On public speaking

This week Zach Holman and Chiu-Ki Chan wrote about public speaking. While I’m not claiming to be a very experienced speaker, I have my two cents to add after being involved with some conferences, etc. Here’s my take on slides, rehearsing, introductions, Q&A and more. I’m mixing some practicalities in here too, things I do or don’t do and things I believe you should do if you’re a speaker (and to be clear, there’s nothing sacred about that title, if there’s an audience listening to what you have to say, you’re a speaker).

What to cover during a talk?

I’m a front-end guy, so that’s what I usually speak about. The target audience doesn’t really matter (although it will be a completely different talk obviously), so I’ve presented to front-end developers, back-end developers and designers. Occasionally I do a business talk for a broader audience.

Whatever I do, I try to stay within my comfort zone for 80%, so I actually have to figure stuff out for the other 20%. It helps me with not taking things for granted, being able to relate to the audience (to which everything may be new) and get something out of it myself. What subject to choose is mostly based on questions asked in Google Groups, things my co-workers are struggling with, discussions at user group meet-ups and Q&A at conferences. I like to cover subjects that solve actual problems, because those are the talks I like to see myself. EverNote is a great tool to quickly store your ideas, because they’ll be gone if you don’t.


I mostly have been giving technical talks to back-end (Ruby) crowds. They aren’t of the motivational kind and really need code to visualize what’s going on. Most “pro speaking tips” will tell you to use images that speak to the imagination and short sentences or just words to illustrate your story. For tech talks, that doesn’t work. For my past few talks I have been using a maximum of four bullet points per slide, using them as a guideline for things to cover about the subject at hand. Whether to use bullet points or not is debatable.

I’m never overly excited about my slides, since I’m a crappy designer and they lack “pizazz”. To spice things up I’m one of those people who does that “funny pictures” thing. I try to avoid the meme generators. We’ve got enough of those and I recently noticed that memes don’t always work. I guess “WAT” and “X all the things” aren’t a universal language.

For slides I’ve used Keynote and Impress.js, with my recent talks using the latter. The downside of using Impress.js without any plugins for speakers notes or preview of the next slide, that’s exactly what you’re not getting. If you’re in the habit of changing your slides last minute, which I try to avoid as much as possible, this may lead to finding out about that extra slide you just added the moment it comes into view. You can avoid this by using the presenter display in Keynote, so you can see the current and next slides, time left, speaker notes and more. At the moment I like using Impress.js because it’s just text, making it great for version control. Keynote tends to work better for me when covering new subjects; I know what’s on my slides for a talk I’ve done three times.

Rehearsing & reusing

I don’t like to rehearse my talks. Usually I make my slides, do a dry-run to see how I’m doing time wise and do a second run after making adjustments if needed. That’s it. It works for me, but I know a lot of speakers who would die on stage using this approach. Do whatever works for you, as long as you don’t overdo it, memorizing each and every sentence.

It may be worthwhile to do your talk at one or two user group meetings before hitting the road. I’m a reuser, doing one of my current talks eight times, as long as there doesn’t seem to be too much overlap between events (attendees and geographic location). I’m upfront about this and let organizers decide if that’s an issue (in which case I come up with something else). Preparing for a talk and making slides is a time consuming process, which is why I can’t do a fresh one every time. When I’m doing a payed gig with attendees paying good money for their ticket, I try to do something fresh.

By reusing you can gradually improve your talk by incorporating questions into the slides for your next talk, which is why user groups are a great starting point. You’re already two iterations ahead when you’re on stage for the first time.

Rehearsing and doing presentations at user groups may also help if you suffer from stage fright. Another option is taking some improv classes, which seems like a good way to become more confident in dealing with the unexpected. Luckily I don’t have an issue with talking to crowds, but some others told me it helps (I do have experience in improv though, more on that later).

A note on timing: don’t run over your alloted time. It’s better to send people to their break early than to screw up the schedule. I like to use this timer app on my iPhone, which uses an overall timer and a timer per section. That way I know when to speed up some things per section of my talk, instead of running the risk of being out of time in the end. I try make sure that my talk has some secondary content that can be omitted when needed to gain some time, without having to skip important content.

Getting ready

I get ready for my talk the night before. I try to get any last minute changes to my slides done by then. If there’s a speaker dinner or party the night before my talk, I don’t drink any alcohol. I’m a moderate drinker who can’t stand beer or wine, so even a single “relaxing” whiskey and Coke causes a slight hangover. When people come to pay attention to things you have to say, you should try to be on top of your game.

At some point you have to go on stage (duh). First thing I do is remove my lanyard, because it annoys me when on stage, it distracts the audience and it often doesn’t play nice with microphones. Some flip their lanyard around, so the badge is on their back. That just looks silly of you ask me, so I simply stuff the thing in my bag.

As for hooking up your laptop, come prepared. I always bring adapters for VGA and DVI, plus a USB ethernet adapter for my MacBook Air (in case I need a connection and there’s no wifi). One of the beauties of Impress.js is that it runs in the browser, making scaling to match projector resolution super easy. Just hit ⌘-. I don’t like surprises, so I always use an external power supply. Close your other apps (like Skype), clear your browser history, hide your bookmarks bar, clean up your desktop icons and turn of your screen saver and display sleep. My phone goes into airplane mode and because Impress.js doesn’t have a speaker display with a timer, I use my phone for that, double checking it has a full enough battery (or hook it up to the laptop otherwise), crank up the brightness to 100% (do that for your laptop too) and turn of auto-lock.

I don’t like to present without a remote, because it limits my movement way too much. Don’t be too tempted to use the laser pointer built in your remote, because it won’t show up on the recorded video (assuming your slides are being recorded separately). When live coding you could consider just highlighting the text. Check your battery level beforehand and carry spare batteries with you. They will go a long way, but sometimes speakers forget their remote and ask to borrow yours. Be a nice guy and help them out, they will get it back to you. (Which I wrote just after finding out the last one didn’t and I didn’t have a remote during yesterdays talk.)

Be energetic & entertaining

When I’m on stage I want to be an educator and entertainer at the same time. While I could just go up there and say what I have to say, I find it easier to make my point come across by throwing in some jokes, funny pictures, etc. Lately I have been using a theme, with some recurring element appearing after each section. Combined with code samples using the same theme, it seems to be easier for attendees to digest and remember. Since I also believe our community should be more inclusive, I do my best not to make jokes at the expense of any minority (or majority). I don’t have jokes on dicks, tits or getting drunk. During one of my current talks I say something nasty about SEO “experts” though, for which I’m (not) really sorry.

It’s in my nature to react to what happens in a room on the spot, which sometimes leads to impromptu jokes. Those often are the best ones, but be careful to not be too blunt. Having taken improv classes for a few years doesn’t hurt.

The amount of energy I try to bring to a room is dependent mostly on the energy coming from the room. A talk at 9am requires a different energy than one right after lunch or at the end of the day. Most venues don’t have the ventilation or air conditioning to handle a few hundred people with heat generating laptops open. A rule of thumb seems to be that a room heats up as the day progresses. My preferred slots are on day one (so I can get it done and over with and have a drink at the party) in the morning. After lunch people are sleepy and at the end of the day people are looking forward to grabbing a drink and get out of the auditorium.

When on stage, connect with your audience. Look them in the eye. If the venue has you staring into stage lights, you still know where your audience is. Look in their general direction and you’ll catch someones eye (although it’s one way). Please don’t keep staring at the same person; it’s awkward and uncomfortable for your victim. If you’re in spotlights, be aware of their reach. “Stepping out of the light” means you’re reduced to just your voice (use it for a dramatic effect at your discretion). I do move around though if the situation allows for that, as it keeps the audience focused and I can’t stand still anyway. When you’re planning on running around, let the person behind the camera know beforehand, they will love you for it. If you have the choice between a hand-held microphone or one growing from your ear, always pick the one leaving your hands free to do other things.


If you’re a well known speaker you may omit doing this, and some say you shouldn’t ever, but I like introducing myself. People often don’t know me well (or at all) and I feel it helps establishing authority to tell them what I do in daily life. As a CFP speaker at Ruby conferences you hardly ever get paid anything, regularly paying for your flight and hotel yourself. That’s okay, because I love going to conferences and meeting new people. To me, that investment of time and money justifies name dropping my company once.


Q&A is the best way to determine if your point came across. If there are no questions at all, that often isn’t a good sign. Sometimes people need some encouragement though, with a avalanche of questions happening once the first brave soul has asked his. Be honest when answering questions, without ever making the person asking the question feel stupid. If you don’t know, that’s a great answer. Offer to look things up afterwards and get back to them. If there’s one person who keeps asking questions, thus making sure there’s no time for others to ask theirs, you may offer to continue the conversation in the next break.

Depending on your subject it may be a good idea to handle questions during your talk. Be aware though that you loose control of handling all your slides in time, which is why I prepare a 20 minute talk for a 40 minute session when answering questions directly (which also works if you prepared too little material). I find it a great way to learn what your audience is looking for in your talk and being able to iterate on that on the spot. Don’t let them push you out of your comfort zone too much though and keep control of where you’re going.

Please remember to repeat all questions when there are no mics going around during Q&A. What is clear to you, with sound coming from the third row and heading in your direction, isn’t for those in the back. Little is more annoying than an answer without knowing the context, often rendering is useless.

Be memorable, bloggable and tweetable

I’m fine with people tweeting during my presentations. It’s good for PR, since you can store all tweets afterwards using Storify or something similar. But for people to tweet or blog about your talk, you sometimes have to offer some sound bites. Funny one liners the writer can identify with. If you have a slide that’s funny or controversial, people often want to snap a picture and tweet it. Consider taking a pause to drink while that slide is up, so people get the chance to do so.

Just do it

Do a talk for a user group. Submit your proposal to any conference relevant to you running a CFP (use Lanyrd to find them). Get on stage, teach and entertain. Meet awesome speakers, attendees and make new friends. Travel the world. Just do it.