How to Ace Technical Presentations

I first began presenting in graduate school. I won a fellowship that required that I routinely share my results. Back then, I wasn't practiced or wasn't refined. After my postdoc, I took a consulting role with a small startup led by a brilliant man, Warren DeLano. While he didn't teach me how to present, he did teach me what attention to detail and preparation really looked like. I absorbed that knowledge and applied it to my next job as Product Manager, which I held for about 5 years. In this role, I traveled the globe giving technical talks, product tutorials, and led pre- and post-sales discussions with some amazingly brilliant people.

My first talk in my Product Manager role was a disaster. I was asked to present at an annual scientific conference where I was told "teach them how to use the software." So, I began my standard software tutorial. Usually this goes well, but not today. After about 20 minutes I noticed people were not paying attention. They were talking, on their phones, or weren't paying attention. I stopped and asked, "This doesn't seem like the right presentation for this audience. Why not?" Someone replied, "you're doing a tutorial and no one has the software, and we don't even know what the software can do." Understanding the disconnect, I immediately switched from training mode to demo mode. The demo was strong. The rest of the time passed quickly and with a newly rapt audience. The lesson I learned that day was how to read the audience and adjust my presentation on the fly, or as I now know it, observing the feedback loop between you and the audience.

Immediately after that talk, I came up with a plan to become a better speaker. First, I would say yes to every speaking request. Next, after each presentation I would be very critical of my performance, taking notes of what went well and what didn't. This turned into pages of learnings, which I'll share with you now.

The Technical Presentation Playbook

My advice is laid out in a timeline. It starts with you just having secured the chance to speak and ends with you wrapping up your talk.

You've Just Been Asked to Speak

The host from some organization asked you to speak—awesome! Before saying yes, you need to find out a few obvious things: when, where, what, and why? You also need to know your audience: ask your host about its makeup. Will they find your content relevant and useful? Are they highly proficient in this content, or are they new to what you're going to present? Are they professionals? Students? Good speakers decline to speak if they cannot tailor their content to the given audience. You will want to find out how big the audience is expected to be. You also need to know how long the talk is supposed to be. Also find out if there will be Q&A afterward. If all looks good, then you're cleared to accept the talk.

Make sure you get the contact information of your host or an event coordinator. Make sure you get a map and/or clear directions to your venue, including parking, security, check-in procedures, etc. I once spent about an hour going through security procedures and tests just to gain entrance to a production facility.

Preparing your Content: My Rule of Three

Presentations are made of three things: content, delivery, and visuals. My Rule of Three helps you prepare, refine, and master your content and solidify your delivery so that you'll be amazingly confident on presentation day. Strong confidence will let you focus 100% of your efforts on your presentation; you will be in the moment. If you're not confident, some non-trivial part of your brain will be focused on worrying instead of presenting, making your job harder and your presentation weaker. Strong confidence comes from preparation and practice. Here's what I learned.

Step 1. The Story (1+ Week Before your Talk)

The first step is getting the story out of your head and onto slides. Start this step at least a week before the talk. Many people get writer's block at this stage because they're trying to create a perfectly-worded presentation right from the get-go. Don't worry about that yet; we'll get to it. For now, focus on what you want to say, not how you want to say it.

You will need two minutes per slide on average to tell your story. So, if you have 45 minutes, you need to make around 22 to 23 slides of main content. On each slide, write 1-3 bullet points of what you want to say. Ignore how it sounds for now—just write down your message. Do this quickly for all your slides. Now, go back and read slide by slide. Ask yourself: does each bullet point (idea) seamlessly lead to the next? If not, fix it. If it flows smoothly, then ask yourself the next question: Does each slide seamlessly connect to the following slide? If so, congrats—you're done with this step.

If you've done this well, you now have a coherent story to tell. You also don't need that useless "Agenda" slide, so remove it. Your well-planned story that flows seamlessly from slide to slide obviates the need for the agenda slide (and gives you two more minutes of speaking time).

Now that you know the story you want to tell, go back into each slide and move the bullet points down into the speaker notes. They will serve as content reminders if you need them, but you probably won't if you follow the rest of what I outline.

A common problem that creeps up here is that the time allotted to you is shorter than what you need to tell the story. "I can do 22 slides, but I need five more!" Don't add the five slides and rush through your presentation. What you do now is create a section after your Q&A slide called "Supplemental Materials." This section is where other good, relevant, but non-critical-to-your-story bits go. This section can be as long as you want. I've seen presentations with 10 main content slides and 75 supplemental slides. Also, add supporting evidence of anything controversial or that you know you will be called out on.

Make your slides. There are tons of tutorials on that, so I won't cover visuals here in depth. But turn your speaker notes into compelling visual content. Use big pictures. Only put words on the slide that you're willing to read to the audience. Make sure text is easy to read—make it large and make the text color different enough from the background color to read from the back of the auditorium. The audience will feel stressed out if you put text on the slide and then whizz past it. Were they supposed to write that down? They were looking at you, but they might have missed a nugget of information they needed.

You now have a story to tell, speaker notes, and some visuals. And it was easier than you thought! The next two steps cover how we take all of this and turn it into a refined oral presentation. It starts by converting your content (what you want to say) into more refined content (how you want to say it). I have a great technique for quickly forcing that out of you.

Step 2. The Refining the Story (3–7 Days from your Talk)

The first step is about what you're going to say. This step is about how you're going to say it. Finish this step no less than 3-7 days before your talk—do not put this off to the day before the talk. You need time here to build the smooth delivery, strengthen memory, and grow confidence.

Sitting at your computer, go through each slide in order. Look at the slide, then speak the content out loud to yourself. You'll probably get it wrong the first few times or stumble. It might sound stupid. Better to sound stupid now, alone by yourself, than in front of 400 people. If it sounds bad, try again. Do this until you can speak the content for this slide with ease. Do this for all of your slides.

What's happening here is that you're discovering what sounds good and bad. You'll present the good. You'll trash or replace the bad. This step is often where you find you missed something or you have content in your presentation that deviates from the main story. This step can be frustrating sometimes because you'll be starting over time after time. This step also is cementing how to stitch the story together orally in your memory.

A couple more tips. Sometimes in this step you'll say something amazing. If it's so good it can't be missed, add a mnemonic to the slide so you remember to say it or add it to your speaker notes.

Repeat this step end-to-end until you know exactly what to say for each slide just by glancing at it. The visual content for the slide becomes a trigger for your memory, immediately allowing you to recall what you want to say on that slide. Once you can do this start to finish, it flows well, and you have memorized fragments of speech for each slide, move on to the next step.

Step 3. The Refined the Presentation (1–3 Days from Your Talk)

Step three is all about making you refined and confident. This step has three small phases.

Phase 1. Three Days before the Presentation

Find a place where you can be alone with your presentation. A small room or office works well. Put your slides into Presentation Mode. Get a watch or take note of the time. Stand up. Start presenting your slides to yourself, out loud. When you make a mistake, pause the timer. Take a minute to rephrase what you want to say. Hearing it aloud makes all the difference.

This step makes you feel stupid. You're talking to yourself in a small, dark room. People outside might be looking at you. It'll feel weird. Did you sit down? Did you stop speaking out loud? Don't! Stand back up and keep speaking out loud.

Do this end-to-end three times. By the third time, you should be able to get through the entire presentation without too many errors and it should sound like a good story. It's well organized, and now you know how to say it.

Keep time. Make sure you fall just under the time you have to speak. Many conferences fail to follow schedules on time. You might lose five minutes. Be prepared for that. Also, this helps you leave time for Q&A.

Phase 2. The Day before the Presentation

Your presentation is tomorrow. Practice the talk three more times today. Stand up. Be loud. Know what? You don't feel as foolish any more, do you? The Rule of Three—it's working.

By the end of the third practice run, you should be really comfortable with all the content. The story should flow. Your killer lines are well-placed and you don't meander from the main story. At this point you may not even need the slides. If you do though, all you need to do is glance at the slide and you know exactly what to say. You're in a great spot now.

Phase 3. Morning of the Presentation

A few hours or so before the presentation—really, just not immediately before your presentation—do one last practice run, standing up, out loud. This day-of practice is critical. It's priming your short term memory. It's making you more confident. This presentation should be easy for you now.

Day-of practice is vital for those who give the same talk over and over again. Guess why? When you present the same talk over and over but you don't practice, you get sloppy. You end up weaving tangents into the story that lessen the impact of your original content. You're getting worse! Day-of practice will freshen your short-term memory, keeping you on story and on time.

Here, I like to take about two minutes to practice transitions. Transitions are when the last speaker hands off to you, you switch from presentation to Q&A, and when you switch from Q&A to handing off to the next person. It might sound like (with a big smile), "Thanks for that glowing introduction Christine, I'm really excited to share with everyone how we created the latest super-code…"

Make sure you update your Title Slide so that you have the correct date and location/group name. When you forget to change these and the audience sees that, they immediately feel unimportant because you're feeding them recycled content.

Important Details

Before I walk you through presentation techniques, let's cover some important details. If you're not aware of some of these you can get caught off guard.

Technology & Microphones

If presenting from your machine, arrive early enough to test your computer on the projector, hopefully the day before. Never let the audience spend five silent, painful minutes watching you fumble to setup when you already should have troubleshot everything. If you're back-to-back with other speakers, you can often set up while the previous speaker finishes his or her Q&A.

You need cabling. If traveling internationally, get an international adapter kit. If you present routinely, put together a small "Boy Scout" bag of useful items. I would always carry the following: international power cables, video adapters (VGA, HDMI, mini display port, USB-A, USB-C), 2-AA and 2-AAA batteries, wireless mouse, headphones, headphone splitter, and travel-sized Aleve or ibuprofen. On more than one occasion I saved a meeting because I had the adapters no one else did. And more than once I've used my AA or AAA batteries to replace those in the laser pointer that "worked just a minute ago."

Most places will have microphones. There are lapel mics and handheld mics. Lapel mics are easy—put the battery block in your pocket and clip the mic to your shirt. If you're wearing a dress, you can often just clip it to the dress and let the battery block dangle or actually go under the dress. To find the ideal spot to clip the mic, make an L-shape with your hand. Touch your index finger to your chin and place the thumb on your chest. Put the mic where your thumb touches your chest.

Handheld mics annoy me. They're not ideal for presentations with software demos requiring typing. Lapel mics are consistent; handhelds vary based on how you hold the mic which can throw off beginners. I also feel like a singer when I have a handheld mic. I am not a singer.

When you speak, make sure you observe the people in the back of the room. It should be clear if they can hear you or not. If you're unsure, just ask, "can the people in the back hear me okay?"

Another tip with the mic: laughing. Try to keep loud cackling laughs off the mic. When your well-timed joke lands in a room of 650 people and YOU chortle heartily into the mic, the only thing everyone hears is your really loud laughing, because you're the only one mic'd. Then, everyone quickly goes silent while YOUR laugh continues to echo through the auditorium. Now, everyone's looking around awkwardly.

For live software demos, sloping podiums suck. Your mouse will always drop to the bottom, making controlling the software difficult. Be prepared for this. Make sure you can use your trackpad to control your computer just as well as you can with a mouse. Make sure you can double-click, right-click, and drag selections of the screen using just the trackpad.

Laser Pointers

There is a simple test to see whether or not a laser pointer works. The correct method is NOT to shine it on the audience or in your own face (as I've seen a few presenters nervously do; one almost fell over from the shock of collimated light flooding into his eyes). Point the laser at the floor, your hand, or the screen to test it.

Do Not Disturb Mode

Before your talk, enable Do Not Disturb mode. This stops notifications from popping in on your desktop.

If you don't want to enable Do Not Disturb mode, do make sure you reduce the information presented in your Slack notifications. In Slack, choose Preferences > Notifications > Sound & Appearance. Disable the "Include a preview of the message in each notification". This stops potentially embarrassing or sensitive information from being displayed while you're presenting.

Desktop Cleanup

One last trick for cleaning up is to take all your desktop content, images, folders, etc. and temporarily put them into a folder called "Cleanup." Doing this unclutters the Desktop and hides those fancy cat pictures you have.

Getting to the Venue & Preparing

Contact your host. Let him or her know you're on the way. Be at least 30 minutes early. If you're not early enough, your host can unnecessarily worry about you. Maybe you're lost? Stuck in traffic? Or worse, standing them up!

Beforehand, try not to consume too much caffeine. This can cause you to be jittery as it adds to the natural excitement you'll feel when you're on stage. Additionally, stimulants can increase your sweat rate—no one wants to see sweaty pits.

30 Seconds to Go-Time

You're about to be introduced. You're mic'd up and ready to go. Do you feel that nervous energy? Good! You should. If you feel nothing you won't be on your toes. Now, take that nervous feeling and tell yourself, "I'm ready. What I feel is excitement for the opportunity, not fear."

Follow this routine to prepare yourself and put yourself into the zone. Trust me on this: if you get off on the right foot, you'll be more confident, be able to talk more slowly and clearly, and be in a great mood. If you don't do this, your excitement can overtake you and put you into rapid-speaking-mode. Getting out of this mode is like trying to climb out of a hole while you're presenting. Here is what I learned. First, smile. Smile big, smile genuinely. You should be excited at the opportunity to wow a roomful of people. While smiling, scan the room looking at the faces of your audience. Start making smiling eye contact before you even start. Next, take a very big, deep breath. Hold it a sec, and then exhale. This will relax you. It also has the added power of lowering the register of your voice which makes you sound more confident and authoritative. Still smiling, approach the stage or area you want to speak from and deliver the transition you practiced earlier.

During the Talk

Don't let the people coming in late or leaving early bother you. It happens all the time. Don't read into it too much.

Handling Difficult People

Sometimes there's a difficult person in the crowd. I define a difficult person as anyone who interrupts your talk or refuses to cede control of the presentation back to you. In technical talks, this can be common. Someone might disagree with you or want to show everyone how smart he or she is. Ironically, these people are usually very easy to defuse if done right. Listen to their question or comment. Answer it succinctly and try to move on. If they won't let you (not ceding control back to your) let them finish their follow-up. Then, say something like, "That's really interesting. I'd love to talk to you about that after I'm done. Please come see me." Then immediately move on. If you're worried about difficult people, come up with a few more phrases like that.

In my five years of experience, I've only had one person who staunchly refused to let me continue unless I live-coded in front of all 350 people. I had the time, I had the skills, so I did, but the interruption weakened my story.

Generally, audiences are quite well-behaved. In fact, everyone wants you to do a great job. Don't believe me? Think back to when you saw a speaker bomb terribly. How did you feel watching that? You felt awkward. We don't want to feel that way. So remember that everyone there wants you to do a great job.

Wrapping Up

I hope you learned something about preparing your content and readying yourself to give a great talk. We covered organizing what to say, refining how to say it, prepping your slide deck, and troubleshooting you and technology.

After you give a few talks, check out the Speaker Labs for ideas on how to increase your presence on stage and really connect to the audience.