Advice for your first talk

May 18, 2015

I’m going through and clearing out very old blog post drafts. This is from a randomly long email I wrote to the Hackbright listserv of advice for someone giving their first talk, after I’d given my first talk How to be a Better Junior Developer at RailsConf last year. The main point I’d add to all this is that you don’t have to succeed at All The Public Speaking Things all at once, on your first few talks. It’s easy to get swallowed by all the information on public speaking out there, so if you’re getting too overwhelmed by it all, I think it’s more effective to ask yourself:
  1. What do you want your audience to get out of your talk?
  2. What do you want to get out of having given the talk?

For example, for my How to be a Better Junior Developer talk, the answers to these questions were essentially “get them thinking about all the non-traditional strengths they bring to a team” and “give a talk at a tech conference.” Then later I could know that I succeeded, since I’ve had lots of conversations with people about the former, and I didn’t literally die, so I succeeded at the latter as well!

One of the reasons I wasn’t super thrilled immediately after that talk was that I had some secret (even to myself!) goals that I was caring too much about, like wanting to be validated by getting the audience to laugh, or having a flawless delivery that matched up exactly with the script I’d written out. It would’ve been better to save those for future talks, not to mention explicitly stating them, which would let me see when they’d need to be adjusted to be more productive (no one else cares about how well it matches against my script).

For example, it’s a future goal of mine to be able to do the thing where you don’t need to refer to speaker notes at all and can just wander around out in front of the protection of the podium. But for my Slighty Less Painful Time Zones talk, my goal was to give a talk with code in it, with clear explanations and generalizable lessons for the audience. So it was ok that I still wanted to stay behind the safety of the podium and reference my speaker notes there.

Finally, related to all the above, getting better at public speaking is a continual quest. One of the reasons I started reading about improving at public speaking was that I figured this was one of those skills where no one would ever be like, "oh, so-and-so is too good at public speaking." There’s always room for improvement! To that end, these are the resources I use to learn more about how to improve:

Talk content:
  • Once I knew I was going to give a talk, I kept a running doc of all the random ideas that came to mind that I thought I might want to fit in, other articles that came up that seemed like they'd be relevant, until I had enough of a mass of material that I could cut down to fit 30 minutes, vs. like with writing papers when I always felt like I was stretching to reach the word count.
  • Write up at least your talk outline first, outside of making slides. Much more work to fiddle with slides later if the structure of your talk isn't pinned down yet.
  • Sometimes I write out an exact script and practice it until I can do it off referencing bullet points or ideally no speaker notes at all, but that takes a lot of time. Practicing it out loud helps me realize which turns of phrase are fine in writing but sound awkward out loud, or that I have trouble remembering. I'm trying to become more flexible about this kind of thing though, so I think it depends on how much you would benefit from the extra structure.
  • People love personal stories, make yourself relatable to evoke empathy and help people feel like they're getting more out of your talk. Basically you’re like, “I’ve been where you are, I understand you, here's how I got out and how you can do it too" and it gets received as, “I’m like this person, so what this person says is relevant to me...that was such a great talk!!"
  • Asking rhetorical questions are an easy way to get "audience participation" without feeling like it's too much of a strain. I did a ton of, “Show of hands, how many people have felt this way before??" and raised up my own hand to get people to see that I expected a response.

Talk length:
  • If you think about it, few people ever say, "man, I wish that speech was a lot longer." So it's better to hit 20 minutes and leave them wanting more, than going way over time allotted for a 30 minute talk to 40 minutes instead.
  • Related to that, I’m always reminding myself to try to sloooooow dooooown. My default speaking speed is on the faster end of things, and when I get nervous on stage it can get jerkier and squeaky--not a very effective delivery mode for me. So adding in uncertainty for whether I can finish in the allotted time doesn’t help, and it’s better to think I can slow down as much as I want and not go over.
  • Or, think about the talk as a series of mini-talks that you're stitching together. Might be less intimidating to pull together three 10-minute talks than one 30-minute talk?

Technical details:
  • I used Keynote for the first time and loved it, if you have a Mac and can get access to it, it's definitely worth trying out because they basically set it up so that it's hard to make ugly slides. Could be worth seeing if you can expense it. (see this post I wrote on slide building tips)
  • Look at a handful (but not too many) other speaker decks to get a general sense of designs/formats/structures that you like. Then just blatantly copy one of them and sub out for your own content--unless this is a talk about design, people won't really care that much about the slides themselves for you to spend enormous amounts of time on them. My slides, other random sets I liked. 

Dealing with nerves:
  • Power pose
  • Put a positive frame on the stress you feel
  • Doing a handful of jumping jacks right beforehand (this way I can tell myself my elevated heart rate is due to exercise instead of nervousness)
  • Whatever else you need for you, even (especially) if that means being completely anti-social and not talking to anyone beforehand
  • Don't apologize for being new or not having a lot of time to prepare, but you can expose your vulnerability to get people on your side to root for you, if that works for you. So like, instead of "sorry this talk was kind of last minute...", you can say "I'm so excited to be here! I'm a little nervous though, so I'd really appreciate it if you all _____" (a friend of mine filled this in with "encouraged me by clapping whenever I get to a section title slide or take too long a pause" which worked really well for him, but he's also just kind of very charming and adorable)
  • "How to Talk to Developers" by Ben Orenstein is good, ~30 min long. There's a really good set of practical tips around body language and such near the end, so stick with it.

  • Practice practice practice. Don’t be shy, corral people you know to be guinea pigs and get feedback from them before the real thing. Practice at local meet ups, go to local code schools to be a guest speaker, etc.
  • Practicing in front of the bathroom mirror is something I find helpful, because I know immediately if I'm making eye contact with myself.
  • Including practicing taking breaks to drink water!
  • Include practicing with a clicker, there are lots of remotes you can set up to use as a clicker. It lets you be a bit looser than if you’re tied to hitting an arrow button.
  • You will probably forget to say something you planned on saying during your talk. Who cares! It's more important to convey your overall message and connect with the audience than to remember every detail of your planned talk.
  • Relax and enjoy the experience; the audience will too! It is the most amazing adrenaline rush you're done and it's gone really well, so use those nerves to pump energy and enthusiasm into your talk.