Giving Good Talk

I was at Frozen Perl this last weekend, and listening to some of the speakers inspired me to write about giving a good tech talk. I also speak at a lot of conferences, and these are tips I (try to) follow for my own talks. If you’ve seen me speak and think I did a good job, then these tips may be valuable to you. If you think I did a bad job, you can stop reading now.

I’m writing about a specific type of talk here. Most tech talks fall into the category of “here’s a thing you should know about”. That thing might be a project or tool (Moose, Perl 6, Catalyst), or maybe a technique or concept (how to reduce memory usage, unit testing). Typically these talks run between 20 and 50 minutes. If you are doing a tutorial, this advice is not for you, because a tutorial is a different beast.

My number one piece of advice is to give an overview! Speakers often fall into the trap of telling people way too much. Short talks (as opposed to classes or tutorials) are a really shitty way to teach something, but they’re a great way to introduce something. Your goal is to provide attendees with information that lets them decide whether they want to learn more.

A few more pieces of unsolicited advice:

  • Introduce the project or concept. “Unit testing is about writing automated tests for each piece of your system, in isolation.” It’s funny how some folks forget that their audience may know nothing about the topic.
  • As a corrolary, make sure you define (potentially) new concepts clearly - “By automated, I mean the tests themselves are programs, and can be run with a single command. You could run them from cron and report any failures via email.”
  • Tell people what problems this thing solves. “Unit testing makes it easier to refactor existing code with confidence.”
  • Also tell them what problems it doesn’t solve. “Unit testing alone will not ensure that your code meets user requirements.”
  • Show some some details, and allude to the rest. “Here is an example of Test::More from CPAN. You can see the use of the ok() and is() functions. (explain those two). There are many more functions in Test::More, and many more useful test modules on CPAN such as Test::Exception and Test::Output.”
  • Do not go into detail on every little option and feature. This seems to be an easy trap to fall into. Don’t do it. It’s incredibly boring, and you’ll never finish explaining everything in the time you have available.
  • Time yourself! So many speakers get through half their slides, or get through all of them in half their time and then look dumbfounded. You don’t need a stopwatch, just look at the clock. If you’ve presented a couple times, you may notice that you tend to have an average time per slide. I’ve noticed that my own time is approximately 1 minute per slide.

Have your own advice? Write a comment or your own blog entry.


Nery, on 2009-02-16 00:00, said:
Thanks for the information.

I think that you’re very accurate when you say that a Talk is a very good way to introduce something.


Adam Kennedy, on 2009-07-25 12:03, said:

I’ve noticed that my own time is approximately 1 minute per slide.

13 seconds for me :)