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Good talk and bad talk: A postmortem

I gave two short (5 minutes) talks internally recently. Both times, I had short preparation time. One went well, and one did go so well. So, here is the postmortem so I learn from this experience. I used slides for both talks.

What worked on both talks

  • Personal story: I started by talking something personal. It often gives an easy to understand context before I jump on to the main topic and give the full details.1
  • Don't let slide own you: I treated slides as visual-aid only. They are not the driver of the talk. I drive the talk, and the center of the attention should be me, my voice, and my expressions. Own the talk, and don't let slides own you.

  • Talk to one person: I found one person in the audience, and just pretended talking to her or him for a minute or two. It is much easier to deliver my words this way.

What worked on the good talk

  • Story first, description later: I threw a story up-front. The story should be relatable to the audience or at least the audience should internalize speaker's agenda through the story.2
  • Mental script: I scripted my talk or at least mentally rehearsed the talk very thoroughly. This is important especially because I am not a native English speaker.
  • Craft story first, not slides: I scripted my talk first before making slides in the spirit of not letting slides own me.
  • Conclusion matters: I finished strong by leaving a good summary of the talk as well as the last message.

What did not work on the bad talk

  • Know your audience: I cannot repeat enough that I should know the audience. The topic of my talk was hard to relate to many of them. It is much easier to talk the idea of a consumer app than about business-to-business solution or some specialized topic. If I cannot choose the right audience, I should try harder and focus more on delivering the high level message that are relatable, and talk much less on the technical details.

  • Focus on message delivery: I hopped too much around the windows on my desktop to show slides and demo. This is not only cumbersome, but also disruptive to my focus on delivering the message. I would minimize this hop-around by just copying and pasting the demo screen shots on the slide, so the delivery of the visual aid is a straight line.

  • The opposite of all bullet points in the good talk.

It was even horrifying to see many audience start frowning their faces as if they are shouting, "I don't get it!" Fortunately, some people who had shared the background seemed very interested in what I was presenting. So, in the middle of the bad talk, I gave up talking to everybody, and just focused on the handful audiences. That saved the overall value of the talk by a little.

It is always stressful to notice my talk is going in a wrong direction, and I cannot fix the trajectory. Such experience to me is a little traumatic and it haunts me for years whenever I recall. But those failures are valuable in learning this art. We cannot learn how to ride a bicycle without falling.

What is your experience in giving talks? If you have anything you can share, I appreciate your comments.

  1. I started to write blogs this way more often. Read the first paragraph of this entry. It gives much more natural and relatable introduction to the bullet points that followed in the article. 

  2. I took a Technical Communication course when I was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. The course was taught by Professor Thomas Keating, and it was one of the most valuable course I took as a graduate student. One key message in the topic of technical presentation was "Main point up front". But I think what I did not learn well back then was what the main point is from the perspective of the audience. For the speakers, probably the main point is what they put their effort most, but for the audience, it is more about "Why are you doing this?" and "So what?" parts. Laying out a story up front gives high chance of getting empathy from the audience. 

Original post: Nov. 26, 2014 | Last updated: Nov. 26, 2014

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