As I’m preparing for a talk at the Nodevember conference this coming weekend, I’m thinking through my preparation process – getting the slides ready, practicing, and generally making sure I’m not going to completely screw this up.
With all these thoughts running through my head, I wanted to share a few things that I’ve noticed about myself and how I make sure I don’t end up DOA anymore, at my talks.
What / Why, Not How
I’ve given a lot of how-to talks. I’ve always thought that this was my bread-and-butter talk, since I do a lot of how-to teaching with my blogs and screencasts. But it turns out, my most memorable and impactful talks have never been the how-to talks. They are never in the same league as “why” and “what” presentations.
Conferences are a place where we should expand our ideas, as developers. We shouldn’t go there to get mired deep into some specific code, learning all the implementation bits for today’s great frameworks – at least, not in the sessions.
Let the how-to conversations happen in the hallways and at the meeting tables. Let the blog posts, youtube videos and screencast services fill in the how-to. Conference sessions should focus on what and why. This is far more valuable to a much larger audience than a how-to talk.
If you’ve ever sat in a conference room talk with maybe 10 or 15 people when you expected 50 or 100, there’s a strong chance you were sitting in a how-to talk. How-to appeals to a very limited audience. Why-to brings in more people – those that are already using it, those that are curious about it and more.
Don’t Make Me Read
One of the best things I ever did for my presentations, was read Presentation Zen – if for no other aspect of talks, than for the idea that I should not make my audience read. I shouldn’t have a lot of text on screen while I am saying the things that are up there.
When an audience member sees words in bullet point font on screen, they are either tuning out the speaker or ignoring the words. It’s darn near impossible to listen and read at the same time. Some speakers try to get around this by reading the content of their slides. If you’re going to do that, don’t bother giving a talk. Just write the bullet points in a blog post and post that.
When you look at my slides from years ago, there are a lot of bullet points and quotes. Now, I may have 1 or 2 quotes somewhere to really emphasize a specific point, a couple of illustrations with very short and funny things to say, etc. But the vast majority of my slides are just images. Most of them don’t even have a title anymore!
I’ve found, after trial and error with a lot of slides over the years, that people pay more attention to the things I’m saying when I illustrate the point with a good picture instead of words.
Research And Share In Advance
I talk a lot on twitter. I ask what seem like random questions at times, too. I write a lot in my blog posts and on StackOverflow, and more. As a conference draws near, I find myself doing this with more specific purpose, too.
My talk for Nodevember is all about messaging architecture, and in the last month I’ve found myself doing more work with RabbitMQ in my projects, on my blog and on StackOverflow than I had in a while. I shared images of my slides as I built them. I talked about different parts of my session on twitter. I made sure to listen and ask questions, related to my subject matter.
This was not by accident.
I was doing research for the talk, sharing my ideas and getting feedback from the larger community. Whether or not people know this, I was actively grooming my topic and session by sharing my thoughts in a manner that did not directly spell that out.
Practice, Practice, Practice. Then Practice Again!
Above all else, when it comes to doing a presentation, practice is the most important thing to do.
I first realized this years ago, when I found myself giving the same “SOLID” talk in C# over and over again. At the end of about a year of doing this talk, I was hitting perfectly every time. About 2 years later, when I gave the talk for the first time in a while, I found myself fumbling and unable to do it correctly because I was out of practice.
Then, a few years ago, I found myself in a hotel room with a friend who wanted to practice his talk. He ran through it and I gave him feedback. Then he asked me to run through mine. It was terrible. I was stumbling and fumbling everywhere. He gave me feedback, and the next day I nailed the presentation perfectly. If I had not run through the talk with him the night before, though, I’m pretty sure I would have dropped dead on stage.
And believe me – I’ve screwed up a presentation big time by not practicing… assuming I was going to get it right because I knew the material (and assuming things about the people in the audience, too… )
Have Fun, Don’t Expect To Be Perfect
Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes habit. Perfect is a never-ending quest and practice helps us see where the next steps in the journey will take us, by making the current step feel natural.
When something feels natural to you and to your audience, it will be more enjoyable. Even when there are mistakes, words said incorrectly, demos that fail, etc., it can be handled in a very natural manner – moving on, getting back to the fun parts.
In the end, we’re at conferences for the learning experience, the fun of seeing old friends and making new ones, and the general atmosphere of growth and movement in our career.
So have fun with your presentation – everyone in the audience will be having fun, right along side you!