My first tech talk was on a database migration project I had been working on for about a year. I agreed to speak because I wanted to get out of my comfort zone, get used to speaking in front of more people than just my team, and help other teams who may want to move to AWS.
I learnt a lot about how I should and shouldn’t prep for a tech talk along the way. Here are my 10 tips on how to rock your first tech talk if you are thinking of giving it a go.
Know your topic
It doesn’t matter if you are going to speak at a local Meetup or a conference in front of thousands, know your topic.
- Be passionate about what you want to get across and the technology, language or project you have chosen to speak about.
- You do not have to be an expert, but you do need to be interested in what you are speaking about. If you aren’t into it, the audience won’t be.
- While we are on this point, it does not have to be a tech topic. There are many tech events where there is also a need for talks on soft skills, opinions on the state of the industry or personal experiences.
Know your audience
Ask your organiser who the likely audience will be and tailor your talk accordingly.
- While I was prepping my notes I forgot this tip somewhere along the way. I had tried to make my talk accessible to all by talking at a very high level but had forgotten who the primary audience really was.
- Turns out my audience was primarily tech people and I had completely missed the mark. I asked a manager who had spoken at the same Meetup a year earlier what his experiences were. He let me know that I needed to add a lot more to the technical side or would be faced with loads of questions.
Write it up first
Before you start on the slides make sure you have an introduction, a middle, and an end that follows this pattern. It will keep you on track and make sure you are getting your point across by repeating it in different ways. This forces you to think about what you want to audience to get out of your talk, so you aren’t just telling them about the work you’ve done.
- Slides are there to enhance your message, not be the message itself. Keep this in mind and leave the slides till after you have a solid idea of what you want to say.
- Use the slides to emphasise key points with architecture diagrams, quotes from your users or a FEW key bullet points if you need to. The audience should have their eyes on you rather than keeping up with reading the slides.
Practice Practice Practice
Practice with yourself
- Find a meeting room and record your talk from beginning to end. This not only gives you an idea of how long it will take but also helps you practice saying the words out loud.
Practice with a colleague
- Find a friend to give your talk to one-on-one. You can both be sat in a meeting room side-by-side, you don’t have to stand up and present. But it’s important to get used to talking in front of someone else.
- It was at this point I realised how it sounded as if I was reading from a script, so changed up my delivery after this.
Practice with a non-technical person
- This one is important if your talk is for the not-so-technical. Even if it isn’t, it’s a great way to get practice in with a friendly audience. My sister was kind enough to listen to me for 15 minutes. She said she didn’t understand half the words, but she “got the gist”. It made me feel a lot more confident.
Avoid AV issues
- If you can, a rehearsal is a great way to get rid of the nerves and make sure everything is going to work. If you don’t have this luxury, make sure you bring a charger, an offline backup plan and a secondary back up on USB.
- While we are on this topic, make sure you turn all notifications off and close all other tabs and applications. You never know what will pop up out of the blue.
Introductions are everything
I got some great advice from a colleague on making a good start:
- Make sure you have your first couple of slides memorised so you are all set for any eventuality.
- In my case, my speaker notes did not pop up. But I had rehearsed, and rehearsed, and rehearsed the first few slides so often in my head it all went according to plan. In retrospect, it was a great thing they didn’t pop up. I sounded more conversational and less like I was reading from a script.
When it comes to the actual speaking I got some great advice from my manager:
- By the time you are ready to deliver your talk, you will know it back to front. The audience doesn’t. If you make a conscious effort to pause, it not only gives you some time to think but also allows the audience to take in what you are saying.
- When you take a pause, keep an eye on the friendly faces in the audience. Or if that is too nerve-wracking, look slightly above their heads, they’ll never know the difference.
- In my culture, it is the norm for questions to be held until the end. Usually, at this point, a microphone is handed around so the audience can ask questions when there is time after the talk is over.
- If there is no microphone, repeat the questions back into the microphone you are holding or speaking into. Question time is a lot more beneficial if those in the audience can hear both the question and answer.
- It is ok not to know the answer to all the questions. I got lucky and could answer each one but if I couldn’t it’s ok to say ‘I can find out and get back to you’, or ‘let’s catch up afterwards’
After the event
- Make sure you stick around and chat to those who have come to hear you talk, and relax knowing you have done well to get out of your comfort zone.
- Don’t forget to thank your organisers, they do a great job making sure the event will be a success behind the scenes.
If you take nothing else from this post, remember that people are there to see you succeed. You have something to offer and should give it a try even if it seems scary.