Preparing the Talk


This post is the script I used for a “Coffee & Code” session at Entelect. It’s a Friday morning learning initiative that our Cape Town office started and has moved to be adopted by the wider company. During May 2021, the talks focused on “Great public speakers are made, not born”, and my session focused on preparing for a public speaking event. You can find the photo-stream of my “slide-deck” here.

Public speaking can be intimidating. Gail and Tim have already taken you through turning an idea into a talk and then building a presentation to support this talk. Yesterday I saw this tweet by Scott Hanselman:

It made me realise that preparing a talk is still a daunting experience, even to those who have been doing public speaking for a significant amount of time. I hope to share a few tips and tricks that will help you prepare for the talk.

Regular Prep

The following tips are things most people already know of, but I include them for the sake of brevity. First things first:

Do a Dry Run

Do one, do two, do as many as you can. The talk you end up giving will rarely match the dry run 100%, but going through the motion of running through the entire talk will help build confidence in your talk’s contents.

Doing a dry run will also help you understand what you’re pacing should be. You can easily spot a talk that wasn’t well prepared by someone either rushing or not getting halfway. The pacing itself also allows you to emphasise specific points by adding small pauses.

It’s usually easier having someone else take notes to highlight these moments when you do a dry run. Still, with the advent of technology, you can also make a recording of yourself and review that afterwards.

Pro tip: if you don’t like the sound of your voice, run the audio through a pitch shift filter to make it sound different. I don’t often have a problem listening to my recordings, but sometimes it helps me focus on WHAT I’m saying, not HOW I’m saying it.

Set a Stage

The delivery of a talk can be very different these days, but there will be times where we return to “in-person” events. Getting an understanding of what your stage environment will be is very handy. Movement is also an excellent tool to use, so incorporating a mock-up stage in your dry run can help you understand if you need to move.

It’s very subjective for people, but understanding if movement helps calm your nerves is essential. It’s all about finding what works for you. Pacing up and down a lot while talking, which is making you look more nervous? Consider finding ways to anchor yourself, but consider adding some movement to prevent being perceived as bolted to one spot.

Movement is also a good pacing tool. You can leverage slowly moving to one side while speaking and then using the pause and movement back to your original spot as a way to time your pauses.

Test Your Audio & Video

When presenting something that includes a video, test beforehand that you have the correct audio output selected and make sure that everything is loud enough. Ensure that as part of your dry run, watch through the entire piece and ensure it’s added to your presentation correctly.

Demos

Does your presentation have demos included? Is it a code demo or a product demo? There are a few considerations for these because something WILL go wrong, and you can be ready for that. I’ll quickly mention pacing again as well. Ensure that you understand what impact your demos will have on the overall pacing of your talk. Knowing when to fall back onto something or how long to continue trying to diagnose it is a fine line to walk, but you should still be considering that your demo is supporting the point you’re trying to get across.

Have Code on Hand

If you’re demoing code, don’t try to be a ninja and make sure you have code on hand to fall back on. It’s very frustrating to watch a presenter fumble through a bunch of syntax errors while they’re trying to demo something unless that’s what you’re trying to show. Make sure to practice opening up your fallback solution to ensure your switchover is nice and clean. We need to test that we can roll back systems from back-ups and the same principle applies here in preparing yourself for a talk.

Product Demo Recording

A recording on hand showing the product can help out a lot when gremlins slip into your systems. Context is key, and I’m mostly thinking of demos to a client with this where things can go wrong, but thinking about this ahead of time can save you some headache. Sometimes it doesn’t even make sense to do a live demo, and it might even be easier to have a video you can talk over.

| P.S. I’ve once seen a colleague demo a proof of concept that I knew for a fact wasn’t working, but he was altering entries in the database on the fly, and it was something extraordinary to witness. I AM NOT TRYING TO INSPIRE, but instead highlighting that being comfortable with you’re demoing and knowing what can trip you up will help run a demo smoothly.

Remote Talks

The previous two items touch on this, but doing a remote talk brings with it a whole bunch of new issues you have to keep in mind.

Test Your Microhpone & Camera Ahead of Time

Hardware not working is a no-brainer for me. It’s something that you can catch ahead of time, especially if you’re the type of person who’s a bit of a nomad with your work-from-home setup. I have a static setup, and I still have issues.

Testing your hardware is a simple step that and doing it in concert with your remote meeting software should help catch the most common gremlins early. Ensure you are comfortable with how your video/audio input sources are configured in the meeting software to quickly find the correct device if you have multiple devices connected.

Share that Screen

If you are going to have to screen-share, make sure you have an idea of which route you’d want to go. Most video-conferencing applications offer the ability to share a screen or an application. There are some considerations to take into account:

  • Do I need sound to be transmitted?
  • Will I be switching between applications?

The video-conferencing software you’re using will have an impact on both these considerations. Suppose you need to easily switch between applications without re-configuring the software to select the correct application. In that case, you can consider sharing a screen, but with that comes making sure you’re only sharing what you want to and not sharing sensitive information as well.

Sharing only a single application can set your mind at ease that you’re not potentially sharing sensitive information but comes at the cost of not making it easy to switch to sharing something else in most video-conferencing software. It ultimately boils down to making sure you test this as part of your dry-run as well. If you’re noticing friction with what you’re showing, consider trying a different sharing method.

Pro tip: I have also seen Scott Hanselman using Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) to capture, and it offers excellent flexibility in screen-sharing applications. Scott has demonstrated a neat trick to have drawings on a tablet show up as an overlay on his video feed over his YouTube channel.

Close Slack

I mentioned the risks of sharing private information when screen-sharing. It extends towards applications that can show notifications on the screen you’re sharing. Audio notifications can also be disturbing to the audience, and the solution is to disable notifications or close apps altogether.

Make sure that if you’re opening a browser, you’re not showing off all the tabs you’ve had open trying to find a solution to that pesky problem (I know I am very guilty of this out of laziness).

The goal is to keep distractions in the audience to a minimum.

Conclusion

I’ve mentioned quite a few things, but the most important one is still the most basic: talk in front of a mirror/other people. All the other items I mention will be best supported by doing at least one dry run. Something will most likely go wrong during your presentation; make peace with that. People will define you by how you bounce back, not by how perfect your talk was.