Transitions: The easiest way to improve your tech talk

I’ve coached about 100 speakers on their tech talks, reviewed hundreds of talk proposals, given tech talks around the world, and produce my own tech conference, Codeland. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what makes a good tech talk and how to help people with theirs.

There are many elements to a good talk, but they generally fall into two categories: content and delivery. Content is (relatively) easier to teach. Most tech speakers have more experience writing than presenting, so teaching people how to create a solid outline and script is fairly straightforward. What’s harder to teach is delivery.

Giving a talk is a performance. It’s not a lecture, it’s not a blog post in audio form, it’s not a listicle. It’s a performance, and most people simply don’t have a lot of training or experience performing. Coaching people on how to use their voice, their body, showing them when to pause, when to speed up, slow down is really hard to do without a ton of time and practice.

But there’s one part of delivering a good talk that I’ve found to be both easy to teach and makes a surprisingly huge impact on the quality of the talk: the transitions.

Let’s walk through a fictional example of how most transitions sound. Let’s say the talk is about documentation, and the speaker is explaining how to improve documentation and why it’s so important.

One of the transitions early in the talk might go like this:

Speaker: “… and that’s why documentation is really important.”

[clicks to next slide, which shows a pie chart]

Speaker: “So here we have a pie chart, and this is from a developer survey done by Stack Overflow last year. And we can see that 60% of developers stated that documentation is a skill they’d like to improve the most.”

This is a classic way that speakers move through their slides: they finish their thought and then move to the next slide, which starts a new thought. It makes perfect sense! But there are a few issues with this approach.

It breaks the flow of the talk, visually and audibly. The speaker ends their thought by clicking to a new slide and starting a new sentence, creating a very hard stop and restart. It’s jolting to the audience because there’s nothing there to help me get from the first thought to the second. In fact, this strategy doesn’t actually have a transition. Instead we’ve simply jumped between two ideas.

There are places where these jumps are highly effective. There are moments in a talk when you want to come to a full stop and start again, like when you’re changing directions, switching topics, or want to emphasize a particular point. But this hard reset should be used sparingly, and too often, I’ve seen it as the default way to move through a talk.

So, what else are you supposed to do? Before we look at a different strategy, let’s first define what we mean by “transition”. There are two elements that create a transition in a talk:

  1. the words used to get from one slide to another
  2. the moment when you click to the next slide.

Let’s revisit our documentation example to see how we can use the first element to create a better transition.

Speaker: “… and that’s why documentation is really important.”

[clicks to next slide, which shows a pie chart]

Speaker: “And the importance of documentation can be seen in this pie chart, and this is from a developer survey done by Stack Overflow last year. Here, 60% of developers stated that documentation is a skill they’d like to improve the most.”

That new addition, “And the importance of documentation can be seen in this pie chart”, helps connect the two thoughts, and maintains the flow in the overall talk. It sounds much better! But, in adding this, we’ve created a problem.

In this version, we’ve created a disconnect between the words the speaker is saying and what the audience sees. The audience is looking at a pie chart, but it isn’t until ten words in that the speaker has addressed it.

That may not seem like a lot, but for the audience, that’s a long time! The moment you click to a new slide, the first thing the audience does is try to figure out what you’re showing them and why. They’re trying to make sense of what they’re seeing, and if your words don’t address this new visual, they’re spending their energy frantically trying to connect the two, which means they’re not really paying attention to what you’re saying.

That tiny disconnect, those 2 seconds where your beautiful new transition doesn’t perfectly match the visual, is enough to break the spell and take me out of the performance of your talk. This is where the second element of a transition, the moment you click to the next slide, comes in.

Let’s take a look:

Speaker: “… and that’s why documentation is really important. And the importance of documentation can be seen in this-”

[clicks to next slide on the word “this”, which shows a pie chart]

Speaker: “-pie chart, and this is from a developer survey done by Stack Overflow last year. Here, 60% of developers stated that documentation is a skill they’d like to improve the most.”

In this version, we moved the moment where we click to halfway through our sentence, and in doing so, we never break the visual or the audible flow. The picture of the pie chart comes in exactly when we mention it, perfectly matching our words and our slides so the audience never has to fill in the gap on their own. The perfect time to click to the next slide is usually in the middle of a transition sentence.

It’s a small adjustment, but it makes a huge difference. It’s the one piece of advice I found myself giving most frequently, and speakers are always pleasantly surprised at how big of a difference it makes. But if you think about a talk as a performance, it makes a lot of sense.

The best performances bring you into the world of the performer and release you only when the performance is over. As speakers, we use our words and our slides to create a world, and when we do our job well, we bring the audience on a journey and captivate them until the very last slide. Transitions help us stay on that journey. They help us make sure our audience is with us, in our world, the whole way. Without them, we risk our audience disengaging, feeling lost, or just not paying attention.

But the good news is that transitions are an easy thing to add and can go a long way in improving a talk. But don’t take my word for it, give it a try and see for yourself! Best of luck on your next talk!