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Advice for speakers

I am not an expert at public speaking. Attending Toastmasters to improve my speaking skills is on my todo list. However having given hundreds of talks over the course of about 14 years and being paid for giving talks (the minimum criteria to claim to be a professional speaker) I think I can offer some useful advice, at least in regard to giving talks for free sofware audiences. I will cover some really basic things in this post, so experience speakers will find some of them obvious.

The most important thing of course is to know your topic really well. You can skip every other piece of advice and still do reasonably well at any Linux Users Group meeting if you know your topic well enough. Of course if you want to talk at a conference then taking some of the following advice would be useful.

Record your talk, it is useful to review the recording to learn from mistakes. Don’t worry too much about saying “um” or other common speaking mistakes – it takes a lot of practice and effort to avoid such things. When recording your talk record it from the start of the introduction (you never know when the person introducing you will say something particularly flattering ;) until after you have left the podium. It’s not uncommon to have question time, to thank the audience for their attention after the questions, and to then have another round of 15 minutes of questions afterwards. The only time when you can confidently stop recording at the scheduled end of your talk is when there’s someone scheduled next.

For recording a talk an iRiver is a good device to use. An iRiver will create and play MP3 files, and it’s not particularly expensive nowadays. Apparently some of the newer iRivers are polluted by DRM, I haven’t verified this myself though.

After your talk review the MP3 you made as soon as possible. You will always find mistakes in such a review, don’t be concerned about minor ones (everyone makes small mistakes when on a podium, unless you are famous enough to get media interest a few small slips don’t matter). If you make a significant mistake or if you were unable to answer some questions then you can send email or make a blog post about it later. You probably won’t remember most of what happens during your talk so your recording is the only way to follow up on questions (if you tell someone in the audience to ask you a hard question via email they won’t do it).

Summarise all questions during the Q/A part of the talk. This means that everyone in the audience will know what was asked, and also your recording of the talk will have a copy (usually an iRiver mic doesn’t cover the audience).

Before giving a talk learn as much about the audience as possible, and feel free to ask for advice from people who know something about the audience and people who are experts on the topic. The most important thing to learn is the expected skill level of the audience including the range of skills. Often when giving a talk about a technical topic it’s impossible to make all people in the audience happy. You will have a choice between making things too simple and boring the most experienced people or explaining the technical details and having the less experienced people be unable to understand. Sometimes due to the combination of topic and audience you will get 10% of the audience walk out regardless of which choice you make. You can’t please everyone.

Caffeine can help you stay alert enough for a talk. In email and even in IRC there is time to stop and think. When giving a lecture to an audience answers are expected immediately. In the space of about 5 seconds you want to compose an answer for any question that gets thrown at you or determine that it’s something that needs more consideration and has to be answered via email.

One of the problems you face when giving a talk is going through the material too quickly because of being nervous. If you feel that happening to you then drinking some water or your favourite fizzy drink is a socially acceptable way of taking a few seconds to compose yourself. Asking for questions from the audience is another way of getting a talk back on track if you have started going through the material too fast. Also if you are in the audience and observe this happening then try and interject some questions to get things back on track, it doesn’t matter what the questions are, ask lame questions if necessary, anything to stop the talk from finishing too soon. I was once in the audience for a talk that was scheduled for 60 minutes and ended up taking about 5, it finished before I could even think of a question to ask. :(

I find that questions help to estimate how well the audience is following the presentation, and I prefer to take questions during my talk. Some people prefer to give a talk to a silent room and then take questions at the end. I think that preferences in that regard are determined by whether your speaking experience is based in universities that strictly enforce a code of conduct for lectures, or whether your speaking experience is based in LUGs where heckling from the audience is common.

Go to the toilet before giving a talk. Speaking for an audience is stressful and you never know when you might feel more nervous than usual. If consuming a caffeinated drink then you will have even more reason to go to the toilet before the talk. This is not a joke!

Having a copy of your presentation notes on a USB device (preferrably in multiple formats) is handy. It’s also convenient to have the device formatted with the VFAT filesystem. One time I had a lot of hassle from a Linux conference (that I won’t identify) due to the fact that the organizers only used Linux for servers. They wanted to print my lecture notes for all members of the audience and were unable to get a Windows machine to read my ext3 formatted USB device and then had problems with the OpenOffice file.

All my advice in this post is based on personal experience. Don’t feel afraid about public speaking because of these things. Everyone makes mistakes when starting out and even experienced speakers have talks go wrong on occasion. Also keep in mind that a talk which seems to have failed when you are on the podium might get great reviews from the audience. The aim of a technical lecture is to impart information about the technology, you can achieve that aim even if you make some mistakes in the presentation.

PS Please give talks for your local LUG. They need speakers and it’s a good way of gaining speaking experience in a friendly environment. Remember, they heckle you because they like you. ;)

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