I realised the other day that I’ve been doing public speaking for quite a while now (started with doing internal training courses back in the 90’s, and graduated on to doing external speaking at seminars and conferences about 10 years back).

Over that time, I’ve inevitably made some mis-steps and also seen a number of others from speakers at conferences I’ve attended, so I thought it would be worth putting together some hints and tips for prospective speakers. Hopefully some of these will be useful!

  • Treat your presentation like a story. It should have a start, middle and an end. I find it helps to think of presentations in this way, as you can imagine the story your trying to tell and think about whether a particular slide fits into that part of the narrative or not. Think about “what am I trying to say, why should the audience care and what can they do about it”, and make sure your conclusion has some clear points or advice for next steps.

  • Don’t sweat presentation tool choice too much. A lot of people get very hung up on liking/disliking specific presentation tools (e.g. PowerPoint, Prezi, Keynote). The simple fact is that I’ve seen good and bad presentations with every tool. The important part is that you find one that suits your style and learn how to use it well.

  • Avoid walls of text in your presentation. This one is very common. If you put a lot of dense text on your slides, people will naturally start reading that and not paying attention to what you’re saying. There’s a natural desire to provide information for people after the talk but that can easily go in speaker notes, or a white paper, or a blog post. It doesn’t need to go into the body of the slide.

  • Practice, Practice, Practice. Timing a talk is really tricky to do. The best way to address this is practice your talk. Talk to yourself, your dog/cat, your partner, your friends, basically anyone who’ll listen. I find that once I’ve delivered a talk a couple of times in this way, it’s easier to remember queues and the flow of the talk.

  • Speaker Note cards. Again this one gets a lot of pro/con feeling. My advice is, if you feel you need prompt cards, use them. But try to avoid just reading them one at a time. Keep themes or key points on there, don’t put the exact words you want to say. If you just read from cards, you won’t be able to engage your audience.

  • Engage your audience. So this is hard, especially if you’re not used to public speaking. But it’s important to look up at your audience while you speak. Try to look around, not just at one person.

  • Demos (and the dark god). Live demos can help bring a topic to life and, when done right, can really help drive a point across. With that said, they often fail, which can be pretty stressful in the middle of a presentation! I’ve had things which literally worked 30 minutes earlier, fail for no obvious reason. This happens so often that many presenters will refer to “The dark god of demos”!. My recommendation for speakers who are starting out is to avoid them unless really necessary and always have a back-up option like a pre-recorded video.

  • Fonts and colours. Watch out for this when presenting things like live coding or other demos. Fonts and colour schemes which look good on your laptop may be totally unintelligible when up on a big screen. In particular avoid dark backgrounds with coloured text, these rarely look good. Also make sure you’re au-fait with the keyboard shortcuts for making text larger and smaller in your editor/IDE, as you will likely need to use them on the day…

  • Always develop your own material. It’s very hard to deliver someone else’s slide deck well. I’ve seen a number of times where the presenter didn’t write their presentation, and sometimes didn’t seem to have read it either! This results in a rather disjointed delivery and inability to answer questions, which rarely ends well… If you absolutely have to do this, make sure to read/understand the whole thing before delivery.

  • Lastly Enjoy yourself :). Public speaking can seem like a stressful thing to do, and everyone gets nervous when then present (well I do anyway) but it can be fun to explain your ideas to a group of people and in a lot of cases you’ll get some good feedback/ideas about what you could do next.


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