4 min read

7 truly stupid tips on giving software talks


take it from me, a stupid guy who talks a lot

I won’t pretend to have any tips for folks who have experience with giving talks. I am not a public speaker professionally.

I have done three talks at AngularNYC, Google’s Headquarters, and CapitalOne’s headquarters in Manhattan. I have done a talk at AngularBoston. I have done a talk at jsMobileConf. I have done many talks around my home city of Syracuse, NY. I have done more Zoom talks in the last 12 months than I would have ever considered. If you’re interested and have a spare couple of hours, you can find links to all of those at the bottom of this article.

My recipe for success looks something like the outline below. These tips work for me, and maybe they will work for you.

  1. Make stuff up. I don’t mean to pretend that fact is true when it’s not. I mean start off by writing out all of the possible ideas that come to mind on a topic. When I do this it looks like a markdown document with bullet points of links to lines of code, links to images, and short sentences. It helps to put it in a format that is not going to be the final. Consider this the precursor to a slide deck.
  2. Pretend you are someone else. Either in your mind or on the web, take a look at any speaker whose talk you have enjoyed. Then review step 1 and give the talk imitating that speaker. I do this to remind myself that when speaking in front of others there is a certain amount of distance from my day-to-day personality that needs to be maintained. It’s a good way to self-check that I am talking about the topic at hand, rather than being self-conscious.
  3. Assume no one will remember a word. Your words can be lengthy or short. They can be about a technology that the audience has never even used. All software talks are inherently logical. The truth is, if anyone wants to get the most out of a talk, they will need to review the talk on YouTube later. I typically go one of two directions from this assumption: either I figure out some core takeaway that I want to leave the audience with and repeat it over and over OR I go into great depth knowing that after everyone has checked out and logged into the social apps that they may revisit the topic on YouTube later.
  4. Wear whatever you want. Could there be any audience less bothered by what a presenter is wearing than a software audience? Avoid grease-stained pants and t-shirts with holes. After that, well, find your nicest t-shirt, your most leisurely sweatpants, your top-of-the-line suit, your perfectly accessorized attire. I wear suits and ties. I wear button-down shirts untucked. It doesn’t matter. I tell myself that as long as I can be as well-informed and articulated then I can just about wear anything.
  5. Don’t practice in front of your friends. Your friends may know what you are talking about. What they won’t know is what you look and sound like to a group of people who have never seen or heard you before. Friends are good for sharing an interest. Organizers are good for practicing a talk. I have been offered by organizers to preview my talk to them beforehand. I am glad that they did. I also have requested that organizers review my talks in advance. I have also given talks with friends, sharing the stage side-by-side. In those situations, we have practiced the talk in front of organizers or small audiences at local meetups before the main event. Basically, I have not ever wanted to know from a friend what they think of my software talk. More relevant audiences have always been available.
  6. Act nervous. Seriously. Act nervous. What does nervousness look like? To me, it is eyes pointed at the screen, it is a quiet voice, it is rushing through a bunch of slides. I have done all of those things. In college, at StartupWeekend events, it was my natural response to being in front of people, and it was unintentional. In all the talks below, I learned how to use it to my benefit. At the beginning of the talk, I still do all of that nervous behavior to set a starting point for the audience as a nervous speaker. Within the first minutes of the talk, as I am getting into the content I prepared, my voice naturally grows in strength, my eyes do their thing, and my pace becomes calm. What the audience sees is a progression from nervousness to confidence.
  7. Drink when it is over. Get a glass of alcohol or water or coffee. Take your drink to a group of people from the audience who are chatting away and say hello. There’s no need to ask them what they thought about your talk, they saw it, they will tell you on their own. Once you finish your drink and leave for the day, take whatever you heard and use it for your next talk. I am happy to hear any comments, I prefer the good and use the bad. I regularly go up to audience members after a talk and sometimes they come up to me.