Hi everyone. My name is Alex. I give dozens of talks all over Europe every year since 2013. This article is a compilation of my fuck-ups, fails of people I’ve seen live, and solutions to how you can avoid those mistakes. I will also share recommendations on how to become a better public speaker.
Since my previous post was quite warm accepted (link), I decided to answer additional questions that emerged. I will shape it as a top of my mistakes mixed with fails of other people I’ve seen live. I will give you practical advice on how to avoid each of those. Some of them are related to technical talks, but the majority can be applied to any speech.
10. Do all-round live coding
Only senior professionals who have the same mindset as you attend events and everyone can follow your speed of writing code which you rehearsed to write quick… or they aren’t? It’s so easy to fall into the assumptions of audience professional equality, which is never a thing. If your whole presentation is a significant live coding — people whom you miss in the beginning will end up swiping cats on Instagram after 5 minutes of your talk. I made this mistake a couple of times. I regularly see other people doing it. With all being said, I’m skipping the fact that live coding often goes wrong, takes more time, or doesn’t work as expected.
- Use several independent coding examples without continuous context between them. If someone failed to understand the first example — a person would get a chance to understand the second/n-th one.
- Do damn rehearsals
- Embrace the fact you will still make mistakes during coding and live with that.
9. Overestimate the importance of slides
The person comes onto the stage and demonstrates your slides resulting in a total of 114 bullets, 15 on each slide. Each element of the list replicates what the person says. Sounds familiar? Have you ever bothered to listen for a speaker, while you’re busy reading slides? It’s also one of the mistakes I did before.
All public speaking lessons will raise the same point: slides should emphasize your words, not vice versa.
- Think of the presentation as a tool, but not a framework of your talk.
- 5–6 bullets per slide are reasonable maximum. Make them as concise as possible, don’t put all your lecture into the slides
- Use visualizations instead of the numbered lists whether it’s
- Make it readable. Bigger fonts and less design. Some people sit further than the first row, so please make sure everyone in a room can read your slides.
I had a problem when slides were more interesting than me — it’s essential to estimate your charisma correctly and make sure you’re standing out in front of your presentation. I would say that my “allure” during the first 30 talks was in the negative dimension, so don’t be overly optimistic when it comes to this question.
8. Tell everyone your subjective personal opinion
I hate when others do it, and still do it sometimes uncontrollably. I instantly get furious when someone from the stage starts bullshitting stuff I like without providing any arguments which prove their ideas. But it’s tough to control yourself when it comes to keeping your mouth shut when it comes to talks. Likely you’re not going to have your accurate transcript of what you’re going to talk during 20–30–40 minutes of your speech. Usually, people have some plans and specific points they want to emphasize. For example, “Ok, during this slide, I’m going to tell people why the performance of library X get’s decreased when you use it in scenario Y.” It results in some room for the randomization factor of how exactly you’re going to give that idea and depends on verbs and adjectives you use; you can put various levels of empathy into something. There is an insane distance between “Not helpful for our case” and “it was terrible as fuck, never use it!”. Some speakers in the IT scene do it purposefully and use blaming as a part of their “style,” and I ended up having severe prejudice towards their talks and usually skip them. And it’s not only me.
What to do? Share your experience; don’t share your opinion.
7. Be a pan face lecturer
You’re very experienced in what you’re going to tell. You’ve prepared your talk, and it’s tightly packed by useful information. It’s a serious topic; jokes are for clowns, not for you. You think the value of your talk is information, and doing some special delivery is not essential. You believe that people will listen to you just because you’re telling important things. HELL NO! If you’re boring — you’ll finish alone, detached from the audience keeping up only with the strongest “survivors” who managed to follow you against their nature. During my public speaking experience, I’m continually trying to find the golden middle between being annoying and being a clown, and it feels closer every time.
- Imagine that some random people in the audience have minimal experience with what you’re going to talk about. Think about the way, how you can deliver the information in the way, which will either entertain them as well and will bring positive value to everyone.
- Add some fun. We’re not living in formal society anymore.
- Learn the intonation, pitch, and pauses. Learn how to speak dynamically in real life and bring it onto the stage.
6. Skip the technical check before the talk
It’s one of my favorites once, and this stuff happens consistently. What can go wrong? Well, here’s an example of what I had/seen alive:
- Laptop rejects to recognize the projector (usually HDCP)
- The laptop doesn’t work on a frequency of projector
- The Internet isn’t stable in the venue, and your online deck of slides doesn’t work
- Your live coding isn’t visible from the audience
- Your laptop gets “Please wait 45 minutes to install updates. Don’t shut down the machine.” at the beginning of the presentation.
- Your HTML demo becomes a mess on a new resolution of the projector
- Your laptop died during transportation to the venue.
- Your clicker died
- The presentation doesn’t work on someone else’s device (if you don’t present from your own machine)
- Presentation’s sound doesn’t work (if you use it)
- You forgot to close porn in the morning.
- You forgot to turn off messenger where your partner is asking how your diarrhea is going on
- You have outlook opened with sensitive information which is secured by NDA (which you automatically violate)
Almost every single time, something goes wrong for people who don’t do technical checks.
Solution: Do technical check
5. Don’t bring spare clothes
Probably it’s very personal, but I’m very good at spilling coffee on white shirts in minutes before the talk. A couple of times I had to talk with a big brown spot on me. By the moment of reviewing this draft, I realized that probably it’s not critical, but I’ll keep it here.
Solution: bring some t-shirt and pants with you.
4. Ignore the preliminary audience research
This one is not that obvious but very critical, though. I’ll share one example which would illustrate the difference between audiences. I used to give technical talks, but in recent years I also started pitching my project in front of potentially interested people. There was a serious event where I had a chance to present the results of my work.
My project is in medicine, and we had success in diagnostics of pre-diabetes state, which I wanted to share. I wanted to empasize the importance of knowledge of strenghts and traits in this particular scenario and decided to go with a small performance. I planned to eat candy in front of an audience and afterward tell that I’m not possessing the high chances of diabetes and can do so; however, some people might not want to do so and following an explanation of our diabetes identification case. Plans seldom go as you want, so I went into a really awkward situation when I stood in front of investors eating a melted chocolate candy for a minute because it stuck all over my mouth. I tried to make fun of the situation, but serious business people disliked it hardly. If I were smarter — I would probably think more in advance: something that would perfectly work on software engineers is not mandatory going to work on business people and vice versa.
Solution: try to think about your talk from the perspective of the target audience. Learn who are they going to be? What is their experience level? Different people require different treatments.
3. Talk about things you aren’t sure about
…well probably you’re sure by the moment of giving a talk, but you might be surprised when discovering the truth later on.
At the beginning of my public speaking career, I gave a talk about the approach which I considered as a real solution for a real problem. One of the first questions was, “why wouldn’t you simply use this library instead”? And it was a good question; I didn’t know about the existence of that library and the fact that it solves my issue way better than my solution. I repeated this mistake on a smaller scale a couple of times, but it wasn’t that critical anymore. This mistake can drastically damage your reputation, and it’s not fucking funny at all.
Solution: Put more time and effort into fact-checking. Ask other professionals for advice. Evaluate your assumptions. Check all the conclusions. Make sure you’re as least biased as possible. It’s something that I put 60% of my preparation time nowadays. It’s hard to evaluate yourself, so I go through each statement and try to use the “proof by negation” approach to maintain some adequacy. It will likely contribute to your existential crisis, rejection of authority, mistrust to everything you see, but who said life is easy? :)
2. Ignore the structure
Of course, there are some exceptions from this rule, but some kind of arrangement is always present. If you’re chaotically jumping between the topics, it will be hard for the audience to follow you.
It’s not something that will destroy your reputation as peeing in your pants but will waste your time and time of audience either. You will end up being one of the talks, which is forgotten an hour later. The talk people never remember and never discuss.
It’s something that is hard to handle when you’re working just with a presentation. It’s problematic to visualize the flow, and I tried to address the issue in various ways. There are no guarantees my approach will work for you, but here is what I do:
- Use stickers and a big table. Write the contents of every single slide on a separate peace of paper. Arrange them on the board. Look at the whole picture. Move the stickers back and forth till the moment when it feels correct. Reflect the order in your slides. You’ll likely throw half of the notes and replace them with something new. Probably many times.
- Go slide by slide. Imagine yourself seeing them and the topic for the first time. On each slide, ask yourself a question, “Do I have enough information from the previous slide to understand the current one?”.
- Dry runs (alone). Record yourself on your phone camera (for some reason you bought it, right? it’s time to use it). Review. Improve.
1. Never start giving talks.
It’s the biggest mistake you can make. Probably you (yes, you, the reader of this article) told yourself something like, “I don’t know what to tell” or “People already know everything I do” or “I can’t bring much value.” The problem with those statements is their correctness. People know everything that you want to tell. Moreover, they know it better than you. But all those people know peaces of what you want to say, but rarely everything as a whole. Everyone is a unique combination of skills and experience, and sharing those experiences should be (and often is) appreciated. People who know about your subject simply wouldn’t come, but interested people will. I guarantee you that your first talk will be disgusting and you’ll end up with a deep feeling of regret. But it’s something everyone is going through to learn and become a better public speaker. Just remember that you’re a human. And people in the audience are humans as well. Relax, embrace imperfection, make the step towards the mic!