It’s hard to create an engaging talk that will captivate audiences and help them understand your key points. Early in my speaking career, I struggled to find a process that would help me make better use of the hours of work required to build a strong talk. I eventually found a model in my own industry of software engineering.
“Make it work, make it right, make it fast” (often attributed to Kent Beck) is a maxim for building software. It basically says that software development should focus on a working implementation of each feature (not worrying about elegance), then improving the code (refactor, eliminate code smells, etc.), and then making the code performant. This maxim is meant to reduce the risk of delay caused by spending too much up front time thinking through all the ways the feature can be implemented.
While I think most people think of this maxim too serially, it’s a good guideline for thinking about code. I have a similar maxim for building conference talks: “Make it factual, make it friendly, make it funny”.
Make It Factual
“Make it factual” means that the talk has to be based on facts. I have to make sure that I’m creating a talk with sufficient supporting material instead of anecdotes or Wikipedia research.
This also means that the talk should be tailored to the facts that concern the audience. Conference organizers are great sources of information for this because they should be able to tell you the theme of the event as well as the profile of the people who will be in the audience. This is key information because attendees can tell if you’re speaking to their everyday experiences or just sharing general talking points.
Trade associations are also great sources for research. Most events are in industries that have groups set up to share information, and their websites and newsletters are great ways to understand the topics that are at the top-of-mind for event attendees.
Audiences love learning things that they didn’t know before (especially if they feel that it’s something they should know), and sprinkling interesting facts throughout my talks is a great way to keep them engaged. One way to share interesting facts is to include current events (in their industry or in popular culture), and link them to the topic of your talk.
Make it Friendly
After I make it factual, I “make it friendly” which means that the talk should be constructed for easy consumption. Most conference attendees have full-time jobs, and I don’t want my talk to feel like a part-time job.
The most important thing I can do to give a friendly presentation is to be passionate. If the speaker isn’t excited about the talk, then the audience won’t care about the topic. By showing my passion for the talk, the audience can relax and at least watch one person having a good time!
My presentations are heavily image driven, and I usually have one large image or fact (in a large font size) on each slide. I’ve felt my eyes glaze over when I’ve seen other speakers show text-heavy slides, and this usually results in less focus on what is being said by the speaker. So, I’ve learned to avoid a lot of text and have a “deep thought” to drive home each slide.
I also make heavy use of story-telling in my talks. Humans have a natural affinity for stories, and I usually weave two or three stories through my talks. Also, I always know the overall arc of my presentation with a clear mental path of the beginning, middle, and end of the audience journey.
Another aspect of making the talk friendly is understanding the pain points of the attendees. I know that I’ve been successful in addressing their pain when I see people in the audience vigorously nodding their heads. This is a sign that I’m empathizing with the audience and drawing them into my words. That’s the key to getting them to accept my solutions as viable answers to their problems.
I also use stories from my life to connect with audiences, especially when I’ve made mistakes and learned from them. People are attracted to vulnerability because we all have weaknesses but few people discuss their failures. By being willing to own up to my faults, I’m better able to offer authentic advice.
Make it Funny
For me, one of the hardest things to add to a talk is humor. However, audiences will usually fall in love with you if you can make them laugh. The whole talk doesn’t have to be a comedy set, but you should sprinkle enough humor through the talk to keep the audience engaged. Laughter is a great way to facilitate learning.
I often find humor in the facts of the talk or in the situations from my life that I use to illustrate points. Often, it’s only after I’ve rehearsed my talk several times that I find the funny bits.
I’ve learned that jokes may work with some audiences but fail with other audiences. This is ok! Just because a joke falls flat doesn’t mean that you should remove it from your talk, especially if people have previously responded well to it. I have a joke in my Leadership Lessons from the Agile Manifesto talk that has resulted in rapturous laughter in front of several groups. However, that joke has occasionally been met with crickets at other events. Nevertheless, I’m definitely keeping it in because I know that it works way more often than it doesn’t.
I try to not be too serial with “make it factual, make it friendly, make it funny”. When I’m researching a talk, if I think of a funny line or find a great image, I’ll put it into the presentation.
However, this approach does help me avoid spinning my wheels early in the talk’s evolution. Instead of looking for stock images or trying to insert jokes, I can focus on facts. Once the factual backbone of the talk is in place, I can go back and layer on imagery, fonts, humor, etc.
I’ve found this process to be immensely helpful in shortening the time between when I think of a talk and the creation of a viable version that’s ready to share with audiences.