Preach!

Presenting for Geeks: 3 tips for perfect tech talks

Dirk Haun is an organiser of TEDxStuttgart and a frequent speaker at tech conferences, including ACCU, FrOSCon, FOSDEM, LinuxTag. This extract is taken from his eBook Presenting For Geeks, which was released by our sister publishing arm, Developer.Press.

As geeks, we tend to think that a presentation is all about the content. We put all that we know about a topic on to the slides and then dump it on our audience. It may come as a surprise to you, but a presentation is not really about the content, or at least content is not the most important aspect. The most important part of a presentation is - your audience.

#1 Know your audience

When the audience is at the centre of your presentation, it should be obvious that you need to see things from their perspective. What does your audience know about your topic? What is their skill level? Do you need to explain to them that PHP is a scripting language or can you make a joke about an obscure bug in PHP 5.4 and they will get it?

It‘s also important to understand what they expect from you and your presentation. For example, is it meant to be purely informational or do they expect you to show them a solution to a very specific problem that they have?

Keep in mind that even when speaking to three Java user groups within one week, they will all have a different mix of personalities and skill levels. So what works for one audience doesn‘t necessarily work for another, even if they seem similar at first.

#2 The curse of knowledge

When you are familiar with a topic, it can be very hard to imagine not knowing all about it and seeing things from the perspective of someone who‘s new to the topic. Speakers often assume that the audience already has some knowledge of the topic, and as a result they end up speaking about a specialised issue which will go over the audience‘s head. This effect is known as The Curse of Knowledge, you need to overcome it in order to deliver an effective presentation. To overcome The Curse of Knowledge, you can adapt a trick that is normally used for problem solving.

When you are working on a problem and you‘re stuck, it often helps to simply try to explain it to someone who doesn‘t know anything about the topic. You will find that you will have to break down the problem into smaller pieces for them. The trick is that in decomposing the problem and forcing yourself to see it from a new perspective, you will gain new insights, which often leads to a possible solution. The same approach also works when you are thinking about the audience for your presentation. What do you know about them? What do they know about your topic? Do you happen to know someone from your potential audience personally? Now imagine that you‘re explaining your topic to them.

As with the problem solving trick, you don‘t actually have to talk to a real person, you only have to imagine it. If all else fails, try to explain it to the next available stuffed animal.

#3 The elevator pitch

You‘ve probably heard about the Elevator Pitch. You happen to meet an influential person in an elevator and you now have the length of the elevator ride to pitch your idea to this person, hoping that it‘s something he or she is interested in (hopefully this makes the person act on your pitch).

As a presenter, you may think that since you are not really selling anything or you are not running a start-up that you don‘t need to know about this. So here‘s a more realistic scenario: You are at a conference where you are going to speak later in the day. During a break, you meet a fellow geek and you happen to mention your presentation. Can you summarise it in 30 seconds or less, before you are interrupted by an acquaintance of yours or your dialogue partner? Can you summarise it in a way that makes the other person want to come and listen to your presentation?

Even if that never happens, preparing an elevator pitch for your talk will help you to focus on your core message. If you can‘t summarise your own presentation in 30 seconds or less, chances are that you haven‘t really thought it through.

Dirk Haun

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