Preparing for a Talk

I’ve just finished watching Troy Hunt’s video on how he prepares for speaking at conferences. I was happy to see that he does dry runs in the same manner that I do; pacing at the living room, talking to empty space while imagining everyone is there, listening, some bored, and some paying attention.
Troy is an excellent speaker, plus being an security expert. Watch his talk at NDC Oslo that he was preparing for in the video above.

While I share much of what Troy does in preparation, I wanted to share a bit more on what I do differently. While some people are gifted at facing a big room with large audience, I’m not sure that I’m. I still feel terrible before I go on stage. Maybe it’s because I don’t do it that often, I’m not a speaker, I just do talks sometimes. Usually, it’s once or twice a year at most.

To help me calm down, and avoid surprises, I try to plan out as much as I can. So I start with an outline of my talk, then break them down into sections and bullet points, then expand each point into a paragraph or two. Each paragraph/point is accompanied by a slide which are made at the very end of the process. While most people start with making slides, I start with speaker notes first. I write an article and turn it into a talk. The downside to this is that it can be more work, and take longer to prepare, but by now, I did this enough to overcome this problem.

Knowing exactly what I want to say helps make things predictable. I know how this slide will go, and how it’ll lead to the next slide. I know what is the one sentence to describe this slide. I know how the content of the slide relates to what I want to say. I know where my jokes are, and that there’s enough of them, and not too many. More importantly, I know long I’ll take on stage, and that no side points will derail the whole thing into 15 minutes more than I have allocated.

Writing out the text of my talk means that I have to memorize what I’m gonna say. I don’t have a very good memory, but memorizing helps test how good my talk is. If I can’t remember what I want to say at a certain slide, then there’s usually something wrong with the flow of my talk, and it needs changing.

A problem for this approach is that delivering pre-prepared text can be difficult, it’s like reading from a teleprompter, you have to train yourself to seem natural at saying things that you’ve thought of a month ago, and make it seem like you’re just talking normally. The trick here is to understand that you’re writing words to be spoken, and not words to be read. You need to include pauses, voice inflation, speeding up and slowing down, passion (anger, happy, surprise, etc) in your text and not just in your delivery. The more talk-like your text is, the more natural it’ll sound to speak it. Of course, this can’t be done on the first time, but enough dry runs will do that.

This can seem like a lot, but it really helps me overcome being nervous and not being quick on my feet. It also, as I mentioned, helps me be on time. Last month, I gave a 90-minutes talk in 90 minutes. The margin of error on a talk this long can be big, but planning and trials helps. However, I’m still surprised it turned out so well.

One tip regarding time is to plan for some sections to be dropped off without breaking your flow. There are presentation software that helps you have optional slides that you can skip with the audience noticing. But the big burden is to plan your talk so that you can do this skipping with breaking down later sections that might rely on something you skipped.

One big benefit of this approach is, sometimes I lose my train of though during the talk or be not sure of the exact wording, and having to fall back to the text helps me calm down and carry on. It’s strange to be reading from the stage, but for that one slide I needed to get the wording exactly right. With a font large enough for the speaker notes, I can step away from the monitor while being able to read off the monitor. I have to keep looking at the audience between each sentence and the next, and make sure that I use the right pace; a talking pace and not a reading pace. It can be a tough moment, but it’s better than freaking out and trying to figure out where you are in the story.

Sadly, there’s no recording of my talk from last month. But I’m working on recording the audio for it to go along with the slides. It should be easy enough given that I have a full transcript of what I said. This is another big benefit of this approach. Try it sometime and let me know how it goes. Or, maybe you have an approach you prefer and you’d like to share.