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Andy Lester explains why you career will benefit from public speaking, and how to get started.

If you need a great way to improve your social skills and hirability, give a talk at a local user group meeting or technical conference.

As geeks, our lives revolve around information and knowledge. I suggest that there’s no higher calling for a working geek than to share his or her knowledge with others.

Learning to speak in public will also help your self-confidence, and the need will likely come up in your business life. At some point, you’ll probably have to give a presentation to other people in your company, and it will be much easier if you’ve had practice beforehand.

You’ll also be better at job interviews if you’ve practiced speaking in public. An interview is just a presentation: Your goal in an interview is to give knowledge to an audience, even though in an interview the knowledge you want to impart is how you’ll be a great employee for the company, and the audience is typically only a handful of people at most.

A fantastic place to practice your speaking is your local geek user group meeting. Every user group needs speakers for meetings. Don’t worry about whether you’ll have a venue. Instead, make sure you come up with an interesting topic with an interesting angle.

What Are You Going to Talk About?

The most important aspect of your talk is the topic, and how interested in it you are. Your enthusiasm about the topic is the single biggest factor in how successful you’ll be. If your topic isn’t interesting to you, then you’ll do a terrible talk. You’ll be bored and disinterested, and your audience will know that. Worst of all, your talk will be boring, and that’s the worst thing that can happen.

Finding a topic to talk about shouldn’t be hard. Presumably you’re doing something with technology that interests you, either during your day job or at home. What have you done that’s interesting to you that’s related to technology or your target audience? When you meet a friend for dinner, what story do you tell about what you’ve been doing? Here are some ideas:

  • Spent two months in Indonesia, India, or Iowa as a consultant

  • Converted a homemade CMS to Drupal

  • Learned Ruby as your first dynamic language from a Java background

Don’t worry if your topic is not universally interesting. There’s nothing universally interesting. If it’s cool to you, that’s all that matters.

The All-important Angle and Title

Now that you have a topic, there must be an angle. The angle is the unique aspect of your topic that will spark interest in potential audience members. Without an angle, your topic will sound as interesting as a man page. With the angle, there’s a story to be told. What was the twist on your story? For example, it might be:

  • Iowans are very different from New Yorkers, in everything from how they have lunch to how they comment their code.

  • Converting to Drupal let the marketing department do website updates in half the time.

  • I had to learn Ruby to save my job when my company was bought out.

Once you have the angle, that needs to come out in the title of the talk. There must be something to draw in the potential consumer of your knowledge. The title needs to encapsulate your angle as well as the general topic of the talk. For example:

  • “Culture Shock while Consulting in Iowa”

  • “Two Months to Automate 50,000 Pages of HTML: I Survived and You Can Too”

  • “From Java to Ruby: How I Saved my Job and Learned to Love Yield”

This rule for titles is even more important if the talk you’re proposing is for a conference. At a conference, a potential listener is probably faced with a half-dozen choices on a schedule grid, with nothing more than your name and the talk’s title to help her decide whom to go listen to.

Preparing Your Talk

When you are given a programming project, it’s a mistake to fire up a text editor and start cranking out code. There’s design and planning to be done beforehand. It’s the same with preparing for a talk. It’s a mistake to fire up Keynote or PowerPoint and start creating slides. If you don’t know what you’re going to say, how can you create slides for it? You need to design and plan what it is you’re going to say before you worry about any visual aids.

Your slides are the least important part of your talk. Slides are not the primary source of information. If slides were all that was important, you could simply upload a slide deck to Slideshare and wouldn’t have to stand in front of a group to talk about the topic.

You also must be able to do your talk without slides, for two reasons. First, you must know the material well enough that you can talk about the topic without reading the content from the slides. If you don’t, you’ll use the slides as a crutch and your talk will be boring. Second, it’s entirely possible that you will be forced to give your talk without your slides. Murphy’s Law and the fickleness of technology make it all too likely that you won’t be able to use the slides anyway. If you realize ten minutes before your presentation in California that you left your Macbook’s VGA dongle back in Illinois, and you’re presenting at an all-Windows company, you’re going to do the talk without slides. Not that I speak from experience or anything....

However, you should still plan to create a slide deck as part of your presentation. It will help organize your thoughts and give you a way to gauge the length and pacing of your talk. Just don’t worry about it now.

The Thesis Statement of Your Talk

Before you create any work on the talk, know what you want the user to come away with from your talk. You should have a thesis statement like “When my talk is over, the listener will have basic knowledge in choosing an open source CMS” or “the listener will get an overview of the sorts of cultural differences consultants have to deal with.”

What you don’t want to aim for is giving a lot of technical details. You’re not going to be reciting a technical manual, and people should not feel obligated to scribble down every detail. If you think you’re going to do ten minutes on all the various command line options for find or an exhaustive exploration of functions in a library, stop. Far better to talk about cool things that find can do, give examples, and handwave the particulars.

Creating Your Outline

Start with an outline of everything you want to say. Don’t go more than two levels deep. Just dump everything you could want to say, without editing. The time for editing will come later. Trying to prune down your ideas for the sake of length is premature optimization.

Here’s an example. Think of each level-1 bullet as a section, level-2 bullets are topics, and level-3 bullets are detail.

  • Introduction

    • Who I am

    • What the listener will get out of hearing me

  • My task

    • The problem

      • 50,000 pages

      • Non-standard HTML

      • ...

    • The constraints

      • Open source

      • Runs on Linux

      • ...

  • Research

    • Drupal

      • Huge developer community

      • ...

    • Joomla

      • (all about Joomla)

    • Movable Type

      • ...

    • ...

    • What we decided to use and why...

  • Implementation...

  • Wrap-up

    • How it went

    • What we learned

That bullet “Introduction” should be brief and attention-grabbing. Start out your talk with a brief hello and then a brief grabber of why the listener shouldn’t just drop off to sleep right away. For example, you might start out with:

“Hi, I’m Bob Smith, and as part of my job I had to choose an open source CMS to replace our ancient 50,000-page hand-coded website. I spent a month researching the choices including Drupal, Joomla, WordPress, and Movable Type. Management loved the results, and we saved $42,000 in personnel costs in the first six months. Here’s how I did it.”

In fact, the introduction to your talk is a lot like the paragraph or two that your user group will send out to advertise it.

The sections of your outline should be of similar length to each other, so you don’t have one big long section and a bunch of little short ones. When you give the presentation, there should be a rhythm to how you speak, so that you talk for a while and dump information, and then the audience gets a little rest. These rests might be time for fielding questions, or maybe a wrap-up at the end of a section. Think of it as a landing at the top of a flight of stairs. Climb climb climb, rest, climb climb climb, rest. Too much climbing and your audience will get weary.

Once you have an outline, you’re ready to start working on your slide deck. And here’s where I give my audience—that is, you—a rest. In next month’s column, I’ll discuss preparing slides, presenting your talk, and how to handle the biggest fears about speaking.

Andy Lester has developed software for more than twenty years in the business world and on the Web in the open source community. Years of sifting through résumés, interviewing unprepared candidates, and even some unwise career choices of his own spurred him to write his nontraditional book on the new guidelines for tech job hunting. Andy is an active member of the open source community, and lives in the Chicago area.