I had a great time as a recent panellist for the Belfast Lean In chapter, Women In Tech Belfast, discussing the nature of ‘tech talks’ and tips for writing and delivering them, as well as overcoming nerves as a speaker.
This post is an attempt to more eloquently gather my thoughts, and will hopefully be of use to anyone considering a talk. I’ve included videos of a few recent talks I’ve enjoyed for flavour. Sorry if my writing is a bit terse, but there’s a lot to get through!
Obligatory disclaimer - these are just my opinions, based on my experience as a frequent speaker and meetup host in the Belfast tech community. Onward!
- A ‘tech talk’ usually involves tools, technologies or techniques relevant to software and/or hardware
- Speaking is is a superb way to broaden knowledge, gain confidence, boost your CV, and give back to the community
- Giving a talk doesn’t mean you have to be an ‘expert’ on your subject
- Choose a topic you are passionate about, and link it to tech
- Make as many notes as you need to use when speaking
- Brainstorm and practice with friends to make yourself comfortable
- Seek support from organisers if certain aspects (e.g. taking questions) are a concern for you
- Everyone wants you to succeed!
What even is a tech talk?
The idea of a ‘technical talk’ can be pretty nebulous and intimidating. I’ve met people who are willing to speak as long as it’s not a ‘tech talk’, as if the idea is to be feared and avoided.
I would define it thus:
A technical talk is a presentation, discussion or exploration of specific tools, technologies or techniques related to hardware and/or software.
That’s really it for me. Note that I haven’t mentioned code slides, live demos, and so on. Your topic could work with a few diagrams, without the need for code, as might be the case for many tech subjects like networks, performance, and so on.
By comparison, ‘non-technical talks’ involve business goals, project/team management, personal journeys, occupational/mental health, and so on. These subjects sometimes lack representation, which is a mistake. They’re just as valuable as the most esoteric tech deep-dive, in my opinion, and arguably more accessible to a wider audience. That’s another blog post, perhaps. :)
Tech talks inherently require some familiarity with the nuts-and-bolts of a given topic, but you certainly don’t need to consider yourself an ‘expert’ - more on that in a moment.
Topics don’t have to be niche, unique, or advanced to have value. Straightforward talks are often more easily digestible. Even experienced people need a refresher now and again, and welcome the opportunity. Good events (like NIDevConf) try to represent the breadth and depth of the whole community, so you will nearly always find a spot that suits you.
So why do it?
There are many benefits to giving tech talks.
It’s most obviously a great CV booster and profile-raiser. The increased visibility is of great help to speakers looking for jobs, placements, collaborators, or support.
Giving a talk can really break the ice at meetups. You never know who might be in the audience, or what doors might open for you. (An oft-cited personal example: speaking at BelfastJS landed me a job at a startup whose CTO, unbeknownst to me, was in the audience.)
Public speaking in general is a valuable skill. In any group, you may have to share knowledge, or participate in meetings and workshops. Giving tech talks will help you practice and gain confidence. Over time, it can help to combat imposter syndrome and nervousness in groups.
Nothing spurs you to really grasp the core of a topic quite like speaking on it. Knowing a live audience will be consuming your content is a great impetus for learning. Your knowledge and skillset can only grow as a result.
Finally, speaking at meetups is a great way to give back to your local tech community. You gain the admiration of your peers and help the groups to grow, while inspiring new speakers to step up behind you.
The myth of the ‘expert’
Potential first-time speakers often worry that the audience will assume they’re an expert in their subject. There’s also a fear that you might present yourself as such by speaking. I don’t believe either to be the case.
Granted, some speakers inevitably are experts, but that’s because of their earned experience and knowledge, not because they’re standing on a stage.
The audience at a tech meetup just wants to be engaged, and hopefully learn something in the process. Anyone can help the audience achieve these goals, ‘expert’ or otherwise.
As a speaker, you have the power - if you wish - to tell a story, offer a unique viewpoint, and open avenues for discussion and learning. None of this requires an ‘expert’, just someone willing to stand up and actually Do The Thing.
Remember that audience members might be speakers themselves - in which case they understand and empathise - or are considering trying it. They may be held back by fear of exposure or judgement - the very same concerns you once had. By speaking, you set an example for them to follow, and they will reward you with support and encouragement.
Obviously, technical accuracy is important for giving tech talks, but that doesn’t mean you have to know every detail of a subject. As long as your talk content is accurate, to the best of your ability, that’s fine.
I maintain that a great time to give a talk is when you’re learning about your subject. The topic is fresh in your mind, you’ll have some teachable moments, and a perspective that more experienced attendees will find refreshing. Your positivity and (hopefully) lack of cynicism will be welcomed by the audience.
In short, you don’t have to be an ‘expert’, you just need to be willing. Your best, whatever that is, is more than good enough.
Choosing a topic
Your circumstances might make choosing a topic easy. If your education or job mandates the use of a particular tech, or you are interested in an experimental or emerging sector, you may have an abundance of subjects to draw from. Regardless, focusing on your topic can be tricky.
I believe writing and delivering talks is easier if you actually care about your subject. Choose something you’re passionate about, and find a way to link it to tech. That might be something related to the tech in question, like performance or best practices, but don’t be afraid to cast your net wider in search of inspiration.
If you’re an advocate for disability rights, consider hardware and software solutions to accessibility issues. If you’re multi-lingual, look at approaches to localization for sites and apps. If you’re into health and fitness, explore interesting ways to use and display data from phones and wearables. If you’re a photographer or artist, try your hand at graphics coding, algorithmic art, virtual reality, machine learning or computer vision.
Look at your own interests and see how you might be able to spin them. There are so many possibilities.
Technology and development impact our lives in so many ways. There’s nearly always something relevant to dive into that will inspire you and enrich the speaking experience. And if you’re passionate, it comes across to the audience, regardless of topic.
Putting a talk together
Everyone has a different approach for writing and presenting a talk. Whatever works for you is legitimate.
Knowing the scope and focus of your talk is important for keeping yourself on track and not letting the content meander too much. A good rule of thumb is: if you can’t write the synopsis of your talk in a Tweet, it’s probably too complex. Refine and simplify to make it easier to write and present.
Establishing the context for why you’re speaking on a subject, and how it might be of interest, is a good way to stay focused. It can help your confidence when it comes to delivery as well; it establishes a ‘reason for being here’. Try to convey the human element in what you’re speaking about, such as how you got interested in the tech, or how it impacts the lives of other people. It gives people a ‘way in’ to your talk, even if they’re unfamiliar with the tech involved.
If you are very passionate about the subject, don’t be afraid to show it. Loving a topic is a good enough reason to talk about it.
As a novice speaker, I would first write the entire talk verbatim in a text file, very much like a blog post, then edit and absorb it until I could deliver the gist of it verbally. During the talk I’d use bullet point notes to stay on track.
Nowadays I tend to start with the bullet points, and have an idea of the ‘story’ I want to tell: why I chose the topic, and what I hope to achieve by giving my talk. I’ll flesh out some sub-points for each main point, which I will hit during my presentation.
Being able to summarise what the audience will take away from your talk is important. Make a few bullets for that, and try to incorporate them. Showing these bullet points during the talk will help reinforce the ‘takeaways’ for the audience.
For actual presentation, I offer the following tips:
- Practice with your friends - It will help you focus your content, identify gaps, and get you comfortable with timing and flow.
- Try to not be network-dependent - Things happen at even the best-planned events. Don’t rely on the venue having good connectivity. Keep a local copy of your slides and content. If you’re doing code demos, host them locally.
- Keep a video of your demo - Live demos can blow up. This will make sure you can still convey your results even if things fall over.
- Use whatever notes you need - Lay it out in full, use Post-Its, cue cards - whatever works for you. That said…
- Don’t just read off your slides - Visual aids provide anchor points and context, but a wall of text isn’t engaging. Just reading off the slides is dull, and can shut the audience out. Eye contact of any sort - even just looking at the back of the room instead of staring at your laptop - helps connect you to the room.
- Bring support - Having a friendly face in the crowd is a massive confidence booster. They might even learn something. :)
- Breathe! - obvious, but take a moment to relax, hydrate, and let the audience digest. This isn’t radio; ‘dead air’ is allowed!
The idea of open Q&A seems a huge turn-off for some people. This is understandable - you may no longer feel in control of the topic, and may not know the answer to questions.
My first point: ‘I don’t know’ is a complete answer. As we’ve discussed, speaking on a topic doesn’t mean you are able (or expected) to answer every query. It’s perfectly okay to not know. Throw the question to the wider room if you like.
That said, don’t be afraid to take questions. You may well surprise yourself with your knowledge.
Questions are a sign that people are engaged, supportive, and interested. It’s not a matter of trying to ‘trick’ the speaker. Try to welcome relaxed discussion, without feeling like it’s a test of some sort. It can help to identify gaps in your talk, for future events.
Chat with the organiser/moderator of the event. They can advise you on Q&A format and how they manage the session. Be forthcoming about your concerns and let them help you.
Try to have fun with your tech talks! You’re in an environment of learning, with a receptive and empathetic audience, speaking about your interests and passions, while contributing to your local tech community. There are worse ways to spend half an hour.
I hope this post has been useful and has perhaps inspired you to stand up and speak. My DMs are always open for questions, advice, help and support.