6 Tips for Technical Presentations

Technical presentations are very Darwinian. Do a good one and you get invited to do another. Do one badly and you won’t get any more practice. I’ve survived a number of them now, likely because the audiences got such good sleep during the talk that they tell their friends. 🙂 Joking aside, I think these six things I do for each presentation have helped a lot. I share them with you.

1. Know your audience and talk at their level.

Before I give a presentation I ask the folks who are coordinating the event about the people I’ll be talking to. Are they advanced users or newbies? Windows, Mac, or UNIX people? Application developers or system administrators? All these help me get a feel for what I need to talk about, and how to talk about it. In a presentation about virtualization will I need to explain all the concepts from the ground up, or can I skip to the advanced topics?

If you are giving a presentation to a general audience you have to aim for the lowest common denominator. However, if you are giving a talk that is billed as advanced, treat your audience that way. Treating advanced users like beginners and vice versa is a great way to lose your audience.

2. The 10/20/30 rule is key.

I am a huge fan of the Guy Kawasaki 10/20/30 rule: 10 slides, 20 minutes, no less than a 30 point font. Keep things short, easy to read, and remember that people are there to hear you talk, not to read your slides. Think of your slides as an outline: a few words, graphics, and photos to help people understand what you’re talking about. A slide is not a bunch of notes, it’s the illustration to a story you’re telling.

I keep any notes separate so I can publish them after the presentation, but also so the audience cannot see them during the presentation. If I talk about code samples, scripts, or output from command-line utilities I’ll put short, easy-to-read blurbs in the slides but publish whole samples or URLs in my notes afterwards.

I go over 10 slides a lot of times because I always opt for bigger, simpler, more readable slides. In that regard I always make graphs and graphics their own whole slide. Since a graph’s legend often gets strange when it is 30 points I skip that and put simple labels in the graph itself. I always avoid color combinations of red & green or blue & yellow for any color blind folks.

3. Pre-authenticate & set everything up in advance.

Is part of your presentation going to be a demo, or require authenticating? Get logged in and set up ahead of time. You’ll save time during the presentation as well as confirm that whatever you are demoing can be connected to (and if you can’t connect someone else can work on the fix while you start talking). More importantly, you’ll also lessen the risk of doing something dumb while the audience watches, like typing your password in the username field. I hate when I do that, and it’s always because I’m answering a question and logging in at the same time.

4. Create another user on your laptop.

I use my laptop for a lot of different things. I don’t want to have to worry about what is in my browser cache, or sitting on my desktop (like a proposal for a client or something). To help this I created a second user on my laptop just for presentations. I set the background to black and made sure it gets its own profile in Firefox and iTunes.

5. Get a good presentation clicker.

I use a Logitech Presenter and it’s easily the coolest device for doing a presentation. First, it’s RF-based so I can wander around. I hate standing behind a boring desk or lectern just so I can advance my slides. Second, it has a timer in it that vibrates, so you know if you need to speed up or slow down. Last, it has a laser pointer. A picture may be worth a thousand words but being able to point at the screen to explain something, especially when answering questions during demos, is priceless.

6. If you feel like you’re losing the audience stop and take some questions.

Stopping for a short Q&A part way through is a great way to wake people up and find out if you’re above or below their technical level. If nobody asks any questions it might signal that they’re lost, the presentation is too basic, or they’re asleep. In my experience if you’ve got good content someone will ask a question and you’ll know where you stand. At the very least a short pause will give you a brief chance to take a deep breath, drink some water, and regroup.

There are lots of other great resources out there. My list here is no substitute for some of the great tutorials, checklists, and tips from people that are professional presenters. Here are a few I really like:

4 thoughts on “6 Tips for Technical Presentations”

  1. The 10/20/30 rule is golden. I can’t count how many times I’ve been in a presentation where the presenter just read off the slides. If that is all you’re going to do, just give me the slides and be done with it. Did I mention the slides where a veritable novel each?

  2. Yeah. My favorite is the presenter that does that, then can’t answer any advanced questions at the end because they only copied the stuff out of a book or a blog post.

  3. Last time I did a talk I just used two – no, not slides, but screenshots. That got people really interested. It’s one thing to hear about Cacti and Nagios, it’s another one if you have never seen it.

    The response and the questioning after my talk was overwhelming.

    Oh, and I did stay close with that other rule: learn about your audience first. I asked how many Sysadmins were there, if I should talk in German like all the people before me did, or rather in English (there were two or three people in the audience who understood English only, so I stuck to that after mentioning that this is not my native language).

    Thanks for coming up with all these good tips, Bob. I follow your blog since a while and find it quite good.


  4. What has really helped me was the BBP (Beyond Bullet Points). It forces you to figure out exactly what are you trying to tell, like no other. Following it also essentially gives you three versions of your presentation (5, 15 and 45-minute versions), plus an elevator pitch. Look them up, if interested – don’t want to sound like I’m plugging something.

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