I give a lot of talks. I’d like to think I’m pretty good at it at this point. But it hasn’t always been this way. Sure, years of playing in bands gave me a level of stage comfort that many must overcome but I was the keyboard player — a sideman. When you’re giving a talk, you’re the front person. In fact, in most cases, you’re the only person — with dozens, if not hundreds, of pairs of eyes staring squarely in your direction. While there are countless articles on overcoming stage fright, I’d like to focus this article on structuring and delivering your talk.
The steps outlined below are the scheme I follow each time I prepare a new presentation. I put a lot of time — anywhere between 40 and 100 hours — into every talk because I believe that conference audiences deserve a great talk. They paid a lot of money to be there and far too many talks fail to deliver. Let’s dig in.
Step 1: Have an opinion
You’d be amazed how many presentations I’ve sat through where the presenter rambled on from topic to topic, pausing only to sip some water while we waited for the merciful end of their timeslot.
Pick a theme. Have a point of view. It can be simple. There is plenty of appetite for 101-level content but your talk has to stand for something. This often manifests in the title of your presentation.
I start by asking myself this question: Why am I giving this talk?
Is it to share some learnings? Is it to introduce the audience to a new concept? Is it to challenge an accepted way of doing something?
Whatever it is, you need to have an opinion.
Step 2: Stay practical
I am not a fan of theoretical talks. I don’t enjoy attending them and I don’t give them. I believe people come to meetups and conferences to learn something new, often to help them do their job better. I always ground my presentations in tactics. You don’t need a lot. Three will suffice but one is also fine if you have enough content to dig into the details of that one thing.
Attention spans are fleeting and the pull of that iPhone vibrating in the audience’s pockets is tough to resist. Be explicit about what’s coming up. “I’m going to share with you today, 3 tricks I use to become a better writer.”
There’s room for inspiration in a practical talk. It often comes in the form of your successes using the tactics you’re sharing. But it’s the tactics the audience came to get.
Step 3: Keep it genuine
Passion for your subject matter shines through at its brightest when you’re sharing stories from your experience. Tell those stories but be humble. Recount the stumbles as well as the wins. Poke a little fun at yourself.
Audiences can immediately sense a genuine presenter. Share a personal story that reveals a bit more about you. Weave that story into your narrative not just to endear yourself to your audience but to show how your experience has helped shape your opinion. As you sit down to write your presentation, ask yourself what personal stories — even old ones — you can share that would enhance the points your trying to make.
Step 4: Write the essay first
This is my favorite tactic. Once I have the topic in mind, a set of practical recommendations and a personal story or two I know I want to share, I write an essay. This essay forms the basis for my story arc. How do I set context? What are the core points I’d like to make? How do my personal anecdotes fit best to enhance my narrative? All of this gets worked out when you sit down and write it out.
Bonus tip: This essay, published on your blog or other site, can serve as a great way to test how well your ideas are resonating. If it sparks good debate, conversation and wide sharing, you’ve hit on something. If not, dig into your readers’ reactions to understand where to bolster your storytelling.
Step 5: Use rich imagery and very little text
Slides are there to support your ideas, not to make them for you. Find rich images to enhance your points but resist the urge to cover the image with words. Any words you do put on the slides should be in large fonts and terse (think: tweetable). If relevant, photos you took of your ideas taking flight are very powerful in driving home the tactics mentioned in Step 2
Also, very important: Avoid fancy animations. Projected on big screens they can make people dizzy (sorry Prezi).
Step 6: Be funny
Everyone can be funny. Yes, even you. Humor is, in my opinion, the best way to ensure your audience is engaged throughout the presentation. You don’t have to do a stand-up comedy routine but a few well-timed punchlines can really make a talk memorable. Self-deprecating humor is always best and shows humility.
Step 7: Practice. And then practice some more
Once the story is written, the slides are done and the punchlines are in place, there’s only one thing left to do — practice. This is by far the most important step in preparing a great presentation. Practicing gets you familiar with the content. It helps you refine your timings and your transitions. It shows you where your storytelling is lacking and where it’s strong. It’ll save your ass when the projector conks out two-thirds of the way through your talk.
Here’s how I do it:
- First two rehearsals — by myself in my office to the wall.
- Next rehearsal — to my wife (best critic I have). The measure of success here is if she can stay awake throughout the entire thing.
- Fourth rehearsal — at the office to my colleagues at lunch. Testing the material in a friendly setting will help you gain confidence in your content and presentation style while the feedback will be honest.
- Fifth rehearsal — back in my office but this time recording the whole thing. Watch the video. It will hurt but in a good way.
- Final rehearsal — either by myself or in front of the office colleagues again. At this point you should be comfortable with the material, the flow of your story and the timing of your presentation.
These are the techniques I use to craft a great presentation. They help me ground my talk in concrete content I know my audience will appreciate. They also help me ensure that my delivery comes across naturally, in a tone that helps me connect with the audience. Give them a shot and let me know how they work for you.