How to Practice a Technology Talk

June 27, 2010

Technology conferences combine two very disparate skills: code and public speaking. I code, and I’ve also presented at nine different tech conferences in the past two years, across the US and internationally, with an average audience of about 140 people per talk. Each time I try to tweak the way I practice to maximize the quality of the presentation while minimizing preparation time and effort.

In the beginning, I wasn’t great. Now I’m much, much better. I attribute a large part of the improvement to better practice methods. The standard advice on giving a good presentation is “Practice, Practice, Practice.” But nobody says how to practice. This is what works for me:

Practice Fast

Long distance runners have a training technique called “Fartlek” which means “speed play” in Swedish. A Fartlek workout consists of running at a normal pace with sudden bursts of sprinting. This does two things: 1) it gets the runner’s legs used to a variety of different paces, and 2) it simulates high-pressure race conditions, such as when a runner needs to kick to the finish to beat an opponent.

There are benefits to practicing a presentation at a fast pace as well. If you have a 50 minute presentation, try to speed through it in just 5 minutes. Speak quickly, be brief, drop any extraneous chatter, but make sure to hit all of your important points.

Practicing at 10x the normal speed has three benefits:

Practice Slow

Novice guitar players often try to learn a complicated solo by playing it over and over as quickly as possible. Counter-intuitively, this isn’t the optimal way to learn a solo. Experienced guitarists know that the best way to really hone something is to practice slowly. Very slowly. Like one-half or one-third normal speed. This forces each note to be clean, clear, and deliberate.

Again, this same principle applies to presenting. Run through your presentation as slowly as possible. Talk a little more slowly, exhaust every point, use metaphors, embellish your language, phrase things in different ways, etc. Draw things out as much as possible.

Practicing your talk at slow speed has three benefits:

Practice Out Loud

Reading your presentation silently, or whispering quietly at a desk, is not effective practicing. Practicing should be a dress rehearsal. You actually need to stand up, walk around, gesture, and project your voice to a pretend audience.

Practicing out loud has three benefits:

How Long Should You Practice?

Two years ago, I budgeted 15 minutes of practice for every minute of presentation time. This does not account for time outlining the presentation or making slides, just practice time. Now, I’m down to a ratio of 5 minutes of practice for every minute of presentation.

I try to have the slides done four days to a week in advance, and then alternate between practicing at fast, normal, and slow speeds, depending on how much time I have, and always out loud. I also spend more time on the introduction and first few slides, because a smooth start carries through to the rest of the talk.

Last Minute Preparation

On the day of the presentation, I follow roughly the same routine:

Finally, when I start, I try to give the presentation room to be an interactive, two way exchange of energe. I let the audience know they should interrupt for questions, and I stop for questions at the end of every section.

Good luck!

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