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Public speaking: write, refine, rehearse, repeat

I gave two talks recently and thought I’d write a blog post about the process I use to prepare.

First of all,  I spend a lot of time talking about the audience.  An opportunity to give a talk at a conference allows to showcase your work and that of your team.  At the same time, you want to be able the audience to learn something new and gain insight into your area of expertise.  What key points will they take away from the talk?

I think a lot about the time allotted.  How long do you have to talk?  How deep can you dive into the subject matter? What background will the audience have on this topic?  Most importantly, what context do you need to provide so that the your words are meaningful and they can learn from what you have to say in that amount of time?  They have paid to travel and listen to you so it’s up to your to prepare a compelling talk that is tuned to their experience level.

After I think about all those questions, I write down a very rough outline on paper.  I think write some notes on smaller slips of paper about diving into details of each of the outline topics and move them around on my desk to try to find a reasonable order to the topics I want to cover.  I use paper because when I started giving talks many years ago, I read Presentation Zen and this was the approach the author suggested.

I think a lot about a snappy title.  I really feel this is important and it is intensely satisfying when I finally find the correct one. I was really happy with the “From Hello World to Goodbye Code” title for my last talk.  I thought “Ship Happens: A better Firefox build & release pipeline” was a good title too but then I realized that I have also given a talk called “Git Happens” so apparently I’m not that original.

After I have a good outline, I start collecting ideas for pictures, other work to reference, or funny quotes from other people in the field in a Google doc. I use pictures from because they are beautiful and have a permissive license.  I also always include a photo or so from wocintech stock photos because representation matters.

Then I start writing content.  I add pictures, and put a lot of speaker notes below the slides.  It takes me a long time to work on and revise the talk. At first, it feels like a lot of disjointed content. It doesn’t feel like it flows.

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 5.36.50 PM

After I have a rough draft, I practice the slides. Is it too long?  Is it missing some key information?  Does it include questions for the audience to keep them engaged?  Are the parts that that can be removed to make it flow more easily?  Are there anecdotes that distract from the main points of the talk? Are the jokes funny to other people or just funny to me? Am I speaking to quickly to try to cover too much material?

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 7.34.12 PM

These days, I write my slides in Google slides.  This allows me to share the slides with others for feedback and people can provide comments inline.  I usually share them with my teammates as feedback from people who know the topic well, and other people who don’t know the topic as a sanity check. Feedback is essential because after a while you’ve spent so much time reworking the content you become blind to glaring errors and omissions.

I continue to update the content. Polish it some more.  Practice several times from start to finish.  I think about how I could improve it when I’m going for a run, or eating breakfast.  I continue to polish it until minutes before it’s time to speak.

I was chatting with one of my colleagues at our last Mozilla all-hands about giving talks and he said “I used to give talks, but I stopped, because I obsessed about them so much”.  And I replied “Hmm, this is me”.  I don’t give talks that often, but I do like to make them as valuable as possible for the audience.  So perhaps, obsession is caring.

When I’m ready to present at the conference, I export the Google slides to .pptx and import them into Keynote.  The reason I do this is that Keynote allows me to run the presentation with animations and without the network and conference wifi is notoriously unreliable.  When the talk is over, I export the slides to a pdf that includes speaker notes and upload them online.

In preparation for this talk, I read a book which is a great primer on public speaking – Lara Hogan‘s Demystifying Public Speaking.  The book is very succinct at less 100 pages but it contains many useful hints on how to arrive prepared for a presentation. If you’re considering your first talk or are an experienced speaker, I highly recommend it.  It’s full of details to make planning and presenting go smoothly.

Lara Hogan‘s Demystifying Public Speaking.

My key takeaways from this book:

  • Take your topic for a test spin – Write about it or give a mini presentation to colleagues or friends
  • Review what you’re agreeing to when you agree to speak – How many people will be in the audience? What are the topics will other speakers present?  Ask about logistics – will they have an AV tech to help you or will you be on your own?
  • The bulk of your talk preparation will be writing.  Be sure to allocate enough time to prepare adequately.
  • Think about the topic before you share your work with others – is it compelling enough?  Is there content that can be removed? How will people with different levels of experience react to your talk?
  • Ask for feedback from people. What was confusing? What was difficult to understand? Was the narrative clear or did you tune out at some point?
  • Logistics – Don’t trust that the wifi will work at the venue.  Have a copy of your talk on a thumb drive, locally on your computer, or as a pdf on your phone.

What’s your approach when preparing to give a talk? What do you do to make it successful?

1 comment on “Public speaking: write, refine, rehearse, repeat

  1. Great tips on public speaking! That is such an important skill and one I’m not too fond of! Thank you for sharing this! Wish you the best – speak766


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