I recently just sat through one of the most painful technical talks that I have ever attended, so I would like to offer some advice on giving a technical presentation that is mostly stolen from good speakers. At the end of the talk, I was left with the impression that the speaker may have known what they were talking about, but had given very little consideration as to the audience experience. My speaking tips for pulling the audience along with you are as follows.
Frame the Talk
Tell the audience what you are going to tell them, tell them, and go over what you told them. This advice works for all talks, because it helps the audience prepare to pay attention and reinforces the content which increases retention. Our earliest methods of learning are based on repetition, so while later in life we need less repetition, it certainly helps to repeat a few times.
State the Problem or Use Case
One of the first questions your audience would ask would be “Why would you go to all the trouble to roll out a rewrite of your application in Elixir?”. Answer that question first as it establishes that you are considering actual real-world problems and that the rest of your talk is not simply an exercise in hand waving. “Our goal was to rewrite our application that was simply not performant enough at scale due to the limitations of the Ruby language”.
Explain the Why of the Tool Choice
“We decided to use Redis”. While Redis is certainly one of my favorite hammers, not everything is a nail. “We chose Redis over Memcached due to the fact that our application uses keys longer than the 250 bytes that Memcached can handle and we needed the Redis capability of varied cache expiration algorithms”. The why of the choice allows the audience to determine if this same choice makes sense for them going forward. The speaker’s reasoning also may provided some useful new ideas to the audience, that they may have not considered previously.
Explain Some of the Drawbacks of the Tool Choice
“Redis is single threaded and this creates some issues where a single instance can get overwhelmed”. This demonstrates that the presenter fully understands the trade-offs involved in a selection. Generally, it is a good idea to follow up with either a workaround or mitigation of that drawback. “To avoid this issue, we sharded out the cache to run over several instances using Twemproxy”. After giving a presentation for the CTO of a large company, the CTO later cornered me and said that he was very impressed at the team’s forethought and he appreciated the honesty.
Show How Everything Fits together
A simple diagram of how the running parts fit together really cement the flow in the mind of the audience. Really interesting ideas and presentations usually can prove useful in other situations that may be radically different, but the flow of data will remain. Really effective talks have an overarching theme and it is good to go into details, but be sure to tie those details back to the problem or use case.
The “Silver Bullet Slide”
I often encourage people giving tech talks to include a slide that sets realistic expectations. “Docker and Kubernetes is a great solution for stateless applications, but not necessarily the best choice for data stores given the extra management overhead”. There are no silver bullets in life, so be realistic.
Discuss the Past
After completing this project what was learned? “After completion, it turns out that the cost and operational overhead of running Kafka is too high, coupled with the fact that I now need non-Java clients, I should probably have chosen a different technology”. The audience is often looking for insight, so discussing what could have gone better is invaluable.
Discuss the Future
Where are we going with this? “In the future we are looking to use Terraform to build a complete testing environment from scratch nightly to test our builds to ensure we can also use it for Disaster Recovery Scenarios”. No project is every really complete and discussing possible future improvements ends on a positive note.
Informative and enjoyable talks are those that put the audience first and inspire them to seek creative solutions to their unique problems.
Public speaking is an excellent career multiplier, so get over your nervousness and get to it.
Thanks to Chris Sessions and Zane Williamson for providing feedback.