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Teaching ● July 2015

A primer on delivering a good presentation

To be honest, I didn’t prepare much for this blog post. I wrote it late last night, didn’t have much time to edit it, and it’s probably not going to be very good. I’ll try to get through it pretty fast so I don’t waste too much of your time.

Care to read more? Of course you wouldn’t.

Yet, I see this kind of resignation unfold in all kinds of presentations—from ones given to a small group of peers to ones given at conferences that people pay hundreds of dollars to attend. Perhaps it’s true what psychologists say: People fear public speaking even more than death. When handed the keys to everyone’s undivided attention, many impulsively wave the white flag.

Having given dozens of presentations to audiences ranging from two people to a few hundred, here are six key guideposts that I follow every time I give a talk, no matter who’s listening on the other end.

#1: Funny is good. Self-deprecation is bad.

Humor is a great way for your audience to get comfortable with a message. But, many speakers resort to self-deprecating humor when they give a talk. Here’s the problem: Self-deprecation dissolves the authority you inherit as a speaker. And, authority (even if you don’t believe you deserve it) is the one precious gift you must hold onto for dear life when giving a speech.

Self-deprecation offers a kind of emotional insurance. Your subconscience thinks, if you let the audience know that you’re a complete and utter fraud, you’re exempt from any stupid thing you might say going forward. The reality is, most people feel like they don’t belong when they’re “up on stage.” As Scott Hanselman says:

There are a thousand reasons why you are where you are and your self-confidence and ability are just one factor. It’s OK to feel like a phony sometimes. It’s healthy if it moves you forward.

Even if you feel like you don’t belong, never put yourself down when you’re speaking. Think of the last great talk you listened to, no matter how big the audience. I’d bet the speaker never admitted they didn’t belong there.

Besides, as laughs go, self-deprecation is a cheap one. Listen to a great comedian like Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Louis CK, or Eddie Murphy. Why are they such captivating standup comics? Despite the fact that some may make jokes about their own shortcomings, they never belittle the reason you’re watching them—to be funny. Even comics never lose their grasp on authority.

#2: Memorize the talking points, not the words

Years ago, I would practice a talk for days on end. I’d rehearse my presentation every evening for at least a week prior, getting every single word just right and the timing down to the second. When I got in front of the stage, I was certainly well-prepared—but my talks felt way too rigid. Besides, something I wasn’t prepared for would always happen during the course of a talk. Someone would ask a question in the middle of it or something would go wrong with the A/V equipment. I had a sign come crashing down from my podium during a presentation once. It’s never going to happen exactly the way you imagined it, so don’t script it.

In recent years, I’ve stopped rehearsing off of a script. Instead, I memorize the key points I want to make and time out when these points should unfold. At most, I have about 4 or 5 points to give—any more is too much for an audience to digest in one talk. I’ll go over the presentation a few times the night prior. Each time, I’ll try to say the same things differently.

This way, I give myself the practice I need to think on my toes while in the middle of a talk. Usually, I’ll recall a few sentences that felt right during my practice, and they’ll come out during the talk far more naturally than if I had scripted it from the beginning.

Going about it this way also helps build an essential skill of public speaking—the ability to think while you speak. When I practiced my talks word-for-word, I was so focused on memorizing my words that I stopped thinking about what I was saying. The audience will sense that. It’s another way to damage your inherent authority.

#3: Keep your slides short…really short.

Next time you read a book, turn on the news and try to listen to the next story at the same time. At the end of the segment, see if you can recall exactly what you read and what the news story was about. You’ll likely only have paid attention to one, or neither of the two.

The exact same problem occurs when we create text-heavy slides for our talk. The audience has to choose whether to read the slide or listen to you talk about the slide. You automatically lose half your audience. Instead, go for shorter slides. Throw up a single key word or graphic so that they can listen to you elaborate on that topic in detail. Your points will come across much stronger. In Seth Godin’s blog post, The 200 slide solution, he writes:

You’re used to putting three or four bullet points on a slide. That’s at least four distinct ideas, but more often, each of those ideas has three or four sub ideas to it. In other words, you’re cramming 32 ideas on a slide, and you’re sitting on that slide as you drone on and on.

With text-heavy slides, speakers also tend to simply read what’s on the slide. There’s two problems here. First, it’s redundant. You’re better off being quiet and giving the audience a minute to read what you’ve written. Second, reading off a slide is yet another way to lose authority with the audience. After all, any random audience member could just as easily get up there and read what you wrote out-loud.

If there are certain things you do want to say in a specific way (like a quote), only have it visible to you on a notecard or your monitor. Feel free to read it right off the card or screen. Your words will have a lot more impact because the audience is focused on listening to you.

#4: Mind your cadence. Monitor your time.

People are only interested in an activity for a limited amount of time. For years, Major League Baseball has been trying to figure out a way to speed up the pace of the game. Think of all the times you thought a good movie would’ve been better if they cut out the last thirty minutes. Consider why TED talks are limited to 18 minutes—max.

A key ingredient to a great talk is brevity. Get your point across, elaborate on it, and move on to the next one. Your audience will find comfort in a pace that is neither rushed nor laborious. The audience knows you’re respecting their time too.

While brevity is good, just as important is cadence. When you’ve got the floor, your heart races. The natural thing to do is speed up your rhythm, for fear that you might lose your audience with periods of silence. However, this is just the opposite of what actually happens.

When I speak in front of an audience, I remind myself to slow my pace down. However slow I think I’m talking, when I listen to the playback, it sounds twice as fast as I remember. So, when you’re speaking live, go twice as slow as you think. Pause. Silence is also an opportunity for your audience to digest their thoughts. Julian Treasure demonstrates how slowing down and silence can magnify your point.

If you master brevity and cadence, your talk will span the right amount of time without feeling rushed. A good talk is not about packing as much information as possible into a session, it’s about devoting the right amount of time to a focused set of points. Your audience will have learned something without feeling overwhelmed or exhausted from sitting around too long.

#5: Demo with care

Unless seeing something happen real-time is essential to a point I’m trying to make (which, for me, is almost never), I steer away from live code demos, particularly if it involves an internet connection. We probably should be past the point of worrying about weak internet signals or connection malfunctions, but they still happen. A lot. At the worst time. To companies you may have heard of.

If a demo is essential, I’ll make sure I can demo on my machine alone. I’ll run the database and app locally rather than rely on connecting to a remote host. If working through code in an IDE is essential, I’ll have my code snippets already prepared so I can copy and paste them in, then talk through what I would’ve typed. Typing from scratch is prone to errors and doesn’t make for a really compelling talk.

#6: Prepare well or prepare to abandon ship

My last guidepost may sound like an obvious piece of advice. But, if you haven’t prepared enough for a talk, don’t give it. I’ve been to plenty of conferences where a talk was cancelled at the very last minute. That gave me a chance to either spend an hour catching up on personal things, or go to another talk I may not have otherwise seen. I’ve also been to plenty of talks where the speaker was clearly unprepared, and I was left knowing my time had been wasted.

No one will spite you for a talk not given, but many will for one delivered without care. Though you certainly didn’t intend it, people will feel disrespected for the time you took from them that they could’ve used more productively. If you have any inkling of starting your talk the way I started this blog post, abort mission. Your audience will be thankful for the hour of their time you didn’t waste.

Originally published Jul 1, 2015 at DoneDone. Go to the next essay in Teaching, “Give away the punchline”.