… Being the part in which we introduce and motivate the subject.
Recently, I posted something mildly snarky about presentation styles (specifically, the disconnect between the highly-rehearsed performance that conference organizers expect and the reality of me simply winging it on stage).
I do have some ideas on the matter, and thought it might be worth sharing them, or at least writing them down for my own questionable benefit. I give many public presentations and it’s one of the aspects of my job that I enjoy the most, so I do tend to think about what makes a good presentation. In fact, giving presentations has nothing whatsoever to do with my real job (writing and shipping code); I only do it because I enjoy it so much. So it would be ridiculous to not care about the end result.
First, to be clear: I don’t wing it on stage because I can’t be bothered to rehearse. There’s a little more to it than that:
- Busy, busy, busy: I have work to do. The main reason my preparation time is limited is that giving presentations is not my main job. In fact, it isn’t even my side job; it’s something I do on top of everything else just because I want to. So when I’m working hard trying to finish a product (which is basically always), that effort takes precedence over everything else. That means that I’m going to keep writing code, fixing bugs, and doing everything else that’s required coming up to a conference, and will eventually get around to writing slides for the presentation about the product after the work on the product is done. I’d much rather have loose slides around a tight product than the other way around.
- Conversations are better than speeches: I prefer a more natural delivery of content. Even with the constraint of limited preparation time, if I thought the end result of the talk would be garbage, I wouldn’t do it. I’d either find the time to prepare (Who needs sleep?) or I’d forego the presentation and let someone else do it that did have time to do it right. (At most companies I’ve worked for, there is an entire organization of people whose job it is to give presentations like this).
But the truth is that I prefer presentations, both mine and others, that are, or at least feel like, a natural conversation between the speaker and the audience. And there’s no better way I know of to achieve that tone apart from having the speech be, like conversations that we all have in real life, completely unscripted. I have no idea what the exact words are that I’ll say for any particular slide because I haven’t written them down, haven’t memorized them, and haven’t even tried out any alternatives. That means that the words that come tumbling out of my mouth are those that would naturally articulate the thoughts I have on the matter. They may not be the smoothest description of the content — in fact, they’re guaranteed to not be. But they will be natural and spontaneous, which is what I prefer.
- Improvising is… fun!: One of the reasons I enjoy public presentations is the high I get from being on stage. I blame this on a childhood full of piano recitals, where I’d get on stage at least a couple of times per year and play a solo to an audience that was totally focused on me (or asleep). There’s an adrenaline I get from being on stage that I don’t get anywhere else. And there’s even more satisfaction in speaking to an audience than playing to them because you’re right out there in front, not hiding behind your instrument (and because nerve-induced clammy hands don’t affect how well I talk nearly as much as they affect how well I play piano on sweat-slick keys).
I enjoy speaking in any forum, but I enjoy improvising my talks even more. I don’t know why that is, but it’s simply more fun. There’s no fear like the fear of speaking in public, because you could screw up at any time. Take that feeling and multiply it by the certainty that you will screw up because you have no idea what’s going to come out of your mouth until it does. Now misinterpret that fear through the filter of adrenaline and you can see how exciting it might be. No? What, am I missing something here?
Anyway, enough of a preamble. This introductory section was supposed to be just a couple of sentences to motivate why I feel the way I do toward different styles of preparation and speaking. On with the article: I’ve blown way past my intro budget.*
*Speaking of going on too long, I’ll point out the one big downside of my style of not rehearsing talks: I usually have no idea how long I’ll take to get through any particular presentation, section, or even slide. This is because I don’t know until I’m in the middle of it how much I want to say on a particular topic. An anecdote may come to mind that I want to discuss, or I may realize that I need to break it down more for the audience, or I may have simply created too much material for the allotted time. So it is often the case that I’ll realize there’s 10 minutes left and half of the slides to go. The trick has always been to be able to fill or contract to fit the time. It works for me… but may not work for everyone).
e = e
To start with, I’ll point out my main tenet in public presentations: e = e. This is not some dumbed-down version of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (although if it were it would be the only version of his work that I’d understand), but is instead an abbreviation of this fundamental equation:
entertainment = engagement
That is, I believe that an audience needs to be entertained in order to be engaged.* You cannot teach people if they are not paying attention. There is so much to distract us as an audience (laptops, phones, the guy in the seat next to us picking his ear) that you have to try that much harder as a speaker to keep everyone’s eyes forward and ears listening. If you bore the audience, they will tune you out and it will not matter how awesome your content or product is, because they won’t hear you (My God, did you see how big that ball of wax was? Yuck!).
*A friend and frequent co-speaker met his wife through our presentations. This is not really what I mean by ‘engagement,’ though it worked well for him.
Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t mean that every talk has to be funny: entertainment does not necessarily equal humor (e != h). Comedy is just one of the ways to engage an audience. You can also engage them by saying fascinating things, by an honest and heartfelt delivery, by a personal tone, and by many other means. Some of the most brilliant and engaging professors that I had in college weren’t at all funny — but they were so connected to the material, and explained it in such an interesting way, that I had no choice but to be riveted by their delivery.
Everything I believe about what makes (and doesn’t make) a good presentation is around this fundamental principle: it must be an engaging and entertaining experience. And it must be so for everyone, including you; if you don’t care about what you’re saying, why would anyone else?
There are several different elements of public presentations that exist, and which I’ve employed. They are not necessarily exclusive of each other, but I’ll cover them separately below just because separate paragraphs tend to be easier to understand than one long diatribe throwing everything together into an endless stream of words.
When I first started giving technical talks, I would figure out something to say on every slide. I would write these things down and then read through them as I rehearsed the slide deck. This scripting approach is the way that many speakers usually work, and is some people’s recommended way of preparing talks. After all, there are probably specific points that you want to make sure to cover for your content, so it’s a good idea to have them in mind as you go through the slides, and a script is a great way to do this.
However, there are a few dangers of scripting a presentation, and of sticking too closely to that script. First, and this is the most common problem that I see, speakers will be so script-driven that they will attempt to repeat word-for-word the script that they wrote. They will either do this through trying very carefully to remember what was on the script (ending up spending far more mental energy remembering things than in speaking the words) or by reading the script (either from paper notes, or from speaker’s notes in the slides, or from bullets that they repeat verbatim). Regardless of how this happens, it results in an incredibly wooden and boring presentation; the audience can tell that you are not emotionally engaged in, or even connected to, the words that are coming out of your mouth, so they’ll quickly lose interest. Your material may be fascinating, but your delivery may turn them off and they’ll just resolve to get the information from the slides and they’ll ignore you. Or, worse, they’ll just walk out and go in search of some other more interesting talk.
The other danger in a scripted talk is that the speaker will be so intent on sticking to that carefully-constructed path that they will have a hard time when (note that’s “when” and not “if”) something goes awry. This can be something as simple, and probable, as a demo not working, or an impromptu question from the audience, or something going wrong with the slide projector, or really anything. If you hinge your presentation on your ability to repeat a script exactly as you wrote it in time with your set of slides, then things will get awkward when something unexpected happens. Many times I’ve seen a great marketing presentation on some new product go off the rails because someone has asked a question they didn’t expect in the middle of their beautifully-crafted soliloquy. It all looked good as long as they were on the rails, but then someone laid on the tracks in front of them and the entire train blew apart. Don’t let this happen to you or your choo-choo train.
Scripting presentations definitely has its place in preparation techniques. For me, it helped me hone the idea of covering specific topics on particular slides, and of having an overall flow. For other successful presenters, it can form the basis of what they will say. And for other very well-rehearsed presenters, it can be the script that they repeat (word-for-word) during the presentation. Here are two different approaches of how to make the scripting technique successful for you:
Use it and lose it
Sure, write the script. It’s a great way to get a feel for the overall presentation and to make sure you’re covering everything you think is necessary. Run through your slides, reading from your script. Do this a couple of times at least to make sure you’re happy with the points you’re making, the kind of language you’re using, and the general content. This is also a great way to work out the timing of your slides and to make sure that you’re going to fit in the allotted time.
And then… throw it all away. Use the script as the basis for what you’d like to say, but then get rid of it, or at least try not to stick to it in the final presentation. If you try to stick to it, you’ll end up in the dangerous case above where you’ll feel limited and constrained by it. Instead, use that script as simply a practice for the real speech, in which you will find your own words as you go through the presentation. The script will still be there, in the back of your head, and you will find yourself drawing from it in words, phrases, or just ideas. But it’s not the basis of everything you say, which is the real set of thoughts and words that you come up with spontaneously because you know the material so well.
Rehearse the hell out of it
Alternatively, if you’re going to rehearse and use a specific script, do it so many times that you can say it in your sleep (but don’t do so, lest your partner kick you out of bed). Have that script so deeply embedded in your psyche that you can land on any slide and start in from there (which also benefits you when something goes amiss in the presentation and you have to get yourself back on track). Have your talk so tightly rehearsed that (and here’s the real point to this point) it sounds completely unrehearsed. Remember, you want your talk to be engaging. And the fundamental idea behind an engaging talk is that the audience has to feel that you’re talking to them, and not just repeating words you’ve memorized. So get that script so rehearsed that you are speaking to them. You may be using words that you’ve memorized, but that has freed you to deliver those words in an honest and real way to the audience that’s there in the room.
Memorizing a script like this puts you in exactly the same role as an actor. If you’re going to take this approach, you should view yourself as an actor and learn those lines well enough that you can take on the role in your presentation just as actors take on roles in plays. If actors are simply repeating lines they’ve memorized, the audience is not going enjoy the show. But if the actor becomes that character and can put new and fresh life in the words, then the performance becomes engaging.
This technique of memorization is at the heart of standup comedy, and how that form of comedy differs from improvisational comedy: standup routines are memorized. There are parts in an act, of course, that aren’t memorized (dealing with hecklers, for example. Or crying on stage when you bomb horribly). But the jokes? Those bits tend to be incredibly scripted by necessity — the details of words, word ordering, and timing is crucial to getting the laugh you want at the time you want it. So just saying it off the cuff isn’t good enough. Instead, comedians will figure out exactly how they want something to come out and will then rehearse it over and over until it’s both exactly what they want and it sounds completely natural and unrehearsed.
The other extreme from scripted presentations is completely unscripted. This is the approach that I take in my own talks. While early on in my speaking career I wrote down the things that I wanted to say on each slide, I now simply figure out the kinds of things I want to talk about. The words I use I leave up to the moment when they come out of my mouth and into the microphone.
The advantage to this approach is one of engagement: the style that I try to shoot for is a conversation; I’m talking to the audience during the presentation. There is no better way I know of for doing that than by having a real conversation, where the thoughts and words are ones made up spontaneously, just like real conversations. Not only does this approach keep the flow of words more natural and honest, it also allows for other thoughts that come up only when new words and thoughts trigger them. And because the talks are unscripted, there’s nothing to stop me from saying these new things, which tend to help illustrate the overall picture better than a simple, scripted sound byte.
There are few dangers of completely-unscripted talks which are worth mentioning, as well as factors for mitigating those dangers.
Saying the wrong thing can run the gamut from saying something that’s simply incorrect (which I have been known to do on occasion) to saying something potentially offensive. These slips are usually minor things, however (if you’re not in the habit of offending people by what you say, you’re not going to start saying horrible things just because you’ve got a microphone and a large dose of adrenaline). But when you are speaking in dangerous territory like competitive, or legal, or social issues, you really have to be careful what you do and don’t say and how you phrase things to avoid consequences like getting reviled online or fired. You don’t want either the business community or your audience to turn on you, so make sure you don’t cross any lines that you do not absolutely want to.
The best way to fix this in unscripted talks is, unfortunately, experience. Being able to speak off the cuff in topic areas that can be touchy is an art form.
On the other hand, there are some simple things that you can keep in mind that make this easier. In particular, simply knowing some of the sensitive topics than can arise can help you come up with a general policy that you can draw on at any time. For example, if you work on technologies that are not yet announced, any questions about those topics can be deflected with a simple answer that you can’t talk about unreleased products. Questions about competitors products should usually be avoided altogether — those questions will come up, but there’s no reason why the audience should expect you to answer them (after all, you are there to talk about your own products, not to judge others’). Social scenarios that can be offensive to certain groups can be easily avoided by a liberal amount of common sense. Other situations depend on the context, but always keep in mind that (a) you can always pause for thought before answering and (b) you can always refuse to enter into territory that’s unknown, either without bringing it up at all or without answering questions about it (the audience will understand if you cannot answer a question that might have confidentiality or legal concerns).
The other downside to unscripted talks is that you may simply forget important points that you had intended to make. There are a couple of ways that I have dealt with this in past presentations:
One of the beauties about having a co-speaker is that it provides a safety net for forgetfulness. It’s like there’s a second brain on stage because… there is. When your brain stops working because your mouth is running, there’s another one right next to you that is likely to remember important details that you may have left out. You should encourage your co-speakers to jump in when they have something to add — usually it’s something either that you forgot or which helps explain what you are talking about more completely. Both of these are great improvements for the presentation.
I view the slides that I create as my outline for what I’d like to say on each slide, or as the basis for the information that I’d like the audience to understand. So if there’s an important nugget that I want them to take away from that slide, I’ll usually go ahead and put it right on the slide. This does not have to (and generally should not) be a complete sentence. Often a single word will suffice. Then I will craft the words around it verbally on the fly to get that point across.
Note that this means slides should not be too busy (as I’ll talk about later) or else both the audience and you, the speaker, may miss that critical point. The less that’s on a slide, the more important and the harder to miss is each of the elements that remains. Slides that are full of text just become white noise and are far less helpful than slides with just one or two elements that are at the core of what you really want the audience to remember.
Remembering critical items is basically the only situation in which I use notes. In general, I don’t like using notes because it becomes too difficult to quickly parse them during the presentation for salient information. But if I use them only for truly crucial information that I think I might otherwise forget, then it’s easy to quickly pick up that point when looking at the screen and to speak to the point appropriately.
Everyone knows that it’s a person up there on stage; the only thing separating the speaker from the audience is a few feet to the stage and a microphone. So when you catch yourself making a mistake, why not admit it? The honesty of admitting an error is refreshing and encourages the sense of engagement that you’re really after.
Rehearsed vs Unrehearsed
Despite my expressed views on rehearsing my own sessions, I do think that rehearsals are a Good Thing in general. In fact, I would rehearse my own presentations if I had the time. There’s no downside to knowing the material better except for the time that it takes to get there.
The problem in rehearsing comes down to the intent of that rehearsal. If you are rehearsing in order to memorize a particular script for your presentation, then see the section on Scripted presentations above: either rehearse to get the general sense of the presentation (but not the specific words you’ll use) or rehearse it so completely that you can do it in your sleep. In my mind, there are a few different levels of rehearsing that are worth considering:
If you want to present a specific script (be it for part of a keynote presentation where the eyes of the world, and your company’s executives, are focused on you, or for a small presentation where you just want to carefully control what you say), rehearse it to death. Literally. Say it over and over and over again until it’s dead. Then do it some more until you can bring that zombie back to life because you want it to sound like it’s new, interesting, and less corpse-like than the speech that you killed. The point of this rehearsal is not to just memorize the words, but to internalize them so that you can bring new life to the way that you say them.
Rehearsing a draft
There is also benefit from rehearsing a specific script that you’re not going to give verbatim. If you are not going to rehearse it to death, this is the only way I would suggest that you treat a script. Go ahead and write things down and rehearse those words, but then say your own words in the final presentation. This provides a nice combination of having learned the material and a way of explaining it, well enough for your purposes, but then offering the audience a unique way of expressing those thoughts. Since you will be using new ways of explaining the content instead of whatever draft script you rehearsed, it should feel fresh and new. And since you started from a script, you should find that the ideas you wanted to express will still be there, albeit in a different and fresher form.
This type of rehearsal does not, obviously, take as much time as the first one. Going through it a couple of times is probably good enough to iron out the kinks in the ideas that you wanted to say and the timing and flow of how it all comes together. If there are particular gems in there that you do want to get exactly right (for example, the phrasing around a particularly tricky bit of legal language, or making sure the messaging of a product is exactly on target), then you might run through those parts more to ensure that the words you use in public will closely match the ones you were aiming for, and that they will come out naturally because you rehearsed them so much.
Rehearsing a flow
This type of rehearsal is the only one that I do. As much as I say that I don’t rehearse, I do at least take the time to go over an entire presentation and get the ideas in mind that I have for each of the slides and for the overall presentation. This rehearsal is somewhat implicit in constructing the content (because you probably had something in mind when you wrote each of those slides). But going over all of it again, even more than once, is usually a good idea because: it’s helpful to see it all in the context of the overall flow of the material and it’s good to remind yourself of what you wrote late last night when you were too tired to remember it.
Note that this is not a rehearsal in the sense that there is no audience required, nor any formal room or stage; it’s just you looking through the slides. But you’re looking through them from the viewpoint of what you’d say if and when you are on stage with an audience in front of you. You want to not only understand the ideas in your presentation, but to understand them from the standpoint of a member of the audience who has a different background in the material than you do.
This type of rehearsal is also incredibly helpful when you have a co-speaker, which is usually the case with the talks that I give. Maybe you know all of your own slides well, but do you know the ones your co-speaker wrote? Will you be able to speak to them if they get hit by a bus on stage? Or will you know how those other slides relate to your slides? Another reason to rehearse the flow with a co-speaker is to get a sense of who’s talking when, and for how long. Often, when walking over the presentation with a co-speaker, we’ll decide to change the order of slides, or of who talks about what, to help create a better and more interesting flow for the audience.
I believe that no matter what kind of presentation style you like (scripted or winging-it), rehearsing the flow is an absolute necessity, because the next level down can get pretty awful.
I’ve recently been in some comedy shows (at conferences and in comedy clubs) where the point of the show was to give an improved presentation with a set of slides that you’ve never seen before. This can make for some excellent comedy and very engaging presentations. However:
- The point of the presentations are purely comedic: you don’t need the audience to learn or remember anything. In fact, depending on what you’ve said, you may prefer that the audience not remember anything.
- The slides themselves are funny and simple: you can look at them quickly, derive some irrelevant information about them, and just start speaking about them.
This type of comedic presentation is in stark contrast to most developer presentations where:
- You’d like the audience to learn and remember something. (Otherwise, why were you wasting their time?)
- You’d like the presentation to flow, like a real conversation.
The problem with zero preparation is that you may not remember, or even know about, the content until it comes up on the screen. If you are familiar enough with the overall topic, you may be able to work around this. But if it’s not your expertise, or the slides are so old that you don’t remember them, or if you were drunk when you wrote the presentation, you run the risk of having no idea what to say when the slides come up on the screen. Worse, the content on the slide could be deep and complex enough that you, and the audience, have to take time to parse it before you are able to speak to it.
Or you could just say, “I don’t have any idea what this is about” and move on. This can work occasionally, and can even bring some humor and humility to an overall presentation. But an entire presentation based around that ongoing theme would be annoying in the least — the audience would wonder why they wasted their time coming to a presentation that the speaker obviously didn’t care enough about to prepare for. Also, constant breaks in the flow like that, even if you could eventually get your grounding and speak to the topic, would again cause the audience to lose interest as it would be obvious that you were not connected to the material.
This is not to say that you cannot extemporize, or that you even need slides at all. One of the most fascinating talks I’ve seen is one given by John Carmack (founder of Id Software, now CTO at Oculus Rift) at a Game Developers Conference years ago. He walked out to the middle of the stage and just started speaking. He spoke constantly for an hour and then walked off. There were no slides, no notes, and no obvious outline to the talk (though there were important points he covered along the way). But he clearly had an idea of what he wanted to talk about and was able to converse at length, with no break in the flow, the entire time. I doubt his level of rehearsal extended to memorizing that huge talk. But I bet he knew enough of the main points he wanted to hit that he could just keep it going the whole time. If he had come out on stage with no idea of what to talk about to begin with, it wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting.
One of the fun parts about having an unrehearsed style is the disconnect between that style and the expectations of the conference organizers. That conflict is best illustrated thusly:
Types of presentations
The style of presentation, and of preparation, can and should depend on what kind of talk you’re giving. I haven’t had the pleasure of giving every kind of presentation yet (though I’m not sure how much fun I’d have giving a serious Self Help seminar), but the ones I have participated in are representative of many of the types of talks speakers may be called on to participate in.
Technology talks are by far the most common type of presentation I’ve given and are the most prevalent at developer conferences. For every “keynote” at a conference, there are tens or hundreds of tech sessions. These talks cover the spectrum of deep-dives into How Things Work at a technical level to coverage of new developer APIs with code snippets and demos galore to overviews of huge swaths of developer features.
The depth to which the topic can be covered depends on, of course, the topic itself and how much is really there to discuss. Sometimes it’s all you can do to skim lightly over the surface if you want to span the breadth before the buzzer goes off and it’s time for everyone to leave the room. Other times, there is not much of a surface for developers to access, but there is a huge chasm of depth below that surface that you can dive into for the entire session.
In any case, the level of preparation depends on the level of depth to which you need to discuss the topic. In the case of an overview, a simple understanding of the topics may be enough because you are not speaking at length about anything in particular. On the other hand, you want to understand the salient bits of each of those snippets well enough that you can communicate that which is most interesting about them. Often the best thing to do is to refer to other sources (talks, speakers, docs) when it is clear that you do not have the time to cover it in any interesting level of detail.
One thing to note about unrehearsed tech talks. If you’re giving one of these talks in your area of expertise, there is no reason to feel like you should deeply rehearse and script the talk: you are the expert in this area and you should feel confident about speaking to the topic. You think about it every day at work; you’ll surely have something to say about it as the slides come up during the presentation. But do rehearse the flow beforehand to make sure you feel comfortable with the kinds of things you’ll have to talk about as well as the flow and timing of the session.
These talks are by far the easiest to prepare for because there is, by definition, nothing in particular to prepare. Panels are discussions that are either led by a moderator, who may have questions to fire at you, or by the audience which, by virtue of Mob Rule, will ask anything at any time (“What’s your favorite color?” “What do you think about that lawsuit that your company is currently engaged in?”)
The main thing to be aware of in these types of talks is those topics which you really really really don’t want to venture into. This could be because you don’t want to get fired or because you’d rather not be lynched by the mob. In either case, it’s generally easy to figure out what the trigger topics will be for any particular panel, and to divine what your stance is on those topics. You may in fact have a legitimate viewpoint that you’re not afraid to put out there. But if there’s something that you really are not comfortable answering (e.g., “Explain your company’s policy of enslaving mole rats for the sole purpose of sharpening pencils and providing filler for cheap ground beef products”), just try be aware of it ahead of time and have some easy way of deflecting it (e.g., “I can’t comment on company policy,” or “I don’t know what a mole rat is, and did you try the spinach dip at lunch this afternoon? Yummy!”).
There may also need to be some amount of preparation in terms of the overall topic of the panel. For example, if the moderator invited you in order to defend some particular technology that you advocate for versus some of the other options out there, try to understand what the pros and cons are so that you can have a reasonable conversation about them (as well as whether your company will let you have that conversation in public, which is an example of something that’s pretty excellent to know before you get up on stage).
Keynotes are one example of something that I would script and rehearse to death. The combination of needing to have a crisp, clear, and concise message for a potentially very large audience, and speaking to that message in what is typically a very tightly scheduled event means that there is no time for messing around and eventually getting to the point. You have to know what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say ahead of time. Add to that the fact that other people in the company (marketing, PR, legal) may want to be involved, and it all gets pretty messy if you’re just going to wing it. This means you’re going to need a script.
The script may be written by you or by others in your organization. Either way, it’s up to you to learn that thing perfectly. One of the unfortunate side-effects of keynotes is that they are, necessarily, written right up to the very last minute, as product directions change, other departments and executives get involved, and whim and fancy take a firm hold in the planning cycle. This means that you may have precious little time to memorize anything because you may not know what they want you to say until you get out on stage. But do what you can to minimize the teleprompter effect, where you are simply reading your lines off of the monitor in front of you.
One thing that helps in these situations is to at least be natural when you can. If your lines are feeling scripted, you can at least try to act human in the meantime, whether it’s reacting to something in the audience, or saying something that’s not in the script (as long as it doesn’t get you fired). Being natural and in the moment goes a long way with the audience. Remember, it’s all about engagement, so if you can manage to do that in addition to getting the right “message” out (and not getting fired), you win.
Slides (words, words, words)
When I started giving talks, I had the philosophy that my slides should be able to live on their own. That is, I wanted everyone, even an audience that wasn’t in the room at the time, to be able to read the slides and get nearly the same information as they would have if they’d been there watching it live.
This seems like a reasonable way to look at it. After all, if you put that much effort into creating the slides, don’t you want people to be able to read and learn from them, regardless of the context?
Then along came a co-speaker that whittled away at me for years and eventually changed my philosophy, which is now something more like this:
Ah, the Hell with ‘em.
Perhaps I should explain.
The point of a presentation is to teach people something, right? The most effective way I’ve found of doing that is by getting up on stage and explaining how things work. And the best way I’ve found to explain things is by having slides that help me.
Are you with me so far?
Now imagine the situation where I put all of the information that’s necessary to understand a complex topic (and most of my topics tend to be complex, as they’re rooted in software technologies). This means several bullet points, lots of code, and probably some equations. I might throw in a picture or two, just to break things up, but really there’s going to be a lot of text to wade through.
Now imagine the audience when one of these dense slides comes up. I start explaining how things work, but the audience is busy trying to parse what’s in the slide. They’ve completely tuned me out because that’s what happens. (Have you ever noticed that when you start reading an email when your spouse is talking you completely lose track of what they’re saying until they clap you across the side of the head? The same thing happens in presentations (minus the head shot); we process language in a single thread and can’t possibly maintain concentration on the speaker’s words when there are a lot of other words to process on a slide.)
Add to all of this that it’s more and more common for live presentations to be recorded and posted to the web (such as all talks at Google’s annual Google I/O conference and all of the presentations from the Belgian developer conference Devoxx that I’ve spoken at for the last several years), and there is little reason for the slides to live on their own. And even if your presentation was not recorded, is it too much to ask people to come see your talk live if that’s where you think the biggest benefit from it will be?
A much better approach, I’ve found, is to put only the necessary information on each slide, by which I mean:
- Reminders for the presenter
- References for the audience
Reminders for the presenter
Just as it’s important for the audience to stay in the flow of what the presenter is saying, it’s important for the presenter to remember what to say for any particular slide or topic. If the presenter has carefully scripted and rehearsed the presentation, this is not a factor (because they’ve already memorized it). But in the unscripted or lightly-rehearsed world of presenting, there is not as much to go on besides the slides themselves. I use the information on the slides themselves as reminders of what I wanted to say. This information can be as little as a single word or an image, but enough that it triggers the memory of what I wanted to convey.
References for the audience
There are a few types of things that I find helpful to put on slides for the benefit of the audience. One is the outline of the content. Another is complex content that’s hard to explain verbally. And finally, there are references for further information.
If a particular slide is covering several disjoint pieces of information (like “This API enables the following capabilities: X, Y, and Z”), then it might be helpful to have those snippets of information on the slide themselves. They may not stand on their own to people not watching your amazing presentation, but they will suffice for the people that are watching to understand how those pieces fit together and how they relate to your explanation of them.
Complex content, such as code, is also helpful to have on a slide. If you want to tell people not just what a particular method name is, but also how to use it, a small snippet of code can go a long way toward helping them understand. Again, you don’t want to bury them in text, but it may be difficult to get them to understand the topic thoroughly without a simple example. One effective way I’ve seen of doing this is to have an introductory slide explain the general topic and ideas, and then to have a follow-on slide with the salient code. This avoids putting too much text on the first slide, up front, that the audience will try to understand before you’ve told them how to (and while you’re busy trying to explain it while they’re busy trying to read the slide instead of listening to you explain it). Then put the necessary code on the following slide, keeping it as simple as possible to avoid confusing them with unnecessary details, and maybe even highlighting the most important details.
Finally, it is helpful to tell an audience where they can go to get more information. Particularly for deep technical topics, there is usually so much that you cannot explain in a presentation (often, small code snippets just aren’t enough), so you may want to have details about where they can get further information (docs, other presentations, or whatever). This will also help them when looking back on the slides later, when they can remember the essence of what you said, but may want to do further reading to understand it deeper.
It’s great that presentation software has the ability to take notes on slides. It’s even better that you can use a presentation mode when projecting the slides that allows you to read your notes while the audience can see only the slides.
I do not like to use these notes for anything other than working-draft notes (which I delete before presenting) and critical items. Here’s why:
Just as a busy slide will keep the audience too occupied to listen to you, a busy set of notes will have serious effects on the presenter, such as:
- You will be too busy reading the notes to stay in the flow of what you wanted to say on this slide
- Your notes will be so busy that you will realize you can’t possibly understand them and you’ll blow them off entirely, possibly forgetting important nuggets that you put there so as to not forget them.
- You will read directly from your notes, like you would from a teleprompter in a keynote presentation. I’ve seen this in far too many talks, and it hurts. It really hurts. It means that the speaker wanted to carefully script the content, but didn’t rehearse enough to get it down pat. Or that they just got nervous and fell back on using the written material rather than making it up on the spot and possibly getting it wrong.
This last point is exactly why you should avoid notes, because there is so much temptation for reading them on stage. You will lie to yourself that the audience cannot tell because you’re reading them so smoothly and naturally. But when your eyes are focused on your screen instead of out at the audience, they know. They always know. Not only are you looking in the wrong place, but your speech will sound very canned and mechanical, as if you are simply reading it off of your notes… because you are.
Best to just skip the notes entirely; rely on what’s in the slides and what’s in your memory from whatever amount of rehearsal you found appropriate.
“But what if I forget something important?”
I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth repeating: The one situation in which I will use speaker notes is when there is a specific item that I do not want to show in the slides, but which I absolutely do not want to forget. But this has to be limited to just a very simple and small set of things, and just a word or two. It cannot be so much information that you either miss it in the noise or end up reading from it verbatim. It could even be a simple reminder of something larger that you wanted to talk about: an anecdote or related fact, for example. But make the amount of text on the note very terse so that you can take it all in immediately upon seeing it on the monitor.
Better yet — if it’s that important, try putting the information in the slide itself. Then everyone can see it, including you.
One of the things I’ve found over the years is that as much as I enjoy giving presentations, I enjoy it even more with a good co-speaker. In fact, I think my presentations are better for having a co-speaker. The material can be more deeply described and the audience engagement can be much higher.
From a purely practical standpoint, I’ve found that a co-speaker can bring a lot more effort and knowledge to bear on the problem. This includes the preparation work (learning the material and creating the presentation) as well as the live presentation. The first part (preparation) is obvious, the second, not so much. I’ve noticed that what happens in a live presentation is that the adrenaline is flowing, my mouth is going, and I may blow past some important point. My co-speaker, who is probably quiet and thoughtful while I’m talking, has a higher chance of noticing this slip and can speak up and make sure that the point gets made. Also, a co-speaker can (and should) bring up other supporting material whenever it is appropriate. Often in my talks, one of us has been explaining some point and the other has thought of and explained some related fact or anecdote that helps the audience better understand the original point.
Couples Bring Engagement
One of my main goals in presenting, as I’ve said before, is engaging the audience, and the best way to do that that I know of is by having a conversation with them, especially an unscripted one. Having a co-speaker on stage who is also having an unscripted conversation is a perfect way to achieve that goal. Not only do I have no idea what I’m going to say, I also have no idea what they are going to say. This combination means that the conversation is guaranteed to be improvised, since nobody on stage knows what will happen at any time.
Making it work
Of course, you can’t have total chaos up on stage, with speakers interrupting each other and nobody knowing who’s doing what next. One of the ways I have found of making these collaborations successful is by dividing the presentation into logical sections that are driven primarily by one specific speaker (with the caveat that the other speaker is encouraged to join in at any time when appropriate, which keeps the dynamism and the information interesting). This division of labor is usually also used to prepare the slides, since it tends to be easier to create a presentation with multiple authors in separate chunks than to have both speakers working on all of the slides together (merging content in slides is never fun).
I have also seen it work well to divide presentations in a more fine-grained manner, per slide or per smaller topic. This is probably easier for speakers that are very familiar with both the material and each other. Familiarity may breed contempt… but it also breeds a more flexible stage dynamic.
The way that the work is divided is not important, but there should be some general pattern you follow so that there’s not a debate on stage every time you click onto a new slide. It might be amusing the first time, but would get old fast.
Note, too, that you should tell the technical staff to leave both microphones live the entire time. For some reason, the audio people always expect speakers to speak in carefully segregated turns. I have found that the ability to have both speakers jump in at any time really helps the talk. You don’t want to find, when you try that, that your microphone is off and nobody can hear you besides your co-speaker.
But watch that Scripting!
Here’s the most important tip I have to offer for co-speakers: be very careful of over-scripting your presentation. Co-speaker presentations can be even harder to make seem natural when they’re scripted than presentations given by individuals, because the scripting has to handle interactions between the speakers: when you hand off to each other, how the handoff is handled, etc. We are not professional actors, so that scripted interaction is incredibly hard to do without coming off as very mechanical. Even simple things like handing over control, “Thanks, John. Now as you can see…,” can come off as very stilted, because it’s clear to the audience that you’re just saying that line as part of your script, not as a natural way of talking to John, which just feels wrong.
My preference for having a co-speaker in my talks makes me feel even more strongly about having unscripted talks if for no other reason than to avoid this canned dynamic — if we’re both going to be up there, let’s make sure it feels natural. If I were to more carefully script things, then I would be careful to only script the stuff that any particular speaker was saying on their own topic, but to leave the interaction bits natural and improvised. (Even no interaction is better than one that sounds scripted).
Overall, I highly recommend trying presentations with another speaker. But I’d also highly recommend doing them with as little scripting as possible to avoid the downfalls of seeming like co-automatons.
Part of why I care so much about speaking, and apparently analyze the Hell out of it if this article is any indication, is that I enjoy comedy. I enjoy watching it, and I also enjoy doing it: writing, standup, improv, video, satire: whatever. Anything that makes people laugh is something I’m interested in, and I’m fascinated by figuring out how it works (so that I can continue to improve, but also because it’s fun to learn how things work in general).
One of the things I noticed is the difference between various kinds of comedy, especially as it pertains to presentations.
A standup routine is essentially a series of jokes. These jokes can be one-liners, rolling off one after the other, like those from Henny Youngman (“Take my wife… Please!”) or Mitch Hedberg (“I used to do drugs. I still do drugs, but I used to, too.”). Or the jokes can be incorporated into longer pieces, like the stories from Bill Cosby or the routines of Jerry Seinfeld. Either way, the jokes have a specific form that relies on the exact words used, the order of those words, and the timing with which the words are said. So the reliability on carefully scripting those jokes is very important, otherwise something that is certain to get a laugh from an audience may fall flat just because it was said wrong (“I do drugs. I used to, too. No, wait. Let me try that again.”)
So the idea of scripting and rehearsing is not necessarily bad for some forms of presentation. In fact, I’ve found it to be critical with standup comedy. The trick, then, is to rehearse it so much that it sounds unrehearsed. And if you made it this far in this increasingly massive little article on presenting, you’ll realize that that’s the same way you should rehearse your carefully-scripted, carefully-rehearsed presentations. If you want them to sound the same every time, then do them enough that that script sounds fresh every time, no matter how static it is. You may not have punch lines, but you have the same need that comedians do of sounding unrehearsed. A mechanical presentation is a bad presentation, because you’re talking more to the script and to yourself than to the audience. Speak to them, not to your material.
Sketch comedy is like standup: there is generally a script that is memorized. And like theater, that script has to sound natural when it’s coming out. Just like standup, the actors need to hit lines exactly right to get the laughs, so the script is tight and exact and it’s rehearsed enough to sound natural. The same principle of rehearsing applies here as it does to standup and rehearsed presentations.
In improvisational comedy, the lines are made up on the spot. There is some amount of structure to this genre (the “games” that are played, or the form of any particular scene, or techniques learned in improv to help generate ideas and keep the scene moving). But the words coming out of your mouth are completely in the moment and unrehearsed.
One of the truly great things about improv is that the sheer surprise of not knowing what’s coming adds to the comedic value of the result. A joke that kills in an improv routine may not do as well when carefully scripted into a standup routine because the audience expectations are different. A clever wordplay in improv may get groans in a standup set because what is clever in realtime is not necessarily funny when memorized and rehearsed.
Improv is essentially what you are doing when you deliver an unscripted presentation. It’s not quite as scary and unpredictable because you do have the raw content that you’ve created in the slides, in addition to the general flow and ideas in your mind that you want to cover. But the sentences you speak are made up in the moment and are more real and genuine for that fact. And anything you do in the moment, including jokes that happen to arise in the context of your presentation or audience interaction, are all the better for being obviously improvised.
And the feeling of not knowing where things are going at any time during the presentation? It’s magic. It’s magic on the high wire without a safety net.
I have given some presentations which were purely satire, in which I assumed a character that might have given that kind of ridiculous presentation in earnest. The intent of the presentation was purely comedic (which completely confused some members of the audience who came to see the talk because they thought they were going to learn something about Process Methodology Process). In this kind of comedy, the important thing is to stay in character. Like all of my technical presentations, there was no script. That is, the slides provided the basic material, but I gave a typical unrehearsed presentation where I would simply riff off of the content I saw on the slides as they came up. In this type of comedy, it was not the words themselves that were important (thus the lack of memorization as in standup) but the ideas put forth in the slides that provided the humor, plus the attitude of the character articulating the nonsense.
It’s All Good
I enjoy doing comedy (writing and performance) because it interests me. But I also believe that comedy practice helps with presentation skills. Sketch and standup help teach the elements of humor and relaxed memorization skills. Satire helps in performance skills. And improvisation skills are invaluable in delivering unrehearsed presentations and in handling random situations that arise during presentations.
I’m not saying that everyone should go take comedy classes in order to give better programming presentations, but I am saying that it helped me. I think that other types of performance (plays, speeches, etc.) would help similarly. Anything that gets you out in front of an audience will help you feel more relaxed and confident when delivering a set of slides, and that feeling will help your presentations be that much better and more engaging. Anything helps. Anything but karaoke.* Please don’t do karaoke.
*karaoke: Japanese word meaning “audience torture.”
Tips for Better Presentations
It’s tough to take this 10,000+ word article, in addition to the other infinite ideas running around in my brain about presentation quality, and divine some set of “tips” to keep in mind to make your presentations better. But in the interest of offering something of a reward to you for making it this far, and because I have to find some way to wrap this monster up, here are some tips that I think make for better presentations:
- Have a conversation
Regardless of whether your presentations are scripted, unscripted, rehearsed, or winged, make sure that you are completely in the moment of the talk when you’re on stage. Talk to the audience, not to the material.
- Don’t be funny — Be natural
Humor is great in a presentation, and I generally try to be funny when I can. But I rarely script “jokes” into my presentations because that’s not the point of the talks. I’ll say something funny if the opportunity comes up, but I’d much rather just say what’s on my mind that helps either clarify the material or keep the conversation going.
Not everyone is going to be funny on stage, for whatever reason. But you don’t have to be. And there’s nothing more awkward than someone trying to be funny and failing. Just be yourself and have a conversation with the people in the room.
- Know the material
Being able to speak well to the material, scripted or not, is essential to a great presentation. Knowing it well enough that you can go off script, for example when people ask unexpected questions, is even better.
Getting up on stage can be terrifying. For some reason, having many people looking at you and waiting for you to say something has a tendency to really get the adrenaline flowing. But it’s still just people in the room. Just talk like you’ve been doing your whole life and it’ll be fine. Forget the teeming crowds and focus on the individuals, and on the material that you know so well.
- Don’t burp into the mic
I wanted five points and couldn’t come up with another real one, so this will have to do. But seriously, don’t.
Other things by me:
Ellen Isaacs: Friend, photographer, and friend. Ellen happened to capture me during an improv comedy presentation at Google I/O (Speechless at IO). Funny — her pictures of me during a comedy presentation look more serious than the pictures of me presenting during real, serious tech sessions.
Stephan Janssen from Devoxx: Stephan organizes the annual Devoxx conference, which is one of the best developer conferences I’ve had the pleasure to attend or speak at. The conference records all of the talks for later online consumption on parleys.com.
Pierre-Antoine Grégoire: An attendee of the Devoxx conference whose photos I happened to notice and, er, borrow. Merci, Pierre-Antoine!