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My Top 5 Tech Speaking Tips

tjvantoll profile image TJ VanToll Originally published at tjvantoll.com ・10 min read

This article is an eclectic set of speaking tips I’ve learned from giving dozens of tech talks at conferences around the world. I hope these tips help new speakers prepare their first talk, and help give experienced speakers ideas to potentially improve.

One thing I’ll note though: these are tips that I’ve found work for me, which doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll work for you. Each speaker needs to find their own style and workflow, so try to take inspiration from these tips and don’t interpret them as hard and fast rules.

With that disclaimer out of the way, on to the tips!

Tip #1: Don’t worry about slide design

I’ve never cared about slide design and you probably shouldn’t either.

I offer this as a tip because I find that new speakers spend a lot of time trying to find a good color scheme or font for their slides. Or get confused about whether to use PowerPoint, or Keynote, or something web-based.

You don’t want this sort of thing to get in your way. Start with a tool you like (for me that’s PowerPoint because it’s simple), pick the blank slide template, and get started.

Just to give you an idea, I typically have three types of slides that I use.

Design #1: Plain text

I use simple slides with just text on them a whole lot. For colors I use black text on a white background for readability, and I use the Avenir font—but only because that was the font on some slide deck I started with years ago. It looks nice to me though.

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Design #2: Screenshots

For a lot of my slides I just take a screenshot of something and then just toss it on a slide. It works.

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Design #3: Bullets

I use bulleted slides when I need to present a list, and I just use the default PowerPoint design for this.

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I do occasionally mix things up, but that’s the approach I take on 95% of the slides I make. And for most cases that’s all you’ll need as well.

Unless you’re an actual designer and want to spend the time to create something really unique, I’d encourage you just to pick the blank slide deck in your tool of choice and call it good enough.

My second tip deals with what to do next.

Tip #2: Make an outline

I make an outline for every talk I give. The outline is dead simple, and includes only three things: the talk’s main audience takeaway, 3–4 topics that help support that takeaway, and an actionable next step.

When written out that structure looks something like this.

  • State the takeaway, aka what I want the audience to get out of the talk.
  • Topic #1
  • Topic #2
  • Topic #3
  • Topic #4 if necessary
  • Restate the takeaway again
  • Give an actionable next step

For example, below is the outline I had for a Is Augmented Reality the Future? talk I recently gave in Montreal.

  • Takeaway: AR (Augmented Reality) is cool, but still pretty hard for your average developer.
  • Topic #1: History of AR
  • Topic #2: AR today
  • Topic #3: Building AR apps
  • Restate the takeaway
  • Provide my preferred place to get started building AR apps.

Once I have this outline I start including the outline in my slide deck directly. Specifically, I create a slide called “Agenda” that looks something like this.

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This act of creating an outline helps you organize the talk in your head, and placing that outline in slides helps you visually see your progress creating content for each topic. Audiences like structure as well, as it helps them know what to expect from your talk, and therefore makes it easier for them to follow along.

To make it even easier for the audience, I always include the same agenda slide in my deck when I transition between topics. For example, after I complete the “Brief history of AR” topic I show the slide below.

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These slides give me a logical place to summarize the previous topic and segue to the next.

Next, I create a slide that summarizes the key takeaways of my talk at the beginning and end of my talk. Here’s what that slide looked like for my AR talk.

When I show this slide at the beginning of my talk I say something like, “This is what I plan to prove/show you today”, and at the end I restate the points, and usually talk about how the topics I presented support those points.

Once you have this basic outline in place you’re ready to start developing your introduction and your main content.

Tip #3: During slide creation, make your intro slides last

When creating slides most people start with the introduction, because, well, it’s the first thing you actually present. The problem is that creating compelling introductions can be hard, even for experienced speakers.

And because of this, it’s really easy to waste a lot of time searching for the perfect way to introduce your topic, when in reality it’s fairly insignificant.

Your introduction can be as simple as stating the following points, especially when you’re just getting started.

  • I’m <your name>.
  • State topic
  • State audience takewaways
  • Show agenda
  • Start talking about topic 1.

By saving the introduction until the end you’ll have a better idea of what you might want to say to start your talk with. You can also rest assured that the bulk of your work is done.

All that being said, I don’t mean to imply introductions aren’t worth spending any time on, because done well they can be way to engage the audience and draw them into your talk. I would just save them for last.

When you do create an introduction you need to experiment a bit and find what works for you. My go-to introduction is to telling a story that relates to my topic or the place I’m speaking. For example, to open my AR talk I told a story about my love for Pokémon GO, and how that’s what got me interested in AR in the first place.

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I was lucky enough to give a talk in Denmark last year, and I opened with a slide with pictures of me around the area for fun.

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If you have an idea for a story to tell I’d encourage you to take it and run with it. Deliver the story with confidence and have fun.

But if you don’t have an idea don’t worry either. Save the intro for the end, and if you can’t think of anything, stick with the basics and get into the meat of your talk right away.

And when you’re delivering the bulk of your content I have a tip for that as well.

Tip #4: Make the audience do stuff

Walk into a room halfway through a random tech talk and you’ll likely see at least half the attendees looking at their phones or laptops.

The thing is, it’s hard to keep people’s attention on anything, and tech topics aren’t the world’s most engaging material. As a speaker there are a few things you can do to help keep your audience’s attention.

The simplest thing you can do is poll your audience at given points in your talks. I often do this before I introduce a new topic. For example, in a talk I recently gave called One Project. One Language. Three Apps. I used the slide below to introduce two frameworks, NativeScript and React Native.

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Before I introduced each framework I asked the audience, “How many people here are familiar with React Native”, and then, “How many people here are familiar with NativeScript”.

These simple questions accomplish two things. First, it forces the audience to look up and engage with the talk, if only for a minute. Second, it helps me get a read on the room. If I see 5% of hands go up I know I need to give a thorough introduction, whereas if every hand goes up, I know a short explanation will suffice.

Polling the audience is the easiest way to engage the audience, but there are a variety of more creative ways you can accomplish the same goal.

For example my significant other gives talks on CSS, and one fun thing she does is include mini quizzes in her slides, like the one below.

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This again solves multiple goals. First, it forces the audience to not only pay attention, but to also really try to understand the content to get the correct answer. (It’s 600px, by the way.)

Second, it gives the presenter a good sense of whether the audience is following along with the content. If you see a lot of hands going up and a lot of correct answers you know people are understanding your material.

There are professional tools out there to make this sort of audience quizzing even more engaging. For example the service Kahoot! makes it easy to configure quizzes that an audience can easily complete on their laptops and smartphones.

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Overall, the specific tool or approach doesn’t really matter. What does matter is finding some way to break up the inherent monotony of a tech talk by engaging the audience.

Tip #5: Speak—a lot

The phrase practice makes perfect applies more to public speaking than any other life skill. No amount of practicing in front of a mirror will prepare you for the experience of delivering a talk in front of a live audience, and the only best way to improve is continue to do just that—deliver talks, repeatedly.

This doesn’t mean you have to constantly give talks at conferences around the world though. Occasionally giving a presentation at a local user group, or for a few coworkers at work, will help you learn how to be in front of an audience and deliver your material effectively.

As you get more comfortable speaking you’ll want to work on how to improve the quality of your talks. And for that I have two recommendations.

Watch yourself on video

Most people would choose elective surgery over watching a video of themselves presenting—myself included. But it’s extremely important, as you’ll learn things about your talks you can only see from a third-person perspective.

Personally I started as a heavy “um” user, which I had no idea about until I saw myself on video. Later, I developed a habit of using my hands... a lot. It was awkward. But knowing these tendencies helps me consciously think about avoiding these habits, and ultimately helps me stop repeating them in the future.

It’s important. Get a friend to record you and watch the video. You’ll hate it, but it’s worth it. Promise.

Find a trusted friend for feedback

In addition to watching yourself speak, it’s good to get feedback from others as well. However here you have to be extremely careful for two reasons.

Reason #1: Some people are horrible, and will leave negative feedback on your talk for silly reasons, like not liking the framework you’re using (seriously).

And even if you know the feedback is unreasonable, the human brain has an unfortunate tendency to fixate on the negative, even if you get an onslaught of positive feedback to go with it.

And I can say this from many personal experiences. Remember the talk I mentioned earlier that I gave in Denmark? It’s the most well received talk I’ve ever given. I’ve had random people at conferences compliment me on it; it’s shown up in all sorts of positive tweets, and has gotten numerous mentions in popular newsletters and such.

This was great, until I made the classic mistake of reading the negative comments on the YouTube recording, which if I’m honest, has ruined a lot of the positive experience I had from preparing and delivering that talk.

Overall, be careful asking for feedback broadly because the human brain has the not-at-all-useful tendency to heavily focus on the negative.

Reason #2: Most people won’t be honest. If you deliver a talk to a group of friends or coworkers and ask for feedback, the vast majority of people will reply with something like “It was good.” or “I liked it.”.

Although this is supportive, it’s also good to get honest feedback on how you can improve. For this you need to find that blunt person in your life that’s not afraid to tell you like it is, and will call you out on things you can improve on.

The big difference between asking a friend and random people is a friend can provide context and details on things you need to work on. There’s a big difference between “That talk sucked” and “I had trouble following along in the middle part of the talk. I think you could have explained the concepts better or maybe used more examples to prove your points.”

You can also ask questions of your friend, like “did you understand the first topic?”, or “did I use my hands too much?”.

If you’re having trouble finding that blunt person in your life try being blunt yourself. I find that people that give generic “it was good” feedback find much more to say if you press them.

Final tip: Just do it!

Ok that’s it for now. I have a lot to say because speaking has been very important to me over the last 6–7 years of my life, and it’s opened up a ton of opportunities that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Hopefully you found these tips helpful. If so let me know, because I could easily come up with 5 more 😉

TIP: If you want to see me speak in person I’ll be at DevReach in Sofia, Bulgaria in October, and at at jsMobileConf in Boston in November. Both are great events.

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Marc DiPasquale

Awesome advice! Tip #3 will hopefully save me a lot of time. Thanks for sharing.