Building My First Tech Talk

Ever want to give a tech talk to your peers? I recently built and delivered my first tech talk and I’d like to share my experience.

Motivation

There are several factors that have contributed to my desire to to make a tech talk. The first is that one of my career goals is to become more involved with my local developer community. I am fortunate to live in a city that has a vibrant technical community and I wanted to contribute something to that community.

If you would like to know some of the benefits of becoming involved more in your local tech community, watch this video (It’s currently free):
Get Involved

The second reason is that when I was in college, I participated in forensics (speech and debate) and miss publicly speaking. I’ve thought about joining Toastmasters or a similar organization, but doing a technical presentation is more accessible and congruent with my career goals.

The final reason is that the best way to learn something is teach it. Teaching a subject requires in depth knowledge and the fear of looking like an idiot encourages you to thoroughly learn your subject material.

Process

The first step in build a talk is picking a subject to talk about. For this talk, I decided to demonstrate D3.js, a JavaScript data visualization library. After using it at work and seeing how powerful the library is, I really wanted to dig into it more.

I recommend picking something you are personally interested in, and not worry about whether or not you are currently an expert in your topic. Obviously don’t pick something you know nothing about, but don’t be afraid to branch out. Researching the presentation will help you become an expert.

The second step is to research. For my talk, I read Interactive Data Visualization for the Web by Scott Murray and many online tutorials. I also built lots of small demos.

After some research, start building an outline. This outline will probably change with new information, but it’s good to get an idea of what you want to talk about. Having an outline helps focus your research efforts.

While researching, I also built the demonstrations that I used in my presentation. My goal was to show the power of data visualization on the web, so the focus of my presentation was walking through lots of examples.

Tech demos have a tendency to fail, so it’s important to keep things simple and minimize dependencies. I made it a point to make sure my demos didn’t rely on any outside components. No databases, no web services, just local code. I also put my code on Github, so I could easily setup my project on another computer if I needed to.

After building the demo, and the outline, it’s time to put together your talk. If you have slides that you want to use, build those now. I had a few slides, but most of my presentation was examples and code demos.

After that, practice! Try to run through your presentation at least a couple of times. Rehearse in your head and out-loud. Give your talk to the dog or cat. Make sure your timing is good and your transitions are smooth.

Also, don’t write out your talk and memorize it. This will stifle your delivery and ability to go with the flow of your audience. Rehearse your key points and don’t worry about getting everything word for word. Your audience changes with every performance and it’s important to be able to cater to that audience. Memorizing a written speech will prevent that from happening.

Lessons Learned

So far, I’ve given my presentation twice. Once at the local .NET meetup group and once at my current employer. Both situations were different and provided different learning opportunities.

What didn’t go so well?

The one thing that surprised me was the awkwardness of transitioning in and out of PowerPoint presenter mode. My presentation initially consisted of an alternation between slides and demos of visualizations on the web. Unfortunately, PowerPoint made those transitions really awkward. To fix this, I ended up pulling those slides and just showing the demos. Less PowerPoint is not a bad thing.

I ran into another issue when I gave my presentation to my current employer. I didn’t realize that I was also giving my presentation to the non-technical staff as well as the developers. To adapt, I spent more time talking about general data visualization concepts and less time walking through code. I also told my audience that the second part of the talk was more technical. I can’t stress enough about how important it is to cater to your audience.

What went well?

I was surprised at how well the question and answer portion of the talk went. Studying up for the presentation really paid off.

I also felt like I adapted to changing circumstances well. This is probably because my forensics career in college was spent in limited preparation events, where you need to be able to think on your feet.

I put all of my talk materials on Github, so people could follow along and download the code themselves. I had a number of positive comments about that.

Tips

  1. Adapt to your audience and your situation. Don’t regurgitate a canned speech.
  2. Publicly share your demo code and slides.
  3. Beware of potential technical difficulty. Pre-load any web pages and make sure all of your code functions correctly. Make sure all of of the A/V stuff works (like font sizes and slide transitions).

Conclusion

I am glad I made this talk and plan to make more in the future. The whole experience was highly educational and it felt good to make something useful for the community. I can’t recommend it enough.

I’ll be speaking at That Conference in August, so please check out my talk.

Talk Code and Slides

About the Author Dustin Ewers

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