Speaking Advice

Although my speaking days are over, I’ve learned a ton in both many failures and many successes doing technical talks on various aspects of software.

My 11 main pieces of advice are:

  1. Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them.
  2. Have fun
  3. Effective Pausing
  4. Start with: a joke, a story, a leading statement
  5. have 3 bottles of resealable water nearby, not cups
  6. use a visual aide
  7. treat the podium as if it has kryponite/poop on it
  8. work your ass off on your preso
  9. you can speak about 72 wps, the audience can absorb 700 wps
  10. have a visual timer somewhere accessible
  11. self-actualize

What You’ll Say, Say It, What You Said

Effective speaking is born from effecting writing. Effecting writing comes from a solid outline. A solid outline has:

  • what you’ll say
  • say it
  • what you said

You need to let those who’ve arrived at your presentation know what you’ll be talking about. You then talk about it. You then summarize to ensure they get the key points and you leave them with those points lingering in their minds.

Most PowerPoint/Keynote tools have an outline feature. If you organize it in 3 blocks, (or even just 3 slides), you’ll be set.

You miss one of those 3 items, you’re eff’d.

Have Fun

Sharing tech with people is awesome. If they know you like it, they’ll think it’s awesome. Even if it’s not their thing, they’ll still enjoy themselves because you enjoyed yourself.

@jesterxl just gave a presentation on Preventing Technical Debt in Space and I enjoyed 100% and understood maybe 30% #100YSS

If stuff breaks when NOTHING changed right in the middle of your presentation, it’s all good. Everyone has code break, that’s part of our job. There are no problems, only opportunities. Use that as a debugging opportunity to show you how you work through problems with the toolset, and your calm demeanor is because you know it’s not a big deal.

Internet at conferences never works. Plan for no internet, even if your mobile phone has tethering. It’s not worth it. Think of working internet as “icing”. If you’re presentation is make or break because of internet, things get un-fun for you, and your audience. Remember, this happened to Steve Jobs as well. Think of using a local server that sends fake responses using Python or Node.

Jesse_Warden_460When people ask whack questions before you even got started, hell yeah, engage that already-engaged audience. Satisfy their curiosity, none of that “questions at the end” crap. ENGAGE! Speaking of questions, appreciate your audience and assume no one heard the question. If someone does ask a question, it’s common courtesy to repeat it on the mic so everyone has the opportunity to hear it. Conferences/talks/user groups are typically loud, or have bad acoustics so better to play it safe.

Create something bad ass JUST for a presentation. Get jazzed up because you can’t wait to show them. Take people on a journey. Teach them something. Whatever. Speaking is your opportunity to engage a TON of people in a short amount of time. For an attention craver like me it’s intoxicating.

Effective Pausing

Although audience members can absorb WAY more words per minute than you can speak (that’s why we can understand the Micro Machines Guy), comprehension and reflection are not as fast. When you speak a powerful thought or challenging concept, pause. Watch any good speaker. Steve Jobs and Obama’s speeches during his 1st presidential race. Watch how they pause on key concepts. Sometimes their intonation will end on a high note for a rhetorical question, other times on a firm down note for a statement. Listen for the powerful pause.

For those of us excited about tech, and on an adrenaline high being in front of hundreds of people, this helps you not do run-on sentences. You give your audience time to keep up and time to ruminate on what you’re saying. Use effective pausing.

Start with: a Joke, a Story, a Leading Statement

You gotta have a killer opener. We’re not all Darkwing Duck. The common 3 are a joke, a RELEVANT and SHORT story, or a leading statement that may be intriguing/controversial. You have 5 seconds to grab their attention; snag your audience immediately!

Writing Deep Space Exploration Software for Raspberry PI CAT Cubesats

Have 3 Bottles of Resealable Water Nearby, Not Cups

Some geeks don’t talk a lot. As such, their vocal chords aren’t as worked out as a sales person’s are. I’ve actually lost my voice on stage because I didn’t follow step #3. Yes, I had water. Water, however, can prolong how long you can talk, and how comfortable you can remain talking even if your voice starts to go. If you don’t have effective pausing down, drinking water because your throat is getting sore is a sign.

If it’s a cup, it’ll spill on your laptop, and you’ll drop the f-bomb into the mic. That’s bad news bears. Make it resealable bottles.

Use a Visual Aide

Slides are not as negative as everything makes them out to be. Yes, I’ve tried using no slides; that doesn’t work for technical topics. Slides themselves are a huge topic, and tons of books have been written about the crap. Here’s all you need to know:

  • Make ’em follow Step #1
  • no more than 3 bullets per slide.
  • Make the fonts obnoxiously big with high contrast.
  • Make your slides available ahead of time. (<– this may not be possible, that’s ok)

Some preso’s can be less technical and more higher level. For me, I use 1 to 3 notecards with key points and improvisation the rest. For other people who don’t like improv, they need a TON of notes. That’s fine, whatever you need. Slides, however, cannot be your notes. Remember, they’re also for your audience to follow along. No, PowerPoint/Keynote presenter notes don’t work (see point #7). Paper/index cards have NOT gone out of style because you know they still work. Some people will put times on bullet points to ensure they stay on time. Others like me don’t give a shit and usually put 1 key point I have to cover so ensure I have 10 minutes left to cover JUST THAT ONE THING.

Treat the Podium as if it Has Kryponite or Poop On It

fitc_refactoring_jesse_wardenWhatever nastiness you can imagine, pretend it’s on the podium. Walk, use body language, use your arms, be natural. Stay away from the podium. Communication is 80% body language and that includes things over than your head and hands. People need to see the whole you.

Conversely, don’t do laps around the stage. I do that unconsciously while on the phone. I’ll usually have on my hand written 2 things to do, or not do, during a presentation. I’ll change based on my mood. Stuff like:

  • “effective pausing”
  • “STOP pacing”

Whatever works, but keep it simple so you don’t stare off into space reading your notes-to-self in the middle of your preso.

Work Your Ass Off on Your Preso

People who do kick ass presentations clearly worked hard on them. Google’s recent push at the last I/O is extremely telling a TON of work went into those. Even good presenters aren’t at the top of their game with shoddy slides and code samples with zero rehearsal. It sets a negative tone. You’ve probably seen it yourself; when someone doesn’t look organized, you don’t trust what they are saying, nor care as much.

Code Samples

If possible, just use screenshots. Fiddling with formatting for “ease of update” or scalability of text is just not worth it. Images are portable and quick to import / update. Take ’em from the editor of your choice. Just ensure high contrast as some coding themes are low contrast on purpose, but don’t show well in well lit rooms when your slides on a projector aren’t as bright as the lights in the room. Make the fonts big, or enlarge the image as much as possible.

Other Tips

Make a bad ass outline. Make some dope code samples. Make some pretty slides. Have a compelling story. Practice it, record yourself giving it, watch it, iterate on it. Get feedback early. Put in the hard work.

You Can Speak About 72 wps, the Audience Can Absorb 700 wps

fitc_mobile_gaming_corona_air_jesse_warden (1)Everyone has ambient tech and everyone has Attention Deficit Disorder. Get over it. Laptops and phones are NOT RUDE, regardless of whether the audience are g33ks or not. Hopefully they’re advertising your amazingness on social media in REAL TIME. You can screw with people (yes, I’ve done this) to say whack things and see if they post it by accident.

If you’re afraid to look people in the eye, look at the dude’s forehead who’s staring at his laptop and then jump to the other side of the audience to stare at the top of the other dudett on her phone. They’ll think you’re looking at someone behind them. Don’t stare at the attractive person in the audience, that derails my thought process.

Have a Visual Timer Somewhere Accessible

I used to do this. Now, I just keep it around in case I need to focus hardcore my last 10 minutes for more higher level press’s. For tech stuff, it don’t matter; even a shallow dive into a large tech stack is still fun even if you only covered 10%, and your audience will probably want more even if you do finish all of it. That’s why people crowd the stage after preso’s; to ask followup questions.


Like athletes do, meditate 5 minutes before you speak, visualizing yourself doing your presentation. Go into yourself. Breath deeply and calmly. Focus on the core of your outline. Focus on what you really want to convey. Visualize yourself doing it.

Slowly come out and observe the audience make up, and their body language. Identify if you’d like to ask some questions before you start to identify their background and tech level. Remember, this ain’t accurate; some g33ks are shy. BUT, contrary to popular advice, I’ve found I had to adjust entire preso’s because of the make-shift democracy of a room wanting more basic or specific content, which I’m fine with. They audience likes when they “think” they’re in control.

You can do that when you’re centered and calm.



Last point: know your shit. If you’ve done #8, you probably do, but even if you aren’t into improv, when you start offering both quantitative and qualitative answers to people, they’ll remember that. They’ll project that onto the memory they have of your preso, whether it was good or not, and suddenly it was good because of your knowledge of the subject matter.

More good advice in the original Google+ post.