The Secret Sauce, Ep. 09: Effective Presentation Strategies

Larry "Crell" Garfield speaks at conferences, a lot. And with all of these speaking engagements comes a vast amount of knowledge on what works and what doesn't. He shares his top tips and tricks to get the most out of delivering your presentations at conferences and camps – and to ensure your audience is completely engaged and sings your praises during and after.

Larry "Crell" Garfield speaks at conferences a lot. And with all of these speaking engagements comes a vast amount of knowledge on what works and what doesn't. He shares his top tips and tricks to get the most out of delivering your presentations at conferences and camps – and to ensure your audience is completely engaged and sings your praises during and after.

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Transcript

AM: Hi and welcome back to this week’s Secret Sauce, a short podcast by Palantir.net, that offers a quick tip on some small thing you can do to help your business run a little bit better.

I’m Allison Manley, an Account Manager here at Palantir, and today’s advice comes from Larry Garfield, who is sharing his thoughts on how to give a fantastic presentation at your next conference.

LG: Hi, this is Larry Garfield, Senior Architect and Community Lead with Palantir.net, and today I’m going to be talking about presenting at conferences.

I present at a lot of conferences. It’s part of what I do, [and] I enjoy it. It’s part of a service to the community, I think. I enjoy the teaching process, and I try to encourage other people to as well, because it’s a great opportunity for the presenter to learn. If you’re interested in presenting at a conference — whether it’s at a Drupal event, a PHP event, an industry event, doesn’t matter — there are a couple of guidelines to keep in mind when formulating a talk you want to give.

First and foremost, it needs to be a topic you care about. If you are bored with the topic, the audience will be bored with the topic too. No presenter can make a topic they are bored about interesting. So start with a topic that excites you, that you’re interested in talking about, that you’re interested in sharing knowledge about. The mindset you want to be in when presenting is, “I know this really cool thing. I understand this really cool concept, and I want you to share it with me.” I want the audience to get as excited as I am. That’s a good baseline for presenting.

It helps if it’s something you’ve learned recently. That way it’s fresh in your mind, and just like writing documentation, you still understand the component pieces of it, you haven’t fully internalized whatever the topic is. I actually find it much more difficult to speak on topics where I’m an expert than topics where I’m an intermediate because once you fully internalize a subject, it’s harder to break it down and explain it to a novice. So something you’ve learned just recently can be very helpful.

It can also be helpful to expect to learn as part of the talk. Good example here: one of my more popular presentations is on functional programming in PHP. When I first pitched that talk, I only had a slight idea of what I was talking about, to be perfectly honest! I had some understanding of the concepts, I had some understanding on how to apply them. But forcing myself to structure my own thoughts, forcing myself to look at it and say, “ok I get this, now how would I teach this to someone else?” really helped me to internalize a lot of the concepts that I cover in that talk.

Also bear in mind who your audience is going to be. Often times you can’t really predict that, but what audience do you want to have? Do you want to have a room full of developers? That’s fine. Do you want to have a room full of site owners and admins? That’s fine. Do you want to have a room full of business people? That’s fine. But think about who you want to be speaking to, and then target not just your presentation, but your description, your session submission, for that audience. That will help get the right people in the room.

So now you’ve got a session that you know you want to do, you’ve got a topic you’re excited about, that you’re going to learn about . . . you know you’re going to learn in the process. Now how do we put together the presentation itself? There are a lot of different ways of doing that, a lot of different advice you’ll see. The most important, I find, is know upfront what narrative structure you want to have. Is that going to be a chronological story? It might be. Is it going to be just chapters, where essentially your entire presentation is four or five bullet points to expand on at length, That’s fine, I’ve given those. Are you going to build up to a point? That’s fine. None of these are wrong, but know which one you want to take. Are you going to make a point and then build on it to make a next point, and build on it to make a next point? Or are you going to just have, hey, here’s eight points [and] we’re going to go through them in order?

One thing I do see some presenters do is the classic, “here’s what we’re going to talk about, now I’m talking about it, and here’s what we just talked about it.” I actually find in most cases that comes off more stilted than helpful. Certainly the concept of setting the stage for a presentation is helpful, and having a closure and conclusion is helpful. But making that so explicit and formal actually comes off very stilted and very clumsy.

One of the best examples here is having a framing story. I saw a presentation just recently where the presenter was talking about the process of debugging in code and started off with a story of this bug that he had in a system he was working on at one point that noone could figure it out, but it was a fun story. It got people engaged, it gave people something to think about it. Then he went through the process of debugging and tools for debugging and ways of thinking through a problem to figure out where the problem might be. And then he closed with, “and here’s what the actual bug was.” And it turned out to be one of those bugs that once you see it you’re like, “oh my god! How did we let that happen?” But people can relate to it! But it’s not just, “and here’s what we talked about.” Having a connection with the audience both at the beginning and at the end of the talk is crucially important. You want them to have a reason to listen. Hook them in early with your narrative structure and they’ll stay with you for the rest of the talk.

Good luck!

AM: Thank you Larry. That’s the end of this week’s Secret Sauce! For more great tips, follow us on twitter at @palantir, or visit our website at palantir.net. Have a great day.