After a little bit of a break, today’s post is brought to us by John Feminella over at distilledb.com. Thanks John!
In a digital age where screencasts and podcasts can reach millions at once, it’s ironic that live public speaking can continue to be a challenge. The simple act of standing up in front of a small audience and making a presentation is still a nerve-wracking experience for many.
It’s a widely cited (if perhaps a bit exaggerated) statistic that fear of public speaking ranks higher than fear of death. As Jerry Seinfeld noted, "this means that, to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy."1 This mindset poses a problem, because knowledge dissemination and the free exchange of ideas are some of the most important services a technical community provides.
So if we recognize that these are valuable pursuits, and if we want to give a great talk, what can we do to maximize our chances of making that happen? While there’s no magic formula for guaranteed success, effective talks almost always have two essential characteristics: a high-bandwidth presentation style and speaker confidence.
How you present is more important than what you present. No matter how intriguing or useful the topic, your listeners will get little value out of a talk that’s poorly delivered. Effective presenters will therefore try to maximize the useful information they communicate to their audience.
The bandwidth of someone’s words are very low; we could get the same information by reading a transcript of their speech. Clearly people find conferences more valuable, or they wouldn’t pay hundreds of dollars for them. Why don’t we get the same value out of a transcript that we do by reading a talk? It’s because the nature of the delivery and the presenter’s style can greatly enhance how much we learn from a talk; these are things that are difficult to capture textually.
Effective presenters invite their audience to consider possibilities with them and to imagine scenarios; they exercise minds, not just eyes and ears. The epiphany gained from seeing a good speaker bring together a complex concept, the excitement from seeing a new technology, the curiosity evoked by an intriguing demonstration — all these are emotional connections that draw your listeners closer.
Asking your audience rhetorical questions is a particularly good tactic here. You’ll engage them directly, and you invite them to consider your point in the context of their own experiences. For example, in a talk to explain the benefits of unit testing, you might ask, "Can you think of a time where you wrote some code that worked initially but broke mysteriously later on?" This serves as both a good segue into a point about regression testing and invites the audience to link your talk with their personal experience, making for a more compelling reminder of your points.
Conversely, bombarding your audience with too much tangential data or straying too far from the path of the topic isn’t helpful. For this reason it’s important, whenever you break out of presentation mode, to minimize any downtime. Giving technical demos is a big danger zone here; make sure everything you need is set up and ready to go when you switch over to demo mode. Now is not the time to forget which function key combination breaks you back to the desktop.
Confidence is the other crucial piece for effective presentations, and you get it from two sources: intrinsic and extrinsic.
Intrinsic confidence, which comes from self-confidence in your expertise and knowledge, is something you can only acquire through experience with your field over time. It’s the source of the internal reassurance that what you’re saying is a sound opinion. By contrast, extrinsic confidence is measured in how you project yourself to others and the world around you.
The goal is to keep both of these synchronized: you want to appear as confident as you should be, no more and no less. If your extrinsic confidence is much greater than your intrinsic confidence, you are projecting a confidence that is not backed up by actual knowledge or experience. This is disingenuous and of no use to your audience. A few probing questions from observant audience members will make it obvious that you’re weak on the facts, so make sure you know your material inside and out. Thoroughly rehearsing your speech beforehand will help identify soft points and prepare you for the real deal.
Conversely, if your extrinsic confidence is much less than your intrinsic confidence, your points will come across as weak and ineffectual. How much would you trust a speaker that looked unsure of everything he was saying? Body language is a well-studied psychological discipline, and it has some important precepts to inform your speaking with regards to extrinsic confidence. You should have open, welcoming language that encourages others to listen to what you’re saying.
Doing so invites the audience to consider your points as you make them and projects self-assurance in your opinions. Closed body language, like leaving your hands in your pockets, crossing your arms, or looking at the floor, signals an unwillingness to engage or connect with the audience. Filming yourself or having a friend watch you give the talk is a good way to make sure this doesn’t happen.
Giving your next talk
There’s plenty of advice to be had about what makes a good technical talk, but I think this captures the essential pieces of what I’d consider an effective presentation. If you’ve never given one before, hopefully this has encouraged you to put your thinking cap on and get to the podium with something you’re passionate about. The technical community can always benefit from hearing more ideas — perhaps it’s time to share yours!
Footnotes and credits
Thanks very much to Justin Etheredge for the excellent idea to write this as part of his technical-talks series.
1 Seinfeld, episode 63 / The Pilot
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