How to tell a story

Guide for non-native speakers

I’ve always been dedicated to making my public appearances better and better each time. There have been many obstacles that I have had to deal with along the way, including the use of a language that I don’t fully control and understand, ending up with me having to overcome impostor syndrome.

Many times I’ve found myself thinking how to phrase a particular sentence in the most correct way, rather than focusing on what I wanted to tell my audience at that time and what the slides should look like. As a result, I would end up spending days and weeks getting through a bunch of slides that at the end of the day, were no fun when presented.

Opening React Native EU 2018

By no means do I consider myself a great speaker. In fact, I still have a lot of homework to do before I stand in front of an audience and feel like I own the moment — wait, does it happen at all?

Today, I am here to share with you a simple methodology that I’ve been using to prepare my slides. I have found it extremely helpful to deal with all the mysterious English vocabulary as well as nailing the story upfront. It works for me and it may work for you too. Let me know in comments what you do to prepare for public appearances and how you feel about it.

Let’s get started!

It all starts with the idea

First and foremost, you need to have an idea. The best one of all. Something unique and exciting enough for the committee to select your particular talk in the sea of submitted proposals.

Nothing could be more wrong.

I believe that every one of us has something interesting to share. Even if you think that one topic has been covered multiple times, it’s your experience and project perspective that makes it unique and worth bringing up to the broader audience.

Ideas are secondary. You can’t patent them. It’s the execution that matters. The way you market it and later, the way you present it. Think about one feature you have been working on in your latest project.

Ready? Let’s make it a talk!

The flow

You are standing on stage in front of the people to tell your story. It’s the most important part of your appearance. The reason you were given a slot amongst others. People want to hear from you. They came there for you.

Just like when you hang out with your friends after a while, you are telling them the latest updates trying to keep them excited. You are building up your nerve and changing the pitch of your voice. That’s what makes them focused and… what makes you — definitely not a boring person.

Before starting any work on your talk, think about the topic. Imagine your friends sitting in front of you. You are trying to explain to them your idea in the best way you can. Think out loud. Write everything down as your brain starts going deeper and deeper into the story. First, you will feel a bit overwhelmed about where to start. Don’t worry, the point is to keep going. The best ideas will arrive at the very end.

Once finished, group your notes into a document. Make it an agenda of your talk. You might feel tired. Burned out. That’s normal. Your brain has to rest. Just like when you exercise and teach your neurons new connections, it works better after a few days.

That’s why you will come back to this document after some time. Fresh. And you will try to tell the story once again.

Tell the story

After completing the task described in the previous section, you should have an outline of your talk ready in a document. If you don’t, it’s time to make one right now.

Try to make a list of short headlines — something that would describe a step in your talk. First one: “Welcome” and the second one: “About me” are easy ones. The rest is up to you.

Here is a document that demonstrates an outline I have created more than a year ago for my appearance at React Amsterdam.

Once you have an outline of your talk ready, try telling the story once again. This time, try writing down every single sentence that you say about each of the headlines in your outline. In other words, think of it as a transcript of your talk. You will stand there on stage in front of the crowd and read it, word by word.

This point is crucial. It helps you think about the flow of your talk. You are not in a hurry, not coming up with it on stage. You have time. If you feel limited on vocabulary, reach out to a dictionary. Search on Wikipedia. Check some additional references. It’s time to make your talk rich with domain-specific vocabulary.

Don’t be afraid to leave placeholders for images, diagrams, or whatever you think would be great to put in the slides.

At the very end, the resulting document should read like a book. From start to finish, it should give readers a full understanding of the topic and the conclusion you are about to make. This is great for accessibility. Once you share your slides after the talk, it will take zero-effort to enable disabled listeners and those who missed your talk to benefit from great points you were making.

Read it a couple of times until you are happy with the result.

Nobody is perfect

I often watch talks on Youtube and I feel intimidated. I tell myself: “Mike, you will never present like this person on stage”. That’s quite right — all in all, how could I even compare myself to a native speaker from the United States that gets the vibe, jokes and the overall feeling of the conference?

That’s about right unless you find a workaround for this problem.

For example, in the previous section, we have created a full outline and complete transcript of our talk. Everything we will say on stage, word by word, is saved in a document that serves as a reference for our slides. What you can do to make it even better is simple, send it to someone who knows proper English. In my case, I often send it to few developers for a technical check (tip: helps with impostor syndrome) and to a native speaker, who will read it inside and out, helping me understand every single mistake I’ve made. Not only does it help to make my talk more polished and easier to listen to for an average audience, but also makes my English knowledge better. Many so-called mistakes that I make on a regular basis are just differences between what’s accepted as “everyday” English vs. what I’ve been taught at the University.

Once you gather all the comments, implement them. Fix them. Reorder sentences. Everything needed to make your talk even better — do it. At the very end, read it one more time and if nothing pops up in your mind, make it final.

No additional changes allowed. The draft is completed. Time to create visuals to help the audience follow.

Here is the final transcript that I have created for the following talk

Opening keynote at the React Native EU 2018

Create visuals

The last step is to create visuals. This is what many people start with, including me back in the day. The problem is, by focusing on the visual presentation of your talk you shift your focus from the story, flow and the best way of explaining it, to coming up with content for already created slides. Inverting this flow will make you fly.

Someone once said that your slides should always be complementary. If there was a power outage and you were about to go on without having the projector showing your content behind you, it shouldn’t have any impact on the audience and their understanding.

This is the key.

Let’s get back on track. Now that everything is ready, time to open up the editor of your choice. Open up the speaker notes.

Copy and paste the first few sentences from your final document into the speaker notes from the first slide.

Now think: “What is the best slide to complement what I am saying now?”

If you have more than one answer — it’s a sign that you have too many sentences in your slide and should split it into multiple sub-slides. Keep doing this until you have a single answer to the question. In case of the opposite, that is — nothing comes to mind — paste a few more sentences and repeat this step. You can separate/style them in any way you want — whatever makes it more readable for you.

Keep going until you reach the end of your document and viola — you have now created the best talk of your life.

You can check my slides for React Native EU 2018 where I transformed transcript mentioned in the previous section into slides.

Demo

As the very last step, do a practice run or two in front of someone else. Do it to get familiar with the structure and organization of the slides. This will always put you one step ahead of where you are and you will never have to think about the content again.

If you practice it a few times before your talk, you will notice that you don’t sound like you are reading it anymore. In fact, you will find yourself glancing at a few sentences every once in a while and flying the rest of the way.

Profit

That’s it. You are now good to go and advocate! Let me know whether this is something that has helped you prepare a better talk or if you have a different take on getting ready for conferences or meetups.