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Presenting Technical Topics To Technical People

2,594 Words. Plan about 17 minute(s) to read this.

Fred writes, “I’ve got a conference coming up in December that I’ve been invited to speak at. This is something I’ve wanted to do for sometime. However, having never done it, I’m looking for some tips on how to get started.”

Q: What’s the best way to find a topic that is new enough to be interesting, but relevant enough to be useful?

People go to conferences hoping, among other things, to gather information that they didn’t have before. What that is will vary by audience member. Designers, architects, and C-levels who are trying to stay ahead of the curve will want to know about the future — what tech is coming and the likely impact to their business and operations. Engineers and operators — the people down in the blood and guts of IT — will be more interested in hard skills.

By “hard,” I don’t mean difficult. I mean useful tools and techniques that they can bring back to their job with them and put to use.

  • When addressing an engineering audience, the most engaging talks will be technical ones that go into specifics. The catch here is that most talks are in the 30 to 60 minute range. Therefore, the speaker must balance technical specifics with getting through a useful amount of material. If that balance can be struck, there’s a good talk to be delivered.
  • Hardcore techies also like skills that can keep them ahead in their career. Skills related to techniques or products that are growing in demand will garner a lot of attention. For instance, networkers have been excited about programmatic network automation over the last couple of years.

Everyone likes topics that will bring value to their business. For instance, a talk that compares both the soft and hard costs of running a private vs. public vs. hybrid cloud will be a thought-provoking chat. Why? Quantifying such things is difficult, and a talk that breaks down costs of such complex architectures often puts the audience in a situation of, “I would not have considered that on my own.”

Understand the difference between media buzzwords and real-world usefulness. Buzzwords take on lives of their own in media. All of a sudden, everyone is talking about devops, serverless, microservices, and containers. Yes, those terms have a real meaning and are useful to certain organizations. But are they useful to your audience? Or just a trendy curiosity? Don’t chase hype in the hopes of having a well-attended session. Place delivery of value above all else.

Q: How do I prepare? I’m a horrible procrastinator.

Procrastination is the enemy of an effective presentation. The day of delivery is not the deadline. Rather, you need time to prepare your slides, learn your talk, edit the talk, and perfect your delivery. Time is not on your side. Therefore, start now. Only if you realize what’s truly ahead of you will you find the motivation to get started.

This doesn’t mean you’ll have a perfect presentation a few weeks before you head to the podium. If you are the fretful type, you might end up tweaking your deck until moments before you speak. But getting going means that you have a solid starting point. The plane ride should be a time for relaxation, managing the general stress of travel, and locating the nearest Auntie Anne’s or Jersey Mike’s during connections — not stressing out about slides.

Practically speaking, block out a few hours on your calendar. Sixty minutes here. Ninety minutes there. During those times, remain distraction free. Crank through version 1.0 of your presentation as quickly as possible. Don’t stop. Deep work. Get it all out there, even if it sucks. Version 1.0 might be a turd, but it’s the hardest one to push out. Once you’ve got it in front of you, you can get to work polishing.

Q: What are strategies that work well for presentation preparation and delivery?

Preparation

First, get over imposter syndrome. While there’s no need to be an egomaniac, recognize that you were asked to speak for a reason. Stop with the “I wonder if they’ll like me” inner monologue and get on with it.

Now, onto the content itself.

1. Don’t boil the ocean. You will be tempted as a technical person to explain and justify everything. You can’t. You don’t have time. You must assume a certain baseline of knowledge for your audience.

2. Deliver the right content to the right audience in the right way. When proposing your talk, there was a working title and an abstract — a summary of what your talk will cover. Keep that in mind. Your presentation is a implied promise to deliver certain information. So deliver.

When deciding how to deliver your information, one approach is to think of it like a story. Your presentation has a beginning, middle and end. This perspective will help you with flow.

If your presentation is meant to be persuasive, then it has a main point — a thesis you want your audience to remember when they leave. All points must support that main thesis point, or they belong to another talk. Don’t assume technical talks are not persuasive. Tech talks very often are persuasive, or could be structured in such a way.

Finally, know your audience. Nerds have different buttons to push than C-levels. Structure your content to meet your audience where they are at, and then take them a little higher.

3. Do not start your presentation prep by opening PowerPoint or Keynote. Instead, write out your main points, text, or notes first using an editor of your choosing.

Your slides are not your talk. Rather, slides should have a minimum of information that act merely as a reference point or visual aid for the audience. If your presentation has detailed information, refer people to a URL where they can download a comprehensive companion document.

Remember — text walls suck. Your audience can read your slides or listen to you talk, but they can’t do both. Credit to Slide:ology.

Slides must be necessary. Diagrams must be necessary. Or skip them. You don’t need a lot of them. Most of the world’s public talks were given before screen projection and slides. YOU are the object of your live audience’s attention.

4. Give your talk and time yourself. You must know if you’re too fast or slow, have enough material or too much. Know which slides you can skip if you run short of time. If you’re an experienced speaker and know your own cadence well, you might be able to get away without this. Otherwise, plan on a couple of dry runs.

5. Know your equipment, both hardware and software. You should know how to deal with secondary monitors, and you should know exactly how your presentation software works in a dual-monitor setup.

For example, PowerPoint has a Presenter display + audience display that works with dual outputs. You’ll see a Presenter display on your screen with a timer, your notes, the current slide, and the upcoming slide. The projector screen viewed by the audience will have the actual slides.

6. Include the extras. If you send your slides to a handler who will stage them for you, make sure you include special fonts or other supporting templates, etc. Fonts matter greatly to the overall look and feel of your presentation. Some templates rely on specific fonts to render icons that will render as generic squares or odd characters if the font is missing. A missing font can result in a deck that’s ugly at best and unreadable at worst.

Alternatively, you might export your presentation to PDF or JPEG to ensure that your deck appears exactly how you intended. I have had handlers build decks on their own platform for me using the PDFs or JPEGs I sent to them. In a pinch, it can be done. Just ask.

7. Check out the venue before it’s your time to speak. Talk to the A/V staff ahead of time if you can. You want to know the stage, the screen or screens, and the size of the room. You should also sort out how to hook up your laptop and prove that it works with your connectors and setup. You want to know how you’ll be mic’ed. That could be simply you standing in front of a podium with an attached mic, or via a wireless lavalier mic. 

Be prepared to interface your laptop with anything. VGA, DVI, and HDMI are all common. If you want to use your own laptop, then it’s on you to be able to interface with whatever is at the venue. Have those cables and adapters ready, just in case.

Practice mic technique if you’re not used to being amplified. Hearing your own voice booming over the house sound system can be a little strange at first. If you can work with the mic and get comfortable with how you sound before you start speaking, that can take away some anxiety.

Realize that an empty room will sound loud and boomy compared to a room with fifty or a hundred people in it. From an acoustic standpoint, people are sound-absorbing meatbags. The more bodies in the room, the higher the contrast will be between your empty room practice and live presentation delivery.

Delivery

1. Do not use “slide builds.” These are slides that use animations or transitions, and build over time as you click. These building features are rarely helpful to the audience, more often serving as distractions. Stick with static slides.

This is also helpful for exports of your deck. By eschewing slide builds, the live audience gets the same product that someone watching your presentation on SpeakerDeck.com or other slide archival site will get.

2. Wear something that makes you feel confident. Attire that makes you look your most attractive builds confidence in front of others. But before you pick your favorite Marvel t-shirt…

3. Wear something appropriate. Your clothes need to fit, and should match or exceed the “dressiness” of your average audience member. You are sending a message with your appearance. You might also be live streamed or archived on YouTube in HD. 1080p HD leaves nowhere to hide. So, try to care a little bit.

Most of you reading this will not have the level of notoriety that will give you a pass on your personal appearance. While I might listen to Steve Wozniak deliver a talk in his very finest underpants, there’s no chance I’ll listen to you in yours.

If you’d like more specificity, then I recommend the following.

  • For a west coast / SanFran / Silicon Valley crowd, dark wash jeans paired with a collared shirt works fine. But you can get away with just about any level of nerdy eccentricity that strikes you. I’ve seen multi-colored hair, tattoos, nerdy t-shirts, sockless, shoeless, and bare footed presenters.
  • For an east coast / NYC crowd, consider going upscale. A two piece suit without a tie would not be overkill. Young east coasters are dressing up these days, particularly those working in finance.
  • Las Vegas conferences are a melting pot. I’d go with your west coast vibe. Being sober with most of your body covered is likely to be adequate in this context. It sounds like a low bar to set, but I have sat through sessions where the presenter clearly believed in better presentations through chemicals.
  • Consider that lav mics clip to button-up shirts more easily than t-shirts.

You should also consider vendor logos. Wearing vendor-branded attire could be an implied endorsement. The same concern follows for laptop stickers if that laptop will be visible to your audience or to cameras. Sure, you might love Juniper. But do you want to be that person wearing a Junos hat while delivering a vendor-neutral presentation on layer three campus network design? Or wearing your employer’s shirt when you’re not representing your employer while giving your talk? Maybe you do. Maybe you don’t. It’s worth thinking about.

4. Be yourself. For instance, don’t try to be a comedian if you’re not one — very few are. Lame jokes fall flat and can make people feel awkward. Don’t get me wrong. Humor is fine! Be sarcastic, poke fun — those are good things. But don’t use your presentation as a chance to channel your inner stand-up comedian.

If you’ve never studied how stand-up comedians perform their craft, it’s with a lot of trial and error, as well as practice of fledgling material in front of live audiences. Unless you give this one talk so much that you practice delivering comedic lines to get your wording and timing just right, most punchlines are better left to the pros.

5. You might get introduced. You might not. You might be asked to deliver a “house” message. You might not. Just roll with it. Be a pro. Don’t let the little things throw you.

6. Choose whether to have Q&A during or after your presentation. It’s trendy to set up your talk as if you’re about to start a dialogue. “Let’s keep this interactive,” I’ve heard several presenters say as they open a session. I grasp, and even applaud, the spirit of that, but accepting questions during your presentation is a little bit dangerous. You must keep control of the room, or you’ll never get through your talk.

On the other hand, holding all questions until after you’re done can be dangerous. If you are a talker, you might go right to the end to get through your material. That leaves no time for Q&A in conference settings where folks have to scramble to get to the next thing on their schedules.

7. Repeat audience questions. If someone is asking questions and they are not mic’ed, you need to re-state the question for the audience before answering. This keeps the room together, which is absolutely critical especially as the session wears on. People are easily distracted by their screens, so you need to keep attention focused by making sure everyone knows exactly what question is being answered.

8. Be ready for the afterglow. After the talk, the microphone will turn off, and most folks will disperse. But a few people will want to chat with you. Be ready for this in several different ways.

Anticipate weird questions. Some questions might have had something to do with your talk, but maybe not. Don’t feel like you have to fake an answer right then and there. You don’t. Humbly offer your best opinion if you have one, but don’t be upset if you don’t. Just tell the person honestly that you’ve not been in their situation before.

Remember, you’re not there to give away free consulting. You want to be polite and helpful in the way that all non-sociopaths do, but you have no specific obligation to solve their problem. Even so, if the question is interesting and you’re available, you might be able to engage them as a consultant after the event. Which reminds me…

Have business cards handy. A few folks might want to follow up with you after the event. The easiest way to facilitate this is with a business card. You can get a box of more than you’re likely to ever need for $10 or so. Hand them the card, and they can get on their way to their next event while still being able to get a hold of you later on.

Be ready to say, “Thank you.” Some folks might just want to express their gratitude for your talk. Smile, nod, and thank them. If it gets weird after that, ask them where they work or what they do to de-fuse the awkwardness.