Tips for new speakers: Part 2

This post is the second part of a series of posts for new and aspiring speakers.

What would I talk about?

An enduring excuse that I encounter for why someone wants to become a conference speaker by isn’t is that they don’t think they have anything to talk about that others want to hear.

Related to this is not being sure how to structure a talk to make it engaging for the audience.

The following is a set of ideas to help new speakers overcome these objections. They are by no means a comprehensive list.

Talk about something you know

The first piece of advice that Melanie gave me was “Talk about something you know – talk about your experiences”

This seems obvious since you need to know something about what you are talking about but there is a subtly in this that some speakers seem to miss. To know a subject (at least to able to talk well about it) you need to experience it so that you can develop and share your insights.

Let me illustrate this with a story about 2 talks I attended on Containerized Services within the last 12 months.

In the first, the speaker spent most of their time-slot talking about the history of Docker, the container ship analogy, the purpose of Docker and a demo of creating a container using Docker; I don’t remember any questions being asked at the end of the talk. It was, to me, a pretty dull talk – even if, like me, you knew nothing about Docker. It felt like the speaker had read a few pages on the Docker homepage, completed the introductory tutorial and decided to present a talk on it. Now I’m being harsh here and the speaker may have had a wealth of knowledge about Docker and using containerized services but it really didn’t come through in the talk. Don’t get me wrong, I thought the speaker presented well but was let down by the content.

In the second talk, the speaker spent most of their time-slot talking about the challenges they faced with environments and how shifting to containers solved many of these challenges but introduced some others and how they made the shift in a large organisation. At the end of the talk, there were questions – the speaker didn’t have all the answers but that’s OK. For me it felt that this presenter knew about Containerized Services and the problem that it solved. It was an engaging talk that made me think about some of the challenges I faced and whether containers would help. It was a good talk from a new speaker (Lim Sim).

The difference between the two experiences is engagement; the first talk just didn’t connect with me as it seemed like I could have spent 30 minutes on the Docker website and achieved the same result. What was missing was the speaker’s connection with the topic, their insights, their experiences. The second talk was all about the speaker’s connection with the topic and made for a much more engaging talk.

So when thinking about the topic you will present, think about those that you know intimately and have experienced. You don’t need to have all the answers but you need to have some insight into the topic and that needs to come from your experiences to be credible. You can’t simply hide behind fancy slides and soundbites – your audience will see through that.

A challenge is that you probably take for granted all the insights you have. When you are already an established speaker you are probably watching out for those times when you think “This would make a good talk”. To get around this challenge, consider keeping a journal where you record your thoughts, insights and ideas – in the beginning it’s worth trying to get into the habit of spending 10 minutes a day to update your journal. These ideas can help you identify the key insights you probably should be sharing with other testers.

Talk about something you are passionate about

The second piece of advice that Melanie gave me was “Talk about something you are passionate about”.

If you watch TED Talks you will notice something about all the speakers, they are passionate about whatever they are talking about. That passion gives the talk a different energy, an energy that draws the audience in no matter what they already know or feel about the topic.

This is not to say that we should all speak like TED Speakers (although we can learn some lessons from them) but it seems clear that each speaker both knows and is passionate about the topic they are speaking on.

For example, if you asked me to present on Accessibility Testing I could give that talk but I doubt it would be particularly interesting experience for either of us. 10 years ago, I think I would have given a good talk on the subject as I was very interested in the topic, read about it obsessively, experimented with ideas and tools, reasoned about how I made judgements about accessibility. However, these days, the topic, while still important to me and my work, no longer holds my interest. Now ask me to talk about Security Testing, testing complex systems, machine learning and AI then I think I will give a good talk because these are the topics that give me energy at the moment.

So follow your energy when thinking about the topic(s) you want to talk about – if you are not passionate (or no longer passionate) about a topic, then it is probably not a good topic for you to talk about. The lack of interest and passion will show through in your preparation and delivery. Your audience will appreciate you more if you focus on something that gives you energy and let others talk on topics you have little passion for.

Tell stories

When you listen to a presenter such as Sir David Attenbough talk about the natural world, he draws you in, not only with his passion for the topic but through the way that he presents the material – he tells stories.

Something else you will notice is that the overall narrative is often made up of story loops; stories within stories that interleave to give the final narrative.

Almost all of my talks will have a Major Arc – this is the overall story that I’m presenting. Within this Major Arc, there will be one or more smaller Stories that support or contribute to the Major Arc. At the end of the talk I will attempt to draw the stories and Major Arc to a Close.

For example, a talk I’ve given a few times recently is Testing in the Age Of Complexity. The Main Arc is how, as testers, will we deal with testing increasingly more complex systems. Now I don’t have all the answers but I have some experiences and insights and it is a topic that gives me a lot of energy at the moment (see points 1 and 2).

So the talk begins by setting this scene at a high level; this lasts a few minutes and talks of the shift from largely static and deterministic system with prescribed behaviours to those that exhibit adaptation and learned behaviours and asks how as testers we can test such systems. The aim is to grab the audience’s attention early by setting a compelling background to your stories.

There is a good series on public speaking by Dr James Whittaker called The Art of Stage Presence and he talks about grabbing the audience’s attention in the first 30 seconds – I’m still working on that but I try to get the main idea out there in a few minutes.

What follows is 2-4 story loops (depending upon the length of the talk) related to this major arc. Some of these are from personal experience, others based on my thinking about other people’s experience. Each story is self-contained but related to the Major Arc and to the other stories and so occasionally we return to an earlier story idea. In the case of this talk, they build in complexity from something fun to think about to quite a complex system that I was testing that involved layers of Machine Learning algorithms working collaboratively to solve a problem.

At the end of the talk I return to the Major Arc to close the story. In this case I summarise and provide additional thoughts such as what topics/challenges am I currently working on and close with a call to action for others to get involved.

You can see from this outline I’m essentially telling a set of stories:

  • Major Arc: the story of how software is becoming more complex to test and asks whether our current thinking about such systems is sufficient.
  • Stories: a set of stories covering some of the challenges I outlined in Major Arc and my experiences of these. Some of these outline some technical material, some involve the audience, some are just me talking.
  • Closing: how this story ends

This structure is not the only way to present your ideas but as a new speaker, using a structure such as this can be useful and the use of stories will usually engage your audience and avoids you feeling like you are lecturing.

As an exercise, try to think of 3 topics that you are passionate about and for each think of 3 stories you could tell about that topic. If you can do this, then you potentially have 3 talks you can give at conferences.

Practice often but don’t worry about perfection

It almost goes without saying that you will need to practice your talk and while it’s important to practice your whole talk as one continuous piece a few times I find practicing parts of the talk in isolation is generally more helpful.

Almost all of my talks are a series of stories related to a larger story arc so I practice each of these stories in isolation; I practice different ways of presenting or telling the story; I practice different ways to link two stories together.

In all this practice I’m not striving to be word perfect each time; instead my practice is to get me comfortable with telling the stories. If I’m comfortable telling the stories then I’m not going to get anxious about remembering what words to say…the stories will just flow naturally and link together. Sometimes the version I end up presenting is different to the one(s) I’ve practiced (this is OK).

I find that if I focus too much on being word-perfect then I become overly concerned about what sentence comes next and if I forget or make a mistake when presenting it can can effect my delivery while I try to get back on track. If I’m telling a story I’ve told many times before I’m less concerned about a missed sentence or a sentence out of sequence.

Another benefit of practicing parts of the talk is I can practice more frequently since I don’t need to find 40 minutes of uninterrupted time to practice. I often practice in the car, when I’m alone, as part of my daily commute.

I think it’s also important to practice out loud – things that make sense in my head can sometimes sound odd when said out loud. If you are brave, then record yourself and listen back. Before you ask, yes I practice in the car out loud… I’m sure other drivers think I’m crazy…but they are missing out on some great stories!

Practicing the whole talk helps to give you the feel for the talk in its entirety; how does it flow, how do the stories relate to the longer story arc, how do the stories build on each other. So don’t neglect this practice.

Another idea is to practice with other speakers – you’ll often find at conferences speakers meet-up in quiet corners of the conference the day before to practice their talks and get feedback.

Focus Outwards

Early in my development as a speaker I came across those brave souls who stand up and speak without slides; now I’m not talking about lightning talks I’m talking about 30-60 minute talks without slides. There would be cheers and tweets a plenty about how awesome it was to hear a talk without slides. It was impressive and to be honest a little intimidating.

These days I practice my talks so much that I rarely need to refer to my slides during a talk – it occasionally happens especially when I’m presenting different talks multiple times over a short period of time – so I don’t really need slides and yet I will almost always prepare slides for any talk over  10 minutes.

Why? Well there was a realisation that the slides are not really for me, they are for my audience. Think about your talk from the audience’s perspective:

  • English (the only language I speak) may be a second language to some in my audience so they may not understand all the key points and need something to refer to (or quickly Google/Bing).
  • Some of the audience may not understand my accent
  • Some of the audience may have impaired hearing
  • Sometimes we zone out of the audio

So the slides are useful to some in the audience which is why I create slides for most of my talks. Now context matters here and there are no hard and fast rules – my one heuristic is that if a slide (or slides) will help the audience understand my message then I will create it.

This is part of what I call having an Outward Mindset – there is the job I need to do (speak at the conference) but I’m doing this in service of the audience. So I need to get my own ego out of the way and focus on what the audience needs rather than what I want. So I try to think about what I can do to engage the audience better – or more accurately what might I be doing that is preventing the audience from connecting and engaging with my message (not me).

If you have seen me talk, then you will notice that I almost always ask questions of the audience and get them to contribute. I do this because it helps me feel connected to the audience but also attempts to draw them in.

Something I noticed recently during talks by Karen Johnson and Fiona Charles at the recent Romanian Testing Conference (where almost all participants were Romanian) was being aware of idioms and colloquialism that your audience may not get. In both, talks they asked the audience to let them know if they use a term that they are not familiar with and they would rephrase. They also both checked in with the audience when they thought something may get lost in translation.

To me it is this outward focus that helps make for engaging talks for the audience.

Ask for Feedback before your talk

At every conference I’ve spoken at I’ve received comments such as “Loved your talk”, “Most interesting talk of the day” and “It really made me think”.

Now it could be that my talks are perfect but I find that highly doubtful. While comments such as these do wonders for my self-esteem they don’t really help me grow as a speaker. I can’t really rely upon self-criticism as I’m quite hard on myself but also, I’ve realised over time, that my self-criticism often focuses on points that no one else notices or cares about (and I probably wouldn’t notice in other speakers).

So how do I get better as a speaker? I ask for constructive feedback – I want to know what others found useful or interesting, what they didn’t, was there things that I kept repeating or behaviours that detracted from the content, did I talk too fast, did I wave my hands around too much and so on.

I don’t just go around and ask everyone I meet what they thought of my talk (there is a high probability that the feedback would be mostly positive). Instead I ask for feedback from a few people I know will be attending and importantly those I trust to give honest feedback. Specifically, I ask them before my talk.

Asking before the talk means they are prepared to observe my talk critically and give feedback. If I surprise them and ask for honest feedback only after the talk then they will probably have already forgotten some of the important points and just give some generic feedback. Also I usually don’t want that feedback straight after my talk so will arrange to talk with them at some later date.

So if you are a new speaker, I’d suggest buddy up with another speaker or someone you trust (a mentor if you have one) and arrange some honest feedback. If you are already part of a mentoring scheme such as Speak Easy and BCS SIGiST Mentoring ask your mentor to attend your talk or review a recording of your talk.

Wrapping Up

So that’s about it for tips on dealing with what to talk about (and a few other points). In part 3 I’ll talk about ways to deal with feelings of anxiety and panic.