This is part 2 of a multi-post series on public speaking
A talk usually consists of three parts:
- The Intro
- The Contents
- The Summary
The intro should give the audience a brief overview of what it is they’re going to be hearing, and more importantly set expectations. If it’s a technical talk, tell them the level of coverage for instance. Use it as a way to make sure everyone has read the abstract (assuming you’ve done a good job writing it) and are on the same page. It’s also a good way for those that are in the wrong talk, to apply the law of two feet.
It should be short though, not more than a minute.
I personally dislike agenda slides. I think they’re boring and useless. People often spend a good two to three minutes going over, point by point everything they’re going to cover in a talk. For what?
Do you believe members of the audience are going to remember the agenda? You think they’re going to take a picture of it and reproach you later on if you didn’t exactly cover what you mentioned? It’s also rare that anyone would come to a talk just because they want to make sure one or two specific items will be covered in it, which an agenda highlights. If you’re going into that level of detail in your agenda slide, then you’re already spending way too much time on it.
Th abstract along with an intro should be more than enough to set the tone for the talk.
If there’s something I dislike more than an agenda slide, it’s an “About Me”. If you want my opinion (and given you’re reading this blog I assume you do), drop it. Completely get rid of any slides that are about you. Time and time again I witness talks where the speaker spends a good couple of minutes talking about themselves, their cats, dogs, kids, what they’ve done or haven’t done with their life. And all of this is usually following a disclaimer of “I don’t normally talk about myself”….but here’s 20 minutes into my life that you don’t care about.
“But but but I have to establish credentials”…you may say.
Generally, if someone is coming to your talk, they’ve probably read your bio. And if afterwards they’re really interested, or concerned, about things you’ve said, they’ll look you up.
In summary, my recommendation regarding “About me” slides, or sections - you don’t need them. If you really feel the urge to talk about yourself before the talk or need to “advertise” your company, just say “My name is Hadi. I work at JetBrains”. Done.
Does an intro always apply?
No. Not every talk needs an intro. In fact many talks such as keynotes or “soft-skill talks” in our industry, don’t necessarily need to have an intro and in fact can be awkward. I’ve never really given an intro during a keynote, even if it’s been a technical one (which I’m not really a fan of giving technical keynotes but that’s a completely different discussion). Having said that, if you want to intro your talk as a story, as a reason of why you’re giving the talk, then that can work but it has to be very subtle and blend in to the story narrative. Not stand out like a soar thumb.
The contents of the talk is the core part. It’s essentially why everyone is at the talk. What you can talk about and how you should do it is a topic for a different blog post, but focusing on the structure aspect of the talk, there are a couple of important things to take into account.
Focused and coherent
When giving a talk, especially a technical one, sometimes we try and cram too much in. I’m very much guilty of this myself. It’s important to remember that people’s attention span isn’t that big. And in a world where any text longer than a tweet is considered a novel to read on vacation, cramming too much contents into a talk can leave the audience lost and overwhelmed.
It’s important to keep the talk focused. I know you want to share as much of your knowledge as you can, and I know you’re excited, but cramming too much into an hour or 45 minutes won’t help anyone, apart from your own ego. One of my all-time favourite speakers, Venkat Subramaniam does a very good job of keeping his talks focused.
Much like keeping focus, it’s also important for your talk to be coherent, and this is much harder when giving non-technical talks. I’ve struggled with this quite a bit with some of my non-technical talks, or as some call them, rants. Much like trying to keep the focus, you need to keep the talk coherent. If you’re talking about all sorts of things and there is no connection between them, it’s very easy to lose the audience and have the talk fail. One way to avoid this is to have a central theme to keep coming back to and making sure that everything you say always fits this narrative, can always be driven home to the main theme.
If there’s one thing that can make or break a talk (actually there’s many things but I’ll probably keep using this phrase), that’s flow. You may be the most interesting person in the world, or have a ton of information you want to share. Unless you share this in a manner that makes sense, has a proper flow to it, you’re going to lose the audience and it will feel as if you’re a squash ball jumping from side to side.
With technical talks it’s not that hard to create a proper flow. You essentially rely on building up concepts. If you’re giving a talk about functional programming to a newbie audience, start with higher-order functions and then move on to monads. Not the other way round.
With non-technical talks it’s much harder however. You have to tell a story, talk about many different things and often it’s not easy to find the right flow. What I do, is use the “Light Table” view in Keynote. Essentially when I’m creating a new talk, I dump all my ideas into Keynote. This usually ends up in a bunch of slides with either a couple of words on them, or some bullet points. These aren’t the final slides. They’re just a dump of everything I want to talk about. Once I have most of my ideas in slides, I then switch to Light Table mode and start to move slides around, trying to get a better flow. I then start working on the final slides and once again iterate over the order of them.
Once I’m done with all the contents, I then go through my slides from start to finish. I don’t usually practice my talks (and please, don’t do as I do, practicing is very important, but again a topic for another blog post), however, I do murmur through each slide quickly making sure I know what I have to say and that the flow works. I find this technique very useful.
You’d think the summary slide is the easiest wouldn’t you? For many years I used to avoid having a summary slide. Every time I’d try and write one I’d struggle and would just put some random bullet points on there and not give it much thought. But I realised, that my struggle was because my talk wasn’t either focused or coherent, or even worse, had no value.
Summary slides are not easy to do but are also warning signs that maybe your talk isn’t well-structured, focused or coherent. Think of it as a safety-check. If your summary slide has too many bullet points, maybe you’re covering too much. If you’re struggling coming up with a summary, maybe your entire talk needs work.
In addition to serving as a final check, a summary is also extremely important to drive home the point(s) you’re making, to remind people of your message or things you’ve covered. It’s a perfect ending to a talk, an opportunity to leave people inspired.
And if it’s none of that, think of it as a way for yourself to not be surprised that your talk has ended!
Until next time.