Lessons from my first public talk

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity and the pleasure to give a short talk at a local meetup. The people at trivago in Dusseldorf sponsor the Web Engineering Dusseldorf meetup that takes place roughly every month. Up until this week, I’ve only sat in the back and listened to all the smart people talking passionately about web technologies.

This week, it was my turn to be on stage.

The topic for the talk was set: The first 10 minutes into a Javascript project. I was supposed to explore how one jumpstarts a Javascript project and focus on how dependency management works, which tools to use for linting your code, formatting your code, testing frameworks, bundling, etc. You get the gist. The entire Javascript ecosystem synthesized in 10 minutes. On top of that, I had to point out one oddity in the language or tooling and one thing my audience would be surprised to find out. That brings the duration of the talk to 15 minutes total max.

Get the tools in place

This being my first talk in public, I wanted to do as little coding as possible, cuz you know…the Demo Gods…they be ruthless. I opted instead for a slide-based presentation I could talk through easily.

It was all new to me. Never really used Keynote. Never really used any framework for creating presentations either. Some digging around got me to RevealJS. It would be wrong to say I picked that, because picking means selecting from a bunch. I only had the one. I ran with it. I slapped some simple styling into a new theme to make it look to my liking and I ran with it.

Lesson learned: No tool you find will write the talk for you. Don’t waste time on researching the best tool for a job. Just do the job.

Writing the talk

Anyone who knows a bit of Javascript knows how diverse the ecosystem is. Hundreds of tools to choose from, each configured differently, each needs to play well in a team and perform great in isolation. Just to mention all of them would go well over the allotted 15 minutes.

I found out that the hard way. The first iteration included well over 20 slides and just walking through them took over 20 minutes.

Lesson learned: Use as few slides as possible to get the point across. If you think you’ve cut down enough, cut down some more.

And the content on the slides? Cut that back as well. Use big fonts and 2–3 bullet points per slide, if you have to.

Prepare the talk

I had the talking points on my slides. So I tried talking through the slides. Sounds good. Didn’t work.

I prefer writing to talking, email to any sort of instant message. I hate phone calls. Writing is more structured. So I wrote my talk. Actually wrote it down, word for word, as if I was talking. I had no problem to write down 2000 or so words in about half an hour. I don’t think I can talk that fast and say things in a structured manner.

There’s three ways to give a talk.

Tim Urban’s Talk Prep Spectrum

You can wing it. Just stand up there and talk. If you’re not a natural, forget about it.

You can talk through a set structure. The slides. It kind of works. But didn’t for me.

You can follow an exact script by either reading off it, barely memorising it or by having it memorised to a Happy Birthday Level. This means you can recite that shit in your dreams. Tim Urban has a very good explanation of this concept. You should read how he prepared to give a TED talk.

I went for the Happy Birthday level.

In the hours before the talk, I must have “given that talk” about 20 times. I had a chair on top of a table and my Macbook on top of that in order to simulate the podium. The same 1600 words. 20 times.

Lesson learned: If you’re just starting out with public speaking and feel nervous, nothing beats repetition.

Giving the talk

This was the easy part to be honest. I felt out of place with a full bladder and wanting to throw up for 20 minutes before the talk. Just listening to people around me laughing and having a good time. Bastards. While I was in hell.

Then I got up there and did my thing. Every ounce of nervousness faded away. It was smooth. People laughed. I had a good time. Why the fuck was I worried?

It turns out it was also a bit too fast paced. I finished the talk in 12 minutes, 3 minutes shy of the deadline.

Lesson learned: Pace yourself. Have a break. Drink some water. Make a joke. Try to relax.

What could I do in the remaining 3 minutes? A quick demo was all that came to mind. I had it kind of prepared just in case. And all praise to the Demo Gods. It worked, despite the fact that I wasn’t really prepared for it. I was certainly winging it.

Lesson learned: Prepare for a demo even if there’s no chance to give one.

So there. I faced my fear and hope to have the chance to do it again. And when I will, it will be better. Less robotic. The demo will be better prepared. I’ll definitely still be very nervous and feel out of place right before the talk. But I will crush it when it counts.

For those of you interested, here are the slides from my talk: http://bogdanlazar.com/talks/taming-javascript