medium-dark blue is a much better choice for the newbie. Black on white makes people wince. Arial is a great choice for font, though.

    There’s also the 6×6 rule: No more than six lines of text, no more than six words per line.

  12. Bruce Lee says:

    My experiences:

    * Too much humor is not good.

    * Look at the eyes of your audience to make them concentrate.

    * Don’t always move to a previous slide if you forget something. Just let it go.

  13. Jake says:

    Don’t get too caught up in all the advice you get. "6 lines of text, 6 words per line" is fine advice if the bullets are simply jumping off points, but in my opinion arbitrarily brief slides are counterproductive. Ditto any rule about how many minutes/slide; it’s useful for planning, but each slide should be judged on its own merits.

    The best advice is "1 idea per slide." If that one idea is 1 bullet point which will take 20 seconds, put it up there & be done with it. If you need to show a graph, a picture & text to effectively state a point, put it on one slide and spend 5 minutes explaining it if you have to. Another point, don’t be adverse to quickly jumping between slides if it helps illustrate a point.

    Finally, always have a PDF version of your talk ready on a CD. You never know how PowerPoint will render on any given computer, so why take that chance?

  14. Love PowerPoint or hate it, and as Bleeding Edge has reported in the past, information presentation expert Edward Tufte hates it – blaming it, in fact, for the fatal Space Shuttle re-entry (we do so hope the latest launch has…

  15. So, I am going to put these links on my but I wanted to make them easy to get this week -…

  16. Ian Hickson says:

    It depends on what you’re presenting, of course, but in my experience some of my most successful presentantions have been those where the slides consisted of exactly one word, or a big pretty picture, or one word an a big pretty picture.

    Or a code snippet, where all the code is grayed out except the one line of code that I’m talking about, with each subsequent line highlighted as I go through the snippet.

    As a conference listener I really hate the bullet-point lists.

    I also found that teaching something by example is quite successful, especially in small groups. I’ve given presentations on creating testcases for QA, for instance, where all I did was just go through and create testcases for bugs I found in our bug database. Just talking about everything as I did it, and encouraging questions during the demo, worked quite well. But that’s probably best reserved for things you’re very confident about.

  17. Isabelle says:

    I have to say the best tip that Eric gave me was to use a picture to say it all. I wound up with about 9 slides — mostly single pictures of what I was discussing, and it really helped make things clear for the audience and for me.

    I got excellent questions after my talk, which made me think people actually paid attention throughout the entire thing.

    And by far, the most important tip I got was "be yourself. remember you know what you are talking about." (and don’t forget to breathe)

  18. Richard Cook says:

    I would add a small change to giving practice talks in front of people; first give a practice alone, but out loud. Sometimes stupid things can happen between your brain and your mouth, and going over it a couple of times can shake out the really painful statements that you shouldn’t inflict on your friends and coworkers.

    A personal example; one time when practicing what to say about a slide, out of my mouth came "The setup of your setup depends on your setup". That didn’t happen in my head, but did happen the first time out loud. Don’t make people sit through that.

  19. Recently Eric Lippert wrote about some presentation tips. I started to write a comment,…

  20. Amos Bannister says:

    An important point that many "Powerpoint presenters" fail to realise:

    The slides are not the presentation. The slides should be used to highlight points and to show pretty pictures. The _content_ of the presentation should be deeper than the dot-points on the screen.

    If you have hand-outs, they should be more than just a print-out of the slides. I have been to too many conferences where the conference notes consist of a book of powerpoint slides – great to check up on the slides the presenter skimmed over, but completely useless when it comes to studying and understanding the content.

    Relying on Powerpoint slides to convey the entire content is what doomed the shuttle – if the information had _also_ been handed to the meeting attendees as a "traditional" report, they would have been better able to understand the data.

  21. Alicia Cales says:

    This is great stuff pointed out to me by a friend before I have to speak at TechEd Australia/NZ.

    I am still working my way up to the ease of Eric talking to Geeks. 🙂


  22. T says:

    If you have a smaller audience really push for audience participation (give out prizes for good questions, etc).  Encourage the audience to answer eachothers questions with the maerial you have just presented or thier own experiences.  There is no better way to understand the solution than to put a face to the problem.

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