Better Technical Talks

This is a follow-up for my earlier post.

Here I intend to give some practical advice! But first, allow me to digress — why are you up there speaking, and why are these people listening to you?

If they really were consumed by a desire to know, they would read your blog posts about the topic. They are not there because they are missing knowledge. They are there because they think you will be entertaining. Optimize for being entertaining, and you might be able to teach them something. Optimize for teaching, and you will probably be boring, and they will learn nothing.

Remember: public speaking is a performance art. Treat your technical talk as a performance, and you will do much better. Now, performance doesn’t mean you make it into a circus: you want to give the audience what they expect, more or less. In a technical talk, they expect to be fascinated by stories of the interaction between computers and people.

Hollywood writing has a concept called “Save the Kitten”. Near the beginning of the movie, the hero does something good (“saving the kitten”) which makes the audience care about him. Now, when he does something stupid and has to go on a quest to fix it, you care enough about him to follow along. Likewise, you need to set yourself up as a hero in the beginning of the talk — subtly.

The talk I went to about metaclasses set the speaker as a hero because he outlined a Prometheus narrative of bringing fire from the Gods to the mortals. The talk about stopping to write classes set the hero as the person who helps clean up other people’s code. In my talk, I told a story about visiting a customer and seeing how they didn’t notice many errors because of our crash recovery system. I could outline many other examples, but this ultimately has to be about you.

Apologies are rarely entertaining. If you are already a good speaker, you can usually find an entertaining way to apologize but as a novice just refrain from that at all. A self-deprecating joke would do much better if something screwed up.

  • Wrong: “Sorry, I completely forgot to talk about something 3 slides ago…”
  • Right: “Oh, hey, three slides ago I should have told you something else. Let’s go jump in the time machine and fix it…”

Put pictures on your slides. People like looking at pictures. Have them somewhat related to your talk, although it’s ok if the connection is obscure. Puzzled people are a bit distracted, but they are not bored. They might not listen to you — but at least they will not walk away thinking that they are glad to have caught up on their sleep.

Put less words on your slides. If you must put words, have them be a “teaser” that you explain. There is a reason shows on TV starts with a teaser — people will keep their attention to find a solution. If you put code, try to make it less than 10 lines, including comments. It is ok to use code in a style that would not pass muster in production to illustrate a point.

Practice your talk. Do it in front of a video camera. I am still working on reducing my “ums” and “likes”. Accents, however, are not bad. Sure, they make the audience work harder to understand you, which works against the “teaching” goal. But they work for the “entertaining” goal because, let’s face it, accents are funny.

Lastly, remember that unless you’re the human cannon, people are not watching you to see you fail. They want to see you succeed. Draw confidence from people, not fear.



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