Your topic has begun to take shape, you have a venue in mind, maybe you can even picture yourself onstage…it’s becoming real now!
When you think about the entire timeline for talk prep from start to finish, I’m guessing the bulk of your process will be spent on the writing stage. This may be obvious, but it’s worth saying: give yourself enough time to write the presentation, iterate, and gather feedback before officially giving the talk.
Almost all of the fears shared in my public speaking survey—fears like saying something wrong, missing the mark on what the audience wants, or fumbling onstage—can be alleviated with a healthy amount of preparation. Building in enough time lets you have the space (mental and temporal) to test and work things out with far less stress.
Your talk narrative and slide design will absolutely evolve, and the more you can dedicate to this part of the process, the faster you’ll find what works for you. This means not procrastinating (I’m sorry!). But if you devote the energy to starting early, you’ll have more time to craft an amazing narrative and ensure your message will resonate with your audience.
Coherency—avoiding word barf, being articulate—is a natural concern. Many survey respondents feared “not getting points across” or “being boring or rambling.” One person worried about “making the story flow well enough…finding the balance between helping people along and having them learn things on their own.”
Creating a solid structure for your content is the best way to guide your audience through your topic—structure helps set expectations for what’s next, strengthen your arguments, and keep folks more engaged. It also gives you a foothold if you lose your train of thought.
My friend Ed Davis taught me how to put together a presentation that tells a story. Early in drafting one of my first talks, I’d written what I thought was a decent deck: I’d listed the steps involved in making a website faster, with every point backed by plenty of technical detail—think lots of charts, lots of code samples. Ed had some gentle feedback: though the information was clear, he thought my message would better stick with my audience if I could walk them through the context—what made the work important. He suggested I take the audience on a narrative journey:
I’ll be honest: I didn’t think much of this new narrative. I was building a slide deck on techniques to improve page load time. Wouldn’t people—people who were choosing to see my talk—already know why performance was important? Why should I add the landscape, the bigger idea? Enough fluff—don’t people just want the how?
Thankfully, I decided to give this narrative structure a shot (uncomfortable feedback is often a gift—we’ll talk about that more in Chapter 5). Immediately, the presentation was so much better: the story helped draw in the audience, and the logical progression meant they could follow my flow and trust my arguments.
Developing this presentation structure also forced me to ask myself: Why am I even speaking to begin with? Nailing down the bigger idea—what I wanted the audience to leave with and think about after they went home—was crucial to making my presentation memorable.
This sample narrative structure won’t work for everyone, of course. You have plenty to pick from; a couple include incorporating a backstory or flashback, or following the Hero’s Journey. Your topic may work best with more case studies, graphs, or live demonstrations.
Whatever tack you take, think about the talks that have resonated the most with you. What kind of narrative or structure did the presenter follow? Why did it work so well? How did they make their arguments stick?
The most important part of your presentation is what happens after; use your presentation to lead your audience to both inspiration and concrete next steps.
Your slides serve two audiences: the crowd and you. You want your slides to help the audience best digest the information you’re sharing, but you also want to feel comfortable delivering your message.
Everyone has their own method of making a deck—some like to hammer out the exact words they’d like to say, others choose to use slides as a rough outline, adding notes as they go. Whatever your order of operations, I suggest making sure your narrative is ready before worrying too much about how it looks.
Slides act as visual support, set the pace, help you remember where you are in your narrative, and pique your audience’s interest.
The first step is figuring out what parts of your talk need visual reinforcement. Let’s start with the obvious: intros and titles, key points, transitions, resources, contact info, an end of talk thank you. Do you have info that’s best represented visually, like any charts, maps, code examples, before and after screenshots? Pop it on a slide. If you’re anxious about rushing through your talk, limit yourself to one major thought per slide for a more consistent rhythm. Choose text and/or imagery that cues up what you want to say.
The next step is focusing on how the audience digests your content—how your slides look is a major element:
A final note: slide design is very personal. Feel empowered to make choices about the presentation of your information that works best for you, the content, and the event. Don’t be afraid to try things out. I’ve seen half-hour talks that blast through hundreds of slides without the audience noticing, and others with five slides. Or zero slides. Your audience won’t be counting. Just ensure however you go about crafting them, your slides benefit both you and the people in the crowd.
While you’ll put your own spin on slide design, comprehension is still paramount. Triple-check your content is easy to see and scan—your audience shouldn’t have to spend more energy parsing tiny, low-contrast text than listening to your message.
Pay attention to typefaces and colors—too many of either can distract your audience. Use color accessibility tools, like Lea Verou’s Contrast Ratio, to verify your content is readable by people with color blindness or other visual impairments. Taking steps to improve readability will help everybody in an audience: test your slides from a distance to mimic sitting in the back row, staring at a projector. Can you read the text without issue?
Another element to consider is whether your event will have an interpreter, spoken or signed. In her post “Interpretation,” Anna Debenham noted ways to make their jobs easier:
Last but definitely not least, turn your critical eye to inclusivity. As the person onstage, you wield some influence—you can actively counter stereotypes, biases, and assumptions your audience (and you!) may have.
In a Technically Speaking webinar, Judith Williams shares a terrific checklist to vet your images:
This helps root out unconscious biases too. I’ve seen presentations filled with reaction GIFs of exclusively white people, or stock images of men in management and technical roles and women in customer service.
Apply the Williams test to the rest of your slide content: your case study examples, stories, user personas, etc. Please, please don’t conflate “moms” with “technology rubes”—avoid lines like, “So easy even a mom could understand!” Switch between “he” and “she” when you share hypothetical examples about people; better yet, stick with “they,” which works for both individuals and groups. Noninclusive rhetoric and imagery can be incredibly distracting, if not harmful.
Your job as a speaker is to make your slides and message accessible to your entire audience; take the extra time and care to ensure you’re using your influence well.
So you want to get a little impressive with your presentation, maybe take it to the next level? These next elements are definitely optional—use them at your own discretion, if at all. Remember, it’s up to you.
If it suits your content and style, you can add audio, transitions and animations, and live demos. In the public speaking survey, people wrote they feared having their demos fail or “making stupid coding mistakes” during their talk. There are some elements to technology that are out of your control, and getting fancier with your presentation may leave you more susceptible. Luckily, you have time to create backup plans should things go haywire (in Chapter 6, we’ll run through a technical checklist once you’re at the venue).
Aside from internet access, projector connections, etc., one big piece of prep is to sort out the timing of your slides. Some slide software slows down when you include animations or transitions, creating a delay when you click to advance. I’ve witnessed similar slowdowns when someone projects slides over a webcast or other video. Be sure to practice syncing your talk to your slides, and account for potential lags. If you’re aiming to work through a lot of slides fast, you might skip animations in your deck.
None of us do our work in a vacuum—it’s good web citizenship to promote others’ work, and to help your audience continue to learn after your presentation.
If you do a little homework before the conference, you can uncover which speakers have topics related to yours. Reference their names and talk times in a slide or two, and recommend that people check them out.
With even more preparation, you might contact those speakers early on how you can dovetail your narratives. For instance, when designer Yesenia Perez-Cruz and I were both speaking at the same event, we worked together to ensure we didn’t overlap in our content: she chose to focus on performance from a designer’s perspective, sharing real-life examples of weighing aesthetics and site speed, while I followed her talk with a deep dive into tactics for optimizing a site once the initial designs are done. By working together (however loosely), you can build on each other’s content or net your audience different spins on the same topic.
You might also amass a list of resources for audience members to browse post-talk. Share the list in a slide, and reference the link throughout your talk. I like to have a link to every tool, study, and article I cited or used as inspiration. I organize the links in chronological order (if I only have a few), or group them into subheadings like “Case Studies” and “Tools” (if I have a bunch). For extra credit, add links to helpful content that didn’t quite fit into your talk but is a terrific springboard if people want to explore deeper.
For each link, use bit.ly or another click-tracking service. This tidies your URLs, but better yet, you’ll be able to see which resources get more traffic after your talk. What is your audience interested in? This is one way to gather data that will help you measure your success and iterate on your presentation.
One last tip: at the top of the resources slide, I’ll host a copy of the slides, so everything is in one place. I like sharing the online version of my talk to hopefully reach and help a wider audience. Some conferences, and some presenters, aren’t comfortable having this information freely available. Do what works for you, your audience, and the event.
Just as your slides are an aid to your audience, your presenter notes are an aid to you. Use this private content to make you feel as comfortable as possible onstage. Your notes can take on a variety of styles; choose one that works for you. Some speakers include full sentences, and others stick with short phrases to jog their memory. Some use the presenter notes built into their slide software, and others write them down or read from a tablet.
Are you worried about forgetting your words? Include clues. If you’re just starting to practice your talk, there’s no harm in including everything you want to say or do. I’ve gone so far as to type reminders to click to advance the slide or trigger an animation. You can always trim your notes as you get more familiar with your presentation, and rely on them less and less. Worried about speaking too fast? Remind yourself to breathe! Give yourself lots of big pauses to help your future self take it easy on the stage.
Whatever your approach, make sure your notes are accessible and easy to read, like your slides. Preview how they look: check that the font is large enough, use short and easy-to-scan phrases or bullets, and don’t write so much you’ll have to scroll through them while onstage. Lean on them as little or as much as you’d like—and adapt them accordingly. Your notes are there to help appease your public speaking fears.
The goal of your presentation is to convey information—to make sure what you’re sharing lands, without distracting your audience. You have many opportunities to engage your audience and hold their attention—let’s look at a few ways to do so.
Humor can be a great tool—get people laughing, and they’ll probably be engaged with what you have to say. The right level of levity and timing can serve as a deep breath after a big drop of information, put people at ease, and help hold attention through to the end.
But humor can also be tough to incorporate and deliver; survey respondents definitely worried their jokes would fall flat. My personal presentation style is fairly poised; I sneak in a few subtle jokes, but delivering content like a stand-up comedian wouldn’t feel natural to me. Other speakers take on a rough-around-the-edges, funny persona, and the energy works with their style. Do what makes you feel the most comfortable and confident in sharing information with your audience.
If you choose to use humor, practice and run it by a few people to make sure the jokes (and GIFs!) land. If you include memes, triple-check where they originated and see if they carry additional meanings. I’ve seen well-meaning presenters incorporate memes with racist or sexist histories, and the presenters didn’t seem to have a clue about their context. Tread carefully; your best bet is to do your research and get feedback from a wide range of other perspectives.
My coworker Bill Massie is a phenomenal public speaker; he always keeps the audience enraptured and receives raucous applause. Fascinatingly, Bill breaks one of the major “rules” of public speaking every time he gives a talk: he reads from his notes. The key is when Bill speaks, he acknowledges his note-reading to the audience at the start. What might be a distraction works in his favor: he lets us know he knows he’s going against the “norm,” and we stop thinking about it.
Set expectations for your audience upfront, so they have their ears and brains open to your content. Some presenters share an agenda or intro slide that gives a quick overview of what they’ll cover. Some talk descriptions include a list of takeaways, so the audience knows what they’re in for and why they should attend. When possible, within the first few minutes of being onstage, I like to frame my talk as it relates to other speakers at the conference, explaining how my work contrasts with or builds on their topics. Keep your audience in mind as you craft your slides: What early expectations should you set for them?
Asking the audience questions helps inject jolts of energy. I open a lot of talks by asking people to raise their hands as I call out job titles, so I get a sense of how many identify as developers, designers, etc. I’ll find other sneaky ways of checking in throughout the presentation: “Does anybody spot the outlier on this graph?” During one talk, I asked the audience to tweet at me once they’d implemented the performance techniques I’d covered, promising to send a T-shirt to the person who sped up their site the most. Little interactions sprinkled throughout a talk helps significantly with keeping folks’ attention.
Time your delivery and make sure your content fits your talk slot. Whether you like to keep a quick pace or expound on each and every slide, getting the timing down absolutely takes work. It’s also your job: as a speaker at an event, you affect how the day is running. If you go over your allotted time, you’re pushing into the schedules of other speakers. (Or you might be the affected speaker—and organizers might ask you to help get the schedule back on track by going under.)
Do the work to ensure you’ll get your message across within your time onstage. Run through your slide deck. As you practice, note where you have flexibility: Which aspects could you spend more time on, or cut if necessary? You have control over how you divvy up your overall slot. The amount of time for Q&A, if you choose to do one, is almost always up to you; some speakers really enjoy answering a large number of audience questions after they’re done speaking, and others prefer a handful, or none at all. (We’ll talk more on ways to hold a Q&A session in Chapter 7.)
In my experience, going under time is fine. Sometimes I’ll answer more questions, or riff further on a closing idea. Or I’ll end the session a bit early, as people appreciate the extra buffer to take restroom breaks or network in the hallway track. Begin to learn your content well enough so that you can reference relevant sections during Q&A, and know which parts you can linger on or speed up if needed.
You’ve gone through a few practice rounds and are settling into your draft. It’s almost time to share your talk with others, but first take the opportunity to reflect and edit on your own. Revising a little now will help you determine what you truly want to say—so you can be more clear about your goals when you ask for feedback.
Here are some questions to ready your work for others:
Picture your future audience as you revise. When you were writing the talk, you might’ve pictured yourself or someone you know well listening and learning from your words. Now put yourself in your future audience’s shoes; they’re probably strangers to you, and it’s your job to do right by them. Will they enjoy your sense of humor? Will they understand why you think this topic is so important? Will they learn something new?
You may find yourself with some writer’s block at this stage. That’s okay! It can be hard to keep a level head as you time and iterate your talk ad infinitum—you get too close to the words and ideas. If you can, take some time away. Or do what I do when I get stuck: bring in others for a fresh perspective. Let’s clear the page, and talk about talking in front of other people.