So, apropos of nothing, and after RailsConf, some thoughts on public technical speaking. You’re not going to read about how to arrange your slides here, not least because I’m pretty bad at the fancy slide thing. Instead, I want to talk about working the room. This is what I try to do when I give a technical talk.
You should think of this kind of presentation as a performance. You have a story to tell and information to share, and you want the audience to pay attention to you. (One reason why I don’t push too hard on fancy slides is that I want the audience to pay attention to me, not the screen.)
The key to a successful performance is energy. Energy means that you come off as excited and happy to be there, and interested in your subject — interested people are (to a point) the most interesting. Energy means speaking with inflection and volume. Energy doesn’t just come from the speaker, it comes from the audience, and their attention to the speaker. Even in a quiet room, you can tell the difference between an audience that is paying attention and one that is not.
Any stand-up comedian will tell you that you get the best energy from a room when people are close together and when you are relatively close to them. Picture your classic comedy club. The tables are close together, the performer is only a few inches higher, at most. Also, everybody is drunk, but that’s generally not an issue at a tech conference. At least not in the morning…
Anyway, picture your typical conference setup. A hotel ballroom, badly lit. The speaker can easily be 10 feet from the audience, and the audience somewhat spread out, and often with computers as distractions. Sometimes the speaker is set up far away from the projector screen and it’s not easy to move around. Granted, you’re not trying to be Bill Cosby up there, but your job is getting and keeping everybody’s attention, and that means fighting the room.
You’ll never have more attention than you will right at the beginning of your talk. Take advantage of that moment. Do something up front to engage the audience. Surprise them a little. This doesn’t mean “open with a joke” — for God’s sake, don’t open with a joke unless you are about 120% sure the joke will land. It does mean starting off by asking a question, or calling out to the audience in some way. At RailsConf, I started with an unrelated slide that was a kind-of-funny session title of a Medical conference in the same building. At RedDirt, Jeff Casimir dared the audience to close their laptops or give him the finger for twenty minutes, which got my attention.
It’s a classic stand-up trick to start with a “Hello, Cleveland” or something to get a cheap applause line up front. (When I was in college, I would go on stage with a tape recorder, and ask the audience to laugh and applaud so I could play it for my Mom. Cheap. Effective.)
The key, though, to dealing with an audience is to both be and appear responsive. Don’t hide behind a podium, if you can help it. Pay attention to whether people look confused. I like allowing questions during a talk unless there’s a really good reason not to, because interactive tends to be more engaging, but you do need to be ready to cut somebody off if needed to get on with your material.
Preparation always helps. It’ll also help you be less nervous. There are three kinds of useful practice for public speaking.
First, of course, is practicing the content of your presentation. I’m not really giving tips here on how to structure a technical talk, but your goal here is to be comfortable enough with your material to remove that as a source of nervousness as you speak. Another way to look at that is the less effort you need to place in deciding or remembering what to say, the more effort and attention you can pay during the presentation to observing the audience and monitoring how things are going.
I will say that I’m not a big advocate of writing down your talk verbatim — my experience is that it’s hard to read something word for word in public and have it sound natural. Normally I write an outline (usually it becomes my slides), and occasionally use brief notes to remind me of specific points I don’t want to forget. The reason for knowing your content well, though is not so that you can deliver it perfectly from memory, but so that you can free yourself up to be flexible during the actual presentation.
I find it hard to do a full-energy version of a practice talk when it’s only me, and I recommend not even trying — fake enthusiasm isn’t helpful. When you practice by yourself, it’s about the content first, and secondarily about the physicality of the performance itself. The actual physical act of delivering a talk is the thing that I suspect people don’t practice enough. Just standing in more-or-less one place is a challenge. Even at home, try to practice in as close to the real setup as possible. Stand up. Understand how far from your computer you can be and still have the remote work. Try not to pace unrealistically (I fail at that, I tend to walk all over when I practice). Try not to stop, so you get used to talking for 45 minutes.
On a related topic, if you get a chance to scope out the actual room before you talk, do that. Being early and making sure that technical stuff is in place will make you less nervous, and give you some time to scope out the audience before you start.
Finally, you want to practice in front of an audience in general. Every chance you get to realize that the audience is unlikely to eat you if things go badly is helpful. There are things you will only learn by getting used to seeing an audience in front of you. Talk to specific people. Try and get feedback. If possible, watch video of yourself, you’ll definitely see something you can get better at. When I was a high-school performer, a director had me watch a fast-forwarded version of a performance, which really exaggerated a habit I had of swaying back and forth. Being aware of these habits will help you get rid of them.
Oh, and that thing about picturing the audience in their underwear… Don’t do that. It doesn’t work.