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!
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.
- 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?