“A mind that is stretched to a new idea never returns to its original dimensions.” ― Oliver Wendell Holmes
Define the one big idea that holds your talk. The big idea is probably not the latest tool or technique, but how and why of what you did. Use it as an anchor to build your talk. The idea should hold meaning for the audience. Answer why they should care about it? Show them what’s at stake and then they may engage with your talk.
“I never came upon any of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking.” ― Albert Einstein
Start by being a gardner. Sow a hundred idea seeds out there. Help them take roots. Some may sprout but others will die. Then be a sculptor. Look at all these ideas as a lump of clay. Start to sculpt it. Remove what is not making sense. Add back what does. Then you will have a sculpture. Start divergent & playful, and then be convergent & focussed.
“The right attitude for learning and creativity is to argue as if you are right and listen as if you are wrong, which strikes me as the right path for developing “strong opinions, weakly held.” ― Adapted from Karl Weick
Have a viewpoint. Don’t be rigid about it, but it needs to exist. Use the talk as way of build the connection and logic towards it. Most ideas are second hand. What makes them original is when you add your unique perspective to it. A viewpoint allows the audience to engage with it. They may agree or disagree, but it will definitely make them think.
“Humans are pattern-seeking storytelling animals, and we are quite adept at telling stories about patterns, whether they exist or not.” ― Michael Shermer
Scaffold a structure that you can hang your ideas on. The audience needs a way to understand how these ideas connect. Make it easy for them to follow. Repeat the structure through the talk and guide their attention. If you don’t provide an explicit pattern for them to follow, they will form their own implicit one and probably a different one.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald
We are attracted to contrasts - day and night, past and future, speed and endurance, or value and quality. Create tension by using two contrasting ideas and then resolve the tension to help amplify the message. The audience can engage on either sides and then go forward with an understanding of both sides
“It seems that perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.” - Antoine de Saint Exupéry
Try to simplify the idea and focus on the main message. Remove the unnecessary details and detours that happened in your journey. Edit and see if there is a simple perspective to share. Addition is mostly mindless, but subtraction can be mindful. When there is nothing more to subtract, you may have something good to talk.
“To develop a complete mind, study the science of art, the art of science. Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”” - Leonardo da Vinci
Start to look at the talks and presentations around you. Recognise the patterns in the ones that work. The stories, the metaphors, the tools, the style - just observe and be aware of them. Don’t copy them, but internalize them. Soon they will emerge out in your own unique way in your talks.
“The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say.” ― Mark Twain
Talk, don’t only think. Talking helps you see the rough edges in your ideas. There is no better mirror for your thoughts than your voice. Then write it down. Writing adds distance between the ideal in your head and what may actually work. Put the first draft on paper as soon as possible, as rough as needed. Then you can start fixing it.
“Every [pixel] on a graphic requires a reason. And nearly always that reason should be that the [pixel] presents new information.” ― Adapted from Edward Tufte
Choose a coherent and simple visual style throughout your slides. Think like a designer. Understand the basic principles of subtraction, contrast, repetition, alignment, proximity, and enclosure. Use the visual space wisely. Don’t be afraid of white space. Start to love it. Less is more and big is better for showing slides in a large auditorium.
“Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space.” ― Orson Scott Card
A visual metaphor describes the idea by providing a point of comparison. Use metaphors as a lens through which you can get the audience to resonate with your ideas and experiences. Models are evolved and codified metaphors which can help provide graphical structure to your ideas. Use them to show different views of the idea.
“Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.”” ― Arthur Brisbane
Don’t use dense text and endless bullet points on your slides. Slides are not notes for you to speak from, but cues for the audience to follow your talk. Remember, they can read faster than you can talk. Make every word count. Think if you can use a picture to support your idea instead. The right picture can convey the idea easily and compactly.
“Never invest in any idea you can’t illustrate with a crayon.” ― Peter Lynch
Ensure the graphics tells a visual story. The graphics engages the visual sense, and compliments the story, which hits the aural senses. Nearly all bullet lists can be converted to diagrams. Diagrams are visual representation that can help clarify hierarchy and relationships and make it easy to understand process and concepts. Makes some diagrams.
“That’s been one of my mantras - focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” ― Steve Jobs
Sketch your ideas before you start making slides. Ensure you have only one idea per slide. Choose the slides wisely. Design a focussed template for each type of slide: walk-in, title, section, quote, big-word, diagram. data-chart, image, video, walk-out. Think of hierarchy, flow, contrast, and unity of design within the slide. Make it simple and easy to follow.
“The main task for the author of visual narrative is to capture and control what the audience is looking at, and hence attending to, from moment to moment.” ― Colin Ware
Everything you put on the slide is what you are biasing attention towards. Think like a cinematographer. What do you put in each frame and what do you leave out. Choose what you focus in the frame carefully. Then as you transition between frames, see that you are able to hold the cognitive thread together. Don’t lose the audience in the transition.
“… even putting a good color in a good place is a complex manner. Indeed so difficult and subtle that avoiding catastrophe becomes the first principle in bringing color to information: Above all, do no harm.” ― Edward Tufte
Use colour to label, to measure, to represent or imitate reality and to enliven & decorate. Choose a colour palette, not random colours. Select colours found in nature, as they are familiar and coherent. Play with saturation & lightness. Add motion and animation to your slides, but with care. We are sensitive to motion, especially at the periphery of our vision.
“Form follows function - that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.” ― Frank Lloyd Wright
Use readable large text. Simple and pleasing graphics. Easy to understand diagrams. No flying animation or fancy 3D effects. No jazzy transitions. Use multimedia, but ensures it integrates well. It is not paramount that the visual style is memorable. What is important is that the substance of the message is memorable for the audience.
“Stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds and in doing that the change the way our brains work and potentially change our brain chemistry - And that’s what it means to be a social creature.” ― Paul J. Zak
Think stories, not slides. Try to think in prose, not in bullet points. Stories have characters, arcs, and emotions. Add them to your story. Think about your whole journey, and not only the final outcomes, and you will probably have a good story to tell. Try to get the audience to experience and participate in that journey.
“Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.” ― Hannah Arendt
Understand the storytelling triangle between the teller, the listener and the story. The key link is what the listener will eventually have with the story. You can only prepare, offer, suggest, guide this relationship in all humility. If the listener eventually can Retain, Recall and Retell, even a part of the story - you would have built this bond successfully.
“We experience life as a series of ongoing narratives. As conflicts, characters, beginnings, middles and ends.” ― Dr. Walter Fischer
Effective stories have a broad three-part narrative structure. A beginning, where you establish the problem (setup). A middle, where you elaborate the problem (conflict, struggle). And an end, where you resolve the problem (resolution). Build the spine of your story in these three parts. Once you have this structure, you can start to extend it.
“Writers use narratives to select from everything there is, and make contexts by putting the pieces into relation; that’s what writers do, they make contexts.” ― Paul Shepheard
Set up the context that the audience can relate to it. Provide them with a way to understand and get familiar with the story. Ensure there is a balance between the verbal and the visual messaging. Don’t repeat by your telling, what the audience can read. Instead create something they will remember like a shocking stats or an evocative anecdote.
“Stories teach, model, unite and motivate by transporting audiences emotionally.” ― Peter Gruber
Persuading the audience to a new perspective requires appealing not only to the logic (logos) but also to the emotion (pathos). Try to balance the analytical and the emotional part of your message. Personal stories can help enhance the emotional texture of your talk and help in this transfer of imagery from you to the audience.
“Rhythm. Life is full of it; words should have it, too. But you have to train your ear. Listen to the waves on a quiet night; you’ll pick up the cadence. Look at the patterns the wind makes in dry sand and you’ll see how syllables in a sentence should fall.” ― Arthur Gordon
Oral language allows you to use varying emphasis, speed, repetition to enliven the story. Repetition especially can help to reinforce information and can contribute to the rhythm and the tempo. Practice story improv and tell the whole or part of the story in 3 - 6 sentences. It will help you to understand the flow and find your rhythm.
“Dare to pause! The courage to stop the flow of words is an act of trust in the power of your presence, your non verbal communication and your relationship to your listener.” ― Doug Lipman
Silence is to story, what white-space is to visuals. Don’t run through your story at hundred miles per hour. Build in pauses and breaks within your telling. It allows the story to breathe and lets the audience catch up to where you are. Their imagination and imagery will work better, if they have the time in between to use it.
“What it boils down to is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”” ― Thomas Edison
Finish the story. It will not be perfect, but stories only get better as you keep telling them. But do rehearse. Don’t let making the perfect story come in the way of the rehearsal. Speak it aloud, get feedback, practice in person, on stage or on camera. The story will take its own life after that. And it will flow out with ease on the dais eventually.
“Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you.” ― Roger Ebert
Believe in your story. Nothing bores the audience more than an half interested speaker. Bring your passion and emotion to play in the story. Use the stage. Look at the audience, not the slides. Make eye contact with them. Show them that you belong there and you have something interesting to tell.
“Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.” ― Judy Garland
Don’t aim to come across as only smart and articulate, but as open and sincere. People are then more likely to trust you and your ideas. Remember, the more human the action, the more human the response. Don’t try to be the next Hans Rosling or Ken Robinson. You are not them. The audience wants to get to know you. Be yourself. Be real. Be authentic.
“To make our communications more effective, we need to shift our thinking from ‘What information do I need to convey?’’ to ‘What questions do I want my audience to ask?’” ― Chip Heath
Put the audience first. Never believe that you are the audience. And what is interesting to you, may not be that interesting to everyone else. Focus on what will engage the audience. Surprise them and show them something intriguing. Engage them in a way that they will take away something from the talk.
“We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works.” ― Douglas Adam
Technology is liable to fail at the last possible hurdle. Prepare for it. Test that your slides work on the conference projector. Bring any connectors you need. Bring backups on a usb drive. Test the audio and play the videos ahead of time. Ensure you can continue without wifi or 3G connection. Record your demos, just in case.
“There are four ways, and only four ways, in which we have contact with the world. We are evaluated and classified by these four contacts: what we do, how we look, what we say, and how we say it.” ― Dale Carnegie
Understand your voice ― pitch, tone, volume, rhythm and use variations of them appropriately. Try to keep the uh’s and um’s in check. Speak naturally as you would in a conversation. Make eye contact with the audience. Project emotion with your face. Have an open body posture. Use gestures appropriately and connect them with the content.
“A speaker should approach his preparation not by what he wants to say, but by what he wants to learn.” ― Todd Stocker
Make the talk interactive, if you can. Find ways to engage the audience through the talk. It could be questions, instant polls or reactions, simple activities that the audience can do or just options on an interactive charts. Prepare for them well. If the talk is not a lecture but a dialogue, then the audience is more engaged and you are likely to learn from it.
“So once you do know what the question actually is, you’ll know what the answer means.” ― Douglas Adams
Plan for audience Q&A and reduce your own talk time as needed. Keep it at the end or manage it between sections of your talk. Anticipate questions and prepare for them. Listen carefully and empathetically and then answer. Admit when you don’t know the answer. Don’t just walk off the stage. End the Q&A with a short recap of your main message.
“Saying hello doesn’t have an ROI. It is about building relationships.” ― Gary Vaynerchuk
Be social. Be accessible and engage with the audience even after your talk is finished. Take questions. Share slide deck and additional material with the audience. Engage on social media after the session. Get honest reaction and feedback. The talk is the first step in persuading the audience and building a long-term relationships with them.
So you want to read more. Maybe some examples will help. Here are different talk types that I have attended (& given) and have found them novel in their presentation. I have learned a few things from each one of them. By the way, I am not implying at all that they follow this framework (except for the last two which are mine!). All credit for the talk goes to the speaker, I just found them inspiring in their design and delivery.
“On the Building of A PostgreSQL Cluster”
by Srihari Sriraman Talk link: YouTube video, slides
Watch out for how Srihari weaves together four long stories and four short stories through his talk. He takes a complicated technical topic and makes it relatable through the stories. Each story in itself is a narrative journey through the problem, the quickfix, the root cause, the correct fix and the lesson learnt. A great example of how stories can help connect.
“Exponential Growth Models”
by Ashok Banerjee
Talk link: YouTube video
Watch out for how Ashok integrates the Q&A with his session. He uses the lens of exponential growth as the narrative tool to anchor the entire session. And his style was very professorial but in a good way. He carries the audience through with his Q&A approach baked into the talk, ensuring a high level of engagement and conversation.
by S Anand
Talk link: YouTube video
Watch out for the nice narrative arc – starting with Anand’s personal journey into text visualization to beginners viz to advanced viz. The content is engaging and the contexts are setup nicely. Also presented in a personal style with humour. There is a bit too much switching between screens but for a demo style talk it can work, if paced well.
“A Billion Snapshots - Principles and Processes in the Census of India”
by Varsha Joshi
Talk link: YouTube video
Watch out for how Varsha unpacks the entire principles and process of census using a simple narrative. The slides are kept basic and limited to one idea per slide. The text size is large and highlighted with font size. Large graphics are used to illustrate key issues and challenges in the process. The overall tone is very conversational and pleasing.
“What Happens with Firefox Crashes”
by Erik Rose
Talk link: Vimeo video
Watch out for how Erik builds a three part narrative. Starts with the big picture to answer why this is important. Then uses a singular anchor visual - the process diagram (with zooming and focus) to guide us through a complex system stack that is used. And then ends the talk with big patterns - teasing out the generic learnings for big data users.
“Co-occurrence Analytics: A versatile framework for finding interesting needles in crazy haystacks!”
by Shailesh Kumar
Talk link: Vimeo video
Watch out for how Shailesh takes one conceptual approach and applies it across multiple domains to give different perspectives. The use of the metaphors like needles, haystack and common terminology across examples anchors the audience understanding. The verbal rhythm is strong in carrying the message across along with humor and wit.
“Visualising Multi-Dimensional Data”
by Amit Kapoor
Talk link: Youtube video, slides
Watch out for how Amit gives a talk which is focussed on ‘show, not tell’. He builds up the concepts gradually from small to wide data and then uses a singular anchor dataset to illustrate all the concepts. It definitely helps that the talk is about visualisation, but the consistent design helps in communicating the message visually and vibrantly.
“Learning Djembe Visually with p5.js”
by Amit Kapoor and Ashok Kumar
Talk link: Youtube video, website
Watch out for how Amit and Ashok coordinate to give a talk with live music and live visualisation. With this many moving parts technologically, it is important to prepare well and use a tool that provides a seamless presentation. Also, it is critical to have good timing and communication between the two people on stage. Listening for cues is important.
So you don’t like this framework: See–Show–Tell–Engage. No worries! There are many good resources on the web on public speaking and giving a talk at a conference. Maybe you would resonate more with those. Browse through the links below to start that journey.