I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to do about 25 talks over the course of the past few years and I have quite a few upcoming gigs as well, most of them at international conferences around Europe and the US. Despite my speaking experience, I’m still very reluctant to call myself a “professional speaker” or even a “speaker” at all. In case you follow me on twitter, you might have noticed that my bio says “Often pretends to be a speaker”, and that captures exactly how I feel. I’m not one of those confident performers that don’t just present interesting stuff, but also can blurt jokes one after the other, almost like stand-up comedians and never backtrack or go “ummm”. I greatly admire these people and I aspire to become as confident as them on stage one day. People like Aral Balkan, Christian Heilmann, Nicole Sullivan, Jake Archibald and many others. Unlike them, I often backtrack mid-sentence, say a lot of “ummmm”s and sometimes talk about stuff that was going to be later in my slides, all of which are very awkward.
However, I’ve reached the conclusion that I must be doing something right. I do get a lot of overwhelmingly positive feedback after almost every talk, even by people I admire in the industry. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a negative comment for a talk, even in cases that I thought I had screwed up. Naturally, after all these conferences, I’ve attended a lot of technical talks myself, and I’ve gathered some insight on what constitutes a technical talk the audience will enjoy. I’ve been pondering to write a post with advice about this for a long time, but my lack of confidence about my speaking abilities put me off the task. However, since people seem to consider me good, I figured it might help others doing technical talks as well.
All of the following are rules of thumb. You have to keep in mind that there are exceptions to every single one, but it’s often quicker and more interesting to talk in absolutes. I will try to stay away from what’s already been said in other similar articles, such as “tell a story” or “be funny” etc, not because it’s bad advice, but because a) I’m not really good at those so I prefer to let others discuss them and b) I don’t like repeating stuff that’s already been said numerous times before. I will try to focus on what I do differently, and why I think it works. It might not fit your style and that’s ok. Audiences like a wide range of presentation styles, otherwise I’d be screwed, as I don’t fit the traditional “good speaker” profile. Also, it goes without saying that some of my advice might be flat out wrong. I’m just trying to do pattern recognition to figure out why people like my talks. That’s bound to be error-prone. My talks might be succeeding in spite of X and not because of it. Continue reading