Speaking: Two Questions to Ask Before You Give a Talk

If you’ve had a talk proposal accepted or been invited to speak at an event, you’ll usually get a chance to chat with the organizers before you show up to give your talk.

While you probably have a good idea of the topic of your talk (if you don’t, that’s a post for another day!), event organizers can be invaluable in helping you frame a talk that will succeed with their audience. They are on your side and they want you to do great, or they wouldn’t be hosting you at their event.

These are two questions that I always ask the organizers before I speak.

Question 1: Who will be in the audience?

Knowing the basic demographics of the audience is necessary to make sure you’re speaking at the right level and tuning the cultural references and humor for the room. I often speak to audiences of highly technical engineers and to audiences of business folks about the same topics. These are very different talks.

You may already have a good sense of who will be at the event, but getting the organizer to tell you explicitly also tells you which population they are crafting the event to serve. It’s helpful to know who they consider to be the most important people in the room.

Question 2: What does a win for my talk look like to you?

This question prompts the organizers to tell you what they are hoping people in the audience will take away from your talk. Their response gives you more information about how you can successfully fit your talk into the overall event and specific goals.

For example, responses I’ve gotten have ranged from “I want people to feel inspired”, which tells me to emphasize the forward-looking optimistic topics that I plan to talk about, to “I hope they learn one practical trick they can use in their work immediately”, which tells me to focus on clarifying specific techniques, and so on.

The event organizers know their event better than you do, so anything you can learn from them ahead of time will be useful.

Speaking: Spend at least 1/3 of the time practicing the talk

This week we welcome a guest contribution. Matthew Trentacoste is a recovering academic and a computer scientist at Adobe, where he writes software to make pretty pictures. He’s constantly curious, often about data, and cooks a lot. You can follow his exploits at @mattttrent.

In Hilary’s last post, she made the point that your slides != your talk. In a well-crafted talk, your message — in the form of the words you say — needs to dominate while the slides need to play a supporting role. Speak the important parts, and use your slides as a backdrop for what you’re saying.

Hilary has provided a valuable strategy in her post, but how should someone approach crafting such a clearly-organized presentation? If you’re just getting started speaking, it can be a real challenge to make a coherent talk and along with slides that add to it rather than distract. This post provides tactics to help you make the most of that advice.

And that advice is… well, more than just advice. Separating the message of your words and your slides is nearly requisite for an engaging talk, and more importantly, absolutely necessary for effective communication. Your listeners are unable to read words and hear words simultaneously. If you put loads of writing on your sildes and speak the whole time, you can guarantee that they’ll miss one or the other. To get an idea of what I mean, try listening to a TV show and reading a book at the same time and observe just how much you remember of either.

I’m not saying that you should never put words on your slides (far from it). You should, however, need to think about how your slides and spoken words relate to each other. Your audience can either listen to you and ignore your slides, or they can read your slides and ignore you. Worse yet, when presented with two simultaneous streams of information, your audience will probably do a half-hearted job of paying attention to both talk and slides, missing much of your point.

Novice speakers often fail to recognize the difference between the talk and their slides. Hopefully this post and the last will have convinced you that they complementary aspects, not one and the same. Even when a speaker recognizes the difference, they often spend too much time on their slides and not enough time on their talk. Behavioral psychology tells us that when faced with an uncomfortable situtaion or task, we usually default to the most familiar aspect of it. If you’re a nerd, chances are your most familiar thing is sitting at your computer, working on the slides.

In reality, “working on the slides” usually translates to messing around with better fonts, better equations, better plots, better cat photos, etc… instead of figuring out whether or not you’re clearly and effectively communicating your point. Also, if you’re new to giving talks, you’ll tend to cram more words onto the slides to assure yourself you won’t forget them while speaking. (Tip: put all your extra reminders in the slide notes, and give the talk with your own laptop to make sure you have presenter view, it’s a life-saver)

To combat this common tendency towards slide-wank, I have one simple rule:

If your talk is N minutes long, you are allowed to work on it for at most 2N minutes before you must practice giving the entire talk again.

In other words, fully one third of the time you spend working on your talk must be spent practicing it. Out loud. From start to finish. For reals.

Let’s say you’re giving a 20 minute talk. This rule means you have 40 minutes, max, that you can work on your slides before you have to stand and present it. This counter starts the minute you open powerpoint/keynote/deck.js. You’ve got 40 minutes to frantically type titles and copy/paste cat photos into your blank slide deck, then you have to stand up and give it.

But, but…

Yes, that’s 40 minutes to go from blank slides to giving a 20 minute talk to your dog.
Yes, you will be completely unprepared.
Yes, you will forget why at least one slide is there (despite having made it less than an hour before) — then remember 5 slides later, then ruin your train of thought by going back to explain it.
Yes, it is going to be brutally uncomfortable.
Yes, that’s the point.

The point, however, isn’t to be sadistic just for the sake of it. In the end, you won’t be judged on how flashy your slides are, but by how effectively you’ve told your story. If you are unused to speaking, getting up and giving a talk can be really uncomfortable. Even if you are used to it, trying to iron out talking points can still be really frustrating. It’s so much more comfortable to fiddle with fonts and images, so we need hard rules to keep us on the level.

There are two big benefits to this approach. First, it forces you to focus on the speaking. Do your slides (and the ideas that they contain) flow coherently from one to the next? Does one part drag on while another feels rushed? Does that one section even make any sense? When rehearsing your talk, you’ll rapidly identify troublesome portions that you would have never noticed if focused purely on how the slides look. On more than one occasion, I’ve had to delete super-fancy-looking slides because I just couldn’t weave them into my narrative.

Second, this approach forces you to get really good at messing up. It goes without saying that more you practice anything, the better you’ll be at it. Practicing your talk will expose places where you’re likely to mess up, so that you can focus more effort on making it through those sections. Most importantly, all of your practice giving the talk in a highly-unpolished state will teach you to push through any accidental misspeakings. By repeatedly practicing your speaking parts, you’ll have said every part of the talk in a dozen slightly different ways. You will become comfortable with flowing into and out of every point using slightly different words. When you accidentally say something unintended on stage, it won’t be as nearly as stressful. You might not be able to smoothly deliver the entire talk, but you’ll be far more confindent and able to recover from messups much more gracefully than you otherwise would.

The end goal is to stand in front of a room of people and say something that they will find interesting. Your words, your slides, and time spent rehearsing work in service of this goal. We all like to fiddle with stuff on our computers, and it can be hard to keep the narrative in the spotlight when deciding between 16pt and 17pt fonts. Following hard rules when preparing a talk ensures you focus your energy on the scariest part: the speaking.

This article is part of my series of speaking hacks for introverts and nerds. Read about the motivation here. And if you have a hack you want to share, let me know!

Speaking: Your Slides != Your Talk

Slides are the supporting structure for your talk, not the main event. Speak the meaty and informative portion of the presentation out loud and use slides as a backdrop to set either the emotional tone or reinforce the message that you are trying to convey.

Obama and Social People

For example, I love using this image of Obama in Berlin as a backdrop when I talk about the growth of social data over the last several years. In this image every single person has a device and is generating their own data about their shared social experience. The content of the image supports what is otherwise a fairly abstract statement, and you can feel the excitement of the crowd, boosting the excitement that I want to share about the possibilities of social data.

This is a particular style of slide design will fail for situations where “the Powerpoint” will be shared independently of the talk, and it’s not appropriate for all content, but it is a ton of fun when you can get away with it and uses people’s expectations about what they are going to see (a speaker and some slides) to create a more compelling experience.

This article is part of my series of speaking hacks for introverts and nerds. Read about the motivation here.

Speaking: Explaining Technical Information to a Mixed Audience

It’s a challenge to present deeply technical material to a room of people with varying expertise levels. If you leave it out, you’re abandoning the substance of your presentation. If you focus on it exclusively, you will lose most of the room.

Instead, include the material, but plan to repeat it two (or even three!) times.

The first time you explain it, explain it for the expert audience.

The second time you explain it, walk through an example of what the system enables.

If you’re audience is on Twitter, throw in a third version — the concise and tweetable one!

Let’s say we were giving a talk about a machine learning system to classify puppies.

Slide one would have a technical diagram of the architecture of the system, and you might explain it as: “We use a naive bayesian classifier over two hundred features to discriminate between puppies and non-puppies in our data set. As you see, our system is 85% accurate and each analysis takes 300 milliseconds. We implemented the classifier in Python, using the scikits-learn toolkit…” Don’t skimp on the details, but don’t use more than one slide for this part if possible and the explanation shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.

Slide two would have images of puppies and non-puppies, and might be explained, “This means that we have an algorithm that can distinguish between the puppies you see on top and the other objects quite accurately and quickly using features like ear floppiness and nose size.”

Slide three would be the cutest puppy you can find, and you might say, “Yes, we’ve created the worlds fastest cuteness identifying machine!” Only include the third version if the audience is online anyway. They’re probably only paying half-attention to you as you speak and this gives them something concise to share and take away from your talk.

The technique of repeating the information at varying levels of intensity has the side effect of walking people through to understanding. They may still be puzzling through the technical material when you explain it non-technically, and this seems to help the meaning snap into focus.

Break up your technical material with layered explanations and you’ll keep the audience entertained while maximizing the amount of information that each person takes away. Win.

Speaking: 1 Kitten per Equation


Use a ratio of one cute cat photo per equation in your talk.

This is a concise way of saying that a ratio of one part heavy, technical content to one part light-hearted explanation is ideal.

You may have to play with the ratio depending on the audience or the expectations, but people react best when they have the chance to learn something fundamentally hard and interesting while, at the same time, getting to smile.

And yes, DO use photos of cute things in your talks! The hack here is that people naturally smile when they look at adorableness. If they are smiling in your talk they credit you for the positive feelings. It’s an easy way to boost people’s perceived enjoyment of your talk and to get your audience into the kind of mood where it’s easier to walk them through more complex, technical material.

Speaking: Use the Narrative Arc

If you took a college freshman literature class, you probably remember a diagram like this:


…with the x-axis reprenting time, and the y-axis (which, for some infuriating reason, is never labeled) representing intensity.

Last week’s speaking hack was to limit yourself to 15 minutes (or less!) per idea. The hack this week is to use this gradient of intensity within each segment you present.

If you wrote it out as a linear outline, each idea in your talk might have:

  1. an introduction to the idea
  2. a high-level overview of the idea
  3. the technical details
  4. an example that brings the technical details together (this is the most exciting part!)
  5. a conclusion that wraps up why this is exciting, how it works, and what people learned

You can also use the narrative arc to structure the intensity of the talk as a whole. By ordering the ideas you explore by intensity and having a strong introduction and strong conclusion, you can keep people engaged throughout the entire presentation.

This article is part of my series of speaking hacks for introverts and nerds. Read about the motivation here.

Speaking: 15 Minutes Or Less Per Idea

Let’s just admit it: very few people can pay attention to anything for more than fifteen minutes straight. Take advantage of this by never spending more than fifteen minutes on one idea during a talk.

That means that if your talk is 45 minutes long, you should break it down into at least three, perhaps four different ideas that you want to explore. I find it helpful to outline my talks this way on paper before I start putting slides together.

The ideas that you choose to explore within a talk should flow naturally together; there shouldn’t be a jarring transition. And if you find yourself belaboring the same point for more than fifteen minutes, try to break it down further.

This article is part of my series of speaking hacks for introverts and nerds. Read about the motivation here.

Speaking: Entertain, Don’t Teach

It’s tempting to think of a talk as the opportunity to take a body of knowledge and to educate your audience about that body of knowledge. You have something in your head and you want to get it into theirs.

Making education your top priority leads to terrible talks, with an unhappy audience that won’t retain any of the information you wanted them to remember, anyway. Instead, think about how you can create a compelling narrative through your material, layering in the deep technical content so that the most attentive listeners will take away a deep understanding while the people who are only half paying attention will, at the very least, enjoy the experience.

I can’t think of any talk that demonstrates this better than Gary Bernhardt’s WAT:

Remember: you’re entertaining, not educating.

This article is part of my series of speaking hacks for introverts and nerds. Read about the motivation here.

Speaking: Title Slides + Twitter = You Win

Your title slide should focus on the title of the talk. It should also include your name and affiliation, your logo if you have a cute one, possibly your blog or e-mail address if you want people to get in touch, and your twitter handle.

Here’s one of mine:


I usually mention that the beginning of the talk that if people have questions they can tweet them at me. This isn’t just because Twitter is a great way to get questions from people too shy to speak up (or who don’t get an opportunity). Here’s the hack: letting people know that you’ll be reading everything they say about your talk on Twitter makes them more likely to say nice things.

Further, in a multi-track conference, people who weren’t actually in your talk (or were there but not paying a lot of attention) will judge your talk based on what people on Twitter say about it. Get a few good tweets, and you’ve created the wide perception that you’ve given a good talk.

Of course, it helps to actually give a good talk. More on that soon.

This article is part of my series of speaking hacks for introverts and nerds. Read about the motivation here.

Speaking: Pick a Vague and Specific Title for Your Talk

Your title should be both vague and specific.

First, vague. You generally have to commit to give a talk months in advance of the actual event. You do not, however, generally have a talk written several months ahead of the actual event. You may also have a particular talk accepted, and then arrive at the conference and realize that what you had planned isn’t ideal for that audience. A vague title offers you a lot of flexibility in altering the content of your talk as conditions change without betraying the expectations of the audience based on the materials published earlier.

And then, specific. If your title is too vague (“Stuff and Junk”) people won’t be excited for your talk, and you’ll lack an audience entirely or won’t make it through the CFP process at all. Be specific about the frame of the talk, but leave the details vague.

For example, I recently gave a talk called “Human Behavior and the Social Web”. The title gives you a good idea what the talk will be about, but doesn’t commit me to sticking to any particular set of stories or material.

A particularly excellent example of this is Paul Graham’s PyCon 2012 keynote titled “Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas” (which was also a really fun talk). That title gives you a specific frame to get very excited about, while leaving him with complete flexibility to alter the content up until the moment he got on stage.

This article is part of my series of speaking hacks for introverts and nerds. Read about the motivation here.