Give The Talk; Don’t Talk About The Talk

I recently got to attend OSCON in Austin, Texas, and it was a great experience. Before the main conference I spent two days going through a hands-on Software Architecture training course led by Neal Ford. Towards the end of the training he took some time to discuss presentation techniques. In that portion of the training he brought up an anti-pattern many presenters engage in. Since he called attention to it, I have found it hard not noticing it when it happens.

© Randomgreek / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 (original)

For anyone who has attended a conference, or any kind of event involving presenters there has certainly been someone who has done one of the following:

  • Apologized for their presentation
  • Called attention to how rushed they’re going to be
  • Complained about equipment that appears to be working

Whenever this, or similar, comments come up during or before a presentation it is wholly irrelevant to the audience. At best the audience is going to ignore these meta-details, and at worst the audience will become annoyed by them. Neal Ford calling attention to this tendency of “Going Meta” made me much more aware of this in relation to my own presentation style and that of others. While attending OSCON it was a common enough occurrence to make it into my top things learned from this conference.

Providing for more flexibility will lead to less temptation to chatter nervously about the presentation and give better focus on the presentation.

This presentational anti-pattern is really easy to counteract by just giving the talk! There is no need to talk about the talk, or about the circumstances before the talk unless they are germane to the talk’s actual subject. Avoiding this anti-pattern is all about making the best use of the time available for actual presentation content. It’s also important to avoid this kind of time-wasting because the audience gains nothing from it, and it could distract from the actual value of one’s intended content.

Some ways to avoid introducing meta-content include being well-prepared for a presentation, arriving and setting up well in advance, and intentionally structuring your talk to allow shortening or lengthening at specific points. It is important to take steps to alleviate causes of nervousness and instill confidence before taking the platform. This may involve having spare equipment on hand, or preparing to give the presentation without the aid of slides. Providing for more flexibility will lead to less temptation to chatter nervously about the presentation and give better focus on the presentation.

Remember, people attend talks to hear about the subject in the program. Nobody really cares about the projector, or the presenter’s sleeping habits, or some oversight made in preparation. Audiences come to hear the presenter’s perspective on a specific topic. So, presenters ought to endeavor to deliver on that, and make the best impact they can to that end.

For Further Reading

There are numerous other ways to sabotage a presentation, and lots of ways to improve their impact as well. One book I highly recommend that discusses the anti-pattern presented here, and many more helpful insights for presenters is Presentation Patterns by Neal Ford, Matthew McCullough, and Nathaniel Schutta. Anyone who already, or would like to, regularly present in any context should give serious consideration to picking up a copy of this book.

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