Lessons learned in Public Speaking

Every year, I try to learn something new. 2014 was javascript, 2015 was back to CS fundamentals, and 2016 is my Year Of Public Speaking.

I’ve been lucky to be able to present the same talk multiple times this year, which is an overview of the new video transcoding system we built at the ABC:

  1. Internal presentation at the ABC (March)
  2. Public presentation at ABC’s tech talk night (March)
  3. YOW! Night talk in Brisbane (April)
  4. YOW! Night talk in Melbourne (April)
  5. YOW! West Conference in Perth (May)
  6. YOW! Night talk in Sydney (May)
  7. NDC Sydney (August)

Each time I presented it, something changed before I gave the next version. The talk has evolved a lot during these months, and I wanted to share some of the lessons I learned doing multiple renditions, and public speaking in general.

Invest time in your talk abstract

Put the time in to write your abstract well. it lives everywhere, it sells the talk before you arrive, it entices people to attend. It’s your advertising. Don’t neglect it. I wish I’d done mine better in early versions. I was pretty happy with the last one at NDC Sydney.

Show it to someone and ask for feedback. Would they attend your session? Does it accurately represent your talk?

Sarah Mei has done a great breakdown of what your conference proposal is missing. It’s also good to trawl through conference agendas and see which proposals interest you, and why – take notes!

Say less than you think you should

If you’ve done some research, then heed the advice you read everywhere: leave space to breathe, and say less. Craft your message around a central point and chop out the excess, no matter how interesting.

Humans are creatures of relativity; we forget how much we know about something, given that you’ve probably spent weeks, months, or even years on it.

The audience doesn’t have the benefit of those months or years of background understanding the topic like you do. They won’t absorb everything. Nor will you be able to cram everything from one year into one hour.

What’s the most important thing you want to say? Or the top 3 things? Select content to include to support your message, rather than selecting things to exclude. You’ll have a more coherent message, and the audience will feel less overwhelmed. Don’t be afraid to repeat things often.

Craft your story

Read some advice on how to construct a narrative, and tell a story. Don’t just list the facts – make it something they can get involved in.

There are a few story “archetypes” detailed in the TED Talks Official Guide to Public Speaking that I found useful.  An example story archetype is introducing a challenge, and then unmasking step-by-step how you solved it. The audience gets to play along, and “solve” the challenge with you, which leads to more engagement.

Ultimately, as Zach Holman says, talks are entertainment.

Devote time to your slides

A well-designed slide set can support and reinforce your message in amazing ways. Great slides are really valuable. I believe they’re worth as much time as you can spare, and they can give you more confidence if you’re a newer (or nervous) public speaker. For example, you can use funny images to inject humour if you’re not normally great with joke delivery. The slides help you cheat. The better you are at public speaking, the less you need the slides as backup.

Here’s an example of using slides to reinforce your message. It’s much nicer to see these 3 slides in sequence, while you explain what’s happening – we take a watermark, make it 30% transparent, then resize it:


And here are the 3 separate slides:

Compare those visual ones to a text slide:


Sure, the second slide takes less work to create. But the first set of three look prettier. They easily convey your point, and nobody has to read text to digest it. If your audience understands what you’re saying – through word, or through visuals – then you’ve done your job well 🙂

Learn some public speaking techniques

Invest in some classes, read some books, or watch videos to learn about public speaking techniques.

This can include a training course, (I was lucky be part of YOW’s Women in Tech comp in 2015, and absolutely encourage you to enter if you are a woman in Australia), but I have also since done a course with Public Speaking For Life in Sydney, which focuses on more general delivery techniques. I found both very valuable, and PSL offer multiple courses throughout the year.

I highly recommend watching Damian Conway’s Instantly Better Presentations on how to deliver a good technical presentation. He specifically covers technical issues, like demonstrating code. His intensive public speaking courses are great.

The recent TED Talks book is an easy read, and Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on body language was really helpful.

Another great thing to do is to watch other people deliver talks, and see which ones you found compelling. What did they do to make you feel engaged?

Practice. Lots.

Although I ran through my hour long presentation multiple times, it’s way too much content to know off the bat. But the more I ran through it, the more comfortable I got with the content, and the less nervous I would feel on stage (this was the theory).

This Wait But Why article explains the science of different levels of memorisation (with graphs, and everything!) and is seriously entertaining to boot.

A few techniques I used to familiarise myself with the talk:

  • Recorded my voice rehearsing various sections, a) standing up and b) including intonations and pauses and then played it back to myself on the way to work, or at lunch.
  • Rehearsed in a similar position to the real talk – Standing up, not facing my computer, etc.
  • Bought a clicker and practiced with it.
  • Checked the speaker notes were visible, and easy to focus on.
  • Recorded myself to see if I should adjust anything with body language or gestures.
  • Got someone to watch me in practice, and welcomed their feedback. I did this multiple times.

My story

A few years ago, I’d never want to stand up in front of an audience and talk about something. I didn’t feel qualified enough, or interesting enough.

I’m really proud that I got to the stage of doing all those talks, and how they turned out. The talk feedback has been great, and it’s fun being a speaker. People are interested in what you have to say. You also get to be in situations you wouldn’t be otherwise, like chatting to Tess Ferrandez, whose debugging tutorials I used years ago.

However, the reality is that someone else always pushed me to try. Dave Thomas, who organises YOW, repeatedly encouraged the Women in Tech competition speakers to submit talks for proposals. Sam Newman told me I should submit to NDC Sydney.

My next goal? Submit a talk somewhere, and get it accepted, without someone pushing me to do it. And to get my fellow women in tech up and talking too. 😀


3 thoughts on “Lessons learned in Public Speaking

  1. Pingback: My podcast with Scott Hanselman | coding, cake and travel

  2. Pingback: NDC Sydney | coding, cake and travel

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