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Tech talks don’t have to be boring (billwadge.com)
76 points by herodotus on March 11, 2022 | hide | past | favorite | 50 comments

I agree with most of this, but I vehemently disagree with the 12 slides. Especially if you follow the rule that there is only one point on each slide, that's an awfully shallow talk if you only have 12 points.

I've given talks all over the world and many were highly rated, and I usually average 2 slides per minute. A 40 minute talk will have almost 80 slides in it.

It's like the author didn't read his own advice, he says

> Everyone with functioning eyesight is a visual learner.

And also

> Eight is the maximum number of slides you should give in a talk, whether 20 minutes or 50 minutes.

So which one is it ? you want people staring at the same 12 slides over 50 minutes or you want to actually show them something ?

I'm usually more like one per minute or two. I have noticed that as conference talks have generally gotten a bit shorter though I haven't tended to really cut back on the number of slides. A lot depends on my style for a given presentation. I do generally keep the word density down in any case but some presentations have more supporting text than others.

He does also argue for very simple slides so he's really almost arguing for not using slides at all other than to reinforce some specific points.

The most effective presentation style I have ever seen used literally hundreds (if not thousands) of slides, but in a way I had never encountered before. I’ve heard it described as the Lawrence Lessig presentation style, but my introduction to it was a presentation about “Identity 2.0” by Dick Hardt, and his is still the best I’ve seen. It absolutely blew me away, both as a presentation style and a mechanism for conveying information/message (ideally they’re the same thing, but I have sat through some presentations that are entertaining but devoid of content).

Dick Hardt’s presentation is at https://youtube.com/watch?v=RrpajcAgR1E&t=6s - the content has aged a little (though less than I expected before I just rewatched it) but if you’ve never seen it, I encourage you to watch it; it’s not that long, it will feel even shorter than it is because it’s so engaging, and it certainly illustrated to me how important communication skills are and improved my own presentation style.

Had to stop watching after two minutes due to a smugness overload. Sorry, not my preferred style.

This is a good primer for people who don't know how to present. It's very much the "intro paragraph, 3 body paragraphs, conclusion paragraph" kinda guidelines they teach you in school for writing papers - applicable only when you have no experience.

Once you gain some experience, 4 is the only one I would say is a hard rule. Experience will teach you how to break all of the other rules effectively, as every other rule entirely depends on context. The main reason why tech talks are boring are two reasons - inexperienced presenters, and that engaging talks take time to prepare.

One tip I'll give for people is don't rely a script. If you have a script, you're writing emotion and adaptability out of it. Teaching content is a dance with the audience - you have to adapt to how they respond in order to present effectively. Give yourself an outline, and in your head run through twenty different ways you'd present that information to people. Knowing how to dynamically present your slides means you can engage with your audience far better and you can take time to read the room. If you present a talk twice, it should be different each time as the context changes.

> One tip I'll give for people is don't rely a script.

I always write out a script before an important presentation. I number it with the corresponding slide numbers and read it out loud as I'm presenting. And now you're probably imagining falling asleep to the quiet droning of a disinterested high-schooler reading out loud in literature class, but that's only because most people never practice reading out loud effectively. I've practiced it a lot, and now my reading aloud sounds much better than me just speaking naturally. Practice it!

You're right that it's important to be able to adapt a bit, but usually that just means answering a question or two and getting back to the script, or skipping around the script a bit.

I disagree, a script is a great tool, especially if you're not an experienced speaker. You just need to put emotions in it, and know how to act them out correctly, in many ways like an actor. The actor on a stage (or in front of a camera) doesn't react to the audience, but can still tell a compelling story. This takes practice, which takes time. Sadly, too many speakers don't even do a dry run before their presentation.

It does not help that there are two number 4s in the article, but I'm assuming you mean the "don't read text off a slide" one, which yeah has very few situations where it would make sense to break.


Hard disagree with rule #2:

> 2 – Present at most 12 slides, no matter the length of the talk

The longer you sit on one slide, the more boring your presentation gets. Make hundreds of slides! Most should flow directly into the next (adding a single bullet, highlighting something else, emphasizing different parts of a visualization, etc.)

That "rule" is directly in conflict with rules 4.5 and 7:

> 4.5 – Visual, visual, visual

> 7 – No complex slides, whether text or images

You can't get by on 12 slides if each slide is supposed to be super visual but also not complex. Make 100!

9 x 10^157 slides might be too many no? ;)

factorials :)

One reason tech talks are specially boring to me is that the vast majority are about tooling/implementation, instead of topics/ideas. Another is that a surprisingly (to me) amount of people who do these talks do it just for content creation purposes.

> Another is that a surprisingly (to me) amount of people who do these talks do it just for content creation purposes.

Well, creating even a mediocre talk takes a LOT of effort. As a speaker, what do I get out of it? Presenting at anything "open source" almost certainly means I'm not getting paid for it. And, unless I can give a talk at least twice, I can't amortize the cost of it.

My two biggest problems in giving a tech talk are:

1) The audience is all over the map

If you give a talk about doing something in USB on Linux, some of the audience won't know what USB stands for. Some of the audience probably write driver code. This is a VERY difficult audience to communicate to.

2) Covering something meaty but not taking 3 hours.

Choosing USB on Linux again. To not take 3 hours, I have to dispense with the USB basics and launch directly into the specifics on Linux. Even that probably means that I'm talking about character devices on /dev that a lot of people have never dealt with. And after that, I can get down to talking about the cool thing that I actually wanted to talk about.

>The audience is all over the map

Yep. And lots of people don't pay attention to the difficulty rating which is usually there. (And what is there is often inaccurate--relative to what?)

I've given talks where I've simultaneously had feedback that the talk went over someone's head and that it was too high-level/fluffy.

My tips for consuming "boring" tech talks is just to listen it, without watching the video. You can do some attention-light tasks like housekeeping or exercise while listening.

The problem of the boring tech talks is that they demands a lot of attention (visual) but doesn't return enough stimulation. Your mind starts wandering without the enough stimulation/entertainment. So just give them less attention.

Not all the tech talks are good speaker, and not all tech topics are good fit for an entertainment. I'm fine to accept that fact and adjust how to consume them.

That's said, I hope there are more audio-focused tech presentations out there. If you know any good series or something, please let me know.

100% agree. Maybe podcasts would suit better for this purpose? I suggest Modern Web[1] and Soft Skills Engineering[2]. Both are also available outside Spotify.

[1] https://open.spotify.com/show/5FGA58foRFkJ6IgJbCFYgm?si=tDKE...

[2] https://open.spotify.com/show/59I1XnvAB9fQzSj9SIKCoI?si=v58-...*

I've been thinking about doing that with the video lectures recommended by Teach Yourself CS [0] but I was afraid I would miss too much by only listening. I drive for two hours twice a week so it would be a great way to pass the time and learn something at the same time. Did you ever try it with a complete lecture series?

[0] https://www.teachyourselfcs.com

I think all audience driven endeavours should be passed through the lens of "is it entertaining?"

That doesnt mean you have to sacrifice information or rigor. But if excellent information is said and nobody was listening was it ever really said at all?

I would like to nominate a Scott Hanselman keynote (or conference talk) as an example of one such talk. I think he blends humor well with information dense presentations.

Mike Monteiro was good (but I haven't heard much from him, lately). He seems to channel "The Angry Designer." I enjoyed his "F**k You, Pay Me" talk[0].

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVkLVRt6c1U

This has absolutely been my experience as well. The one thing to be careful about is losing sight of the content while making it entertaining. I've swung a little too far a few times, and risked my tech talk looking more like a standup routine.

> Don't read text from a slide

This. So much this. I can read, man. I can read while you're talking. I can read it faster than you can say it. So if you read the text, you're going to take longer than I am, and then I'm going to have to wait for X seconds while you slowly get around to finishing telling me what you've already told me. And every one of those seconds, you're losing more and more of my attention.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jlPaby7suOc&t=13s is a fantastic parody talk, and this is one of my favorite moments of it

Find the presentation: Instantly Better Presentations by Damian Conway in YouTube from 2011. Notes are in http://damian.conway.org/IBP.pdf

It will be the best 50 min investment you can make to make you a better presenter.

The format is bad - you can't fix it.

If you have something to say, write a blog post, make a short audio/video clip.

Going up on a stage and presenting is so yesterday. We have near infinite movies and tv shows to watch and we don't, because boring, and you expect to keep people's attention with your presenting-this-for-the-first-time-lol thing?

Get with the times folks - if you have something to say, just go ahead and say it in 30 seconds and give me a link to a 5 minute thing, that gives a link to a 30 minute thing. It's called the internet - you don't need to mimick presenting in front of a class - that was a necessary format due to limitations, not an ideal format because of how great it worked.

Conferences serve a lot of different purposes. Now, aside from more in-depth workshops, I do think that presentations could often be shorter and more about why you should check something out, what its purpose is, etc. and point people to more detailed resources for a deep dive rather than trying to cover everything in 40 minutes or whatever.

People learn things differently. Some people learn a lot better in a lecture than reading it. Also it gives you a chance to interact with the speaker and other audience members at the same time and ask questions and have a discussion. It also lets the speaker tailor the talk to the audience and their questions.

Both formats have their place, and often a talk is turned into exactly what you describe -- a blog post with a text description, a highlight reel, and the full talk (that you can watch at 2x speed if you really want to).

I watch quite a few tech talks (via Youtube, mostly conferences), mostly to familiarize myself with concepts, and tbh I rarely have issues being "bored" by talks like the ones described as boring in this post.

I get bored, however, by fluffy talks that have lots of memes and pictures and big text and anecdotes. In any reasonably complex actual tech talk, you'll have concepts that need slides with a bit of text and maybe even formula (or code), simply because the audience will sometimes get distracted or forget what you said a minute ago. I find that perfectly fine and better than the alternative.

So overall this seems to be advice for people who wish their tech talks were actually TED talks.

The worst is when someone derails their own talk by putting up pics of their dog or cat and saying "oh yeah, there's my cat, Marbles, he's super cute and thinks he's helping". Of course they can't just do it one time, so they have to sprinkle Marbles the cat through the entire presentation. The audience gets distracted, everyone says "aww", and by the end you realize you didn't absorb any value from the last 20 minutes.

This annoys me too, especially since you can add a pet as fluff (pun intended) to a talk, while also integrating them as an example. I use my dog to demo things all the time. "here's our sample user, Lucy. She's not too smart, so let's see how she navigates this UI". That's just a good speaking tactic.

And that is incredibly effective. You're using your dog pics to anchor ideas in people's heads!

When people remember your preso, they'll remember the dog images, but those will all represent some meaningful take-away from the talk.

Exactly! Brian Holt did this effectively in his (excellent) React course for Frontend Masters. He started off by introducing his dogs... And then built a pet adoption app. Brilliant, lots of hooks (literal and figurative) involving cute puppies literally built in to the project.

Yeah this is a great example of how to do it. Just enough of a change up to refocus attention on what you're saying.

Yeah at least that's more clever and legitimately humorous.

And more importantly, it's on-topic. Adding flavor to a presentation can be tricky, you can't just toss unrelated information in there and keep the audience focused, you have to integrate it into the data you're presenting.

We're engineers, social intelligence isn't our specialty, but this is pretty easy to codify.

Yeah the second I see a random animated gif or a reference to marvel or something like that it's like someone flipped a switch in my brain to "off". I almost immediately check out. I just want you to tell me what the thing is, what it does, and how to use it, I don't need to see that "shut up and take my money" meme again.

Perhaps we can collectively train a Deep Learning model to skip those boring parts ...

But collaboratively editing the videos would already be a step forward.

If only YouTube allowed us to write some plugins ...

Sponsorblock is a similar premise, just crowdsourced rather than ai.

I used to be super into conference talks. But now I just google the title and skim an article on it. I sometimes see talks of handful of professional conference speakers instead of people who looks like they were forced to give a speech.

If you are into Python, Raymond Hettinger and Brandon Rhodes is all you need.

Well I can tell you this advice would improve my student's talk 100%.

The moment I read the headline, the first words to come to my mind were - "How to Grow a Language" by Guy Steele. Hadn’t the author heard that?

Then, when I read the piece, most were already known to me.

One should watch the marvelous guide by Patrick Henty Winston- "How to Speak".

He also has a book called- "Make it Clear". I highly recommend this.

By all means check out Winston, he's the master. Yes, you can find most of my rules elsewhere. But people don't know them. My student didn't. And my guess he picked up his bad habits listening to bad talks by clueless people. So these principles bear repeating.

Hear hear! I came to mention "How to Speak" (https://youtu.be/Unzc731iCUY) but it makes even more sense to amplify you thoughts.

Pretty arbitrary and boring set of rules. Would discuss with few of them. Repeating obvious things helps people consume content, pay attention and actually remember. You start from obvious, lead people into unknown and get back to obvious, with few additional details added along the way. It’s like a good standup show, where comic catches you in 40 minute with a joke introduced in 3rd. Then you remember. Presenting obvious, well known, information in few interesting ways is mastery. And lots of simple, short slides might really help with dynamics of your presentation.

One general rule I give to speakers, and stand by it, is: take time to breath.

I don’t see proof of usability of this rules presented in article, so yeah, just arbitrary list, don’t mind it too much. Watch good standup, and learn presentation structure from those guys.

Yes, tech talks don't need to be boring and I agree on many points on the post. But also not just 12 slides, more like hundreds of slides.

One example I have is Chandler Carruths talk in CppCon 2019 "There Are No Zero-cost Abstrations" https://youtu.be/rHIkrotSwcc Chandler presents his point clearly and goes deep enough into the subject.

This makes sense if you're talking to business people. They don't know or care about the details, they're looking for something with basic graphics, a few big numbers, and some soundbites. I'd feel ripped off I spent my time at a tech talk in my area that did that.

This is one of my favorite tech talks: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHRO5WQGh0k&t=1s

GopherCon 2018: Kavya Joshi - The Scheduler Saga

i think like many things in life, step 1 is be charismatic.

these steps work well for making up the difference

BCI drone tech talks set the bar.

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