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Tanya Janca for Microsoft Azure

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Presentation Tips for Technical Talks

In the past two years I've given and watched several technical talks, and they are not all created equal. Recently I met with Teuta H Hyseni to talk about an upcoming talk she was planning (securing AI and ML, very interesting!), and afterwards I made several notes about general tips for technical talks that I have shared below.

  1. The first thing I always do is explain what the talk is about, so audience members know if they want to stay or go. If some people walk out it's okay, your talk wasn't for them anyway. For everyone else, it will reaffirm they are in the right room.
  2. Whenever you say the name of a product the first time, make sure you say it very clearly, especially if the audience's first language is not the same as the language you are giving your talk in.
  3. Always explain what every acronym means the first time you use it. If it is a core component of your talk, if it's not too clumsy, say the full name of it twice or even three times, throughout the talk. 
  4. If there is one new key concept that you want to audience to take away from your talk, explain it 3 times, in different ways. Abstract concepts are very difficult for people to learn at first, and explaining it a few different ways, and repeating it, will ensure that people learn it.
  5. If you put a bunch of words on the screen people will read it, as soon as you show the slide. They will not listen to you until you are done reading. So either use images and explain, then put text, or give the audience a few seconds to read what you wrote. Trust me, 90% of the audience will read the text and not listen, so change your slides accordingly.
  6. When you introduce yourself pronounce your name very clearly and slightly slowly, especially if it's a bit unusual/not common in the area you are presenting.
  7. Audiences tend to like stories that tie together technical points. If you are trying to tell them "Don't roll your own crypto" follow it up with a story about how disastrous it was when you saw it done. It helps drive the point home. Extra points if the story is funny or is very interesting or otherwise special.
  8. Try not to put too much on one slide, slides are free, just make more. 
  9. Ensure that your text is large enough for the audience to read, especially code. If possible, try to put your slides up on the big screen in advance, walk to the back of the room, and see if you can read your own slides.
  10. Remember that your audience is smart, but might not know your topic well, so try hard to explain what each part is, unless you are at a speciality/advanced conference on that topic. For instance, when I give security talks at developer conferences I always try to remember my audience is very smart, but they are not likely experts in security, so explain each point well, even the basic ones. I don't want to leave anyone in the audience behind, and neither do you.
  11. Put a summary slide at the end. People will likely take photos of it. If you see people with their cameras/phones up, try to give them enough time to take the photo(s) of your slide(s).
  12. If possible, use imagery to explain your concepts more clearly. Personally I'm weak in this area, but whenever I see someone else do it well I remember that I need to try harder to do that whenever possible. 
  13. If possible give explanations of why the audience should or should not do something. For instance: "do not feed machine learning systems data from the internet, it has to be clean", but what does "clean" mean? Instead we could follow that with "Clean datasets could include survey data, customer data, and data purchased from social media platforms".
  14. Practice to ensure you are approximately the correct amount of time. Factor in the fact that you will likely go a bit fast. Ending late or very early is not good, you don't want your talk to bleed into the next speaker's allotted time (that is very rude) and you also don't want the audience to feel they didn't get enough of you. If you go under, perhaps use that time for Q&A.
  15. Take a breath in-between each major point - so the audience has time to digest the info, and so that you can breathe. 
  16. If you see the audience's eyes sort of closing a bit, this likely means they are tired or their "brains are full". This might be from all the previous talks, or yours, but it likely means they are having trouble keeping up. It generally does not mean that you are boring. 
  17. If you see many people playing with their phones this can be good or bad. Sometimes they are taking notes or tweeting about you, but other times they are just distracted. If you happen to be good at telling jokes, this would be an ideal time to briefly stop and tell a joke, to get their attention back. This approach is not for everyone, and you have to know for sure that you are funny. A bad joke will potentially make people leave.
  18. Many people like to hear about where the future will go in your area of expertise, if you have some guesses, perhaps share them?
  19. Unless your talk is "an intro to xyz" or level 101, don't spend more than 10 minutes of your talk giving background on the topic. If I go to a cryptocurrency talk and they spend 30 of the 50 minutes talking about the origins of bitcoin, I'm going to play with my phone and wait for the talk to actually start. 
  20. If you feel comfortable, give a rough outline of your talk right at the start, then the audience knows what to expect. 
  21. If possible, have links from your talk to longer videos or blog posts that go deeper into specific topics. Even if the videos or blogs are not yours, if they are good, it's nice to give the audience more if they want more.
  22. At the end of your talk always say thank you (the audience could have done 100 other things with the time they just gave to you), and then pause to allow them to clap. Whenever a speaker doesn't give the audience a space to clap I always feel so awkward. Don't ask "Any questions" immediately at the end, allow the audience to thank you.
  23. Practice on someone you trust, get feedback, make adjustments, repeat. Do this until you know your talk is awesome and you will be a smashing success!

I hope you find these tips helpful!

For this and more, check out my book, Alice and Bob Learn Application Security and my online training academy, We Hack Purple!

Top comments (11)

dillionmegida profile image
Dillion Megida

Thank you Tanya.
I'm having my first technical talk this weekend and I'd say there couldn't be a better article than this sliding through my feed.

I'm going to consider all these with all I've learnt before and I am sure it's going to be a success.

If there's more, I'd honestly love you to add them.

shehackspurple profile image
Tanya Janca

Good luck!!! You're going to be great. :-D

britain profile image
Britain Green

Great tips Tanya! To add to #8, I've always heard it's best to keep keep 3-4 lines max per slide so people don't ignore you while they're trying to take in all of the information on the slide. What are your thoughts on this?

shehackspurple profile image
Tanya Janca

Definitely! "Less is more" has never been so true!

dmerejkowsky profile image
Dimitri Merejkowsky

Nice list of tips. I've made another post that complements yours nicely I think:

abhirockzz profile image
Abhishek Gupta

Thanks for sharing Tanya! :-)

ssimontis profile image
Scott Simontis

Late to the party on this one, but thank you! I give my first tech talk in two weeks and I am very nervous...your tips gave me some confidence to rock that presentation :D

shehackspurple profile image
Tanya Janca

Go forth and kick ass! You can do it!!!!!!!

layzee profile image
Lars Gyrup Brink Nielsen

Very valuable lessons!

fcastillo18 profile image
Franklin Castillo

I'm planning my first talk and these are the kind of advices I was looking for :)

yemanaung profile image
Ye Man Aung

Support for my account access issues permission for features.