Marc Grabanski, CEO & UI Developer of Frontend Masters

10 Things I Wish I'd Known About Giving Good Tech Talks

March 25, 2014

My last talk was given at Fluent conf, one of more premiere JavaScript and web development conferences out there (created by O’Reilly, curated by Peter Cooper and Simon St. Laurent). My talk was rated amongst the top 5 talks at Fluent…but I wasn’t always good at speaking.

Here’s some reviews of my latest talk…

Well presented, tight focus and good examples. A+ presentation!

This was a really good introduction into the potential SVGs can offer. Having just started using SVGs myself, this session was very informative.

Excellent overview of SVG with some great demos illustrating its power as a format.

Whirlwind,yes. Awesome? Absolutely! Great samples, demos, and emphasis of why you want to use it.

Plus many more reviews, personal emails and love on Twitter! But it wasn’t always this way.

Here’s what someone said of me in 2009…

Marc wasn’t very engaging and really looked like he didn’t want to be there.

Wow…that’s really bad! So how did I go from getting a terrible review like that in 2009 to be in the top 5 out of 70 talks?

Here’s my top 10 tips I wish I would have known…

1. Motivation — Why Speak at All?

The first decision you have to make is whether you want to speak at all. Speaking isn’t something you decide to do because you want to become famous. Maybe that’s some peoples’ motivations and fine, good for them. But for me, it was deeper… I felt responsible and that it was my duty to start talking because the topics that were important to me were mis-represented or under-represented.

The purest form of speaking is a fire that wells up inside you that you must share because you feel people need to hear it. Those are the kind of talks I like to hear…ones of personal importance. But whatever your motivation is, you need to have some motivation that carries you through the times you trip up.

You will have times that you get scared and start looking down at your feet, but once you overcome it you may get to speak a message strongly that people need to hear and kill it on stage and do lots of good for humanity.

Some topics that are popular aren’t important to you. And some topics that are important to you aren’t popular. It’s a vicious cycle that you’ll experience as a speaker. The talks that draw big crowds and get great reviews are in the intersection of popular topics that the speaker is deeply interested in (and likely known for).

There is a million talks on a particular insert framework/library right now…if you want to speak on that framework/library you might get a packed crowd because of the topic and that’s fine, but are you giving them something new or different or are you just echoing what everyone else is saying?

It’s fine to be part of the echo chamber but I don’t feel like it’s what we really need right now. Try to speak on something that’s important to you that you feel is under-represented. Your talk could very well be that popular framework/library, but try to pick some angle that is important to you that you feel is under-represented.

That’s ok to speak on not-so-popular topics! As long as you’re very passionate about the topic.

My SVG talk at Fluent was super highly rated but was not overly popular in terms of attendees. Maybe 100 people showed up, but other talks had 150+ or more. The tradeoff of having less attendees was ok with me since this was a super important topic to me personally.

I’ve been building web interfaces on top of SVG for most of my time for almost 2 years now! It was a topic I felt passionately about and a technology that I felt that was under evangelized. This made me poised to bring a new perspective and deliver it boldly which I personally think is what people need at tech conferences.

3. Attendee Mindset — People Aren’t at Conferences Just to Hear Talks

People are at conferences to: hang out with industry friends, meet new people, take paid time off work, etc…and there’s multiple tracks, sponsor booths, free snacks, twitter, facebook, etc. There’s plenty to distract people away from the actual talks themselves. Don’t trick yourself into thinking that people are going to listen to everything you say.

You should embrace the mindset of people attending your talk and respect it. They will only have enough focus to listen to a few main points and you must deliver these few points strongly and clearly (maybe even a few times) or else your message will get lost in the ether of distraction.

4. Breaking Distraction — Pull Them in By Starting with a Bang

As I mentioned above, people are in a default state of distraction. You have to pull your audience in in the first 2 minutes. I didn’t realize this at first…but the first 2-5 minutes can be the most important part of your talk. It sets the pace for the audience and sets up expectations of what your talk is about for the rest of the time.

My personal opinion is that in about 2-5 minutes people determine whether or not they are going to listen to you or just read Twitter and email the rest of the time.

So here’s the things you MUST do in the first 2-5 minutes.

  • Greet them warmly with a loud, bold voice…for introverts like me this is hard.
  • Tell them why you are amazed by your topic or why it’s important to you. Because if it’s not important to you…why should they listen?
  • Show them what’s possible with a quick flashy demo or screenshot which adds to why they should care.
  • Finally…DO NOT shrink up…tell them what you’re going to cover with your head tilted up and your arms open.

Body language matters more than you think when speaking. Although it might seem more humble to look at your feet and talk in a normal voice, no one wants to listen to that. People want you to make your points while they can hear you clearly and see your face and feel invited to the conversation by seeing your arms open and palms up. There is research behind this hands open and palms up stance, but I’ll let you do that research on your own.

This first 5 minutes must be a very polished part of your talk. Read it out loud through 5-10 times… shift your slides around until that intro flows out like butter.

5. Inspire and Introduce — Don’t Teach Too Much

I wish this wasn’t true, but your job at a conference is to introduce and inspire, not (primarily) to teach.

Don’t believe me? Look at this keynote by Scott Hanselman. I don’t really learn anything or know what his point was really, but he entertained every step of the way and people loved it!

Most people would rather be wow’d, entertained, made laugh, etc than taught (especially during keynotes). I really, really wish learning was the primary objective at technical conferences, but it’s not. It’s entertainment!

But what if you aren’t entertaining? I’ll always lose this battle… because I’m not very entertaining, but I can teach in a way where people enjoy listening. Just make a few key points about why the technology is important and how to get started learning it. Let me say that again. Make a few key, important points. You can’t go into painfully deep implementation details unless you can wrap it in an entertaining way for those not able to follow along with you.

6. Practice Out Loud

I wish you could just wing it, but that couldn’t be further from the case. You need to run through your presentation out loud more than once. You’d be surprised how many times that slide is in a weird position or you meant to say something but you forgot to…or any number of things.

7. Engage, Engage…for God’s Sake…Engage!

Look at the audience, smile and speak louder! Know your points by heart and make them boldly. No matter how enthusiastic I think I’m being. When I watch the videos later it looks like I’m about 3 notches lower key on the video. I keep telling myself…”Wake up!” But while I’m speaking I don’t feel that way at all. I forget which actor said it, but he said “people want 3x of you on camera, not your normal self.”

Also, make sure to look at and embrace the people who are giving you their full attention. For some reason playing off them and looking at them draws me deeper into my own talk. It’s a bit weird of a tip maybe…but it works. If you see that people are paying attention to what you’re saying, it’s easier to feel more comfortable about delivering the points you are making.

8. End 5 Minutes Early

If you have a 30 minute talk, end in 25 minutes. 40 minute talk? End in 35 minutes. MINUS setup time. A lot of talks start late, so beware that you may lose as much as 5 minutes in the beginning of the talk for setup and waiting for people to filter in. Don’t push up against the timelines of the talk. Make sure to end about 5 minutes early to respect peoples’ time. The moderator may extend your talk for questions but that’s up to them. People appreciate talks that end 5 minutes early, but hate talks that go 5 minutes late. Don’t be that guy or gal!

9. Treat Every Talk Like Your First Talk

So let’s say you’ve given about 5 or more talks. Starting to feel comfortable? …don’t! You can’t just “wing it” because you’ve given the same talk before. It takes practice and focus to knock it out of the park again and again. Every speaker I know has given the same talk at two different conferences and one went great and one didn’t. Usually the one that didn’t the speaker was feeling confident and like it was going to be a breeze. Speaking never is..

10. Have Fun!

Finally, have fun. This is your time to shine and speak what’s on your heart, whether it’s a crowd of 10, 100 or 1000+! It’s a big responsibility and can be really scary, but it’s important you get out there speak what’s important to you!

Finally…My Talk

Marc Grabanski, CEO & UI Developer of Frontend Masters

Career Journal on Web Dev, Business, & Life

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