Technical Presentations Made Easy: #1 Preparing For Your Talk

by on May 19, 2010

I picked up Scott Berkun’s Confessions of a Public Speaker last week. It’s a great read with well researched findings and fun anecdotes from a seasoned pro. Scott offers poignant insight into the ins and outs of delivering presentations and some splendid advice for those of us who want to make a profession out of public speaking. It reinforced why I love my job and re-energized me with a desire to get even better.

Scott’s book also gave me pause to reflect on my experiences over the past 3 years as an evangelist for Microsoft. It’s been a heck of a ride and I’ve learned tons, mostly the hard way. Inspired by Scott’s confessions, I thought share some things that have helped improve my technical presentations. Following in Scott’s footsteps, I’ve also included some of my own confessions as well.

Preparation is half the battle

For most presenters, more time is spent preparing for presentations than actually delivering them, so I thought I’d start by offering these twelve tips for preparing your material and yourself for success right from the start:

1. Make the content your own. There’s no substitute for knowing the material inside and out. It is your single best confidence booster to help you relax, deliver smoothly, and allow your passion to shine through. It’s essential that you become comfortable with the ideas and messages on each and every slide in your presentation. This can be a challenge if you’re using a canned corporate deck or have cobbled together a Frankenstein deck from several sources. It’s natural to be afraid of modifying the information since it came from an “authoritative” source. However, you’re the one presenting so the audience needs to believe it’s your material. If you don’t feel comfortable you have two options: get more background knowledge or cut what you don’t know. Getting more background is the preferred option. While reviewing your content, flip to your browser and search the Internet or Wikipedia and read until you’re satisfied that you have a good store of background information to draw upon. Cutting is the quicker option and as long as the topic you eliminate doesn’t break the natural flow of ideas or shorten your talk too much, the audience will never know.

Confession: We evangelists prefer our own content over someone else’s if we have a choice. We always feel a little dirty delivering stuff we don’t feel strongly about or know well enough. The guilt of presenting material poorly to the audience eats at our souls so we will perform significant surgery on a slide deck to get it to a state we’re comfortable with.

2. Slides are mnemonics. Slides are a pacing device not crutches. When you flip to a new slide it should do nothing more than trigger your memories for the topic you are about to discuss. If you know the material well enough and have practiced sufficiently, you should be able to easily deliver at least 2-5 minutes for each slide. If you find yourself reading them to your audience you’re doing something wrong. Each slide should cover one and only one concept that you can confidently discuss without blinking after seeing the slide’s title appear on screen. See Garr Reynold’s Presentation Zen and Nancy Duarte’s slide:ology for the right way to design your slides.

3. Show, don’t tell. Reinforce your speaking points with demos and case studies so your audience can share an experience rather than of listen to a lecture. Through real life examples, they’ll associate your material with their own experiences and job functions and remember more of your talk. Include an emotional aspect such as a challenging difficulty level, conflict of interest, or confrontation with a coworker to arouse their feelings and they’ll be hooked. See Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath for excellent guidance on how to maximize this aspect of your presentations. John Medina’s groundbreaking research in Brain Rules recommends shifting gears every 10 minutes to keep your audience’s attention alert and actively engaged. Use demos or case studies every 3-5 slides to drive home the message you’re presenting with your slides.

4. Fit the content to the time slot. Not respecting your audience’s time is a sure sign of lack of preparation and disrespect for their busy schedules. However, there’s nothing harder than determining the number of slides to include in your presentation to fill the allotted time. Too few slides and you’ll finish way too early. Too many slides and you’ll overload your audience with information, start apologizing as you skip past things, and kill an otherwise great presentation. Practice and experience are you best friends here. Over time you’ll learn your natural pace and be able to estimate an average number of minutes per slide regardless of the actual content. Cliff Atkinson’s Beyond Bullet Points provides a great system for plotting out your content. A good rule of thumb to start with is 3 minutes per slide (with only one topic on each) and 5 minutes per live demo. Breaking down a 50 minute conference session: 20 slides for 30 minutes, 3 demos for 15 minutes, and 5 minutes left over for Q&A.

Confession: Over time I’ve learned that my natural pace is 2 minutes per slide (including the bookend slides like title and section headers). I always plan with that value now without worrying about it.

Double confession: The longer my demos take, the bigger my challenge to the demo gods and the greater likelihood of their interference. One out of three demos has a glitch in nearly every presentation.

5. Practice at least 3 times. One of my best college professors gave me this advice once: “If you do your homework once, you’ll get a C. If you do it twice, you’ll get a B. If you do it three times, you’ll get an A.” This has proven true in many situations throughout my career including preparing for a presentation. The night before a presentation you should do a full walkthrough of the entire presentation three times. If you stop and rework something (slide or demo), it doesn’t count as a full walk through. Start over at the beginning to make sure the changes still fit the natural flow of ideas. Iterate until you make it all the way through the deck three times. If you have time, go through it once again within an hour or two of your live presentation to make sure you’re warmed up and the content is top of mind.

Confession: I always use this routine the first time I deliver a new presentation. Subsequent deliveries are a lot easier so I tend to only practice once or twice as a refresher.

Double confession: Even on my best days, something ALWAYS goes wrong with my demos, even with a printed step by step demo script right beside me on the lectern. If I’m lucky, it’s a minor glitch and no one notices. If it’s something major, my whole demo is blown so I tap dance and move on as fast as possible. My success directly correlates to the number of times I’ve practiced.

6. Practice with real world conditions. It doesn’t matter how big your laptop screen is, there’s a good chance the projector you’ll be connecting to has a resolution of 1024x768. Set your laptop to this resolution when practicing your talk. Just like a bumpy airplane ride, items have a tendency to shift during transit. You’ll have better things to worry about during a demo than where the buttons have moved to. If you’re going to demo a tool like Visual Studio, set the text editor font to 14 point so the audience will be able to read it from the back of the room.

Confession: I once did a demo of Expression Blend 2 beta 1 without practicing at the projector resolution. The fly out toolbar panel I needed shrunk and while trying to resize it, it came unpinned and floated into the middle of the screen. To make matters worse, there was a bug in that particular build that caused the entire panel to show up empty when unpinned. Complete bomb.

7. Visit the Department of Redundancy Department. Always travel with a backup of every piece of hardware you will use in your presentation (laptop, mouse, remote clicker, etc.). Bring a USB thumb drive and after your practice sessions copy your latest changes to it as a third backup. Make sure your laptops can connect to an external monitor or projector before you arrive at the venue. You may need a newer video card driver to get external connections to work. If you do live coding demos, it’s a good idea to have a separate folder with the finished demo in case you get off script. You can load up the completed project and simply walk through it if your live coding goes awry.

Confession: I’ve had two laptops fail on the same day. One was a motherboard failure which rendered the entire machine useless. The other was a Windows Update that pushed a new video card driver to my backup machine and hosed the external projector connection. I had to borrow a laptop from my host and run my presentation from a thumb drive.

8. Secure your own Internet access. Don’t rely on the host and/or venue to provide you with reliable internet access if you need it for your demos. You might be sharing the same pipe with the 100 attendees in your audience if you do. Your best bet is to add a data plan to your mobile phone service and use a smart phone that has internet connection sharing. The speed is not great but is workable and you don’t have to share with anyone.

9. Don’t drink alcohol before a presentation. There’s a good chance you will be either sleepy or goofy or both and you will suck. Enough said.

10. Schedule your presentations outside of the dead zones. There are two presentation times you want to avoid if you can help it. The first is the hour immediately after lunch. One out of five people in the room will be sluggish or sleepy. Food digestion has diverted blood flow from their brains to their stomachs and they are simply not paying attention. The second time to avoid is the very last speaking slot on a multi-day conference. As a conference progresses, there is slow but steady attendance drop off as attendees leave for an early start to the weekend or to catch flights home. By the final hour of the final day, less than 40% of the attendees remain and they are overloaded with what they’ve seen. If you’re not a big name draw you’ll be presenting to only a handful of people.

Confession: I often have little control over my speaking slots so both of these issues happen to me way more than I like. Don’t let it happen to you!

11. Warm up your voice. Your voice is the primary instrument in your performance so you need to give it the attention it deserves. Pick up an introductory vocal lesson CD such as Ariella Vaccarino’s Voice Lessons to Go Volume 1 CD and practice in the car once a day for a few weeks. After that, use the CD to warm up on the way to each presentation you deliver. You’ll be amazed at the difference and have greater confidence in your volume and diction.

Confession: Early survey feedback quickly told me that I had a soft voice that lacked volume. My good friend John Alexander had experience in radio and recommended voice training to me. I keep Ariella’s CD in my car (and a backup on my MP3 player) and practice in my car every time I drive somewhere alone.

12. Charge your batteries. Eat an energy bar and drink a bottle of orange juice about one hour before your presentation. This should provide you with about 250 calories of healthy energy to draw upon. You need to be alert and energetic when you present.

Confession: Many events offer light snacks and/or full meals to their attendees. However, presenters  often get short changed because they’re too busy setting up before a presentation and don’t get a chance to get in line. There’s rarely anything left afterwards. Ask your host to grab you something while you’re speaking or plan for a beer and steak dinner afterwards to reward yourself.

 

Coming up next: Tips for a better delivery

I hope you’ve found something useful here that you haven’t discovered on your own. Coming up in part two, I’ll share some tips for improving live delivery. Stay tuned!

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Credits: All images are licensed under Creative Commons and have been linked to their respective creators.



Comments

May 19. 2010 13:01

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May 19. 2010 16:34

Scott Berkun

Excellent post - lots of good things here.

One question it raised: I know whenever someone with the word evangalism or sales, in their title takes the stage, the audience instantly has a negative set of expectations. Do you plan for this? Or work to not fall into the evangelist/sales stereotypes?

I know I've seen people who are talking about their own product, or their company, and then get all of the superficials of presenting right, but still come off as phony, one-sided, canned or packaged, and they're easy to dismiss for that reason alone.

Love to hear your opinion. thx.

Scott Berkun

May 19. 2010 17:49

Jim

"9. Don’t drink alcohol before a presentation. There’s a good chance you will be either sleepy or goofy or both and you will suck. Enough said."

Shucks! That was the ONE I wanted a "confession" on! :o)

Good stuff, Clint.

Jim

May 19. 2010 19:44

Jim

@Scott,

I, for one, will say that anyone that's actually talked with Clint for more than say, oh, five minutes, will know he's not "phony, one-sided, canned or packaged." So part of the answer is "it depends on the person."

That said, I concur - most people with that title make me cringe.

Jim

May 20. 2010 09:43

Clint Edmonson

Scott, I was worried about that as well when I accepted my position at Microsoft. Surprisingly, it hasn't been a problem. The audiences in my territory are smart, professional, and polite and treat their speakers with respect, even when they disagree with them. Lucky break or what?

My approach is to set expectations right up front, provide 100% transparency, and proactively call out to customers when there is a conflict of interest. We're a vendor and make it clear right up front. To me one of the biggest crimes is promising information when advertising a talk and then not delivering on that promise. This wastes the audience's time and leads to very dissatisfied customers. We agonize over our event abstracts to make sure we spell out exactly what our talks will cover and then do our best to make good on that promise.

As far as being phoney, if the presenter doesn't know the material and more importantly believe in it, the passion won't show through. It's easy to see and just as easy to measure through evals. However, not every presentation is a "change the world" message. Sometimes, developers just want a tool demo to see what's new or changed. When preparing content, I focus on the intrinsic value of the information and keep a close eye on the wisdom to marketing ratio. If that is unbalanced, it will definitely come off as salesy and one-sided.

Clint Edmonson

May 25. 2010 12:49

edmond deuser

Good suggestions clint, my favorite and one that I live by is Preparation, preparation, preparation.  All my fails demonstrations not only in sales but in IT as well has led back to poor preparation.

edmond deuser

June 1. 2010 14:55

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Technical Presentations Made Easy: #2 Delivering Your Talk

Technical Presentations Made Easy: #2 Delivering Your Talk

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