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So you want to be a public speaker — Part 2

Photo by Elliot Sloman on Unsplash

In part one of this series on lessons learned my first year of public speaking, I covered the submission process and getting started. Next up is what to do when a talk is accepted or scheduled.

Getting my first “Congratulations your talk was accepted” email is one of the best emails I’ve ever received. And the acceptances that have come after that first one are just as exciting.

The amount of time you have between an acceptance letter and delivering a talk will vary, generally I’ve found it’s been about two months. This gives you plenty of time to panic, err, I mean prepare.

I don’t actually create any slides or even an outline for a talk until it has been accepted. Many hours go into preparing a presentation and I prefer to wait until I know I will give a talk to invest the time and energy into it. It doesn’t matter whether I am giving a 5 minute talk or a 30 minute talk, the process I follow is very similar.

When I submit a talk I create a OneNote workbook with the abstract and reference material. These might be articles I’ve read, links to reports with data, or relevant tweets. Essentially, items that inspired me to submit a proposal. As I encounter material after I submit I add them to the workbook, this way when it is time to create the outline, I have a lot of research at my fingertips.

Creating an Outline

Everybody has their preferred presentation program, mine is PowerPoint. I create my outline directly in PowerPoint. I start with a single slide per main point or topic I want to make. For example, for the talk I gave on DevOps Parenting, the outline started out as:

  • The 3 ways
  • Automation
  • Kaizen & Kaikaku
  • Plan, do, act, adjust
  • Sharing
  • Don’t fear breaking things

At this point doubt sets in as I think I don’t have enough material to fill a presentation. This feeling comes over me whether this is a 5 minute or a 30 minute talk. The DevOps Parenting talk was 5 minutes and 20 slides. With the preliminary outline there were 6 slides, I had to create 14 more.

“How did I think I have enough content to fill 20 slides.”

Time to start filling more of the outline with supporting information, data, or examples. The slides at this time are large walls of text , bulleted items, quotes, ideas to elaborate on, links to visuals I may want to include, etc.

As the outline fills out more, I hit the next stage. Yup you guessed it, it looks like I have too much information and will likely need to cut some information out.

Time Spent: 1 hour

Lessons learned: It doesn’t matter how long the talk is, there will always be content to be cut after the original outline is created.

Give your brain a break

Once the outline is drafted I put it away for a couple of days. Coming back to look at things with a fresh set of eyes always helps me (I do this when I’m writing as well). Giving your brain a break can cause clarity where you were previously stuck or concepts that didn’t quite seem like they fit together suddenly start.

At this point I will rearrange the outline to tell a better story, add elements or remove them. I’ll also start adding visuals. My slides have limited text on them, I mostly rely on visuals to add to the narrative. I don’t want the audience to spend time reading the text and miss elements of the story as I’m speaking. With less text on the slides I also have more freedom to veer off script while speaking, I don’t have to worry that I forgot to mention a specific bullet point on the slide.

Time Spent: 4–6 hours

Lessons learned: If you’ve hit a wall and are struggling, put the deck away and come back to it. I iterate over the deck multiple times over the course of a week or two. Put it away and come back to it as inspiration strikes.

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse

Here’s where things diverge between a 5-minute talk and a longer talk. I will script out word for word what I want to say and rehearse to ensure I am under the time limit.

I’m thankful I work remotely as during this time I stand up in my office and give the talk out loud, starting and stopping multiple times trying to find the right words and cadence.

For a longer talk there is more flexibility to make up time, return to a point, or skip over something if you are running out of time. I focus more on bullet points in the notes than a transcript for these talks.

Time Spent: 2 to 4 hours

Lessons learned: You read at a different pace than you speak, if you can read text in under 5 minutes, it does not mean you can speak it in the same period of time.

Finishing Touches

Once I have the talk track or notes nailed down, I will once again put the deck away for a few days before returning to it one last time. During this final review I’m ensuring all the visuals send the right message, the transitions between sections makes sense, and I’m hitting all the key points.

For a 5-minute talk I’ll walk through four or five times giving the talk out loud. For a longer talk I’ll give the talk once out loud and read through the notes and slides 3 or 4 additional times.

Time spent: 1 hour

Lessons learned: It is much easier to rehearse a 5-minute talk in full multiple times before delivering it. Reading through the slides isn’t as good as giving it out loud but time doesn’t always permit 5 walk throughs of a 30 minute talk.

At this point I’ve spent 8 to 12 hours preparing for a talk, and that isn’t including the research time or crafting the proposal.

Everybody has a different process when it comes to preparing to speak. I know some people that create their slides the day before a talk and that’s great. Others spend many more hours that what I’ve outlined above, that’s great too. There is no one right way to prepare, do what works for you. Public speaking is not easy, the most polished speakers and those that inspire us make it look easy and effortless. Chances are hours of preparation and practice went into making it look easy.