A Beginner’s Perspective on Tech Talks
A month ago, I did a talk at the PHP User Group I organize called “Let’s Talk About Money for Developers”. It was the most ambitious talk I’ve ever given to what turned out to be the largest group of people I’ve spoken in front of, to date. I’ve done a lot of webinars for the purposes of marketing and sales for my consulting businesses in the past, but I haven’t done a ton of in-person speaking to audiences larger than about 5 people.
Getting heavily involved in the local tech community over the last couple of years has had a tremendous ROI for me. Speaking at meetups has been part of my strategy for getting involved. Doing these kinds of talks, and doing them well, is a fantastic way to catapult yourself into a position of authority on a subject because you’re demonstrating your knowledge and ability to communicate that knowledge to your peers. I wanted to take some time to talk about my experience. If you’re interested or on the fence about speaking, I hope this insight will guide you.
So, why do tech talks?
A primary goal of people who do these talks is to help people understand a subject that the speaker really cares about. In my experience, the preparation that’s required to teach someone else how to do or use something further cements my own knowledge of the subject matter. Teaching can be just as much about your own learning as it is everyone else’s.
I can say with absolute certainty that if you practice and become effective at communicating ideas within your community, you will quickly be seen as an expert on the topics you speak on. This can do wonderful things for your career trajectory, because you’re proving very publicly that you know your stuff and can also teach others.
Okay, you’re convincing me. What should I talk about?
Put simply: Any technology you can be animated about. Are you really excited about new functionality in the latest version of [insert your favorite framework here]? Teach other people how to use that functionality. Explain to them what common use cases for the functionality are and the best ways to take advantage of them.
The audience will feed off of your passion. They will also be able to tell if you’re forcing things and don’t care about what you’re talking about. You’ll get out of your audience what you put into them, so being energetic in your explanation will command more attention, particularly if you’re not as well-known.
Cool. I’ve got a topic. Where do I present and how?
Get acquainted with your local meetup groups if you haven’t already. Search meetup.com for groups that might be interested in the subject you want to speak on. As a meetup organizer, I can tell you that we love to hear from and see new presenters at our events. You also make our lives easier by volunteering to come out and talk. That saves us time in hunting down a speaker for one of our events.
Let’s talk about format for a second. The talks I’ve personally given have fallen into a few classifications:
Lightning Talks are super short, extremely high-level overviews of a subject. They’re usually about 5–10 minutes and kind of dense with information. A Lightning Talk is a great way to get started with speaking because it can have a significantly lower barrier to entry than the other formats. It’s a shorter burst of information, doesn’t require quite as much upfront preparation as the other formats, and is often easier to practice.
The downside to Lightning Talks is that newer speakers tend to ramble. I’m personally guilty of this. It can be hard to fit everything you want to say into a 5–10 minute window. Practice is important.
I consider a talk between 15–30-ish minutes to be a “short talk”. These generally have more detailed information, examples, and demos than a Lightning Talk. A lot of meetups will have multiple speakers in a single evening, so this format lends itself well to those groups.
I consider “long talks” as anything at or beyond 40 minutes. These are very detailed or in-depth looks at a subject. Frequently, they include demos or examples and are the most likely to illicit questions from the audience based on the broader range of subject matter covered. These are usually the length of one-talk-per-meetup group or conference talks.
My money talk clocked in at about an hour and I still had material left over. I’ll be cutting and editing it down to two separate 30–40 minute talks.
Don’t talks usually have some kind of slides or presentation?
Yeah, and I’ve seen sort of two approaches in slide style and layout. I don’t necessarily prefer one over the other, so I’ll describe both of them here as best as I can.
Information in Slides
The Information in Slides approach is one where the presenter will try and put relevant information inside of the slides for whatever he’s speaking about at any given moment. This tends to make your slides useful as an overview of the topic you were speaking on, even after the talk has passed.
Some tips: Try to keep slides from being too wordy. Express clear, concise thoughts. Ideally, a single, short sentence. If you use bullet points, take advantage of fade-in animations to put them on the screen as you talk about them. This keeps people from reading ahead and not listening to what you’re saying.
Also, try to avoid reading verbatim from your slides. That passion I mentioned earlier? That’s lost in translation when you read to your audience, rather than engaging with them.
Information in You
In the Information in You approach, the slides primarily contain imagery that expresses the idea you’re communicating. Maybe very short phrases infrequently. With mostly pictures and no words in the slides, the audience focuses on you and what you’re saying, instead of trying to read and listen at the same time.
If you use this method, I highly recommend publishing companion content, like a blog post, to explain the details for the people who weren’t present or want to re-review. Recordings of the talk are also highly encouraged for this style.
How do I keep track of all the info for my talk?
I organize basically my entire life in Trello these days. This includes the talks that I prepare. I put all of my notes and slide info into a Trello board and arrange it how I want. Then I can rapid-fire create slides using the order and contents of the Trello cards as a basis. Information is just a lot easier to move around inside of Trello than a presentation building tool, in my opinion.
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How do I make sure I’m not misleading people?
Research, Research, Research. You need to know your topic sufficiently to speak on it, but you don’t necessarily have to be a multi-year veteran to give a talk on something. I like seeing beginner-level talks on subjects by people who have recently learned the topic and are trying to advance their knowledge.
Okay, I’m ready!
Hold on. Have you practiced your talk yet?
No? I just go through the slides and talk, right? No big deal.
Take it from someone who froze up in his first presentation: Practice is crucial and essential to making sure you’re confident in the things you want to say. You don’t want to be standing in front of 20+ people and then forget the subject matter you’re talking about because you were unprepared for all those eyeballs looking at you.
I’m sure you’re wondering how to practice. It’s definitely going to feel weird to do this, but get up and walk around the room as if you were presenting. Pretend there’s an audience there. Think about how you think they’ll react to the things you say. It also helps to talk at a mirror so you can see how you look when you speak. It takes a long time for this to feel normal or natural, so don’t be discouraged if it feels extremely weird and strange.
Once you’re feeling good about the presentation, ask some trusted friends to watch you do a run-through of some or all of it and give their thoughts.
What if I freeze up?
Okay, so during the presentation, one of the things that’s worked for me to help keep the nerves under control is finding someone in the audience who you can focus on to talk to directly. 1-on-1 conversations are way less intimidating than speaking to a room full of people. Try to let your eyes wander around the room and make eye contact with a lot of people, but if you start to feel yourself get overly nervous or freeze up, you’ve got one person you can come back to and lock on to help calm yourself down.
I’ve had the good fortune of having friends at my presentations to help with this part. My money talk was crazy stressful because I felt like I hadn’t prepared enough. I had a friend there who I could turn and look at every time I started to feel overwhelmed and I honestly feel like it made a world of difference.
Your situation might be different, but this worked for me.
I’m afraid my demo is going to crash and burn.
This is a legitimate thing to be afraid of. Even the pros sometimes flub live demos. My recommendation is to record the thing you want to demo ahead of time and embed a gif or a video of it in your presentation. This makes you immune to things like internet failures or other weirdness that can cause a live demo to go off the rails.
Related to this point: Live coding is extremely impressive but equally risky. If you’re going to do it, practice the hell out of it before it’s time to present it. Treat it like a Kata. Ideally, your live coding exercise shouldn’t have to be thought about and can be mostly muscle memory when it comes time to do it in front of a live audience.
Will people ask questions?
I’ve noticed that people tend to be shy and not very forthcoming with questions at meetups, but you should prepare for them anyway. Try to anticipate what people might ask based on the material. In the moment, if you can’t answer someone’s question, tell them it’s something you’ll research and get back to them. Try to find them after the presentation is over and exchange contact info so you can send along your answer to their question after the fact.
What about after the presentation is over?
Continue the conversation in some way. Direct people to your social media presence or your blog. I recommend posting companion pieces to presentations on your blog so that you can reuse the content. If there’s a recording of the talk, include it there. Definitely include an embedded version or link to the slides that you used.
Okay, I’m gonna give this a shot.
Great. I hope you’ve learned at least a little about doing tech talks from this. I’m a pretty huge introvert by nature, so if I can somehow do this and people enjoy it, I’m sure others can as well. Practice is a huge part of it and — like most things — the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it.
If you do decide to do some speaking, I’d be curious to see what you talk about. You’re welcome to e-mail me details about what you’re speaking on and your slides and I’ll give you some feedback. And if you’re interested in more content like this, get on my newsletter.