Friday, February 25, 2011

My tips for speaking

I've been presenting on the job since 1999. I've been presenting at conferences since autumn of 2008. I've got some tricks I've picked up over the years. I'll be using these tricks (and more) at PyCon, so you'll be able to see and judge them in action.

Black text on white background

Remember the old days of Geocities when people had purple backgrounds with yellow text? Or dark green backgrounds with white text? Or crazy fonts? We make fun of that sort of thing now. Unfortunately, I've seen presentations done that way in the recent past and so have you.

Yup, background colors that look great on a laptop or monitor screen often lose something in the transition to a projector. You can't predict what the venue will give you in regards to quality/brand of projector, so why take unnecessary risks?

So I stick with the classic of what people have been doing forever. I choose the lightest possible background, the darkest colored text, and I use the default font of the slide software. Maybe its not fancy or artistic, but my message isn't obfuscated by forcing people to squint to see slides reinforcing what I'm saying.

Fear the command line!

The sucky thing about giving a tutorial is that you have to touch the command-line. And something invariably goes wrong. If you do have to use the command-line remember the following tips:
  • White background and black text and increase the size of the text. I don't care if you prefer to code with a black background with tiny green letters - your audience simply won't be able to follow you as easily. Since I heard a Walt Disney Animation Studios technical lead have the same opinion, I now feel empowered enough  to complain after any talk featuring an unreadable shell.
  • Try to fake the command-line. I've heard player piano is a great tool for doing that and will save you from that minute of silence when you try to figure out what you did wrong.
Don't read the slides to the audience

Listening to someone read the content off a slide is dull. I try to say anything BUT what is on the slide. When I do it speak the content of a slide exactly its because I'm purposefully breaking my pattern to make a point. Or to be silly because I'm getting tense.

What you should be doing is using the slides to remind yourself of your next point. Think of them as notes for your speech, not the speech itself

Bullets are dangerous

Bullets are live ammunition. Even in small quantities they can kill a talk. They can put an audience to sleep, cause them to start checking twitter, or even leave. So I use bullets very sparingly in presentations (classes can be different) because of their potency. Because of their inherent silliness I tend to use bullets in self-deprecating humor.

A better tactic than bullets is to create a subject header on a number of slides and put a single bullet under that subject header. So instead of one (1) slide about 'Python' with bullets of 'Monty', 'Guido', and 'Spam', I like to have three (3) slides each with a header of 'Python' and the content simply being 'Monty', 'Guido', and 'Spam'.

Sixty seconds per slide

If you wait too long your slide will become boring to the audience and their brains will drift. This ties right into the problem with bullets. Keep things moving along.

Be rested, fed, and sober for your talk

Skip the late night party and get a good night's rest. The day of the talk eat food that makes you feel physically better.

In January I went to a talk where the speaker was presenting on a technical matter with beer in hand. Maybe he thought it was hip, but his talk sucked. He got out of sync with his slides and stumbled around his own thoughts.  Not only was the talk of poor quality but it was disrespectful of the speaker.

Needless to say, the audience was very grumbly about the 45 minutes they wasted.

That was a terrible shame because his slides were pretty good. I bet if he had been sober that talk would have rocked.

If people ask questions during the talk, ask them to wait until the end

They'll break your pace, rhythm, and timing. If they can't wait until the end then they now fall under my definition of heckler and are not worth answering anyway.

Be nice to people who come up to you after a talk

You never know who is that new person who comes up to you. Maybe they are planning to blog about you or write about you in the press. Maybe they are a possible business or job lead. Maybe they are someone who wants to throw a gajillion dollars at you. Be nice to them and you'll find out. Try to find time to talk to everyone, even if for just a minute each.


Jacob Kaplan-Moss said...

Another suggestion, reasonably specific to PyCon: leave plenty of time for questions. The PyCon audience is unusually engaged, and often the Q&A is the best part of the talk (both as a speaker and attendee).

My usually MO is to have about 10 minutes of "bonus" material prepared after the end of the talk proper. Then I can stop, ask for questions, and either spend the last 10-15 minutes answering questions or go into the bonus if for some reason questions don't emerge.

Noah Kantrowitz said...

re: slide content, my usual rule is that the only things that should be on slides are bit of text I actually want to point at. It is called a "talk" for a reason :-)

ptone said...

I'd also say the 1 minute guideline goes both ways. I've seen way too many 40 minute talks where someone tries to race through 100 slides.

Kevin H said...

I have to disagree about the black text on white background for shell sessions. It's fine for regular slides, but I personally have a really hard time following any kind of moving text that's black on white. Maybe I'm the only one, though.

pydanny said...

@Kevin - My shell is white background on white text. ;)

Perhaps you've just gotten so used to it one way it is hard so see any other way.