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Nitya Narasimhan, Ph.D for Let's Sketch Tech!

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Want to be a better public speaker? Learn to sketchnote!

The Backstory

Earlier today, I was scanning Twitter, when I saw this post. The question was a familiar one.

In fact, the topic of helping under-represented folks step up on tech stages everywhere is core to the mission of Global Diversity CFP Day. And since its inception in 2018, I've been part of the team that runs the New York City event! Our call to action is to #MakeTheTalkHappen. So I weighed in on the tweet with suggestions, including this one:

In this post, I want to dive deeper into what I meant by that.

Chalk The Talk: Visualize Your Story!

If you follow me on Twitter or, you might know that I am a huge fan of visual storytelling. In fact, if you want to read or subscribe to those articles, just follow the #sketchthedocs tag.

Sketchnoting is about visual note-taking.

It's about taking verbose documentation or conversation and distilling it down into a concise form (a sheet of paper) using images, text, layouts, colors and other cues that help facilitate understanding and recall.

Public speaking is about interactive communications

It's about making a complex concept understandable to a diverse audience in a constrained amount of time using slides (content), interactive elements (code) and your unique perspective and flow (conversation) to connect the dots.

Both focus on storytelling under constraints

In both cases you are dealing with communicating ideas in a memorable way (drawing, speaking) - but with constraints (canvas space, session time) that require you to really think about what you want to say and how you want to say it.

Visual note-taking helps your public speaking journey

The talk walks through various examples of visual note-taking and provides a quick sketchnoting tutorial. However the core message comes down to this: Visual note-taking can help you become a better public speaker in three ways!

Chalk The Talk: The 3 Takeaways

Here is the sketchnote for my talk. I created this some time before my presentation. And if you watch the video, you will find some differences in flow or content - but the core messaging will be clearly identifiable.

Sketchnote of my talk

Here's how sketchnoting helps me be a better public speaker:

1 - Plan It / Before The Talk

Before I even do a single slide, I first jot down what I want to talk about on a sheet of paper - just like the sketchnote above. It helps clarify my thinking and construct the worflow.

Then I move those points onto index cards.

  • I use the lined side to write down impromptu speaker notes, and the blank slide to write down the key message, ideally with an image and few words.
  • I try to organize everything into piles of threes - start with "What, Why, How", then break each topic into 3 more cards that dive into detail - until I have a tree.
  • I look at the time I have for the talk, assume 1 minute per slide - and know the total number of slides I need. If I have more, then I need to cut the time I allocate to a slide or I need to cut the slide itself.
  • The tree helps me decide which node to eliminate or simplify to keep my time under control, while still keeping the structure and flow intact.
  • I stick up the index cards (in this grid or tree format) somewhere where I can see it every day for the next few days. I might move a card around, add a card or change contents - but with each day, my mind is subconsciously forming the story and getting familiar with the flow I need to have.
  • I make my slides just days before the event - at a point where I know I won't change the content or flow, and I just need to translate index cards into digital slides. (And yes, there are lots of free icons, images and quotes sites to help you make the transfer more effective)
  • And then I just absorb the new visuals and practice the flow in my head. The final slides don't even matter as much. By then, my mind knows what it wants to say, when, and how! The slides are just the backdrop to the dialog.

Here's what my index cards looked like, before I made slides for my talk.

Shows index cards with hand-drawn slides

2 - Share It / After the Talk

But wait. You are not done! Giving the talk is one thing, but getting people to recall it later, or follow through on action items, is harder.

Visual notes can help. In the noisy social engagements that happen at conferences, a tweet with a visual sketchnote stands out like a beacon. And people not only see it - they engage with it. It has happened to me every time

There is something in every human being that appreciates creativity. And when they engage, they also remember the image and the context. And that helps you not only build your personal brand, but ensure that the takeaway message they see last, is yours!

This is how I shared my talk slides during the conference, right after my talk. Bonus: I scheduled it (using Tweetdeck) so it posted automatically even as I was still speaking, so I could actually reference it for those who asked for links

Think about it. After your read this article, go back and scan my sketchnote. Does it make more sense? Are you more likely to remember that picture than all these words?

3 - Practice It / During others' talks

The most common excuse I hear (when I try to get people to sketchnote) is this: _"I can't draw. I am not artistic."

If you listen to the talks from this conference you will realize that none of the speakers consider themselves art experts. Rather, the focus is on self-expression and creativity with a focus on sharing ideas and perspectives. And there is only one requirement. Practice. Yes, practice! practice! practice!

So how do you practice? You listen to others talks and sketchnote them. Then share those sketchnotes at the relevant conferences. This will give you three core tools that help your visual storytelling journey:

  • Rapid Note-Taking. Taking notes in real-time will soon get you into the habit of using shorthand, or learning what to capture and what to leave out. And, you'll start understanding how to space or layout your notes to use the constraints or paper size or digital canvas most effectively.
  • Speaker Workflows. Sketchnoting others' talks will help you start seeing the patterns that experienced speakers use, to ensure they cover a topic in a way that is clear and memorable. You will begin to understand ways to structure your "index cards", or create visual cues that help connect the storyline at various points.
  • Brand Building. Chances are you will attend events that you hope to speak at one day. Sharing sketchnotes of others talks during these events gives you visibility and drives meaningful connections with attendees that can make a difference. If you are breaking into a new tech community, having familiar faces and a sense of belonging can give you the boost of confidence you need when you step on the stage yourself.

Here's an example of how I listened to someone else's talk and used it to practice a new sketchnoting skill, that also helped create a new asset for my own talk

I wrote this post in the spur of the moment. I hope it helps and I hope you get a chance to watch the talk or see the examples in the slides below - and then share your comments and feedback with me right here.

Resources: Video & Slides

You can grab the slides here, on Speakerdeck:

And you can watch the talk here, on YouTube:

LetsSketchTech: The Conference

If you are interested in visual storytelling tools, tips and techniques - definitely check out the talks from the inaugural Lets Sketch Tech event here on YouTube

Screenshot showing thumbnails of videos from LetsSketchTech conference

They were each so compelling that I intend to share my sketchnotes and learnings from them over the course of the next few weeks. The lessons learned stand the test of time, and the speakers are amazing!

LetsSketchTech: The Community

The conference is just the start. The real value was finding a community of like-minded people to learn from, and journey together with as we explore ideas. I am delighted to say that the community is now also on! This is my first article published under that organization.

I hope you will hit that follow button ⬆️ to get more articles and meet more creative technologists. And, perhaps even share your own visual storytelling journey, tips or tricks soon.

Feedback: Very Meta!

Anytime you give a talk, it's the feedback that tells you how much the topic resonated, and what people took away from it. When you speak at an event like this one, you get visual feedback too - in sketchnotes. The feeling is indescribable and I am grateful.

Here is what the community took away from this talk! I hope it was useful and I treasure any feedback that can help make this more valuable for others.

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