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Thoughts on doing technical talks

By Sebastian Porto,
Sebastian Porto
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I have done a decent amount of technical talks during the last 6 years, nowadays I feel fairly comfortable doing them, but I haven't always felt like this. I know from experience that the prospect of talking in public can be daunting, especially when is your own content you will be talking about.

In this post I want to share the roadblocks that cross my mind when pondering the idea of doing a talk and the things that helped me to be a better speaker. Some of my most recurrent thoughts are:

  • People don't care about my topic
  • People already know everything about my topic
  • People will get bored
  • People will confirm their suspicions that I am an idiot and that I don't know what I am talking about

I'm sure there are many more reasons we use to procrastinate and avoid talking in public. Let me go deeper into some of my thoughts and what I learnt.

People don't care about my topic

There will be always be some people in the audience that won't care, but soon I realised that I don't need to please 100% of my audience. As long as there is a fraction that cares then it is a good talk to give. These fraction of people will appreciate the topic and be grateful that I did it.

People already know everything about my topic

I found it very easy to conclude this, especially when pondering entry level talks. I want to give a talk about something advanced so I can look smart and this stops me from doing good entry level talks.

But I learned that there is always a decent amount of people in the audience hungry for these kind of talks. They probably know little about the topic and will appreciate my talk. I have the impression that as a community we don't do enough of them because we think they are too basic.

People will get bored

I often listen to talks where the speaker makes lots of jokes, I enjoy those talks as they make me laugh, and most people seems to enjoy them too. So it was a natural conclusion for me to think that a talk needs to be like this in order to not bore people.

Personally I found the prospect of being a joker on top of public speaking daunting. But I realised that I don't need this, and I found out that I could give an engaging talk without trying to be a clown. There are many ways to make a talk interesting, joking is just one added value. I will go into more details about this later in the post.

People will confirm their suspicions that I am an idiot and that I don't know what I am talking about

This is always a big one for me, the feeling that people will discover that I don't know as much as them about something. This seems to be a common feeling everywhere, search for impostor syndrome for more details.

What I found is that there will be always be a small fraction of the audience that knows more about my topic than me, but the vast majority don't. So there is no point worrying about this tiny fraction and what they may think.


There are certain things I found effective when listening, preparing and doing talks. And some things that are better left out.

Get yourself out there

One of the biggest things that worried me when starting was the thought of 'what they will think of me'. So I have found that putting myself out there helps a lot to develop an acceptance for critiques. Small things like tweeting and writing blog posts are a great way to be out there and be more comfortable with public speaking.

Practice

For me, this is the most important thing to do when preparing for a talk. I get my slides in front of me, get a stopwatch and do the talk as if it was for real.

By practicing the talk I quickly find out what sounds good and what doesn't make any sense, I can quickly add or remove things. I do this until the talk sounds right and flows nicely.

Don't bring attention to your mistakes

We all make mistakes during our talk, say something wrong or whatever. I found that thinking about my mistakes just makes me nervous, so I end up doing a worse talk.

If I can quickly correct a mistake then great. Otherwise, most of the time it is just better to move on and don't make any fuss about them. Most people won't even notice and I can focus on what I am saying.

Don't rush

When I first started doing talks I tended to talk too fast, this is a natural reaction of being nervous, as if I was trying to get over with the talk as quickly as possible.

But this is a terrible thing to do, going too fast just made me more nervous and resulted in more mistakes, making me more nervous still.

So I learned to slow down, take my time, make pauses. This helped me stay calm and make my talks more interesting.

Nervousness

The irony with new speakers is that people will not notice most mistakes during a talk, but they will easily notice when the speaker is nervous. And what makes most speakers nervous during a talk is the prospect of making mistakes.

I don't really know a way to avoid this at the beginning, I just focused on what I had to say and tried to do it calmly. After a few times of doing talks I became a lot more comfortable and stopped becoming as nervous at the beginning. However I don't think this feeling ever goes away.

Slides

Slides can help a lot to make a talk interesting, I like to keep them simple. Less text and code is better. Different styles work well, the only things to avoid is having slides with too much text or code that will distract people from what you are saying. Or slides with too many images that everyone has seen.

Humour

Humour is a great way to keep the audience engaged. But not all of us are comfortable making jokes in public, I learned to not worry too much about doing this. Jokes are only funny when the speaker is comfortable doing them.

Of course, if you are going to make a joke, keep it respectful to other people.

A great way to get some smiles is to add images in your slides that convey a joke that your audience will understand.

Establish the playing field

I don't mind being heckled in the middle of my talks, I like the interaction, it gives me time to breath and get some energy. But not everyone likes this, so establish the playing field early by saying upfront whether you want questions during the talk or at the end, and most people will respect this.

Speak loudly

Having a speaker talk quietly is one of the most effective ways to make an otherwise interesting talk boring and dry. I learned to make a conscious effort to project my voice loud and clear during my talks.

Don't do tutorials

There is a special kind of talk I find horrible, these are the talks that run as a tutorial. The presenter starts doing a excruciating commentary of code. Please don't do this, I don't care how awesome the code is, I will get lost at some point and then be bored for the rest of the talk.

I always try to remember this: If someone tunes out for a minute they should be able to get back to my talk and understand the rest of it. I don't expect people to follow me for 20 minutes.

Use live coding sparingly

Live coding is great when kept to small demonstrations. But it can have the same effect as tutorial talks: people get lost and bored. So I try to keep my demonstrations very short. I don't expect people to follow me for long.

What I realised is that I'm an expert on the code that I am showing, so I know exactly what is happening. But most people in my audience are not, so they can get easily lost in the unimportant things.

Conclusion

I like to think that I am a decent speaker, and can appreciate that getting there takes time as we are not born with this skill. You are not alone if public speaking is a daunting prospect, we all experience this.

In my experience the most important things I have done is to realise that I am not the only one with those feelings and to practice a lot before doing a talk. I hope this helps.

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