Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

How to “Rock” Your Next Talk

How to “Rock” Your Next Talk
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I’m a regular reader of Hacker News. Although I’m not a developer, I find the mix of content to be quite diverse, and I like the start-up slant on things. It’s no secret that our site began as my personal effort to build a like-minded resources for communicators.

This morning I found a thread, in which the user c1sc0 asked the community, “Help, I need to talk in front of a big audience & I’m scared, what now?” A moment later I was typing into the comment box, and shortly thereafter, found myself writing something that felt more like a post.

So, here’s my response to the question presented. In part it’s for the individual who initially posed the question. Additionally, it’s for the many people I’ve spoken to who’ve felt that giving a presentation was somehow beyond their capabilities. I assure you that it’s not, and hopefully these tips can make the difference in you seeing that.

Thank you Mr. X

I owe one guy, who’ll remain nameless, a huge debt. smashLAB was only about a year old when we went to a small conference. One of our competitors was giving a keynote at the event. Let me recount the experience:

He starts by rambling to the audience about how he doesn’t really need to prepare for such things. It’s an awkward tangent, and comes off as a little arrogant. Then things turn for shit.

While he bumbles along, his staff try to get the presentation to load on his computer. It won’t. They try something else. It fails. They download a plug-in. It doesn’t solve the problem. The speaker starts to look very, very uncomfortable. He then spills his water all over the stage. Silence.

An audience member takes pity on him, and asks some kind of a general question—really, they’re just “throwing him a bone” to break the silence. He’s so befuddled by now that he misses the opportunity and casually dismisses the question. (It feels like everyone is doing a collective facepalm at this point.)

For the next 15 minutes he stumbles around and gropes for anything to fill the remaining time, before ultimately whimpering off stage.

Give yourself ample time to prepare

As excruciating as that presentation was, I’m thankful to this day for being able to witness it. At that moment, I vowed that if I ever stood on stage, I’d take every possible measure to avoid the same sort of disaster. Over the years to come, I’ve found myself increasingly asked to speak to groups small and large from Canada and the United States, to South America and Europe, about marketing and design. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.

Unless I’m horribly pressed for time, I prepare my talks many weeks (even months) in advance. This gives me time to really think through the subject matter, and leave me with ample time to let the topic “stew” and evolve.

I start by creating a list of my key points, and then fill in supporting text. Sometimes I even write the talk out in longhand, just to smooth out the edges.

No matter what form this takes, I ultimately break it down into a series of sections, headings, and support points. This allows me to get the whole presentation into one very solid outline. With time this evolves, but for the time being I have the “bones” of my presentation in good order.

Edit early and watch the clock

With this in hand, I read, re-read, and edit my outline as required. At this stage it’s very easy to make changes, remove duplicate points, strengthen the overall flow, and start to look for problems in the argument being made. The funny part with presentations is that you often have to simplify a point more than you’d like, due to the amount of time available. Remember: sometimes exactness has to take a back-seat to the story you’re telling.

Once I have a working outline, I start reading through it and seeing how it sounds. If it feels natural to say, it’s working. When I’m stumbling, I know I have more work to do. Around this time I like to pull aside someone I trust (@shelkie has listened to more of my talks than I’m sure he cares to remember) and ask for clear feedback. I’m open to changing anything, so long as it results in a better experience for the audience.

I’m also highly aware of time, and have the stopwatch setting on my iPhone running during every read-through. In my experience you should start with a little too much content, and eventually land a bit short of your available time. So, for a 30 minute talk, I like to initially have 40 minutes of material. By the time I’m ready to walk on stage, though, I’d aim for 27 or 28 minutes. This affords me a little room if I want to take a brief tangent during my talk, or something doesn’t go exactly according to plan.

Exercise caution here: you do not want to be pulled off stage prematurely, due to poor preparation and timing (a true mark of an amateur).

Build “rock-solid” slides

Darren and I were talking after the conference that he Gord, Chris, and the OpenRoad team put on last month. He noted, “people think they’re giving a talk at these things, but they’re wrong. They’re supposed to be entertaining.” And he’s absolutely right.

When you step in front of a group of people who’ve been sitting for hours, silently in the dark, you have to make sure they don’t do the logical thing and fall asleep. Unfortunately, presentation software seems designed to do just this. The heading and bullet-point structure of the average PowerPoint presentation, in spite of being a logical structure, will quite likely work like an anesthetic on your audience.

My suggestion is to build a slide deck in which you make a single point per slide, and do something to naturally support and add depth to what you’re saying. This is a great opportunity to surprise the audience with something unexpected, or, to hit hard with a point and a potent photo or information graphic. In my experience these visuals are incredibly important, as they can engage the audience on a whole other level. They’re already hearing your words and experiencing how you personally “deliver” them. Adding in some well-designed slides just adds another layer to the overall experience.

And, if you’re doing a talk in a country where most of the audience doesn’t natively speak your language, I encourage you to use more images than text. Michael Robinson, quite rightly, noted this tip after my talk in Argentina. This presentation was given through a translator, and I noticed that my talk really worked with one part of the audience (ostensibly those with greater English proficiency), but not as well with others.

You can’t be too obsessive

I’m a tad obsessive at the best of times. When it comes to presentations, this reaches a whole other level.

Fact is, no matter how well it worked at home, that presentation you have will fail one day. Your hard drive will explode, you’ll forget an adapter (fucking Apple), or, the room you present in won’t darken suitably and no one will be able to see your slides (that’s happened to me, and it sucked).

I am obsessed with back-up plans for these talks. I have my presentation on a laptop, on a USB drive, and I email it to the conference organizer a week in advance. I even email it to myself in PDF form as a back-up. Oh yes, and I leave a copy on smashLAB servers so that it can be sent to me in the event that all else fails.

For a long time I even printed out my slides on letter-sized sheets of paper. I figured that I could hold up the sheets if the power went out. (Even I’ll admit that this last step was a little over-the-top.)

Rehearse like your life depended upon it

Yes, there are things beyond one’s control that can go awry. Fair enough. To date (knock on wood), I’ve managed to do alright in my talks, and I’ve never really “blown it.” Sure, I’ve made a couple of gaffs, but most were easy enough to recover from.

The reason I’m generally able to recover is that I practice my talk to the point of it feeling mind-numbingly boring. I generally don’t admit this, but I rehearse my talks until I could almost repeat them in my sleep. This might sound silly to you. I look at it differently: anywhere from 300 to 6,000 people are taking time out of their day to listen to me pontificate on some topic or another. I don’t treat this opportunity lightly, and the last thing I’m going to do is waste their time.

I rehearse my completed talk a good 5 times before leaving home and I re-read my presentation on the plane. Upon arriving at my destination I go to the hotel, shut the door, and move the furniture. I walk that room back and forth like I’m on stage, and I practice until I feel that I could deliver my presentation without any slides. I even turn on the television—as a deliberate distraction—and practice my talk with the TV running in the background (good practice for when someone’s mobile phone rings during your presentation).

Another big point: I don’t fuck around when it comes to these talks.

After my talk is through, I’m more than happy to kick back with a drink (or seven) and have a great time. Until then, though, nothing gets in the way of me and that presentation. I hole myself up in that room and practice; I drink plenty of water; and, I try to get to bed early—which is sometimes difficult, when one accounts for changes in time zones and jet-lag.

On game day, I keep my eye on the ball

I awake early, the morning of my talk, and run through it again. Typically I have to do this in a less vocal fashion, as I don’t wish to disturb those in adjacent rooms. At this point it hardly matters. I know the material, and I know that I know the material. That last part is critical: when I feel absurdly prepared, I know I’m in good shape.

In advance of the talk I ensure that I have maps printed out with clear directions to the venue. Wi-Fi access can be limited and there’s always the possibility that I misplace my mobile phone. As such, I try to keep a paper back-up (I told you I was obsessive).

I also like to arrive at the venue a few hours in advance. Sometimes this is impossible, but when you can, it affords you time to plug in your laptop, test your slide deck, and walk the room. You should feel in control of the devices you’re using, and familiar with the environment you’ll be speaking in.

From there, I can simply cruise along. I’ll talk to a few folks in the audience prior to the talk, and take it easy. At this point I’ve done all that I can do, and I no longer want to tweak my presentation or risk adding some “curve” at the last moment.

A few other handy little tips

I make sure that I have a glass of water available for my talk. Not having one is scary, and I often carry a back-up bottle of water “just in case.” I’ve been on stage without one and found myself getting dry. The notion of this occurring left me even more nervous, leading me to dry out even more. This is bad, and leaves you feeling like your tongue and lips have been replaced by big dry hunks of immovable meat. It may sound like I’m exaggerating. I’m not.

I ensure that I go for a pee about 15 minutes before the talk. (Believe me, you don’t want to be standing on stage feeling like you need to squeeze your legs together to keep from unleashing a fire hose on the audience.) In a lot of these settings, the AV techs will “mic” you well in advance of your presentation. If this is the case for you, I humbly suggest double-checking that said microphone is turned off before going to the toilet.

It’s also a wise idea to turn off your cell phone. In fact, if you have a removable battery, I recommend removing it. Sure, this seems a little crazy, but a phone can quite easily get bumped in your pocket or handbag and turn on. You need to be in control of every possible detail, because unanticipated things do happen, and people do stupid things: at one talk, a colleague thought it would be “really funny” to call me from the audience during my presentation. (I can’t tell you how happy I was to have unplugged that phone an hour earlier.)

Read the audience and (sometimes) ignore them

Every audience is different. You need to know the size of the group you’ll be speaking to, and really work around them. The way you speak to 50 people is completely different from how you present to a few thousand. Meanwhile, you need to “read” what they’re giving you and react to it.

I pay a lot of attention to the audience and work with them. Sometimes I swear less, sometimes more. In some instances I get really animated, in others I dial my approach back a bit.

All that advance preparation leaves me with extra room to play. I can spend a little more time in an area, or, I can take something situational and have fun with it. If the group seems to like a certain way of phrasing or approach I’m taking in my presentation, I can weave in more of that. It’s more of a two-way engagement than most realize, and you can really use this to craft a better presentation.

At the same time, you have to learn how to shut out certain information. In smaller groups, for example, I find myself much more attuned to the facial expressions of those in the audience. To me, this can be highly distracting and derailing.

Last spring I was in front of a group of about 300, and one attendee looked visibly agitated during my talk. I finally stopped looking in her direction, and just tried to get through. At the end she walked up with a huge smile, thanking me for a “great talk.” Apparently, her outward expression had little to do with anything I said, and I was reading in way too much.

Point being: there’s a time to obsess, and a time to simply “let it rip.”

A somewhat uncomfortable admission

I’m going to share one last tip with you. I’m embarrassed by it, but it’s one of the things that really leaves me feeling ready for these presentations.

Much to my wife’s chagrin, I quite like heavy metal. (Currently I’m teaching my four-year-old the lyrics to “Seek and Destroy.”) By the morning of the talk, I generally know that I’m prepared. From there it largely comes down to a personal “ra-ra” session to get myself ready for engaging with that group. I just want to be energetic, and prepared to leap into the topic at hand.

In my experience, nothing readies one for that quite like listening to Metallica’s “All Nightmare Long” at about the 5:22 mark. Whether you like the genre or not, the pure energy and visceral movement of it leaves you pretty much ready to “rock the living shit” out of your talk.

So, that’s my last tip: listen to some loud aggressive music, and go own that thing!

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