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How to write a presentation

I’ve just finished writing a presentation for the upcoming STC Summit 2017. Putting together the slide deck and notes made me ponder on how I go about creating a presentation, and to wonder whether other people follow a similar path.

This post is about the process of developing a presentation, rather than what to put into it. Here’s how I prepare a presentation.

Grab the idea when it floats by

  • Make a note of any ideas for a presentation, and keep the list somewhere handy. Some ideas sit around for months or years before a good occasion comes along.  I use an online document for my list of ideas, so I can add to them no matter where I am when an idea occurs.
  • Think up a title for the presentation. It’s often best to think up one or more names while the idea is still fresh. The title captures the original intention and mood of the idea.

Submit a proposal to speak at a specific event

  • Keep an eye out for a conference or other occasion where my idea will fit in. Conferences often have a theme. For example, the theme of the STC Summit 2017 is Gain the Edge to Get Results. Every conference has a target audience. It’s important to submit a proposal that suits the theme and audience.
  • Think about the title again. Sometimes I need to change it, to suit the event and audience.
  • Write an outline of the presentation, bearing the audience and theme in mind. Some conference committees want a full outline, others ask for a summary of what the attendees will learn from the presentation. This step takes a lot of time, because it determines the final content of the presentation. Usually, though, I find it reasonably easy to create the outline, because I’m keen on the theme of the presentation. It’s something I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while. I think about the audience continually: What do they want to learn from this session, and what can I promise to show them. Everything that I put in the outline must be achievable and reflected in the eventual presentation.
  • Write a session summary. This is more of a “blurb”, an inspirational invitation to people to attend the talk. It needs to contain factual details of what’s in the session, and it must also reflect my passion about the topic.
  • Submit the proposal, along with other information requested by the conference committee. This may include a bio, a headshot, audio-visual requirements, and so on.

Prepare the presentation

  • Grab more ideas as they drift by. At this stage, my brain is actively engaged in the presentation, and ideas pop up at all sorts of times. Don’t let them get away!
  • Extend the outline. Still working in a doc rather than a slide deck, I add the notes from those drifting ideas. I copy and paste stuff from everywhere. Often I don’t try to make the notes tidy. They don’t even need to fit in completely. The outline is at the moment just a collection of potentially useful facts, quirks, quotations, ideas for illustrations, laughs, and what have you. It gets messy, but that’s OK. Until it’s not OK.
  • Get visual. At some stage, notes become boring, messy, and counter-productive. For me, the visual aspect of the presentation is as important as the content. The structure conveys the theme. The colours make the audience (and me) restive or restful. Images convey meaning or complement the content. The presentation starts to fly when I move it from a doc into slides.
  • Create the presentation outline and section headings that the audience will see. I think it’s useful, and kind 🙂 to give the audience an outline at the start, and show them header slides for each section with an indication of the section’s place in the presentation as a whole. This helps the attendees organise the information in their own heads. It also gives them a feeling of progression. We’re not lost in a spiral of slides. We have a destination and we’re getting there. It’s also fun to have a visual theme for the header slides – a way of presenting progress that fits the theme of the talk. I’m ready to change the outline, and thus the sections, as I develop the content. Change is inevitable and inexorable.
  • Write the slides and first draft of speaker’s notes, at the same time. Some slides are purely visual, others are bullet points. The speaker’s notes help me decide what each slide is about.
  • Keep going with content development, but be ready to jump back and adjust previous slides. Most times I find myself shuffling things around, from slide to slide, and even moving chunks of slides further up or down the flHow to write a presentationow.
  • Recognise and bypass deadlocks. If I get stuck while developing the content, I go for a walk. Often I’m stuck because I don’t want to change something. I really, really don’t. Or perhaps I don’t even recognise that the change is necessary. But there’s no easy way forward without the change. So, I go for a walk. I don’t consciously think about the problem, but I’m open to suggestions from my subconscious. If an idea pops up, I note it down right then and there. I send myself an email, or scribble a note on a scrap of paper. In my experience, it’s best to make those notes immediately, before my presentation-weary, brain-washed self has a chance to tamper with the wording. The words of the thought that popped up encapsulate the insight that my subconscious is offering.
  • Ask for a review. When the first draft is ready, I ask for a friendly review from a colleague, or from someone who matches the intended audience of the talk. People often have really great feedback, ranging from things like, “the aspect ratio is wrong in that image”, to, “it’d be good to add a bit about what went wrong”.

Prepare to present the talk

  • Set aside a number of one-hour sessions. This part of the preparation takes a long time. It’s also quite tiring, so I need to spread the sessions over a number of days.
  • Find a quiet room.
  • Talk through the slides. Start at the very beginning, and speak out loud.
  • Refine the speaker’s notes as I go. I prefer to present without notes, so for me the speaker’s notes are a handy place to note the things I want to say, when creating the presentation, rather than an aid during the talk itself. The notes are also useful for the reviewers, and perhaps for other people who read the slide deck later without the benefit of seeing it presented.
  • Be prepared to change the slides even at this late stage. When I talk myself through the deck, I see how it’ll work in front of an audience. Sometimes things don’t work as I expected.
  • Time the presentation. When I’m happy with the slides and notes, I talk through the slides from beginning to end, still reading from the notes but without stopping to adjust the notes or slides. If there are any demos, I do those too. I note the start time and end time, and thus the length of the talk. This is the best way to ensure the talk will fill but not exceed the session time.
  • Hide the speaker’s notes. Of course, I can’t do this all at once, as it’s hard to remember all that content. Instead, I kind of look at the notes out of the corner of my eye when I need them, and try to present as much as possible without them. At this stage, it’s not important to repeat the content of the notes word for word. It’s good to fly free of the notes, provided I’m sure I include everything that I intended to include.  I do this a few times, until I can hide the notes entirely.
  • Make a PDF version of the slides. I prefer presenting from PDF rather than a browser, because it’s easy to flip between a PDF document and a demo in the browser. I find that I can use the full-screen PDF mode without losing the easy navigation to the browser or other apps on the computer.

A tip about overcoming stage fright

A by-the-way hint just occurred to me while finishing off this post. It’s the most useful thing anyone ever said to me, about how to overcome stage fright. Take a step forward as you start to speak. I used to skulk behind the speaker’s podium, shivering and stiff with nerves, and basically stay that way throughout my presentation. I still get very nervous, but following the advice to step forward really helps. Moving my body kind of frees me from that initial blue funk. It gives the audience the feeling that I’m speaking directly to them. If I need to, it’s fine to go back behind the podium later, such as when I need to give a demo or press the button to advance the slides.

That’s it. 🙂 Looking at these notes, I see that it’s a lot of work. But I think it’s worth it. Attending a conference is a privilege and a pleasure, and speaking at one is even more so. What do you think, and do you follow a similar process when creating a presentation? If anyone has any tips to help aspiring presenters, those’d be most welcome.

Technical writers and public speaking

Technical writers and public speaking – a match made in heaven? We have the knowledge about and passion for our field. We can safely put one word after another without causing mayhem. But can we stand up and speak in front of a crowd? More importantly, what would we do when confronted by a chandelier?

To find out whether you can do it or not, try Scott Berkun‘s book, Confessions of a public speaker. I’ve just finished reading the book, with great enjoyment and plentiful note taking.

Technical communicators who do it already

Anne Gentle, Janet Swisher, Tony Self, Rhonda Bracey, Char James-Tanny, Tom Johnson, Sue Heim, Joe Welinske, Ellis Pratt, and many more. All excellent speakers and presenters. Perhaps most people reading this post have a public-speaking story to tell, either of horror or of triumph. 🙂

Until two years ago, you could have blown me down with a feather duster if you’d told told me that I would speak at a conference. Then I met Joe Welinske and started blabbing about my love of documentation wikis. There was probably a lot of arm waving and even a bit of in-place leaping about. Joe quickly suggested that I speak at the next WritersUA conference. I remember silence. I probably went pale. But I must have said yes, because within a few months I found myself on stage. To my absolute astonishment, my presentation went reasonably well. Since then I’ve presented sessions at a few conferences, and I enjoy the experience more each time.

At work, our team has decided to investigate public speaking as a way of sharing our experiences with others and of learning from others too. I tweeted about this during a #tcchat on Twitter, and Andrew Frayling recommended the book, Confessions of a public speaker, by Scott Berkun. Andrew is right. It’s good.

The terrors of public speaking

"Confessions of a public speaker" by Scott Berkun

One of the very first things I learned from Scott’s book is that fear of public speaking is a good thing. It’s your body’s way of preparing for a challenge. Without it, how would you cope when “a legion of escaped half-lion, half-ninja warriors fall through the ceiling and surround you, with the sole mission of converting your fine flesh into thin sandwich-ready slices”? (Page 16.)

Now, that may sound a bit of a stretch. But think again. Towards the end of the book is a set of stories of the situations some hapless speakers have faced. Dan Roam was on stage in Moscow when “six balaclava-hooded and heavily armed OMON troops (Moscow equivalent of a SWAT team)” burst in, grabbed an audience member and marched out again. (Page 184.) That story makes the average tech comm conference seem a little quiet.

It is strangely comforting to read a list of things that have gone wrong for other speakers!

Another of the stories, called “Watch your slides”, is told by Gerv Markham. His laptop with slides, and all his other luggage, was stolen in a subway station when he was on his way to give a presentation. Since then, Gerv always takes a cab.

Gerv’s experience reminded me of what happened just before my very first presentation ever. It was also my very first trip to the United States. I took a cab from the hotel, and unwisely let the cab driver put my laptop bag in the trunk with the rest of my luggage. When we arrived at our destination, the driver jumped out, grabbed my bags before I could get to them, perched the laptop bag on top of the suitcase, and then turned round to me for his fare. The laptop fell off the suitcase with a loud thump.

When I opened the bag, I found that the laptop casing was squewed, the DVD drive was permanently jammed open, and there was an ominous rattle coming from deep inside the computer. But, wonder of wonders, it booted up and worked. So I left it like that. I didn’t even try to fix the DVD drive or straighten anything at all, until the presentation was over and I was safely back in Sydney.

So, Gerv, cabs are not safe modes of transport for presentations either. 🙂

Good solid advice

Scott’s book is full of stories, and it’s full of tips too. The advice on page 19 rings true with me, about the importance of practising your presentation thoroughly. Page 21 has some great tips about how to prepare immediately before your speech.

I loved the description of the importance of a title. It “divides the universe into what you will talk about and what you won’t”. (Page 61.) And there’s an inspiring description of the only moment when you’ll have the full attention of everyone in the room: the silence just before you start speaking! (Page 80.)

Scott reveals a mild obsession with and definite antipathy towards chandeliers. (Page 40-4.) But hey, we’re all entitled to our oddities. 😉

The book emphasizes the importance of simplicity. This is something close to a technical writer’s heart too. On page 162, Scott explains that it is our duty as speakers to simplify and clarify our points. The audience should not be doing the hard work. We should.

Thank you Scott

Thank you for a good read! I’d like to be in a room and hear Scott speak, putting all these techniques into practice. Especially if there’s a chandelier in the vicinity. 😉

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