You don't have to be a professional speaker to give a compelling talk. Many great talks are given by inexperienced speakers.

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A great talk in 5 steps

The key to a good talk is the realization that the story matters most! Let's get from story to speaking in 5 steps.

picture from wikisid on wikipedia

1. Subject

First, pick a subject you care and know about. And, keeping the audience you'll be talking to in mind, think of what you want people to take away from the talk in one sentence. For biggest impact, pick something actionable. Examples:

  • "I want the audience to try out X"
  • "I want the audience to contribute to Y".

Then think of 3-4 things you want the audience to remember. People rarely remember many more details than that from a talk and this way you make sure they remember what you want them to. Again, keep the audience in mind!

    hint: If you really want to dive in code or other details, a workshop is a much better format. People remember better what they did than what somebody told them.

Let's say, for example, we talk about our web application - ownCloud. We want people to try it out, and we want to tell them three things about ownCloud:

  • It matters
  • It helps YOU
  • It is easy
Another example, if you talk about the ownCloud project:
  • We are a cool project
  • You should care
  • You can help
These are the main messages in your presentation.

picture by Geo087 on wikipedia

2. Slides

Once you have a subject and the messages, you have a structure. So it's time to grab a presentation tool and get on it. Create an agenda with these three messages. With this slide, you introduce to the audience that these are the things you want to talk about as defined in step 1.

You can now also create a title slide. For the title, go back to your 'single sentence goal' and think how to put that into a few actionable words!

    Try out ownCloud!
would work well for this talk. Add a slide about yourself and the basics are done.

Filling in the details

The key for the slides is this: YOU give the presentation, not the projector. The presentation should be fine without slides, but the slides should be useless without you.

Now we're going to create the slides, building roughly the following structure: picture from wikisid on wikipedia

To do so, follow these steps for each of the messages:

      1. Write everything you (might) want to say on the message in a document
      2. Read over it and pick out 2-4 common themes, the most important arguments
      3. Restructure everything to be grouped around the main arguments, discard what is left
      4. Create a slide with an overview of the 2-4 main arguments around the message
      5. For each argument, think of the best way to convey the general idea behind it (screenshot, graph, quote, picture...). Don't dump your notes in the slide, instead - let the viewer see a hint towards the big picture, you will tell them the rest!
      6. Then create the slides for each argument. Sometimes they need two or three slides, but ideally, keep it to one.
      7. The document with text will be the base for notes during the talk. The content is there - the slides are just to support you!
It is important to talk about the message from the perspective of the audience. Think from use cases, rather than technical abilities, and add examples!

Style tips - simplicity is key:

  • Limit the number of elements on a slide. Ideally, just one - be it a list, an image, a graph. Don't have more than two, really!
  • Lists should be short (under 5 items if possible). And don't use more than 2 words for each item or you'll be reading from the slide rather than giving a talk!
  • Quotes are awesome. Put a single quote on a slide and cut them to at most 20 words. If they're longer, speak the rest during the talk!
  • Pictures rock, too. You can discuss what is on the picture during the talk but don't describe it on the slide. Keep it full-screen, ideally!
  • Graphs should be simple. No labels, no grid lines - focus on the message of the graph, rather than the data behind it. You'll introduce the most important details in your talk: "this graph shows the number of users over time".
  • Variation keeps people awake. Keep words on a leash. Less of them is better. Usually, just the keywords are enough! Try making a slide with just one word on it, have a graph instead of statistics, a picture of a calendar rather than a list of events, a photo of somebody instead of the quote. Be creative!

Final steps

While making slides, keep in mind what your key messages are. Summarize frequently, repetition makes your audience remember! Summarize after each message section, mention what you discussed and what comes next.

Finally tell people where to find more information/get it/how to contact you, and add a slide where they can ask questions. Done!

picture from woodleywonderworks on flickr

3. Study

Now the slides are done, but you're not.

Author Malcolm Gladwell concluded that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill, and this is true for public speaking as well. You don't have to practice your talk 10.000 hours - but realize that every time you practice, you get that much closer to perfection! And, also noted by Malcolm, everything is practice. If you sit in the bus and go over your main topic in your head or talk to yourself on the streets, during a shower or in bed - it all helps.

The story

You now have an idea of what you want to talk about and you have slides which add up to a story. Next is thus to turn it into the presentation itself. The best way to do it: grab the slides, either on your laptop or printed, and practice the presentation. The details you have 'left over' from creating the slides at step 2 can guide you. At every step, you will find things to improve - make notes, changes, and re-do. A good trick is to simply write the presentation out entirely, or with short key words - what works best for you. You will find that it easily takes 5-8 times of going over the slides before your story starts to settle down, but that is perfectly fine!

Of course, as you mostly start at the beginning, this means the first half of the presentation is practiced 8 times, while the end only twice or thrice, but that is fine, too: getting started is always the hard part of a talk!

Timing

Once the story is stable, do one or two more runs through and time them. You can now adjust how fast you speak. Cut the presentation in sections (perhaps each of the major points?) so you can check during the presentation if you're going too fast or too slow!

    A tip is to put a series of screen shots or a little product demo at the end of your presentation. Depending on how you did time-wise you can go slowly through them, go faster or skip them completely. It creates a nice buffer, ensuring you're always ending on time!

Final preparation

Take your improved and adjusted notes and try to condense them down to very few words; or use strategic bolding on the text to create a backup for yourself. In any case, put the end result, be it short or full text, on paper (printed) or in the notes section of the slides. If, at any point during the presentation, you get stuck, you can resort to reading for a few seconds!

Your practice will ensure it is unlikely you will get really stuck. Yes, you might go off track, but the notes will pull you back, no worries. Don't rely too much on them - they are a backup plan!

picture from tomwsulcer on wikipedia

4. Speak

Now it is time for the actual talk. Now first of all: you will be nervous. And that is a good thing: some healthy nerves will keep your performance top-notch! So do not worry about it, nobody will notice.

Tools and setup

It is important to be well prepared with a stable, known-working setup. Updating your Linux to an unstable tree an hour before presenting isn't wise! Make sure you have the slides on both your laptop and on a USB stick. And perhaps one more time on your ownCloud instance!

Once you have had a chance to test your equipment and are on stage, be sure to have something with you to hold in your hands. Most people are very conscious of themselves if they are getting on stage, and hands are the biggest issue. A bottle of water, a pen or paper - these are all great to have with you.

Go, get them, tiger!

If you followed the guide, you will notice that while speaking, you will barely need your notes. You have a good, consistent story and you practiced many times, so while you won't say exactly what it says in your notes, you'll do fine. Better than you expected yourself! But keep an eye on the time, buddy, you might lose yourself in details and talk too much, or talk to fast. No worries, the screenshots at the end will save you!

5. sustain

Once you're done, be sure to not let your skills and experience slip. Watch the video or audio recording if there is one, improve the slides, submit them to other events - get better and enjoy sharing what you know!

Over time, you can diverge from the structure mentioned here, be creative with it - and still create easy to understand and effective presentations.

You can find many more tips on the web. These are a few good ones: 10 rules to instantly improve your presentations