Telling Your Story: Speaking for Non-Speakers

8 minute read

This year I was honored to be invited to contribute to the OSCON talks on presentation skills with my own take, Telling Your Story. I was placed into a slot where I was likely to have plenty of worn out attendees, the last slot on the second full day, so I went in there determined to give them a fun presentation and send them off into the evening chuckling.

My slide deck, as usual, is, well, not that easy to understand without my interpretive dance. But I’ve posted the video above, and I’ll explain what my main points were so you can follow along. I think it was a lot of fun for the people in the audience (it sure was for me!), and I hope it helps you out as well.

Telling your Story – Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires

Sketch notes by Aaron Sumner

Sketch notes by Aaron Sumner

Here’s my interpretive dance, in text. Let me know at @synedra on twitter if you need more context or examples and I’ll update the post!

I’ve been in the tech industry for almost 20 years, but it’s only been relatively recently that I’ve come to enjoy speaking to audiences – and now I just love it, I love telling people my stories to help them avoid my speed bumps or learn from my experiences.  I’m energetic and excited to give talks, and my only anxiety is small, just at the beginning of the talk, which I usually disperse with a few comments about a funny thing that happened to me on the way to the talk… So, what happened to allow for this change?

To me, there are two kinds of talks.

There are prescriptive talks, where the speaker is set up as the expert in the field, and the audience members are essentially students in a classroom.  This tends to create a barrier between the audience and the speaker, as questions can feel confrontational, so there usually aren’t very many.  When I’ve seen this happen, I feel like the speaker lost an opportunity to really interact with the audience.  And I personally, in all my time speaking, have never given this kind of talk… “This is how we do it” (I managed not to bust out into song at that point, so proud!)

The other type of talks are narrative talks.  “This is my experience.  This is the problem I/we had, the ways we tried to solve it, and the things we learned along the way.”  When you are telling a story from your own experience, you aren’t going to be called out as wrong.  If your audience members ask questions, well, that probably just means they need more context.  Thinking of your presentation in this way helps relax you as a speaker as well, since you can’t forget your lines when you’re just talking from your experience.  Take a breath, grab a drink of water, and realize that your 5 second break may feel like an eternity to you, but it will seem like a natural pause to your attendees.

Ok, and yes, like all teachers of presentation skills I have to bring the impostor syndrome into the picture.  We all feel that way sometimes, some of us more often.  Listen to the people you work with and for.  Don’t second guess yourself or compare yourself poorly to others.  Realize that you’re learning more about how to do things because you’re creative, smart, and good at what you do.  You’re not a fluffy white dog dressed up as a pug.  You might be a white dog (and that’s what’s needed!) or a pug.  But you don’t have to be the best at everything to be great at what you do.

The slide about Paris can be summed up pretty quickly.  Kirsten goes to Paris to give a talk.  Kirsten rehearses the heck out of her talk.  Kirsten turns into a robot chipmunk and gives the talk 2 octaves higher and in 1/3 the allotted time.  Fun times.  Kirsten never wants to be a public speaker again after that.

Rehearsing: Find the method that works for *you*.  For me, mirrors are awful. I critique everything about myself except the actual talk I’m giving (my hair, my clothes, the pitch of my voice), and eventually give up in frustration.  Rehearsing a scripted talk in front of friends is much better, you’ll find the right rhythm and help yourself remember the right phrases at the right time during your presentation.  My favorite technique is to tell the same story to different groups of people, with different wording, different phrasing, and no notes.  Buy your friends lunch and ask them to listen.  Use your slides sometimes and not sometimes.  Write down notes after you’re done, then erase them.  You’ll find some phrases with punch that you want to include, and they’ll come to you when you’re speaking.  The other thing I like to do is talk to my slides, taking notes as I do.  This helps me during the talk because if I’m drawing a blank, looking at the slide will remind me exactly what I meant to say during the slide.

Slides.  Fewer words is better.  If you have too many words and you’re anxious, you’ll bury your face in your laptop and read the words. Your audience will read the words.  Soon, you’re all reading them together and it’s like story time.  Followed closely by nap time with the cute kitten.  Putting fewer words on the slides may mean you need to take a few breaks to remember what you were going to say, but your audience will be absorbing the awesome stuff you said on the previous slide, and you’ll find your footing again.  I really don’t like speaker notes as you’ll end up using them as a crutch and talking to your computer and it doesn’t really care what you have to say.  Also, don’t forget, if you forget to say something you meant to say, you’ll have the opportunity to bring it in later.  It’s not on your slide.  How will they know?

I love putting pictures on slides. I use haikudeck for most of my presentations (really, check it out).  When I have code to show, I usually do so from my editor, if I’m giving a tour of a website or application I’ll do that live as well (what can I say, I live dangerously) – I still tend to wrap the conceptual ideas in haiku.  But if you are teaching something more conceptual, this is a great tool.  A few words.  Gorgeous pictures.  Bring your audience along with some visceral, emotional response that helps them feel what you want them to feel while you’re making with the vocal track.

As far as slide quantity, I generally find that one minute per slide is just about right.  I can talk longer than that, but that’s about the right amount of time for me to hit the right number of concepts during each slide, and it keeps me moving along.  I was asked about slide timers, but I don’t like them because I am always watching the audience to see if they’re enjoying particular parts of my talk or confused by others, and tailor the rest of the talk to match that… auto-advancing would kill my entire presentation style.  But if it works for you, great!

Anxiety, yep, it’s a thing.  It played a huge role in my Paris Flop, and the first several times you talk you’ll be anxious.  You need to find your rhythm, seek out your style.  For me, my main nemesis is that robot chipmunk.  But your talk is not a race.  Nor is it a play.  When you’re speaking from your own experience you can’t “forget your lines”.  Again, take a breath.  Drink some water.  Walk across the stage or forward a bit.  Count to 5 in your head. Peek at your slide.

That having been said, go ahead and memorize what you want to say for your first two slides.  They’ll likely be one about your talk, and one about yourself, and you’ll likely be struggling between too long and too short.  I try to keep these as short as I can, while giving folks an idea what they’re in for and giving them a good taste of my style to set the mood.

Your audience is your friends.  These people are here to hear what you have to say about the topic you’re talking about.  They want you to succeed.  They’re rooting for you.  Meet a couple at the beginning of the talk, or bring some friends to be in the audience.  And talk to the friendly folks.  The grumpy people… I know this is shocking but… psst… it might not be about you.  That person may be struggling with a work problem they can’t solve, or have had a rough day.  Don’t focus your energy on them, focus on the smiling and nodding people.  Watch what they enjoy and put more of that in there, and cater your presentation toward them, phrasing things in a way that they respond well to.  It’s kind of a fun game, actually.

The next several slides… hah!  I wrote it up when it happened – I worked at a company where we blogged EVERYTHING so it’s on the internet forever.  Thank you, 2007 self!

10 years later, I’m loving my life.  I love to speak, and I’m paid to speak.  I love helping people be successful and teaching them new skills.  I like writing sample code to inspire people, and tutorials to give them context.  I’m paid for all of that, and I go to conferences – sometimes to talk about my company and sometimes, like this time, to talk about other things that I’m passionate about.

I’ve learned that people love stories, and they remember them.  They come up to me a couple of years later to tell me how my wacky rube goldberg internet of things presentation inspired them to set up something fun with their kids, or they reach out to me to tell me I inspired them to try something new. This is awesome.

So, in summary.  Find your passion. Your story is there.

The best part of the presentation is that my hero, Damian Conway, was in the audience and appreciated my style. He was happy to hear that his presentation skills workshops were so influential. They were – they changed my life! Our styles are different, but we are both jazzed to have the opportunity to help people get out there and tell their stories.