My presentation workflow and challenges

Originally posted Apr 4, 2014

I was asked to write about my presentation-creation process the other day on Twitter. I thought this was really interesting – I would love to know how other people approach developing, editing and improving on their presentations and public speaking skills! So here’s my whole process, including what I’m really working hard to improve upon.

Since this is such a long post, some anchor links:

First, some context: I’ve been professionally public speaking for a few years. My mother is a United Methodist minister, so I grew up watching her effectively give a talk every week. I grew up comfortable giving presentations, having watched her. To this day I can feel myself channel her when I begin a talk (I’m pretty sure our “Good morning!” intros are exactly the same). My father is a middle school math teacher, who is naturally also very comfortable getting up in front of an audience and talking. Thanks to what they modeled, I never really had a fear of standing up in front of audiences. I gave a few presentations (like running for class president) in middle school through college, but never took it seriously as a skill set to develop until I realized it was a way for me to level up my career in tech.

Creating the content

My good friend Ed Davis taught me how to write a presentation that tells a story. The first time I wrote what I thought was a solid deck, he very sweetly explained to me that it was missing a narrative. It wouldn’t have as big of an impact on my audience as I was hoping. Ed recommended I follow this pattern:

Landscape > Analysis > Problem > Options > Solution > Reason/Why it works > Bigger Idea

Landscape: here’s what exists
Analysis: here’s what I see
Problem: at the core is this issue
Options: here’s what we could do
Solution: here’s the best option and how it works
Reasons: why you should believe
Bigger idea: why this concept matters to you even if it is irrelevant to your particular work

At first I thought this was ridiculous. It was a slide deck on techniques to improve page load time. Don’t people already know why it’s important? After all, they were showing up to see the talk. Why should I add all this stuff about the landscape and a bigger idea? Don’t people just want to see how it works?

Thankfully I got over myself, and decided to give his suggestion a shot. And holy cow, the presentation was so much better. It forced me to ask myself: what is the bigger idea? Why is this stuff really important for people to talk about and learn about? Why am I even up there talking to begin with? Nailing down the bigger idea – something I wanted people to leave with, thinking about after they went home – was crucial to taking my presentation to the next level. Also, I absolutely love Lea Verou’s tips on talk content, and I’ll make sure that my content doesn’t just aim for beginners and involves the audience in some way.

When I’ve got the timing just about right, I do a ton of run-throughs for coworkers. I’m so lucky to have patient coworkers who are willing to give me their time and feedback. Mike Brittain is easily the best feedback-giver I’ve ever met; he always can see right through to the core of my attempt at a message. He’s given me some of the most creative suggestions to make sure an audience really understands what I’m trying to say. I aim to get both technical and storytelling feedback from folks as I practice.

I do all of this work incredibly early. I’m not a procrastinator by nature, and that really ensures that I have plenty of time to do plenty of run-throughs. I’ll probably do the presentation six or seven times at work before it’s done over the course of two or three weeks.

When I’m feeling like the presentation is pretty much there, I’ll start creating a ton more content to support the talk when I give it. I:

I find that all of this hard work really pays off, as it’s both easy for the slides to live on after the presentation, and easy for me to measure the impact of the talk. My goal is to create a helpful resource. I’ve known some presenters who are conservative with putting their slides online, or make their slides very general and leave out the good bits, for fear that this will make folks not need to see them actually give the presentation in the future. Or something. To me, giving a presentation is all about sharing knowledge, and I want to make sure that I make this information as accessible as possible to the largest audience.

Gathering data

My favorite part about giving talks is really the data-gathering that goes into it. I like to measure:

This all gives me data about what resonated the most with the audience. Maybe some tweets spread like wildfire; maybe others weren’t even favorited once. Looking at this data helps me know what to change about my presentation next time, and what content to explore and emphasize more. The most recent time I gave my Designing for Performance talk, I added a new section about changing culture at an organization. My tweet and link from this new content spread 60x more than any other from my talk. Needless to say, now I have a new chapter to add in that book I’m writing on the topic.

On donuts

After the presentation’s done, I’ve checked the data, answered questions, and thanked people, I’ll go find a donut. I’m not really kidding. Eating a donut is an integral part of my career celebration process. Years ago, I found that whenever something awesome happened in my career – maybe I got published, or promoted, or launched a project – I wouldn’t take the time to celebrate the achievement. I’m an achiever by nature, the kind who feels like every day starts at zero. Not deliberately marking these moments left me feeling like I wasn’t actually accomplishing anything. “Oh cool, that A List Apart article went up,” I would think, then move on with my day. Once I realized that this was happening, I decided to be deliberate about marking achievements by eating one donut. Well, sometimes more than one, if it’s a really big deal. The act of donut-eating has actually helped me feel like I’m accomplishing my career goals, and I’ve started documenting them here.

My personal challenges

Outside of finding the perfect donut, there are a few things that I personally find challenging when it comes to public speaking:

1. Not just reading from the presenter notes, or walking around.

My comfort zone is reading aloud from my notes, standing at my laptop. I once tried to give a talk during college in which I attempted to “wing it”, going off-script and riffing and walking around. It was a total and complete failure, and for a number of years after I stuck to a script. But in the last few years, I’ve learned to remove those notes, as they’re just a crutch. I practice enough before I give a presentation and affirm I really do know my material, and I do leave some bullet point notes to cover. But mostly, I’ve recognized that eye contact with the audience is really important to my delivery, so I’ve worked really hard to break out of my comfort zone.

2. Not having enough content to fill the time.

I think this is the opposite problem to what many public speakers have? I’ve heard many people say that most of their work on their presentations is cutting down content to fit in the allotted time. I have never in my life had this problem. Usually the first time I rehearse a talk that I think is ready for editing, it’s ten or twelve minutes long – not nearly enough to fill a 30- or 45-minute time slot. The feedback I usually get from people during rehearsals is about what kind of content I should be adding to fill in the gaps. This is usually the most stressful part of the process for me, as I worry about not having enough to say to fill the time, and reassuring myself that there will always be plenty of Q&A to fill any gaps if I finish too early.

3. Blushing.

Since childhood, I’ve been a blusher. I don’t necessarily blush when I get embarrassed, though. It happens for the most random of reasons: if I’m caught off guard by someone asking me a question, I blush. If a teacher called on me in school when I raised my hand, I’d blush, even though my hand was raised and I was totally prepared to answer. Really even just thinking about blushing makes me blush. It’s just one of those really stupid, random physiological things that I’ve dealt with forever.

Knowing I was a blusher used to make me nervous about public speaking because I didn’t want the audience to interpret it as me being uncomfortable up on stage – I’m actually quite comfortable in that element, and I didn’t want people to misunderstand, so I avoided doing a lot of public speaking during high school and early college. But then I realized, hey, it doesn’t really matter what people think. If I’m delivering good content, people will pay attention to it. So what if I blush during the first three minutes of a presentation? My delivery can still be just as strong, and by the time Q&A rolls around, I actually think that people see how excited I am to answer questions (my grin comes out full-force).

4. Jersey fast-talking.

I’m from New Jersey, and yes, I’m really proud of that. But one thing that Jersey gave me is my very fast pace of speaking. It’s something I’ve needed to be incredibly cognizant of while public speaking. It’s nice working in NY where folks are generally used to this quick speech pattern (and who don’t hesitate when I say “chawcolate cream-filled” when I get really excited while ordering a donut), but when it comes to public speaking, I am constantly reminding myself to slow down.

Proposing talks

I want to mention that I honestly haven’t done that much talk proposing, having been fortunate enough to be invited to do a lot of public speaking. This is thanks in part to the brand recognition of the companies I’ve worked for. It’s also due to the networking I’ve done at conferences. I spend a lot of time in the “hallway track” when I attend a conference, meeting people I’ve always wanted to meet, talking about what we’re working on, and brainstorming ideas that could end up as interesting talk topics. This kind of networking is what got me my current job and my book deal, and it’s also where a number of conference organizers have encouraged me to propose talks to their conference. I worked with these folks to propose talks that get accepted, whether it was mentioning those people’s names in the proposal form, asking for their feedback on the topic early, or even workshopping the proposal idea with them directly.

To me, those relationships are really everything, and this kind of networking has gotten my career to where it is. It sounds kind of false and empty to state it that way, but these are really valuable connections I’ve made with people – not just surface name-dropping. I don’t network just to network; I talk to people to really understand the kind of problems they’re solving, and to see how I can help them with my own research or knowledge or projects, and in doing so I think that they value my work, too.

The people on the Web are so interesting and smart and really want to help each other; it’s a big part of why I love this industry, and a big reason why I love the hallway track at conferences. How do I know Amanda Harlin, the woman who asked me to write this post? I saw Amanda at Fluent last month after meeting her at 200OK last year; I ran up to her and her husband while we waited for the keynotes to start to say hi, and they kindly came to my talk later in the week. These are meaningful, lasting relationships – the kind where we can all rely on each other to help one another in our work and careers.

Lara Hogan

Author, public speaker, and coach for managers and leaders across the tech industry.

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