Presenting 101

We have all seen the polished TED presentations involving months of preparation, consulting coaches and endless hours put into rehearsing. We all try to do our best to achieve maximum impact with the stories we share but how does one prepare a presentation with full workdays and jam-packed weekends spent with kids? Below you will find real world, battle tested tools and tricks of the trade.

Be honest with yourself — How much time are you willing to dedicate in preparation for a talk? Double that number.

Sometimes we don’t have that luxury. How much can one accomplish when given a limited amount of time to prepare for a talk? Surprisingly, a lot. Here’s what I mean.


30 minutes

I got home from work one afternoon and wondered what should I cook for dinner. While pondering, my phone ringed.

“When will you be here?” asked a friend.

“Where?” I answered blatantly.

“You’re supposed to be speaking at this Meetup soon,” he replied.

(I thought I wasn’t speaking until the next day.)

I said, “I’m on my way,” and called a cab.

Getting into the cab, I grabbed a name card and tried to jot down the most important attributes of my topic on the back. On the top I scribbled “Intro, 5W + H”, any specifics I wanted to share definitely went in the middle — aka the message, followed by “Future, Recap, Questions”.

It helps if you know the topic you want to cover (as was my case). Let me explain. “5W + H” comes from the classic journalistic questions — Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Be sure to address these questions so that they support your message and are appropriate for your audience. Mix in a few anecdotes and funny facts that come to your mind. Make a note in a form a short mnemonic you can hopefully remember — “What should the ‘fridge stunt’ mean?” Prepare some audience participation involvement questions up front — “Who here has ever used a Kinect?” Leave some open ended ones for the end of your talk in case your audience doesn’t have any good ones for you. You can answer a not-so-interesting-audience-question and then quickly follow by connecting your own question.

You will speak approximately 1 minute about each of the aforementioned sections and questions.

If you have anything visual on the Interwebs that’s related to your topic and the venue has internet connection, advise the audio/visual support folks to show it while you’re speaking. I was lucky at this particular Meetup. Once you arrive at the venue make a quick decision whether or not it would help to gulp some hard liquor before going on stage to lessen your nerves.

This is how it all looked like for me at the Budapest New Technology Meetup in March 2007 after the cab ride.


2 hours

You may find yourself in a situation where you want to communicate ideas, a project, a success or failure to more than a handful of people. We have such a venue at our company every week on Friday — we’ve named it Retro. After a hazy week of getting things done, you might reflect and decide to sketch up a presentation pretty quickly.

The back-of-a-name-card trick is a good start. As a next step, most of the time, I tear an A4 sheet of paper into smaller pieces and transcribe each bullet point from the name card onto those pieces of paper. I step back, make tea, glance at the chaos in front of me and try to re-order the pieces in a way that makes sense. This is my process for crafting a story. Once I’m in a good place, I reach for my iPad and pull up Haiku Deck (free).

It doesn’t feel good to type too much on a slide in this tool — and that’s a feat. It’s easy to get lost in the tons of good quality Flicker CC photos you can add with a touch. Even so, it’s got the best value for investment ratio when compared to other products.

When your presentation is not quite finished, but close enough, show it to someone. Being strict with your time guarantees that your slides will have evident gaps, errors or typos. Someone with fresh eyes can help you correct those quickly. Fix what they’ve found and if you’re provided with any constructive suggestions that can be applied in five minutes or less, apply them. You’re done.

The visual CVish below was done like this years ago — the not-so-perfect screenshots were captured with my iPad’s old camera from a monitor screen.

For this presentation at the Budapest Database Meetup in September 2013 I added some proper screenshots done on a Mac and imported via Dropbox.


2 days

If you’re planning to do a proper conference talk, plan to invest 15+ hours in preparation. By adding yet other layer of work to what was outlined in the first two sections, you are more likely to have better command over the details of the delivery itself. This is particularly important if your talk will be recorded.

You’ll want to have less text on each slide (preferably in a mnemonic way) and presentation notes that only you can see. You’ll want to use legal visuals (even on a shoestring budget). You’ll probably also want to prepare legible, reusable diagrams fast.

Keynote is generally the go-to tool but don’t underestimate a newcomer like Deckset (trial or 30 USD) that translates Markdown to presentation. Here, at Wunderlist, we’re pretty much in love with it. You can readily edit Markdown and get pretty decent outcome with minimal effort.

To do your legal visual hunt on your own, consider using Flickr CC and Freeimages. Unfortunately the good ol’ stock.xchng is not available anymore.

When my colleague, Bence, talked at PyCon Ireland, he used Deckset for the presentation and OmniGraffle (trial or 100 USD) for the diagrams.

If you don’t want to spend money on OmniGraffle, consider MonoDraw (trial or 20USD) or Shaky (free) for that nerdy touch in your diagrams. Sadly, a generic XKCD styler available for diagrams doesn’t exist (yet).

I made the presentation below in Keynote and wished I’d known about Deckset at the time. Diagrams were produced in Paper (free) on an iPad with it’s magical autocorrect function.

Rehearse your presentation. Time it. Make notes. Change speed and accent accordingly. Record your presentation in video and watch it without sound in double speed. Recognise if you’re fidgeting and pay close attention to your hand movements. Try to control them. Rinse and repeat.

(Special thanks to Jenny for her meticulous copy-editing.)