How I Prepare for Giving a Talk

, London's Calling, Developer, Speaking, Presenter

I am lucky enough to have been selected to speak at London’s Calling again this year and found myself going through a familiar process of preparing for a presentation. There are a number of great blog posts out there on public speaking and helping you to talk in front of others, however there is less content on the actual process of preparing for a talk so I thought I would share my opinions and the questions I ask when preparing.

As part of my day job role evolving I have found myself giving a much larger number of presentations over the past year of differing formats and styles; I spoke at 2 pharmaceutical industry events, on a number of webinars, at developer groups and events, in a sales capacity to both partners and customers and in leading conversations for a large group. Mavens also kindly sent every employee through a master presenter skills course last year with the team from Second City which helped elevate my speaking skills in ways I hadn’t even thought of. So here is my process for preparing to give a talk.

Who are the audience?

This is in my opinion the most important question to ask when you begin preparing as it will define exactly what your content is going to be. You can deliver a talk with the exact same title to two completely different groups of people and the content has to be different if you are going to succeed. It also helps drive the tone of the talk you will be giving as you should ensure that you are providing the right level of entertainment, information and professionalism throughout your presentation.

What is the purpose of the talk?

In my mind there are 4 different purposes for the presentations I give:

  1. Education and information (e.g. London’s Calling, developer group)
  2. Marketing or evangelism (e.g. a thought leadership session)
  3. Sales (e.g. customer demo, partner conversations)
  4. Conversation facilitation (e.g. project meetings, workshop sessions)

Identifying the purpose of the talk will help you in understanding how much content to present as well as at what level. If you are presenting for education and information you should be far more detailed than if you are doing an evangelism or marketing talk where a broader area of trends should be presented. For sales talks make sure you are presenting the required information and no more - additional data is not needed and will annoy people. For facilitation type of talks you want to just have guiding content that will help steer the conversation and provide a reference point for the discussion.

How long have I got?

This is an interesting question to answer - if the session is short then you need to make sure you are not adding too much content as rushing through it can leave people bemused and confused at what the message is. Having a longer session allows you to go into more detail and cover more topics but with a much higher risk of finishing earlier, having issues with the audience losing interest or simply remembering the entire train of the presentation yourself. Those who know me know that I enjoy the sound of my own voice, but that is not necessarily true of my audience and as such in a longer session I will try to build in a 5 minute break, ask for questions at different points in the session or try and get a co-speaker to take a portion of the session to mix it up.

Content and the magical number 7 (plus or minus 2)

Okay, so now we are sure we know who we are talking to, why we are talking to them and for how long we can start to think about content. It is pretty well established that the working memory of most adults is 7 items plus or minus 2. This means that when you are preparing content for your sessions and thinking about what we want the audience to take away with them we should try to boil it down to around 7 items (9 maximum and 10 only if you are doing a “top 10” style presentation). Once you have broken down your key points into this number, we again need to go back to our audience, the why and the length to decide how we best present these points.

For education/information types of talks I try to think about how these items relate to each other and the natural flow between them. Do I also need to do some scene or level setting in the group? For marketing and evangelism talks you should think about a story you can tell to get your message across. Can you frame the problem or topic you are discussing in a story that helps to illustrate your points? For sales the same theory applies but the hero of your story should be those you are selling to - how are you going to help them along the journey to success? Finally for conversation and facilitation, what content is needed to enable discussions to occur? How much prompting will people need?

A picture paints a thousand words

Despite being a very popular idiom this is also a truism when it comes to presenting. Our brains are hardwired to read any text we see put up in large letters in front of us and as such when you put words on a slide deck to present to people they will inevitably read them. Now think about when you are reading a book or a document and someone talks to you. Are you able to both read and listen properly at the same time? If you think you can you are kidding yourself. As soon as you put words up your audience will switch focus from what you are saying to reading the screen and then hopefully back to whatever you are saying when they have finished reading.

Pictures and imagery are a much better way of displaying information and ideas and focus the audience on what you are saying rather than what they are reading. Think about all the TED talks there are out there and now think about how many of those presenters had slides with a large amount of text on. I will typically produce a text draft of my slide deck where I describe the points I am wanting to make on each slide and then think about the imagery that could go there. You will find that over time you will build up a library of imagery for certain ideas and concepts that can be quickly dropped in and reused. If you are not an artist or a vector graphics whizz, either try and find someone who is (some companies have imagery or designers for you to use), try combining available elements you already have, hire a cheap designer using something like Fiverr or buy from a site like Icon Finder who are my goto for cheap but amazing icon collections you can reuse. Add them to a Google drawing canvas to combine them and voila!

Now of course you do need text sometimes, for example displaying some code. However when trying to get across an idea use imagery if possible, trust me it will make your presentations feel better to the audience (who wants to see a big screen of text?) but also has the side benefit of making you check and check again that you know the content you are talking through. Which leads onto the final point.

Practice can make perfect

When I am giving a talk I will practice it no more than 3 times if at all possible. Anymore than that and I feel I either don’t know the material/concepts well enough in the first place to be giving it or I will start to hate it as it becomes prescriptive. Those who have been (un)fortunate enough to hear me speak will hopefully relay that I come across as engaged and excited about the content - at least thats what I aim for.

One of the reasons behind this is that I am not reciting something from memory but talking freely about the subject as we go. I have been in a number of sessions where people have rehearsed a talk to death and it shows. You should be yourself on stage because thats what people want to see, someone interested and excited about a topic talking about it. If you learn a script then I could just get someone else to do that same talk. Now before people call me out on this, firstly this is my opinion on how I prepare and not a prescription, secondly if you feel more comfortable learning something by wrote then go ahead, however be aware that you are setting yourself up for issues if you miss a sentence or a phrase, get an interruption (nothing ever goes wrong during a presentation or demo) or simply struggle to remember things exactly due to being under pressure. Have your content provide a visual indicator to you of what your should cover on that slide, cover it as you go through and move on. Okay I know I said no speaking tips but thats a freebie, don’t pause and try to check you have covered everything, just keep moving.

Remember - preparation is about making you comfortable

I wanted to finish on this note just mentioning that preparation is all about making you comfortable you have things right. The checklist of items above is how I become confident that I am giving a talk I would want to see were I in the audience. You will only get your own list as you speak at events and prepare for more of them but the key thing is for you to be comfortable when you start delivering because that will make it 100 times better for everyone - you and the audience.

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