How to Tame the Technical Talk

For many technical experts, being asked to give a talk mean furiously cobbling together slides at the last minute and nervously approaching the front of a room full of people.

It doesn’t have to be that way. A well-done technical talk can transform a software project and launch a career to the next level.

As someone who has now given several technical talks, I embarked on a journey that changed my perspective on technical talks from a necessary evil to a transformative experience (for the audience and for myself).

Major Hayden
The author speaking at a Rackspace Solve event in Los Angeles.

I was asked recently to share that journey. Below are some of the main points; you can also check out the entire slide show “Taming the Technical Talk“:

Getting started

Start by imagining that everyone in your audience has signed a contract stating that they will do at least one thing you ask them to do in your talk. Technical people always believe in redundancy, so come up with three things you want your audience to do when they leave the room, with the hope they’ll do at least one.

Write those things down first — this is the backbone of your talk and it’s why you’re going to invest the time appealing to your audience.

The book Switch: How To Change When Change Is Hard talks about how to make change within groups of people. It fits really well with a technical talk since we want our audience to start doing something new or stop doing what they’re already doing. It introduces three concepts:

  • The Elephant: this is a metaphor for human emotion. Emotion is extremely powerful but it has a lot of inertia. Getting it to move when it doesn’t want to move is a real challenge.
  • The Rider: this is the rational side of our brain. You’ll need facts and hard data to win over the rider, but the rider cannot turn the elephant by itself. The elephant must want to move in the direction the rider wants to go. Only then can the rider make small adjustments.
  • The Path: when the elephant is moving and the rider has bought in, you must set a path between both of them and the finish line. This keeps them both engaged in the longer mission.

Appealing to emotion

Dealing with something mushy like emotion isn’t easy. However, appealing to human emotion ensures your talk will have the greatest possible impact. You can appeal to your audiences’ emotions with:

Anecdote of failure: take the audience on a journey with you when you failed. Bring them through the rough patches and show them the light at the end of the tunnel. This was very effective in my impostor syndrome talk, when I discussed my failures shortly after being promoted.

Gentle humor: highlight behaviors you want to change with humor. This is most effective for audiences who already know something about the pain you’re talking about. Be gentle, though: poorly executed humor can offend people.

Authenticity: audiences can detect with laser precision when you don’t care about your topic. Be genuine to your topic and your demands.

Practice!

All of your preparation, effort and emotional investment are worth nothing if you can’t deliver it. Your chances of success increase dramatically the more you practice. However, it’s important to spend time in the right areas, and in the right order. Here’s how I divide up my time leading up to giving a session:

  • First half: Define your demands and appeal through an outline
  • Next quarter: Make your slides
  • Last quarter: Practice, refine and repeat

Every speaker has his or her own process. Mine involves preparing one hour for every five minutes I plan to speak. That’s six hours for a 30 minute talk and 12 hours for a one-hour talk.

When it comes to slides, here the rules I follow:

  • Slides exist to enhance your talk, not replace it or distract from it.
  • Bullets are okay, but don’t over use them.
  • Use appendices for charts, tables, numbers and code samples.
  • Spend one to two minutes per slide at a maximum.
  • Record audio while practicing and play it back while scrolling through slides to refine your talk.
  • Share your session with friends and coworkers to get new perspectives — this particularly helps ensure you land your emotional appeal the right way.

Delivery

Don’t forget to breathe. When we get nervous, fight or flight takes over. This is the same system that kicks in when we’re being chased by a huge bear. Keep your body in check by taking deep breaths before you start.

When you’ve finished your talk and think you’re out of the woods, questions suddenly appear. But fear not. The key to handling them is not to ramble. Use two methods I learned from the great Billie Shepard when answering a question:

  • Enumerate your response with a 1-2-3: Make three brief statements to answer the question, calling out the numbers for each as you go.
  • Detail the past, present and future: This is very helpful with pointy questions or questions from the press. Briefly, in one sentence or less, explain how things were in the past, how they are now and where you want them to be.

Remember: the key is not to ramble.

Defining success

A successful talk is one that gets your point across to your audience, who are then willing to make a change.

Remember to take feedback from the audience and use it to improve your current talk and future talks. As in all things, no matter how good you think you are, there is always room for improvement — our deficiencies are just more easily noticed in public speaking.

One of my favorite quotes about public speaking is from Dale Carnegie: “There are always three speeches, for every one you actually gave. The one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.”

As you improve, the gaps between those three speeches will disappear.

Major Hayden builds OpenStack clouds as a principal architect at Rackspace. Major is a core developer in the OpenStack-Ansible project with a focus on improving information security in OpenStack deployments. He holds multiple Red Hat and Global Information Assurance Certification (GIAC) certifications and has written extensively about securing virtualized Linux environments. Outside of OpenStack, Major has contributed to several open source projects including dracut, systemd, and Ansible. Within the Fedora Linux community, he serves on the Fedora Security Team and Fedora Server Working Group. He enjoys writing on his personal blog, major.io, and he talks about technical topics on Twitter as @majorhayden.

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