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What I learned About Getting Better at Giving Talks and Presentations
After years of reading about, learning, and trying public speaking in different forms, here is what I have found.
Many organizations have knowledge-sharing sessions where people present what they have learned or found interesting. Software engineers are sometimes expected to be on the stage to level up in their careers, as this is one of the most tangible ways to showcase they're trying to grow others. However, engineers are not professional speakers. They rarely spend time getting better at speaking to an audience. For many, explaining how something works is less exciting than learning how that thing works. For me, I was always fascinated by both.
While working as a software engineer, I also improved my presentation skills by reading up on the topic, seeking feedback in every possible way, and talking with the best presenters I've ever listened to. These days, I get good feedback on my talks and podcast episodes, and people ask me to pass on my knowledge of being a good speaker. They ask the same questions I asked a long time ago to the best presenters. It's time to pass the baton.
Here I want to share the key points for improving public speaking—a business presentation, tech talk, podcast episode, knowledge-sharing talk, or what have you. The below points are not an exhaustive list, but I learned over the years that they are the most crucial ones.
And it starts with choosing a message for your talk.
One and Only One Message
What is the one message you want to leave your listeners with?
What is the one thing they can try after they hear you?
Leaving your listeners with many ideas will make them overwhelmed and confused. Hence, they will never take any action. Give them one clear message. They should not doubt that they understand and can try after your talk.
Don't hide the message when you give it—say it out loud. Make it crystal clear. You can even say, "If you want to get one thing out of this talk, it's this," and give them the key point. Even if they don't try, they will think about it. You'll make someone think and challenge what they are already doing and nudge them to do it differently. That's how to impact someone's life—the real power of public speaking.
But you won't be able to give that message if the message is not coming from you.
The Talk is About YOU.
If you're speaking about a topic, that shows you care. Although you're talking about a topic, the talk itself is not focused on it. It's about how you explain the topic.
Let's go over a simple example. If you're presenting a book you read and liked, the listeners are interested in learning more about the book's details, for sure. However, they are even more interested in what you learned from the book and how you applied it to your life. Because they want to know why you're presenting the book and what you gained from it. How your life has changed after reading that book is more important to the audience than the book's full content.
You must add your talk some pieces from you. If you don't talk about yourself at all, if you don't involve your experience with the topic, the talk will be blunt. People can learn any information from the internet, including what you present. But they chose to listen to you. That means your audience wants to hear that topic from you instead of others.
Therefore, you must put yourself at the center of your talk instead of your beautiful slides.
Slides are Only Helpers
Most of the "X tips for better presentations" articles I've read talk about how the slides should be. I've seen many different recommendations, such as six words per line and a maximum of five lines of text in one slide or using only images and no text. All of the tips are mostly useless.
I remember a fantastic presentation I watched at SwiftConf in Cologne. Each slide had either an image or a single word on it. There were hundreds of slides, and the speaker had only twenty minutes! How?
They used the slides to help themselves present the topic. They built a story and used slides to guide people in the story.
Slides are tools to help you. They are not the center of the talk—you are. Once you move the center of the talk from slides to you and make the talk fully yours, the presentation will automatically improve.
Don't add thousands of words to slides unless you have a good reason. The aim is to move the audience's focus from the slides to you. The audience looks at your eyes when you talk, and slides shouldn't distract them from your beautiful eyes.
What you put on your slides is still your decision. There is no silver bullet.
Sometimes, a blank slide is better than a slide with ten words on it. A blank slide moves the focus to you and helps with one more thing.
The Hidden Power: Silence
The silence is awkward if it's beyond four seconds. Right around the third second, people become curious about why you say nothing and focus on you again. If your audience is distracted, pausing for a few seconds is a good way to put yourself in the center.
Silence is unintuitive, especially when you suppose to talk. But it gives you and the audience time to think. When you present pieces of information back to back, people can't digest most of it. They can't internalize whatever they hear, especially when the talk includes sub-sections.
If you jump from one section to another without a pause, the audience cannot close the chapter in their minds and get confused. Pause for one or two seconds to make them think about what you said and allow them to connect the sub-chapter to the main subject.
Remember, the talk is about you; you also need to focus, and a second of silence helps you gain focus when you're distracted. Taking a slow, deep breath into your stomach relaxes and enables you to remember your next lines.
One caveat: don't overuse silence. As it grabs all the attention, it needs to be used wisely. That's why you must create the storyline to support that silence.
Connect the Dots in the Story
Most presentations have a main topic and sub-topics. We often hear, "There are four categories of X. Let's talk about them." Nothing is wrong with that if you have to present four categories of X. How you connect those four and the main topic is what matters.
The goal is to create a single message in listeners' minds—the key message of the talk. You must build the story around that message. Whenever there are sub-topics that give more details, you have to create good segues back to the main topic. These sub-topics are supportive ideas of the key message. Listeners should see the connections between them because they will try to connect those topics in their minds. Don't leave this job to them. They should spend their energy listening to you and understanding what you're talking about. They shouldn't build up the topic on their minds; you must connect the dots for them.
So, if you explain four sub-topics one by one, you have to create good segues while switching from one to another instead of taking big jumps between them. You have to connect all sub-topics to the main message. Creating a good story is challenging, and there are good books and tons of videos about it; I will leave it out of this post.
Having a good story gives you one more advantage. Once you create the storyline right and connect the dots, you don't have to worry about your notes anymore.
Never Read From Your Notes...
Unless you're rehearsing or you're such a professional speaker that people won't recognize that you're reading.
For example, newscasters read the news from a prompter, but we rarely notice. If you're not that professional, never read from your notes, regardless if your talk is in-person or online.
If you really need your notes, have a few keywords or short notes under your hand as a reminder.
In a well-prepared talk, you shouldn't need any notes at all. You have to build that confidence, and that requires rehearsal.
Rehearse, Rehearse, and Rehearse Once More
Rehearing is the best way to improve your presentation. There is no magic; practice makes it perfect.
I learned a few common rehearsal techniques from stage performers, which can also help you have effective rehearsals.
I remember we were preparing for a theatre play years ago. We first read the whole script with everyone reading their lines when their turn came. Then, we started working on small sections of the play and tried to improve that part (only that part) while still reading from the script. But we never did a full rehearsal before practicing sub-sections at least once or twice.
When it was time for the whole play rehearsal, we never stopped. We made mistakes and called them out but didn't take it from the top; we just kept going. We had to see the whole play to understand how to change or improve a single part without disrupting the theme or the main message. We did this again and again, and again and again—first, parts, then the whole.
Use the same while preparing for your talk. Start small—practice sub-sections of your talk. Once you're ready with all sub-sections, do a full rehearsal. While doing it, never stop in the middle and start from the top. Take note when you make a mistake and finish the rehearsal. Return to that mistake later, fix it, practice that subsection, and do another full rehearsal. Your rehearsal goal is to see and improve how the subsections help to build the key message.
In stage performances, people do a dress rehearsal: an all-in rehearsal with their stage dressings and all decor right before the show starts. Often while the audience is waiting at the door—do the same. Right before your show, do a dress rehearsal.
Now, it's understandable that there is so much you can do. You might feel overwhelmed, but you don't have to do it all at once. Actually, you shouldn't make all improvements at once.
One Step At A Time
Like every skill, improving public speaking takes time and a lot of practice. Your first preparation will take longer, but the next preparation will take less time once you learn the fundamentals. You will have many bad presentations but don't give up and focus on one and only one improvement each time. After a few talks, you'll already be much better than the majority.
Don't forget; if you make one improvement, you're already taking one step further than most of the population. And your first step should be deciding on the key message of your talk. The next steps are easier to follow.
P.S. If you need to present your innovative solutions to others, listen to this.