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!


  • todd

    I am thankful for these posts, but I am a little disappointed that: 1> they are few and far between and 2> they have very little to do with data science (the reason I am following Hilary in the first place)

  • Thorsten

    Great article.

    You should add a read more link to the article. Currently the complete article is displayed at the startpage.

  • http://blog.meteorit.co.uk AdamV

    Great article, and good tip for a way to focus on the storytelling aspect rather than the slide deck. I also find that a lot of people do spend time practising what they will say on each slide (after spending hours crafting super shiny looking slides), but not on delivering the complete thing.

    The bit that gets forgotten is to practice the segues from one slide to another, the bits that are not in the slide deck (those little white gaps between thumbnails on screen).

    For sequences which are part of the same “idea” this is easier to manage, but when shifting gears or moving to the next topic, you need to know how you relate / compare / contrast / introduce the next slide. The only way for your talk to appear as one whole is to practice right through from start to finish, and doing that early in the design process seems to be a great way to start.