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Your Presentation Sucks: A Guide To Better Developer Presentations Ted Carstensen

Giving a technical presentation is hard work, giving a great technical presentation is a serious challenge. Should you give a demo? Should you simplify your technical message for wider reach? Where do you find speaking opportunities?

I had the pleasure of speaking with Debbie Landa, CEO of Dealmaker Media, who organizes the popular GROW conference about what she feels makes a presentation great.

Three Common Mistakes

I asked Debbie to share the three most common mistakes she sees presenters make, here’s what she had to say.

1. Not Enough Practice

The most common mistake presenters make is not practicing nearly enough. You may have written the slides and designed the deck yourself, but until you stand up and practice you won’t know how effective your presentation actually is. Debbie sees this regularly, “they haven’t practiced, but they think they’ll be great.”

You may be an expert in your presentation topic, but if you don’t practice, you won’t look like an expert and you’ll lose your audience.

Heavybit recommends you first practice your presentation in the mirror to get comfortable with the slides and to define your presentation style. Next, you should present to a small group of friends and coworkers at least two weeks before you go on stage.

You need honest feedback about the flow of your presentation, what’s missing and what can be cut, and what you can do to improve your delivery including body language and ‘crutch words’. Debbie says speakers should “know exactly what they want to say, find the shortest way to say it, and then edit it again, and again.”

2. Complicated Slides

It’s incredibly easy to build a really great looking slide deck these days, but unfortunately it’s still as easy as ever to fill your slides with unnecessary or esoteric information. Debbie told me she see’s this all the time, “their slides have too many words, slides should just be pictures or simple statements.”

Take a look at the Heavybit slideshare catalog for an idea of what we push for in our own Speaker Series presentations.

Simple colors behind clear and easy to read fonts are critical. Your audience may be reading your slides from the back of the room, so you might want to rethink that 40% grey bulleted list in Helvetica Neue UltraLight.

3. No Charisma

Even the driest of topics can be made fun and interesting if the presenter invests the time needed to do so. Debbie says one of the strongest indicators of a bad presentation is when a speaker “is robotic when they talk.” Interesting and relevant anecdotes drawn from your own experiences are some of best ways to make an otherwise dry topic come to life.

You want your presentation to be memorable, and with a strong likelihood of your talk being filmed and put on the web, your investment in being charismatic and memorable will pay dividends.

Conference organizers considering your applications to speak will find your previous speaking gigs and they will watch, and they will judge. You don’t need to be Steve Jobs, but your audience should absolutely feel connected to you and your topic when you’re on stage.

Communicating Technical Topics

Simply because you’re talking about something very technical doesn’t mean you can’t communicate it clearly in a way that anyone can understand. Often “presenters want to believe what they’re doing is hard and complicated, to gain respect from their peers” Debbie says, “but that’s the opposite of what you should be thinking – if you can simplify your story so that anyone can understand, then you’ve reached your goal.”

“There’s always a real world analogy or metaphor that you can find to help audiences ‘get it’” says Debbie. A great example can be seen in this Heavybit Speaker Series presentation featuring Harrison Metal’s Michael Dearing. Michael takes the deeply complicated topic of pricing and effortlessly communicates it through the use of an easy to follow analogy of buying a kitchen appliance.

Demos

When gearing up to give a talk that features a live demo, there are some questions you need to ask yourself before you begin. Does your live demo provide actual value? Could you instead talk through a previously recorded screen capture or static slides?

I asked Debbie her thoughts on demos and she told me she typically discourages them “unless it’s a slam dunk, or you’re demoing a physical product doing something interesting.” In most cases “only the presenter thinks the demo is interesting.”

This is when your practice comes into play – does that group of friends and coworkers think the demo is effective? In most cases, the answer is no!

At Heavybit, when a demo is absolutely necessary, we strongly recommend pre-recorded demos. This allows you to practice the speaking portion of the demo while controlling for every other variable. Your demo can’t be sunk by poor internet connectivity, a missing closing bracket in your code, or a bug in production.

If you can reliably practice your pre-recorded demo, it will be wildly more effective than the average rambling and error-prone live demo.

Speaking Opportunities

For beginner speakers, it can be very difficult to find the right place to give your presentation. Debbie suggests local meetup groups, student organizations, or simply presenting internally to your company or small team.

If you’re not a seasoned presenter, you shouldn’t be applying to respected conferences. “They are running businesses and the main business they are in is ‘putting butts in seats’. If you don’t have cache, or come from a pedigreed company, you have no chance.”

For GROW, Debbie has a strong process to vet potential speakers. “I get on the phone with every speaker before I invite them and grill them with questions, I measure their reactions to gauge how I think they might do on our stage.”

Many times, the easiest way to get speaking gigs is to participate on panels, but Debbie feels panels “are generally terrible, because everyone wants to do them and you don’t have to prepare.” If you do plan to participate in a panel, you should practice as if it were a solo presentation, and you should do some research on the panel moderator.

“There are different kinds of speakers – the kind who are good at presenting alone, the ones who can do an interview or panel style talk, and those who are deeply curious and can moderate a panel or run an interview.” Find the right opportunity and start practicing!

If you’re considering moderating a panel, check out our How To Be A Great Panel Moderator guide.

Conclusion

Don’t let easy-to-fix problems sink your presentation, follow these simple pieces of advice to transform your mediocre presentation into something your audience will remember.

Check out the Heavybit Library for great educational talks from seasoned presenters. It’s an amazing place to study what it is that makes a tech presentation great.

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