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:
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:
Just like a Fartlek workout, it simulates a high-pressured environment. This mimics the panic that you sometimes feel on stage, and gives you an opportunity to get used to it and overcome it. Moving through your talk in fast-forward helps you internalize the order of your points, allowing you to transition more smoothly on presentation day.
It quickly highlights what is important and what is not. You are forced to streamline in order to meet the new time constraints.
It will allow you to recover more smoothly from a late start, technical glitches, or a long question earlier in your presentation. When you can give your entire talk at warp speed, you are ready for anything.
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:
It helps you find useful metaphors. By stretching out your talk, you are forced to brainstorm for new, creative ways to phrase things. Some of those new ways will be better than what you currently have.
It reveals rabbit holes. Some presentations contain small asides or tangents. This is fine, as long as they remain small asides. But in the nervousness of presenting, there is a tendency to turn that small aside into a deep rabbit hole, completely derailing the presentation. It’s important to identify the potential rabbit holes early so that you don’t fall down them on presentation day.
It will allow you to extend your talk if necessary. An earlier speaker may have already covered parts of what you wanted to say, or the audience may have fewer question than you anticipated. Practicing at slow speeds allows you to adapt.
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:
Train your emotional energy. Unlike normal conversation, a presentation is mostly a one-way exchange of emotional energy. A polite audience is silent and still. When you are speaking to an audience, you need to get comfortable providing all of the emotional energy for a sustained period of time. The best way to prepare is to get comfortable talking to an empty room.
Acclimate your voice and body to speaking loudly and clearly. Many of the symptoms that we blame on “nervousness”, (dry mouth, tight throat, breathlessness, etc.) are really just the physical demands of presenting.
Get comfortable moving around. A speaker who stands still behind a podium is visually boring. Moving is an easy way to add variety to your presentation, and a good way to feel in control, like the master of the stage. It’s important to practice purposeful movement in advance because you can’t think about it too much during your presentation.
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.
On the day of the presentation, I follow roughly the same routine:
Sit with good posture before the talk. This sounds weird, but it helps maximize oxygen to the lungs and brain.
Set up a little early if possible, and then walk to both for sides of the stage, looking out at the audience. It gives me a chance to adjust to the size of the room.
Chat with somebody in the front row for the last minute or two before its time to start. It gets the words flowing.
Carry around a cup of water while presenting. Keeps you hydrated, and also makes things feel less formal.
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.