Everyone says delivering a technical talk is a great opportunity to connect with people, build your reputation, create opportunities to grow your career. In one of the lessons of Get to Senior, we even recommend people to not simply don’t go to meetups… but to talk at meetups!
But, when you finally decide to do it, the fear of tackling public speaking pops up. Is public speaking even a required skill for a Software Engineer? What are you even going to talk about it? How on Earth are you going to find the time and energy to focus on a talk? 🤷♀️
What if you didn’t have to devote too much energy to it and followed a recipe instead? Then you’re so lucky!
By the end of this post, you’ll have created a short (10 minutes) talk following a step-by-step recipe that I’ve used over the years. Plus, you’ll get presentation tips to overcome the fear of public speaking at technical meetups. And what to do after you deliver it!
👉 Ready to get started? Jump to How to put a technical talk skeleton together in 20 minutes 🦴
But if you’re afraid and still think public speaking is not for you, keep reading. Let’s demystify some myths about delivering technical talks.
“Do I need to push myself out there with public speaking?”
No, you don’t. I mean, who does? Everyone is scared as hell. If they aren’t, they are lying!
Did you know that 95% of humans fear speaking in public more than death? You’re not the only one!
That means (almost) everyone you see speaking has managed to push themselves through it. It’s not a talent or a genetic skill. It’s a skill that you can master.
💡 There are ways to handle your nervousness better (check out Rehearse the presentation) but nothing will ever work if you don’t face your fear and start talking.
PS. If you have serious social anxiety issues, reach out to a professional. A therapist or a speaking coach can go a long way.
“What is the worst that can happen?”
Are you scared you’ll freeze on the spot? Forget your lines? Shake your hands so many people can see?
Well, that’s a good thing to know about yourself! The more you know what exactly your fear is, the better you can start working on it.
Remember that you’re going to suck at it for a while. It’s normal and expected. That’s a good sign! Embrace being comfortable with feeling uncomfortable:
You might only learn to love your class, workout, or a new job after trying it a few times. When people can positively spin otherwise negative cues—reappraise their discomfort as a sign of achievement—those cues become more motivating – Dr. Ayelet Fischbach from Get Comfortable with Feeling Uncomfortable
“Do I need to be an expert to give a technical talk?”
Expertise is relative. There’s always someone who know more than you, and someone who knows less than you. You’re always an expert at something.
That said, you don’t need to have created something new or unique to help someone.
When was the last time you had to solve a problem you had to research and try different things? What if you shared your findings so people don’t have to go through all of that?
That’s what you need: willingness to share in public what you’ve learned.
“Where should I start?”
You decide how difficult do you want to play first.
The easiest way to get started is to speak at your company. Once you feel more comfortable, deliver the same talk at a local meetup. Or speak for more minutes, or even at a conference.
“What if someone already gave a talk on the topic?”
The chances of you explaining the topic the same way as them are zero. Reference to it, if needed, and don’t worry about it.
Even if the topic is ‘basic’, remember that people come from different backgrounds. Not everyone learned the ‘basics’, or remember them. Something basic for someone is advanced for someone else. Focus on the people who you can help with.
“What if someone says I’m wrong?”
Say “Thank you! I learned one more thing about this topic!” You just got instructive feedback you wouldn’t get if you hadn’t put yourself out there.
Richard Feynman once published a book with wrong facts on it:
Great example that being an expert doesn't mean being always right.— Thiago Araujo (@thdaraujo) February 21, 2022
You can even write the book and add some wrong information by mistake. https://t.co/lCSp4UUUkv
Of course, not everyone knows how to give instructive feedback. That’s also a skill by itself. If someone is critical, say:
- “huuum, tell me more”.
- “what would you have done differently?”
If the person is a jackass, defuse them by saying “It looks like this topic is important to you. I’d love to talk more about it after I’m done with the talk”. Thank the person, fix the error, and deliver it again.
“What if I forget something?”
Oh, you will! The best strategy is to prepare for it ;)
One of the simplest strategies is to write down a list of keywords (like bullet points) that helps you get on track. When you read them, you quickly remember what you wanted to say next.
💡 This tip is from my local Toastmasters club: lookup for your keywords when you forget what you wanted to say.
When you pause to look up for a keyword, drink some water and take a deep breath. It’s okay to make pauses. My experience says that it helps the audience digest everything you’ve said so far.
How to put a technical talk together in 20 minutes 🦴
Now, let’s talk about how to put a talking skeleton together in just 20 minutes! Is the timer on? Let’s go!
On a paper, go through the following steps:
1. Brainstorm a topic [5 minutes]
Ask yourself the following questions:
- What was the last task I spent too much time on and was a frustrating thing to solve?
- How did I solve it?
- What was the hardest part of solving it: lack of documentation, no examples, the API returning unexpected error codes and messages?
- What worked and what didn’t?
- What should people do and don’t do when they encounter this problem?
- What was something unexpected that I learned from it?
If nothing comes to mind, start there! This week, document something you learn that you can use for this step.
Alternatively: did you publish a post in the past that you want to improve or update? Or even a draft that never came to life? Reuse them for this talk.
2. Describe the problem [5 minutes]
Describe the problem in a way that people can relate to. What were you trying to achieve? What’s the context? What assumptions did you have about the problem?
3. Explain how you solved the problem [5 minutes]
This part is fun. You want to draw a timeline of how you solved the problem:
- What did you try first?
- What was the hardest part?
- What took you longer and why?
- What was the most surprising thing you learned?
Write down as many details as you want.
4. Document the resources used to solve the problem [3 minutes]
Add any materials that helped you solve your problem. It could be the list of resources you used and recommend, or don’t recommend and why. Or even what unsolved questions you still have about the problem.
5. Define the Call To Action (CTA) [2 minutes]
What do you want people to do after watching your talk? Do you want them to connect with you? To reach out to ask more questions about the topic? To help you improve your solution? Write it down.
And voila! It’s simple, right? You probably felt that by going through these steps, the problem is clearer. That’s the power of sharing what you’ve learned: by describing it to others, you understand it more. And you help others as a bonus!
How to deliver the talk
Now that you know what to talk about and have a skeleton for the talk, it’s time to turn it into a concise presentation.
The good news is the hardest part is done. Dedicate 10 minutes every day to continue with the next steps.
If it’s your first time presenting a talk, focus exclusively on delivering it. Don’t worry about beautiful slides or mastering storytelling. As you keep practicing, you’ll get plenty of opportunities for incremental improvements.
Start simple: describe the problem, explain how you solve it, and help people avoid spending too much time and frustration when they encounter this problem.
Create the presentation
This is the part where you can spend weeks, months. Don’t fall into that trap. Oh, and don’t start with the slides!
Grab the notes you gathered from the Brainstorming step. What other notes, resources, images, graphics do you believe make the presentation easier for the audience to understand?
With all the materials you need to support the presentation, move on to the slides.
Create the slides
As a general rule, use slides to support your talk. Use them to add prompts, graphics, keywords. Aim for adding as little text as needed.
When adding screenshots, focus on the sections you want the audience to focus on. If there are a lot of things on the image, highlight the important parts.
💡 When you notice you’re complicating things, go back to your notes. It’s tempting to get “creative” and lose track of your goal. Write down any shining ideas and keep focused on your goal.
Rehearse the presentation
You got your notes, keywords to help you remember your points, slides. Now it’s time to put it all together!
I like to rehearse a talk just as it is without changing anything. Then, I add notes on which sections should be moved around, which sections are not clear, etc. Then, I edit the slides.
Once you’re okay with the flow, record yourself presenting it. If possible, stand up. Standing up helps to release adrenaline.
Recording yourself is weird but it works! Lookup for clues of when you’re forgetting your slides, which transitions are rough, how is your posture, if the slides are hard to read, etc.
Make sure to take deep breaths often. Take pauses: it’s okay to slow down. If you are like me, you will speak super fast. Keep breathing!
If possible, present it to one person who can give you instructive feedback.
Public Speaking tips for delivering your technical talk
Here are a few tips to help you present the talk smoothly:
A few minutes before the talk:
- Warm-up your voice. I like this exercise.
- Tidy up your background. Add as much light as you can on yourself.
- Join the meeting earlier to configure your mic, camera, and screen sharing.
- Put your keywords list in a visible place.
- Mute all your notifications.
💡 Leave all needed tabs open and hide anything you don’t want to share in public (like bookmarks, etc.).
When the host announces you, take a deep breath. Say “Thank you for the great introduction! And everyone for being here”.
If you feel your heart about to come out of your mouth, say “I’M SO EXCITED, CAN YOU SEE IT?” There, just say it. You won’t have anything to hide no more and it’s a great icebreaker ;)
Share what your talk is going to be about:
“Today I will talk about my experience with [this problem]. By the end of this talk, you’ll have learned how to [fix this problem, using this…].”
Then, go through your slides. Look up your keywords as needed.
If there’s time for Q&A, ask the audience “what questions do you have?”.
After you deliver your technical talk
WOW, you just did a brave thing and you should celebrate it!
If you’re like me, you will feel a release of adrenaline. Make sure to release it. Go for a walk, a run, or any sort of physical exercise. And celebrate your accomplishment one more time :)
After a few hours, I like to do a round of self-evaluation. Is there something I wanted to have done differently?
Keep practicing your public speaking skills
Who says delivering one talk is the final step? It doesn’t have to be. What if you reused it to practice other skills, like writing?
Deliver the same talk at a different meetup.
If there was something you wanted to add but didn’t have the time or skills to do it the first time, that’s your chance to do so.
You don’t have to create new content for every talk. The more you share it, the more people will benefit from it.
Transform the talk into a blog post
It’s a great way to reuse your content in different formats. It will probably give you some ideas on other follow-up talks or posts on the topic. If there was a recording, add it to the post.
Want more resources for delivering a technical talk?
These are my favorites:
- How to Write so People Give a Damn by Amy Hoy. Despite being a talk on how to write, the core ideas here apply to giving talks.
- How to Speak at a Conference by Kathy Sierra. Read the section “Prior speaking experience is GOOD”.
- Better Beginnings: how to start a presentation, book, article… by Kathy Sierra. Some great ideas on how to get started with your presentation. Have fun!
Your Turn: schedule your first talk
Now that you’ve seen how easy it can be to put a talk together, you still have to make sure you deliver it to people.
If you decided to start by talking at your company, let them know so they can arrange it.
If you want to deliver a meetup, reach out to the organizers and let them know you have a talk ready to present. The Vancouver Ruby, Philly Ruby, and WNB.RB meetups are always looking for speakers!
I’m looking forward to seeing you deliver your first talk. I’d love to know how it goes for you. If you enjoyed this post, bookmark and share it with your friends.
Be brave and share what you know with others. Don’t let your fear hold you back. Embrace it!
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