Starting with Public Speaking

Exactly one year ago I did my first talk at a public conference. I wrote an abstract about my experience how to clean up the code of a legacy system. Three weeks before the talk I totally panicked because I haven’t done one slide and didn’t know if I could fill a 60 minute slot with information. I freaked out even more when I saw that I have to speak in the big keynote room with 700 seats. Don’t get me wrong: This was always my dream it was just so comfort in my comfort zone only consuming great talks. Anyway the talk went fine, I felt well prepared and didn’t throw up on stage.

One year later I’ve done some more talks at large and small conferences. It’s not rocket science. If you think there is no story you can talk about, you’re probably wrong. I was thinking the same. But when I told people what we’ve been doing at work, how we ran our team, how we tried constantly to clean our code, I got a great response. People like to hear real stories and want to get inspired by others. It’s a great experience. Here are 5 tips for people who also want to start talking in public:

1. Learn from the masters

There are some great talks out there. My favorite speaker was Uncle Bob. I saw him speaking at Devoxx a few years ago. He just had one sentence on each slide an talked about the topic for 10 minutes. I think this is a great presentation style. But instead of copying him, I tried to develop my style. If you watch different speakers you can get inspired by each of them. Take bits and pieces (gestures, slide design…) and tie them into your style.

If you visit a conference just don’t look for interesting topics but also for good speakers. You will definitely see things that you don’t like (like reading out loud a bullet point list) you should learn from that, too. I saw some great presentations from famous speakers but also some that really sucked.

That said, you should not forget point 5!

2. Preparation takes time

I’m surprised every time how much time it takes to write a talk. Developing a 30-45 minute talk takes me about 40 hours of work (incl. practice sessions): Getting the messages right, finding great examples, looking for more data on the web… and designing the slides. You should put some efforts in designing your slides: FInd good pictures that underlines your message, find the 3 -5 words that tells your message, find a cool color scheme and a good font. It doesn’t matter if you tell your story in 10 or 100 slides. I saw great talks with just a few slides and awesome talks with slides each 30 seconds. It depends on the talk and the presenter (see point 1).

If you’re done with everything you should practice your presentation at least 4 times! Do it loud. You can use index cards for the first run but you should avoid to use them on stage. After my first practical run, I need to change a lot of slides, remove some and add some more. Before I deliver the talk for the first time at a conference I try it out in front of a real technical audience (thanks to my old team mates at REpower Systems SE to listen to it and giving me advices). They can give you real valuable feedback.

You should also record your talk with a screen capture tool for two reasons: One is to listen to yourself and see where you are boring and how you sound to other people. Reason two for recording the talk is to document what you’re saying. I suck updating my speaker notes when I tried the talk 3 times. The talk changes. When I do the talk for the second or third time I just listen to it before and I’m up to date. You can also release it that way on YouTube. You will reach a lot more people online than at a conference.

3. Interact with the audience

It is the first few seconds when people decides if they like you or not. I don’t say that everybody should like you and what you’re saying but it helps if you get a connection to the audience at the beginning. How are you doing that? Start your talk with a story of your own. Get to know the audience. Ask questions. Interact with the audience. Be yourself.

You should also try to be funny. Entertain the audience. I guess, this is the hardest part. I’m not good at telling jokes. I’m even not good at entertaining people at parties. I always try to put in funny pictures that underline my story or say something provocative and smile. At some conferences that works, at others it doesn’t work. If your audience is not reacting or showing any emotion make a pause, give them some time. If there is still no reaction just go on.

4. Adjust your talk

If you’re a public speaker you will probably reuse your material for multiple presentation. There is actually nothing wrong in giving a talk 10 times at 10 speaking events. It’s like a concert: It’s a new talk for the audience… But if you noticed that you stuck with some slides or the talk doesn’t flow don’t hesitate to change something. Improve your talk after every presentation. Don’t hesitate to throw parts away. If you get the same key message to the audience in shorter time, that’s even cooler. BTW: I don’t have problems finishing the talk 10 minutes before the conference schedule.

Probably some people will show up to talk to you after your session. Take the feedback seriously. Think if you can use it for the presentation in order to answer the questions during the talk.

Try to adjust your talk to each audience. Let the people feel like you did this talk just for them. If you’re in another country, put in some local content. Don’t look like a rock star that doesn’t care in which city he is playing. Care about your audience.

5. Be yourself

Maybe the most important thing if you’re doing a presentation. Don’t try to play a role or copy an awesome speaker you’ve just seen at another conference. Tell a honest story from your experience. Also tell how you failed. Don’t look like an untouchable super hero that does everything right. People will feel more connected to you and your content if they see, that you’re a guy just like them. If it comes to Q&A don’t shy away from saying “I don’t know”, if you don’t have an answer to the question.

If you get feedback for your talk, be prepared that not everybody will love you. I like to do talks where I keep pushing the envelope and being a little bit provocative to change peoples mind… Some people are just not prepared to do something new or come out of their comfort zone so they don’t like what I’m saying. That’s alright.

Christian Heilmann has written a blog post with some great advices for people that start to speak in public and want to train in a comfort zone like Power Point Karaoke and regular Lightning Talks.


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