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How I prepare a talk for a tech conference (2022) (chelseatroy.com)
237 points by fanf2 42 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 106 comments



I agree strongly with the bit about not including memes and jokes, to me this reads like nervous energy: here's me packing some entertainment into my presentation because I'm probably boring you. Just make it more interesting, or shorter. I also agree with the bit about not feeling it necessary to make eye contact with audience members: as an audience member, I feel like the speaker is about to call on me when that happens, like at one of those hateful interactive theater performances everyone dreads. Just talk to "the room" if you can.

It's always amazing to me when I see a talk by someone who has clearly not practiced it very much. I think it's usually better when you've run through it so many times so that you can deliver it without any notes, but it's still concise and complete. I practice double-digit amounts of times for every talk.

My tip is to record yourself practicing. Don't watch the recordings, no need for that. The thing is that blinking red circle seems to psychologically qualify as an audience (to me anyway) and it focuses me in on the performance part of giving a talk. One effect is that if I mess something up, and I'm recording it, I start improvising my way back on course rather than just starting over. There seems to be more consequences if you record it. I dunno, helps me.


> I agree strongly with the bit about not including memes and jokes, to me this reads like nervous energy: here's me packing some entertainment into my presentation because I'm probably boring you.

One or two well-placed jokes can be great if they’re a very minor part of the presentation.

When someone has their slides stacked with memes or spends large amounts of time on vacuous entertainment content, it always feels disappointing.

There was a period of time where our biggest local JavaScript conference felt like one big entertainment competition. Presenters were singing songs, playing guitar, showing several minutes of clips from TV shows, and telling jokes more than they were presenting anything useful. The conference was a hit for young people and juniors, but it became known as a big waste of time for everyone else.


I talk in public a lot (in fact, I just did it this morning).

That said, I'm not really a "keynote" speaker. I've been doing it for most of my adult life, in front of small and large (but never huge) crowds.

I've definitely had some bombs, but most folks seem to think I do an adequate job (the fact I'm not a rubber chicken speaker means that it isn't much more than "adequate." I'm fine with that).

Most times, I wing it, but when I'm giving an important talk, like a tech class, or topic discussion, I practice. The tip someone gave about recording themselves is good. It's also how I know how long it will take. I'll often use a prompter app, while practicing, but don't use it, while giving the talk.

I've found a bit of humor (especially self-deprecating humor) can "humanize" things, but it should be short vignettes, and know your audience. If I don't really know who will be out there, I generally don't use humor. Most times, I know my audience quite well, and humor is appreciated.

I have found that speaking in the vernacular is generally appreciated by folks. There are definitely some folks that don't like making difficult stuff easy to understand, but I'm just an ol' high school dropout with a G. E. D., so I don't really pull off the "talk purdy" kind of thing, so good.

I've found that Keynote/PowerPoint shows can be useful, but I seldom use "wall o' text" slides. I use a lot of images and animations, and pack my notes (not the slides) with what I'm saying. I will usually insert

    -- CLICK --
in the notes to denote when I advance the animation/slide.

I'll put details and technology rabbitholes into the supergraphics.


> The conference was a hit for young people and juniors, but it became known as a big waste of time for everyone else.

People have widely varying views about what a “conference” is, or should be:

<https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6376024>


A fun thing to do is to include very subtle jokes that only a few people in the audience will grok and most people won't even notice.

It's very nice to have a few people come up after a talk with "I saw what you did there...". It's a great way to connect with people who are on your wavelength.


Guilty as charged. Are you from Brazil, by any chance?


> by someone who has clearly not practiced it very much

The best talk I ever gave was when the scheduled speaker didn't show, and the organizer asked if anyone would volunteer. I volunteered, and gave an impromptu talk with no prep and no slides, just a whiteboard. I simply threw out questions to the audience, and let their responses guide things.

It was the best presentation I ever gave.

Too bad the video didn't work, either, and there's no record of it.

P.S. When traveling to a conference, I carry along the slides from my previous presentations. This enables me to fill in for missing presenters. I also had a talk that didn't go over well, so I just picked out a previous one and did that.


How many talks do you give a year? Seems like a waste of time to practice the talk that many times.

what works for me and is more time efficient is to get the introduction polished, then have a clear take away at the end. The middle stuff is better to go impromptu.


When I have a talk to give I can't think of any better use of my time than getting it right. If you don't need to practice, good on you—a lot of people who don't probably should, though.


The number of people who believe they are good at impromptu speech is WAAAAYYYY larger than those who are actually good impromptu speech.

In general, the best speakers are those who a) know the material inside and out, and b) have practiced shit loads.


> a) know the material inside and out, and b) have practiced shit loads.

I remember the first time I went in front of a live audience to give a 2 minute intro. It was a meetup with ~60 people and all I had to do was go up and talk about a course I was selling.

On the train ride in, I scripted it out on paper and then re-read it like 30 times.

By the time I got off the train and closed the notebook I forgot everything and dreaded the walk to the venue. I got in front of everyone and tried to recall what I wrote, had a quick internal dialog with myself for about 3 seconds and mentally noted "you're a moron, just wing it". Then I winged it.

In the end it converted ~15% of the room on a tech topic that was ancillary to the main meetup's subject.

On that day I learned I can do well writing something out on paper but I can't remember shit when trying to deliver it live. I have to fall into category (A) and trust myself to deliver but really committing to that with no backup plan does make every experience interesting to say the least.

I've recorded around 300 videos since then and I still need to do the intro about 20 times before I get into the flow to do the rest of the video in basically 1 take. They are usually unscripted with no preparation, I just pick a topic and go.


> On that day I learned I can do well writing something out on paper but I can't remember shit when trying to deliver it live.

Fascinating. What I learned from your anecdote is that massed practice didn't work, just as the literature on human memory predicts. Spaced repetition still sounds like a winner. Practice, sleep, forget almost everything, then repeat until it's go time.


So you didn't really prepare, forgot your non-existent "preparation", and then the take-away is that preparation doesn't work..?


That is exactly what I'm trying to get across. Preparation isn't immediately before the speaking engagement. It's days, weeks, or if it's a big enough deal, months ahead of time.

I don't know why people don't seem to understand that.

If it's a topic that is low stakes and I know a shit load about, I'll practice for a day or two. If it's a topic that I know and it's high stakes, I may practice daily for two or three weeks.

Everyone who knows me professionally remarks about how relaxed I seem when public speaking.

That's because it's all intentional. Every pause. Every single thing. I seem relaxed, because I am relaxed.


I agree with you but that doesn't necessarily invalidate GP's point. It all depends on how familiar one is with the content.

For one off talks, or decks that one doesn't use often, yes you're 100% right. When I'm in that situation I rehearse the talk over and over and over again to the point where I no longer need notes. My goal is to get to a point where I neither sound like I'm reading from a script, nor would I get thrown off if I get interrupted.

However for material that I've presented a bunch of times, I no longer need to rehearse. There was a period of my life where I could on the fly give a talk on a particular topic at a moment's notice. Ideally I'd have a bit of time to customize some bits to the specific audience/venue, and sure I'd rehearse those. But the bulk of it I could stitch together content in just about any order on the fly.


> However for material that I've presented a bunch of times, I no longer need to rehearse.

All of those previous presentations basically count as rehearsals. Depends on you, but if it's been a year or several since you gave one, it's probably a good idea to do at least a mini rehearsal before you do it again, but if you're doing one a quarter, once you're good, you should be good.


Exactly. If you hand me a presentation and hopefully some notes associated with it and tell me that I need to fill in, I can do it but I'm going to need to spend some time (and will probably rearrange things a bit).

But if you tell me give some variation on your talk about $X, I can probably be ready in about 30 minutes. (And, in fact, I've dropped in a conference presentation in response to a 3am email because another speaker forgot they were supposed to be there.)


Maybe because I am in research, but the middle parts of research talks are talking about their own research. If you don’t know that material enough to talk about it in detail impromptu then you have no business giving talks about that topic.

Intros and ends though I agree require careful thought to appeal to the right audience and give the right message.


> If you don’t know that material enough to talk about it in detail impromptu then you have no business giving talks about that topic.

I don't think this follows. There are many things I am an expert in that I'm not an expert in communicating about impromptu- I've been to many talks where the speaker is clearly an expert but was not prepared to speak.

I certainly think there are people for who expertise == ability to speak about it, but that's certainly not always or usually the case.


I like a joke that is about the subject matter. A subtle pun that makes a smile but doesn't interrupt the flow at all. Another way to make it entertaining is make it a story. Forget jokes, make it about how you had to mop up the leaks in the server room as an intern before getting to the rack that had the crashed hard disk. Or something.

I remember the first meme like presentations back in 2002 at work and I hated it. It's like stop learning, now you have to find this picture funny (maybe it was some star wars reference, and I haven't watched them), and we will get back to it. It was cringe!


My favourite little joke from a conference talk I did recently on image processing was when talking about greyscale images I put up the cover of "50 Shades of Grey" and replaced a crossed out "50" with "256".

Made me chuckle anyway...


Yes this sort of thing! There was one posted on HN back where the speaker says, in the middle of other context fairly deep in, recognise this number? 3.14159265358779323846264338327950288419, and then shows that it isn't actually Pi, (one of the digits is swapped, he may have swapped a different digit to me). Nice joke because is reminds us to challenge assumptions too!


> I agree strongly with the bit about not including memes and jokes, to me this reads like nervous energy

I think it can work in limited contexts. I've given an internal talk about SRE using the "this is fine" meme, representing a current emotional state, then contrasted that with the reverse meme[1] as a visual metaphor. Perhaps this_is_fine.png works because it does not rely on outside cultural context.

I've also used HTTP status cat memes on a carousel slide, to emphasize that SREs commonly understand them, before contrasting that with a custom non-HTTP protocol I support. If people laugh or pay attention, so much the better.

> I think it's usually better when you've run through it so many times so that you can deliver it without any notes, but it's still concise and complete. I practice double-digit amounts of times for every talk.

Agreed that rehearsal really helps and more people should do that. I wish I could put that 10+ rounds of practice into presenting but I'm typically doing internal stuff not anything with an honorarium or ticket price attached. Yet it seems like some kind of badge of honor in the tech speaker circuit to start building your slide deck the night before. Trust me: we can tell, especially when your first five minutes are panicked searches for projector compatible adaptors you forgot to pack or test.

[1]: https://www.reddit.com/r/ReverseMemes/comments/dnlizu/the_th...


> I agree strongly with the bit about not including memes and jokes

I certainly think there is a balance.

If you're not confident about your talk or your ability to present it, folks should be disabused of the idea that adding some gifs or a "One does not simply" meme will fix that.

That said, I think of my talks as sharing interesting stories. When I tell stories, I often crack a few jokes along the way, and my presentations are no different. I feel like adding humour is often a way of giving people insight into your thought process.

Of course, everyone is different, and perhaps you are dead serious about your way of thinking about compilers or neural networks or whatever your work on.

The author does an excellent job, however, of underscoring the fact that jokes can rely on an in-crowd or shared experience that some in the audience don't share. It's important in all aspects of your talk to keep that sort of thing in mind, and make sure your humour isn't just some twitter in-joke.


I suspect there are a bunch of different approaches, and different people will find different approaches work for them.

Personally I'm not much of a reherser. I like to make a point with each slide, and as long as I know the point, I can "freestyle" the actual text.

The exception are high-speed sessions, where I have a slide, or two, per sentence. They have to be highly scripted and so I practise them a few times. But, while they're a lot of fun, I don't do them often.

For me, prep is much more about what to leave out. It's easier to do a 2 hour session than a 1 hour, and harder still to do 30 mins. Slides mostly help to keep me on track and not get distracted.


In my opinion listening to yourself can actually help.

You might realize that you are either speaking too fast or too slowly. You might notice that you are using your squeaky voice, there are ways to improve it. You might realize that you assume some piece of tech is known to everyone even though it's pretty obscure. You might realize you need one more slide for transitioning to a new topic better.

I agree though with your other point, the recording can help enforce that there are no redos before a live audience.

Also, if you mess up a sentence or slide all the time, maybe your phrasing is too backwards, so you should probably simplify it to something that feels natural to you.


It's funny, I can't make myself practice the talk out loud, but I can make myself go through it mentally a bunch of times. On the last mental pass, I guess what the next slide will be. Being able to do that enables smooth transitions during the talk.


> I agree strongly with the bit about not including memes and jokes

It probably matters if it is related to the talk or not. A slightly related joke or funny picture at the beginning that introduces where you are going and then comes back with a deeper meaning at the end is very powerful.


Personally not a fan of memes but a huge fan of jokes... used correctly, they can drive home the point. But, they are also (for me) difficult to use correctly.


I strongly believe that there are only two true rules when it comes to presentations: (1) know who your audience is, and (2) tell something that the audience will find useful. Not eloquent, cute, clever, or impressive; but useful (to them).

All these theories, rules, and advice about giving presentations are just useless fads that are often impractical and unnatural for most people.

People often confuse an eloquent and natural speaker with having a "good" presentation. I have been to many talks (Tufte, for example) where the presenter talks smoothly for an hour, yet in the end does not say anything useful to me. Your are entertained, in a sense, but you don't actually learn anything.

To many presenters, the presentation is actually about themselves rather then giving something truly useful to the audience. A lot of people can talk well, but I rather have somebody that can teach me something, even if the delivery is not perfect.


> the presenter talks smoothly for an hour, yet in the end does not say anything useful to me

Why would you throw Kevlin Henney under the bus?


I’ve seen Tufte and learned a ton - the presentation was almost _too_ information dense (which is his intent). Curious why your experience was different.


Among other things, passing around with white gloves Galileo's something something first edition book does not teach me anything.

But in general he had a lot of one off examples and interesting pictures, but without a solid and applicable theory behind them. He was an articulate speaker but I did not feel like I learned anything from the talk. I have also "read" his books but the only thing that I remember and make use of is the idea of information density on charts.


Pet peeve: During Q&A, the presenter should repeat the question. Even if the asker has a microphone, they are often not clearly audible. Repeating the question, or a brief version of it, lets the audiences, both present and via video, hear it clearly, and shows that the presenter heard and understood it before they answer it.


Hard agree. The OP is full of good advice, but this is the single most actionable thing I could say about tech talks. Maybe 10% of presenters do this; everyone should.

Another advantage is that the speaker doesn't always get the question. Either can't hear it well, or the question itself is weird, complex, off-topic, or some variation on not-even-wrong. So they end up answering something else. If they repeat/summarize the question first, at least they're answering a question, and when this happens, the question which gets answered is often better than the one which was asked.


It's also useful if the person asking the question has a very thick accent or is not proficient speaking English.

It happened so many times that I had no clue what someone asked, and the presenter repeats the question with their own words, usually much more clearly communicating the question that was asked.


Hot Take: there should be no Q&A. Best-case scenario, the questioner uncovers some omission that the speaker tweets out later. Average-case is irrelevant questions or some super-specific case that makes the speaker question if they can bill consulting hours to the questioner. Worst-case is giving a self-aggrandizing questioner a microphone to attempt to upstage the speaker. None of these are a benefit to the audience except in the first (uncommon) case.

Just go find the speaker later and ask questions if you have them.


Hard disagree, the point of the talk is the Q&A, otherwise I can just watch it on YouTube. I design my talks so the rehearsed content is only the preamble. The rest of the time is spent in discussion. For an allocated amount of time, I create a talk that is 1/3rd the time and then supplemental material that can fill another 1/2 if the crowd can’t be warmed up.

But there’s an art to Q&A that’s as hard as public speaking but practiced by 1/10th the people. A simple hand vote is the most basic tool. After a Q, I’ll summarize it and ask how many people face this problem? Etc. why get an audience of people in a room if you don’t use them?


My comment reflected the typical, unmanaged conference Q&A where every question has an equal platform, regardless of merit. If there is a way for the audience to upvote questions that are actually good (yes, bad questions exist) as you mention with your hand vote, then it becomes worthwhile again.


I don't expect anything from the conference organizers apart from what's typically given. My point is, I despise presentations that could have been a Youtube, if you're going to give a presentation, make the experience unique to the people in the room, view the prepared sections as just enough to kickstart your intended impromptu part. This is a skill in and of itself and you just need to practice it to get better but most people aren't aware/don't try and I view it as a massive missed opportunity.


Or if you must, just don't broadcast the Q&A section.


The author's writing style matches how she prepares her talks. That post is very straightforward. I agree with everything she wrote. I think that it also applies to other kinds of communication.

I particularly like the bit about examples. I think that stories and metaphors are much more powerful than plain statements. It really drives the point home, especially when it's somewhat abstract. My all-time favourite is Steve Job's "bicycle of the mind".[0]

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmuP8gsgWb8


They seem to have a consistent "voice", which is going to please some and piss off others, and that's way better than having nobody care.


The best piece of advice here is meta: whatever you do make bold choices. I don't like a lot of the speaker's decisions, and (aside from the memes and gifs where I do strongly agree) go the other way, and that's OK, they're still going to engage me. The number one job of the speaker is to stake out a position that might be contriversial or not universally accepted, and drive deeper thought, discussion, conversation and progress.

And practice. Please practice. That's what makes the timing impactful & the jokes work.


I more agree than disagree with most of the points--at least for the typical conference presenter.

The one thing I'd add (though this is more in the hands of the conference organizers) is that shorter (25-30 minute) presentations are often better than 45-50 minute ones. Some of this relates to what the post says at the beginning. If it's a bad presentation, I've wasted less time. But the other thing is that a presentation can cue me in to something being interesting more than it can teach me everything about that something.

I've been seeing this as a general trend although I have colleagues who hate that trend and respond by trying to cram 60 minutes of content into 25 minutes grumbling all the way.

And, oh, stay on schedule. It's really rude to the next presenter (and your audience) if you don't. I might end up going a minute or 2 over if I get off-track but I feel badly when I do.


I run a company that produces conferences in about 20 cities annually. We run our conferences absolutely ruthlessly on time, like to the minute. We prep every speaker for it, we have a countdown clock on stage and we interrupt to end a session if we have to, though that doesn’t happen much given we communicate clearly about this in advance.

It’s shocking how many conferences don’t do that. I’m still amazed when I go to other events and see things get 15 or 20 or even 30 minutes behind the published schedule. It’s just so disrespectful to the audience to do that in my opinion.


Also disrespectful to any speakers that have to follow.


I 100% blame people not staying on schedule on the organisers.

I'm autistic, I'd happily cut off your microphone on time, not matter if you're the pope or a Nobel laureate. This is why I'm not allowed to chair sessions.


IIRC they have a young girl on stage at the IgNobels and her job is to repeatedly shout 'boring' if you overrun your timeslot.


That's amazing!


Oooh, can I recruit you to cut off question askers who aren’t asking questions? Talks need someone not shy about enforcing that it’s question after the presentation, not offtopic rambling time.


Attend grad school. Questions are almost always a way to try and prove how smart you are.


Or analyst conferences, etc.

Generally speaking I'm not a huge fan of public raising of hands type Q&A's. They turn into more of a comment than a question and showing off sorts of things as you say. Maybe a few pre-submitted questions electronically or just save them for later 1-on-1s.


I quite like the way that in some sessions they make you submit questions into a webpage and the chair will pick the questions to ask - it really makes a difference when they can say "there's a few other comments you can read online", rather than drag on the q&a session.


Yeah at my indie conferences [0] if we live-stream the event that means we have an online audience too. I require everyone to submit their questions to a private chat server, even if you're there in person, and I curate them in real-time.

[0] https://handmadecities.com


You know it. “Well, in my experience doing this since 1997…” “Lemme stop you right there.”


Lots of different views on how to do a talk. This goes against some mainstream advice such as: establish your credentials.

But rule number 1 for any talk is "know your audience." Since the audience is tech people who care about tech issues, talking about tech is a better way to establish your credentials than listing your CV.

But then again, how the people in the audience know you aren't just talking smartly?

My favorite tech talks are by people who jump straight into the tech issues without introduction. But I'm fully aware there's a chance they could be straight up bullshitting.


I think a very brief CV makes sense.

Hi, I'm X, I work on Y at Z and maybe I worked on Y' at Z', welcome to my presentation on Topic establishes some context. And lets you know if you're in the wrong room. I don't think you need much more than that at the beginning. Maybe in the depths of the presentation you talk about options for a solution and how you tried some of the options on a project/at a company, when it's relevant.

We don't usually need to know a lot of other stuff from a CV, such as how long you were anywhere or where you went to school or a lot of details about job responsibilities. Just a little info to have some idea of the scope of 'databases' and 'embedded' for you --- there's a lot of computer words that have similar but different meanings depending on your industry.


I think the missing context here is the why. Laying out your credentials is probably a good idea if the intent of your presentation is to advance your career. Which I gather is the main reason most people do it. Her advice is centered on delivering value to an audience.

The part that got me was right at the start:

"Why: I get very little out of 95% of them. I much prefer online recordings, which can come vetted/recommended. Also I can bump them up to 1.5x or 2x speed, so that at least if the talk isn’t that good I waste less time on it."

I also just don't enjoy these conferences at all. I rarely attend and have zero interest in ever speaking. Watching recorded presentations is far superior.


> some mainstream advice such as: establish your credentials.

I've found that this is domain specific. You see it more for tech conferences for instance, but less so in biotech conferences


The best advice I’ve ever seen for technical talks is from the indomitable Simon Peyton-Jones of Haskell IO Monad and C# LINQ fame: https://simon.peytonjones.org/great-research-talk/

He gives a fantastic meta-talk; you should listen to it.


I was walking over to the conference room where I’d agreed to demo a project at a huge convention. I saw other people with their laptops and card tables. Visitors would drop by and ask questions. Demonstrators would answer them and show how they worked. Piece of cake.

One of my friends casually mentioned that the A/V team had our podium set up. Podium? For what? So that you’ll have some place to set your laptop when you’re presenting the project to the large room we booked!

That’s how and when I found out I was giving a tech talk. It went well. Honestly, that’s about as much advance notice as I like. You can’t worry or procrastinate too much when you’ve got about 20 minutes to get ready.


This is sane advice. Lots more sane advice out there in the world.

Yet, there is an element of YMMV. Like, I only ever do live demos, including lots of live coding. My "slides" are my org-mode file, with org-babel, and org-tree-slide. My premise is that, in-conference, peoples' eyes will glaze over sooner or later because of information overload from other talks and/or intense social engagement. So I need to land one maybe two engaging moments. Interested parties will engage in the "hallway track", post-talk. At-home viewers will scrub through the recording. All people have access to slides and/or a detailed blog post. Disinterested parties are free to use "the law of two feet" and leave if it's not working for them.

My talks have never been polished diamonds --- all elements of serendipity and demofail are embraced. So far, nobody has booed me off-stage, and I've always had fun after-talk conversations.

Also, in terms of actually doing the thing, this is what my, ah, "process" ends up looking like [1]. I discovered many people relate to it.

[1] https://www.evalapply.org/posts/how-to-give-a-conference-tal...


Mad respect for live demoing in a talk on conference Wi-Fi. There is something to authenticity and embracing potential failure that flies in the face of the well manicured presentation culture we have today that needs to come back. As long as the talk can be done, or there is a plan b, why not? I think a lot of concern stems from wasting other people’s time: which is valid. But presenting is also a deeply culturally engrained performance art that sometimes sacrifices authenticity for appearances.


The trick is to assume conference WiFi does not exist and work against an all-local setup. Cache all the things :)

The other trick is to make material available to everyone, post-haste. This is especially important for remote talks [1].

Apropos embracing failure. I work hard to set up a smooth path. I don't want things to fail. Yet, I actively chose to be open to it because undoing the failure has a habit of creating a learning moment for someone among the dear listeners (they too try to debug in their head, and arrive at their own insight).

[1] In 2022, I gave a talk as a live demo at a remote conference. Three different networks at three different locations in my area flaked on me. My home network because of digging in my area, another mid-way through my talk because of power failures, and an otherwise-pretty-good wireless network because it lost packets exactly over my presentation and was just fine ten minutes after.

This was after I prayed to the demo gods at the start. See slide #5: https://github.com/adityaathalye/slideware/blob/master/n-way...

And the talk (the zone was deadpan, laconic): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTouODWov-A

And the accompanying blog post: https://www.evalapply.org/posts/n-ways-to-fizzbuzz-in-clojur...


The advice feels solid, well at least it speaks to Chelsea's personal approach to making a presentation. Authenticity counts for a lot.

But those slides; the walls of text. If I'm reading what's on the slide, I'm not listening to what you're saying. Worse, I'm trying to do both, so neither is leaving an imprint in my brain.

Text-heavy slides are great if I'm emailing a deck to someone, but for presenting, 5-6 words max per slide.


The answer is ideally that you have a presentation deck and a linked article/blog but that's asking a lot of presenters who don't have the article/blog published somewhere anyway.


I like simple slides with heavy notes. Feels like the best of both worlds for both preparation and distribution


Notes as in "speaker notes"?


I assume so but the sort of notes I'd put together for myself are probably different from an alternate form of the material for someone else absent actually listening to the presentation.


All else will be forgiven if you have something of genuine value to present.

Remember - Stephen Hawking presented his findings. It wasn't his awesome presentation skills.


That seems a bit counter-evidenced by the fact that he reached an audience much larger than his chosen fields. He had an unique ability to explain complex matters in a very concise manner, which is an awesome presentation skill in its own right.


Unfortunately, people often confuse a smooth presentation (and clever presenter) with good content. The two are completely different things.


As someone who has given numerous talks at conferences, 100% yes. This is all good advice.

"What new skills do I want my audience to have, and know how to use, when they leave this room?"

That's effectively the same thing as the way I look at it. "What actionable thing do I want people to take away from this talk?"

I will add: Practice! You should have given your talk multiple times before you ever give it publicly, and you should have watched it. That means recording yourself and watching yourself and listening to yourself. Yes, this takes time. But it's important.

Also: do NOT plan to do live demos or live coding. You can easily record these and present them and know they work. They are edited, there are no mistakes, and things happen. You can even make the joke that it was "live coding when you recorded it."

Yes, if you have to answer a question with some live coding, fine. But it doesn't need to be live. No one wants to watch you typo stuff, complain about the network, etc. Just record it. If "recording it takes too much time" then doing it live is going to suck.


> I will add: Practice! You should have given your talk multiple times before you ever give it publicly, and you should have watched it. That means recording yourself and watching yourself and listening to yourself. Yes, this takes time. But it's important.

I would rather not give the presentation than do this. It is a cringe and self-embarassing experience. Once, I almost quit my job because certain types of high-level presentations at my company requires dry-runs and I refuse to do it. And I regularly give presentations at a few conferences a year with sufficiently good delivery.


> I would rather not give the presentation than do this. It is a cringe and self-embarassing experience.

I'm the same way, and honestly I don't understand why.

I'm not sure it's embarrassment per se, because nobody else is in the room.

But something about doing a dry run, in private, is so unpleasant that I can't make myself do it. Despite the apparent benefits.


In my experience, dry-runs, at least in front of an insider audience, are not a real assessment of the content, nor the delivery. It doesn't feel natural as in front of the real audience. Any I rarely get any useful feedback anyway: always some stupid, non-consequential remarks that tend to turn everything to corporate speak with no allowance for personal style.

Fad of the day at my company is evidence-assertion style. And I am sick of it...


Do a dry run with your mentors, colleagues, friends, etc.


There are demo gods out there. Kelsey Hightower comes to mind. But, yeah, generally speaking, it's a high-wire stunt you probably shouldn't attempt to pull off--especially without a reliable smooth plan B.

As someone who has presented a LOT, practice is useful. I always do at least a bunch of mental run-throughs. That said, a real run-through, which I don't always do, results in a better Take 2. So, yeah, do a real rehearsal when you can.

(I won't practice dozens of time though. At peak I presented a lot and practicing for a given presentation that much would have been impracticable.)


The key for me is to practice and rehearse. Once I'm actually doing a talk the notes become superfluous, but all the practice means that, despite the terror and the fight or flight response cutting in, there's enough in my subconscious to carry me through.

On another note, there's now a huge pressure on people to do presentations - many requirements for senior engineer include things like presenting at meet ups and public speaking.

I find this very unfair on people. If you don't enjoy doing something then you really shouldn't feel obligated to do it. Talking at a meet up or a conference is very different from running a meeting or doing a presentation at work.


The only way to deal with the terror is to keep doing it. The terror will go away and you will start enjoying them.


Maybe for some people. But I had a very interesting conversation with a friend of mine - I'd seen him talk multiple times, extremely polished and confident.

I asked him how he managed to do it so well and he said "I don't do talks anymore.". Despite being very good at it he decided that putting himself through the wringer was just not worth it.


He didn't say he was terrified of it. Just that it was a lot of work. This remains true regardless.


> I also think legitimacy by proxy is gross

I disagree, legitimacy by proxy is a very useful initial signal. Someone who works on the gRPC team at a large API distributor is more likely to have better advice on best practices for protobufs, than someone who works on optimizing ray-tracers for TempleOS. Relying on proxies, and likelihoods, is crucial for the timely processing of information. We heavily rely on at least some level of trust - otherwise we would have to completely verify every single thing that anyone says, before we can begin to do anything with the information.


Trust comes from the meat of the talk minus the charisma of the speaker. If what is being said is important enough to perhaps impact your work, you need to verify what is being said anyway.

Association alone isn't very convincing. If people really feel they need to establish credentials they should talk about what they do. It is almost like at a job interview. I don't need to know that you worked for X - I want to know what you did at X.

Introductions should be no more than what you can fit into one breath. After that it is just some person going on about themselves, and that isn't very attractive. Get to the meat first, and then we can talk.


Exactly what I thought. Exceptions are always possible, but more people need to channel their inner baysian and assign appropriate prior probabilities. Someone with impressive and relevant credentials gets a higher prior from me that their talk will be worthwhile. Doesn't mean that prior is 100% or that some nobody's prior is 0%.


Some of the advice here is great for meetings as well.


I have spoken a few times. My favorite self intro is:

Slide with title "about me"

Next slide: "who cares"

Then I say "you came here to learn about <topic>, not me. Feel free to Google me if you want".


I care. I want to know that the person who is talking can back up the content and has experience with the subject matter.


Fair. I guess I assume:

* someone has read or at least scanned my speaker bio

* folks want to get straight to the content

* my expertise is shown by the fact I'm speaking and the content I'm conveying

But maybe I'm wrong.


> someone has read or at least scanned my speaker bio

Probably not.

As I wrote in another comment, a quick context-set and contact information in probably useful but quick is the operative phrase especially for any background that isn't directly relevant to the material at hand.


> someone has read or at least scanned my speaker bio

I'll do it after, if your talk catches my attention.


Any claims made during the presentation, including claims of professional experience, can be completely made up. Besides, if someone was allowed to present at a conference, then that means that they have already been reviewed and approved by the conference organizers, which means that speakers do not need to convince you, that they know what they are talking about.


Sadly, there's too many idiots with good credentials to rely on self-reported expertise. Ever seen one of those academic lecture intros that wax poetic for 10m about the person you're about to hear from? Can you remember any that actually established credibility?


When you're going through the conference agenda, why not google the presenters for the talks you find interesting? Or read their bios?


You are arguing in favor of "argument from authority".


You could just skip to the content and not do this virtue signaling


I absolutely hate this kind of "oh I'm not going to waste your time, honestly, I'm really going to try to make this worth your while, wow look at me, I'm amazing!" talk.

This is why I now love attending talks remotely. If you annoy me, I can mute you and focus on something else and unmute the stream when the next speaker comes up.


I usually flash an about me slide for about 15 seconds. In general, some context/web site/etc is useful. Much more than that is not. Even if you're a supposedly important person, I'm probably not that interested in your life history. And if you're that important, I probably already know something about it.


I'd add one caveat.

"you came here to learn about <topic>, not me. Feel free to Google me if you want. Just please keep in mind that all teenagers make mistakes. It's not my fault you only made boring mistakes."

To make it work, you need to deliver the last line while seemingly preoccupied with something presentation-related. Otherwise, it seems hostile. An example could be as simple as pretending to change settings on microphone or moving one slide back, then forward twice. It conveys it was intended to be inner monologue


Most articles about public speaking, including this one, have interesting advice, but they miss the point on the most important factor in a presentation: the content.

If you do everything that the author recommends, but you don't have anything valuable to share, your talk will flop. So make sure you have something important to tell people.

What I'd really like to read is an account of how to make interesting content, how to arrive at great conclusions while working on great problems.


I despise it when a conference presenter starts off by saying that they threw the slides together on the way there. Often as if they're oddly proud of that.

It's basically coming out of the gate saying that you don't respect the time/attention of the audience.


> It's basically coming out of the gate saying that you don't respect the time/attention of the audience.

Are there other plausible explanations?

E.g., perhaps the presenter struggles with ADHD-based procrastination, and is only able to make slides under imminent deadline pressure.

Or maybe they tend to be neurotic and over-think things, and are experimenting with being more spontaneous in their preparation.

(Asking as a neurotic ADHD person with moderate social anxiety.)


Just let people make their own mind up about the quality of the slides. Half the audience will probably think they are fine, and it won't be the first time the other half has seen mediocre slides.


I think some of the bits of advice here apply more to "soft" topics like tech debt, etc. Things that feel more like storytelling rather than informational.

Technical presentations have a different set of "rules".


Which rules do you think are missing and which shouldn’t be do e for tech presentations?




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