This year I was invited to give a talk about our research in the Elis project during the annually recurring Malmöfestivalen. At the festival Malmö University organises something called “Stafett i Akademisk kvart.” Think of it as TED-style presentations where researchers from the university presents problems and possible solutions in an, hopefully, easy to understand way.
Having previously ranted significantly about how most presentations suck, of course I couldn’t say no to this invitation. It’s always a challenge to condense complex issues into sizeable pieces of information that a broad audience can understand. Here’s a short re-cap of how I prepared for this presentation.
Any presentation should start with trying to figure out who will be listening to your talk. What are their dreams? Their worries? What makes them tick? The more you know the better you can prepare.
- Look at last year’s video and try to get a glimpse of the audience and their reactions to the speakers’ comments. Recorded material, if available, is great to get a better feel for the speakers and the audience.
- Talk to the facilitators. They’ve met and dealt with the audiences from previous similar presentations.
- Use your imagination. I tried to create or jot down descriptions or characteristics of the type of people who would be there.
When dealing with complex topics I find its always useful to break sub-topics into metaphors that most people can relate to. The drawback with these is that they may not provide the entire truth. For example, in my talk I’m using the metaphor “apps for buildings.” And although most people quickly get an idea of what we do in the Elis research project, it is far from the entire truth. There might be a tradeoff between enjoyability and understandability at play here that is hard to balance.
- Break down your topic into sub-topics and relate those to simple ideas and existing (common) knowledge. Don’t try to go for all at once.
- Write down many many many metaphors and test them on people representative of the audience you are going to face. I tested my talk on my dad and a journalist friend not into tech at all.
I fiddled a lot with the structure of the talk. In general I find it more useful to play with this more than rehearsing every sentence of it. For this particular talk I actually wrote a manuscript. I did this for two reasons: 1) to get down the important messages and the metaphors related to those messages, and 2) to get test the structure of the talk. You could probably do without a manuscript but I found it helped me get the whole flow of the talk. However, it was a pain to get myself to write it and in the end I know don’t use it much.
- Experiment with several alternative structures before settling on one specific. Your first option is not always the most logical for your audience. It may be that they need basic concepts explained first in order to get the full picture.
- Try different “story patterns.” There are many ways in which stories are told. Find one that suits your audience, content and structure.
As I mentioned, usually I don’t write manuscripts to prepare my talks and presentations. This time I did though and it was a great way to get early feedback on the content and structure of the presentation.
- Be it written or verbal - get feedback from your peers. Ask them to comment on the bad stuff. What’s good you don’t need to change.
- Be prepared to throw out your personal favourites. I was deadset on a particular part of my manuscript but it didn’t rhyme well with any of the reviewers.
Despite having a manuscript, I feel a talk easily becomes to stiff when trying to recite what you’ve written. Instead I rehearse the structure enough so that I can speak freely about the topic. The great advantage is that you can pay much more attention to your audience during the presentation and react to unexpected events. Of course, as the master will tell you, knowing exactly where and how to improvise comes from tremendous amounts of practice (and knowing your subject).
- Take every chance to practice: when biking to work, going to bed, or taking a shower. I found it extra helpful to practice while I introduced myself at a conference I recently attended (usually after I confirmed the other part was interested in listening to what I do on a daily basis). Best part is, they don’t even know you’re rehearsing for a talk.
Looking forward to my next speaking engagement!
Ps. In the video above, my part starts 17 minutes in and it’s in Swedish.