Image of umbrellas at Glacial Gardens

I am not a veteran presenter on technical topics. I haven’t spoken at Meetups, conventions, or Toastmasters. I have however given the occasional technical presentation at work, as well as watched quite a few online and at technology-related gatherings. This post will not raise your next technical presentation to the level of a Steve Jobs keynote, but I hope to help you clear the low bar often set by programmers finding themselves tasked with preparing some words and slides to be delivered in front of a group of people.

My advice to you, novice presenter:

  1. Have a purpose: Be able to summarize your reason for presenting on the topic in a sentence. “I want to teach my team about New JavaScript Framework X”. “I want to teach a new way to deploy web applications”. After you’ve done some practice run-throughs of your presentation, evaluate whether you’re meeting that goal.

  2. Know your audience: How technical are they? Are they going to be mystified by a series of commands entered at a command prompt, or do they want to jump into the code? Tailor your message to your intended audience, which can also include how appropriate jokes and asides might be.

  3. Tell a story: Don’t jump immediately into code without any sense of context. Give the lay of the land, the roadmap for the journey you’re about to take us on. If appropriate, share the journey you went on to acquire the knowledge you’re about to share. What the terrible, no good, very bad way of doing things before, and how did you discover the shiny new awesome thing?

  4. Don’t lean too hard on your slides: If you take nothing else from this, do not read from your slides. Do not put large blocks of text on your slides. Don’t go overboard with distracting animated GIFs. The audience should be focused on you and what you have to say, not what’s being projected behind you. There are many different styles and tools to throw something up on the screen, but I like to just have a few words on the slides to punctuate what I’m saying, to provide signposts on what I’m presenting without overshadowing my words.

  5. Practice: Just do it. You may think you don’t need to, but it elevates your presentation so much when you think through what you’re going to say and do a dry run or (ideally) several. After a few times you can memorize the big beats of what you want to talk about and grow familiar with your presentation enough that it fits like your favorite pair of pants. You get less nervous and can iron out problems before you get up in front of anyone, including fixing typos and resolving issues with tooling.

  6. Give the audience something to do: At the end, the audience is thinking, “Now what?” What should they do with the info you’ve given them? Are they empowered to go forth and use their newfound knowledge in their day-to-day jobs? Are you trying to spark a movement to contribute to an open source project? Whatever it is, leave those who watched your presentation with a concrete set of next steps, a concise takeaway that should leave them with a call to action and a good feeling about your message.

By following these suggestions you’ll take your presentation to the next level. At that point there’s a multitude of material out there to further raise your game and get you well on your way to speaking on a TED stage or delivering commencement speeches on a regular basis.