Here at the Marktime Media home offices, we’ve been in hardcore WordCamp mode. I just returned from the amazing WordCamp Boston where I attended as a speaker (surrounded by gorgeous New England fall weather), and I’ll soon be off to WordCamp Orlando where I’ll be acting as a last-minute speaker substitution. In between, I’ve been doing a lot of prep work for WordCamp Chicago 2014, the planning of which should be formally kicking off in the next few week (shoot me a message if you want to be involved!) Needless to say, the topic of presentations has been ever present lately!
Over the course of the past year, I’ve had the privilege of being able to deliver educational talks at five WordCamps and several local Meetups, as well as attend fantastic presentations by both big-name WordPress community speakers and exciting local talent. While I am no Chris Lema (one of my favorite WordCamp speakers, and should you have the opportunity to attend one of his talks I highly recommend it), I’ve had plenty of opportunity to learn both behind the podium as a speaker, and in front of the podium as an audience member.
In my experience, educational talks are a little bit different than a motivational talk (like TED talks) or a sales pitch. Here, it is less about showmanship and persuasion, and more about clear communication. You don’t have to be exceptionally charismatic or sales-y to be successful, but there are still some good practices to follow. Here are some useful tips for people that are ready to get started giving educational presentations:
1. Be familiar with your material
While you don’t necessarily have to memorize your entire talk beforehand (standing behind a podium and giving a talk with slides and notes is pretty common with educational presentations), that doesn’t give you license to stay up half the night before your talk frantically putting a presentation together. Many presentations have to be revised and re-revised from their original state in order to make ideas and concepts flow together better, or make them more clear. Give yourself some time to do this! Whether you prefer give your presentation in its entirety to a small test audience, or just read through your slides a few times, make sure you are not surprised by your own content as you are giving your talk. This isn’t just limited to the material in your presentation either: try to anticipate what questions might arise so that you can have some answers.
2. Keep your slides simple and visually engaging
I may be biased as a designer who designs presentation slides for a living, but should you choose to have slides with your talk (and most educational presentations do use slides to present examples or key takeaways), how your information is presented on your slides is just as important as how you speak. I could write an entire article just on presentation design, but the rule of thumb is to keep it simple: use a large, classic font, don’t use too many different fonts or colors, and use interesting imagery when appropriate. Unless you’re showing a specific example (like a code snippet or chart), your slides should have minimal text with one or two key points each. I personally like to use the “could someone tweet this slide?” rule for deciding how much text to include (it has the added bonus of getting more people to tweet my slides, too) When in doubt, break it up or leave it off!
3. Your slides are not your leave-behind materials
If you’re following rule number 2, you might notice that your slides make a pretty lousy reference material for your audience, because there isn’t a whole lot of content for them to read later. And that’s ok! If you want to put together reference materials, create a separate document or place for them to reside that you can share with your audience. I put together a link page on my website that contains several things I use or reference in my presentation. You can get creative with your leave-behinds: I’ve seen simple paper handouts, link aggregations, entire web pages, GitHub repositories, you name it! These will also provide more value to your audience because they do not have to be read linearly.
4. Be ready for things to not go as planned
Although it’s best to be prepared and test all of your technology beforehand (Does your computer hook up to the projector? Does your remote device or app work with your computer? Do you have all the right fonts installed?) sometimes things will still not go according to plan. While it hasn’t happened to me (yet, knock on wood), it’s good to know what to do in case the worst should happen. I’ve been to presentations where the computer stopped working during code demonstrations, but were still successful because they turned into an open Q&A. Audience members can also ask questions in the middle of a presentation, which could derail your flow. Plan for what to do if this happens!
5. Admit when you don’t have all the answers
You are being asked to present as an expert on your topic, but that doesn’t mean you have to know everything! If you are asked a question where you are unsure of the answer, don’t just make something up. You have the option to open up the question for other members of the audience to answer, starting a useful dialogue (just remember, if the talk is being recorded, to either mic the audience members that are speaking, or paraphrase their questions and answers for the recording).