Christian Heilmann

The road to being a kick-ass public speaker

Monday, April 11th, 2011 at 4:53 pm

During a meeting of all the Mozilla people last week a few of my colleagues asked me how they could become better at public speaking or as they put it “how do you do all these talks? I could never do that! I am too afraid I’d screw up!”. I took that as a challenge to start a series of talks and trainings on “public speaking for tech geeks” and started with the following talk.

The slides

The slides are available on SlideShare:

The audio recording

Also available on

Detailed notes

Today I am going to share a few tips and tricks about public speaking.

A lot of what I am going to talk about is already described in the Developer Evangelism Handbook.

There is a general preconception that geeks are bad presenters. We are awkward and speak in a language nobody understands about things people don’t care about. That is why companies send sales guys to present instead of the engineers who build a certain product.

This breeds a lot of misunderstandings as to how to present. If and when geeks meet each other a lot of the presentations are simply live coding or 40 minutes of tech awesome shown in a terminal. We’ve gone away from believing in presenting as we’ve seen too many sales guys on stage talking uplifting nonsense (in our eyes).

And this is a shame – geeks are awesome presenters – if they understand that they need to present. It is a slight shift in our perception of what we want to achieve. Instead of showing off what you know your task is to inspire people to want to know more.

Step 1: Preparation

The first step to preparing a great talk for your company is CYA (cover your arse). This means talking to your PR and marketing department that you are going to give a talk. That way you know what is currently hot in your company (and maybe get some sponsorship) and more importantly what to avoid stating in public. You might think you are cooler than PR and marketing but the fact is that these are professionals and when you keep a good relationship you can learn a lot and avoid public embarrassment.

Here’s the next thing to do: stop thinking about the presentation. Instead, do your homework – write all the code or interfaces you want to show, learn to use the system you’re trying to cover and document what you have done. A lot of things can go wrong with your presentation. If you have done your homework and you know what you want to talk about inside out, you can still deliver a great talk even when there is no electricity or your computer dies on you.

Find something that excites you – there is no way you can be a good presenter when you are not totally down with the thing you want to present. Sure, you can bring the message across but to win people’s hearts and minds you need to be talking about the fun and excitement you feel about using something.

Prepare a doggy bag – a very important part of a good presentation is to have all the things people want to use after your talk available for them. Host your code examples somewhere for download, have a list of all the links somewhere and upload the slides if you want to share them.

Think of the audience – a lot of speakers think they can write one talk and deliver it over and over again wherever they get invited to speak. If your talk is truly amazing and you are a great speaker this can work. If you want to have the most impact, however, it makes much more sense to write something catered to the audience. This is especially important in countries where your language is not the native one. Cutting down on the spoken part and sticking to facts and code examples works much better there.

Point to the obvious – there is no point to repeat the same resources over and over again. If something is very well documented and written don’t talk about it but instead show a link and tell people they can find all the information there.

Find something that is not obvious to concentrate on – there is some different angle than the obvious one to everything. If you find that angle, you can build a much more compelling argument and cause interest. Instead of looking at what something does, try to see what effects is causes.

Have a story – nothing is more compelling than having a good story. Like a good story, your talk should have an introduction, a buildup to a climax, a climax and a good ending. To make abstract things easier to grasp, try to find real life examples that resonate what you want to bring across.

Piggy back on something current – if you can find something that is very current and on everybody’s radar and you can connect it to what you want to talk about it is a lot easier to have people listen to you. Furthermore it means that people mention your talk when they discuss the other current matter.

Share information from the trenches – nothing makes an abstract matter easier to grasp than examples how to use them in real products and the effects they caused. People have a job to do – show them how they can use cool new things to make it easier for them.

Have fun – be unpredictable – don’t just deliver the info, shake up the audience from time to time by using humour and unexpected references in your talk. Variable names of code examples are a good example to add a dash of “what?” for the audience.

Spread out and back up – this is the web, use it. Tweet about the things you will talk about, show some bookmarks, upload some screenshots of some of your slides. Tease and preview and people will already get interested. Once your slides are done, upload them somewhere for you and also put them on a memory stick. Your computer may get lost or break down, this will keep you in the game.

Step 2: Delivery

Get into the right mindset. This is the hardest bit for a lot of people. You have to find your inner calm before you go on stage. You have to be hungry to deliver a kick-ass talk instead of being scared. A bit of fear is good – it stops you from becoming complacent. My mindset when I enter the stage is that there is nothing I can do now to undo it – I am here, people see me, people expect to learn and be entertained. This is it, I have to do this. I did my homework, I got this. Let’s make it interesting and share with people what got me to get excited about the thing I will talk about.

Some delivery tips

  • Say “hi” and tell them what’s coming – just don’t keep people guessing. Say who you are quickly, what you are going to cover and where the content can be found. I found that “will these slides be available?” to be a very common first question in the Q&A. You can avoid that by telling upfront that they will be.
  • Be yourself – It is tempting to imitate other successful speakers or use clever rethorical tricks but in the end it has to be you on stage. If you are not a good actor and you try to be someone else your body language will betray you.
  • Pace yourself – when we are excited or nervous we tend to go too fast. Give your talk a normal pace. Make breaks and take breaths in between logical units of your talk. If you come across as rushed, the audience will feel rushed, too.
  • Do not try to gloss over issues – you might be tempted to give an overall positive image of the thing you are presenting about and tell the audience that all of it works. That is a good plan but if something doesn’t work, don’t pretend that it does. Almost everything we talk about in technology can be easily verified. You don’t want to come across as a liar or uninformed, so show the bad with the good.
  • Speak clearly and use simple language – it is tempting to woo the audience with impressive words, references to great pieces of literature and complex sentence structures but you also assume that people care more about your talk than the content you try to convey. In tech conferences this is a very rare occasion. Focus on being understandable rather than eloquent. This is not a fancy cocktail party.
  • Roam the audience. This is one of my biggest tricks. Instead of seeing and taking in the whole audience and being overwhelmed by it pick a single person every two slides. Look that person in the eye and speak to her/him instead of the whole crowd. Metaphorically of course, don’t address them by name or compliment them on their shirt – stick to your talk. This has two effects: you don’t get all “oh my god, so many people” and you include the audience much more in your talk – one at a time. I found that people I looked at are also much more likely to ask good questions afterwards as they already feel connected.

  • Your slides are your backdrop – make sure your slides aid your talk rather than taking it over. The worst example for that is when you show videos and for two minutes you stare at the screen with the audience. This makes you a spectator, not a speaker.
  • You are the transmitter, not your slides – in general your slides emphasise what you are talking about. It is your job to make the information on them come to life. When you read out your bullet points to the audience you are only an accessory, not the driver.
  • Screencasts are the safer live demos. – a lot of developers get a kick out of doing live coding on stage showing how easy it is to achieve “a lot in a few lines of code”. While that is hard-core and gives you street-cred with the tech crowd it also can backfire immensely when it doesn’t work. It also has the problem of you doing things whilst talking and people having to concentrate on you and what is happening on screen. Add having to decipher small text on a big screen to that and you overwhelm the audience very quickly. The same applies to playing with complex interfaces and having to enter text and drag things around. You might think you can multi-task but normally it doesn’t come across as smooth – especially when the conference wireless lets you down. Therefore it makes much more sense to record screencasts and narrate over them. That way you know the things you want to show do work and you can concentrate on explaining what you did instead of excusing yourself for things breaking.
  • Cite and give credit – if you say who did something instead of pretending you did it you can’t be called out as a fraud and it shows that you have the finger on the pulse of technology and that you know people. Everybody wins.
  • Get simple participation – from time to time it is good to get the audience to take part. Ask a question and get a show of hands. Ask people to guess something, you know, that sort of thing. It shakes things up and shows you that people are taking in what you are saying.
  • Don’t answer your own questions – this is a pet peeve of mine. Do not ask something and immediately answer it. “How does this work? – Well, I tell you” makes you come across as arrogant and schoolmasterly.
  • Deal with failure quickly and honestly – if something goes wrong, admit it, fix it and start over. Or skip it and move on. Swift failure is not an issue. You losing your track and coming across as stumped is an issue.
  • Rinse and repeat – at the end of your talk give a quick recap of what you covered, how people can reach you and where to find more info. Good to remind people.

Step 3: Feedback

Ask people for feedback – both in the Q&A session directly after the talk but also on Speakerrate or via email. Bear in mind though that immediate feedback is normally very polarised – good and bad – whereas reviews done some time later tend to be more in-depth.

Advertise your availability – tell people where they can reach you on the web when they have more questions and if you are going to attend the after party. People pay money to see you, it is just fair to be available for shy people who do not participate in the main Q&A or don’t get the time to ask their question.

Own the Q&A – it is important that you are in control of the Q&A session. Stop people from rambling and ask them to state their question rather than their CV. Repeat questions for the whole audience (and the recording) and answer quickly to move on fast to the next question.

Quick tip about “Clever Trevors” – you will always find someone in the audience who tries to show off their knowledge instead of asking a question. This is a good thing but does prevent others from asking possibly very valuable questions. The way I deal with this is to interrupt them and flat out ask their name. I then welcome them as experts and explain that I won’t be able to answer all questions today and if people need information on a certain topic they can also ask this person. That makes him/her feel good and prevents precious time being wasted or me coming across as arrogant towards other knowledgable people.

Step 4: Follow-up

Share your materials – upload your slides, make them available, publish your notes on your blog and people will use this info when they blog about the conference and mention your talk. It allows you to be known for this talk longer than the one hour at the conference.

Answer emails and convert business cards – if you collect contact info, store it as soon as possible and send out emails to acknowledge that you met and talked. Sending out an email doesn’t cost much time but sitting in front of a massive pile of cards trying to remember who was who does.

Write a post about your feelings and impressions – it is very interesting both to the conference organisers and the people attending the conference to see what the speakers thought. It helps people to pick conferences and organisers to spot things that went well or went wrong.

Be your own judge – above all, try to be better every time you speak. Record your talk using some recording software (Audacity is my weapon of choice). Listen to your talk, see what annoys you and don’t do it next time you speak. This also allows you to release the audio recording for later – a lot of people download my talks and listen to them when they can’t look on a screen (I listen to them in the gym on the cross trainer).

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