Practical public speaking for Nerds

A friend recently asked me for some advice in preparing a talk for an upcoming conference. I ended up writing way more than they asked for.

If you are a Nerd like me, I hope you find some of this advice helpful.

Preparing the talk

Read before you write

Of course you should do your research before talking about something, but also (re)read writing that you enjoyed as inspiration, analyse its style, analyse what qualities you enjoyed unrelated to its topic.

Re-watch presentations that you enjoyed, you are going to be doing a presentation after all, analyse the style of the presentation, the manner of the speaker, the way they presented their argument, the way they present themselves on stage.

In this respect, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.

Avoid the Death Sentence

Don’t write in the passive voice, ever. If you don’t know what I mean, read Death Sentence by Don Watson.

The TL;DR of the passive voice is sounding like a CEO or a politician. Always use the first person or second person pronouns, I and You, to assign ownership of an idea or responsibility to someone, don’t leave it hanging out there with phrases like “we should”.

Start at the end

In order of importance you need

  1. a conclusion
  2. an introduction
  3. everything else

The conclusion is your position, your idea, your argument, your call to action, summarised in one slide.

Don’t start writing until you know how your talk ends.

The introduction should set the stage for the conclusion.

The rest of the talking points should flow logically from the proposition established in the introduction. They should be relevant and supportive of the conclusion. If a point does not relate to the introduction, or support the conclusion then either rewrite it, drop it, or in extreme cases reconsider your conclusion.


Every presentation will have a minimum and maximum time limit; if you don’t know it, ask the organiser, don’t guess. All things being equal it is preferable to finish sooner than to run overtime. Here are some of the techniques I use for planning my talk.

The two key elements are word count and the number of slides.

Word count

I prefer to write my talks in full as a paper, you may choose to speak to bullet points, it’s very much personal choice. Either way you have a set number of words to work with for your presentation.

The average speaking pace for native English speakers is around 120 to 130 words per minute. You can use this to calculate the number of words a presentation will require.

Professional speakers will talk slower, around 100 words per minute. Don’t assume that you will be able to to do this unless you have had a lot of practice at public speaking. Plan for a higher word rate and write accordingly. It will be easier to speed up during your talk if you are short on time, than to make yourself slow down if you are panicking.

A good rule of thumb is 2,000 to 2,500 words for a 20 minute presentation, 4,000 to 5,000 for a 45 minute slot.

Aim to finish ahead of time so people can prove they were listening by asking questions.


I budget on one supporting slide per minute. So 18 to 20 slides for a 20 minute presentation, 35 to 40 for a 45 minute presentation.

I’ve found this to be a pretty reliable rule of thumb regardless of the style of presentation or how I have prepared for it.

You may want to structure your slides with one bullet point per slide rather than one topic, but don’t think “this will take less time”. It might be true, but it risks any small delay in covering a slide multiplying through your deck and blowing your time limit.

If you are running short on time it is easier to summarize slides with multiple points on tham to catch up without looking like you’re rushing.


Read through your talk multiple times to check your material and time yourself – this is why I prefer to write my talks in full, it helps avoid the temptation to skip the rehearsal of parts that I think I know well.

On the day

Plan for the worst

With all respect to conference organisers, the presentation stage is the most hostile environment you will encounter. Every effort is made by the organisers to mitigate this, but the bottom line is, if things go to shit, you still have to do your talk, so plan for things to fail.

If your talk is formatted for wide screen, assume the projector is from the stone age and you’ll have to use someone else’s 4:3 laptop. If there is an opportunity to practice in the space, take it.

Assume the internet won’t work. Yup, it’s 2015 and internet is everywhere, except on stage. This is super important if you use tools like Google present or anything that uses web fonts.

Also assume that multi monitor set ups just won’t work, so all that clever shit that keynote does is useless, have a fall back.

Larger conferences will either request, or demand that you use their laptops, even to the point of asking for presentation material well in advance. The lowest common denominator here is PDF, so whatever tool you use, make sure it can emit a PDF.

Because of these difficulties, if you plan to use speaking notes, you should have a way to access those independent of your presentation software. I’ve found copying the text into a Google doc works well and lets me edit my speech after the presentation materials have been handed over to the organisers.

Beware that Goggle docs is really pedantic about being online, so don’t assume that just because the document was open on your laptop before lunch, it’ll work on stage. If in doubt export your notes to a PDF.

Engaging the audience

Establishing contact with the audience is one of the hardest things for me. There are many aspects of this

  • at larger conferences, you may be on a professional stage, so the stage lights make it hard to see anything except a sea of little apple logos in the audience.
  • different cultures show respect for the speaker in different ways. Some show they are interested in make positive grunts and noises, others sit in respectful silence.
  • humour is hard, unless you are a professional comedian. It’s really hard to pull off, so try not to make it a requirement of your talk, or necessary to support your conclusion.
  • most tech audiences are rude. People will check their email and tweet during your presentation; they’re probably not disinterested, just insensitive; try to ignore them.
  • In other cultures it is appropriate to close your eyes during a presentation, or even snooze, don’t take it personally.

Speak slowly

Duh, who doesn’t say that ? The fact is you will be nervous, or if not nervous, excited, so you will talk faster than you plan to.

The key is to take time for yourself.

Pause between bullet points

If you’re reading from a script, then start a new paragraph between points and remind yourself to take a deep breath.

Pause at the top of each new slide

It gives the audience time to read the material on the slide before you start to speak. This is important because while you know it backwards and forwards, this is probably the first time the audience is getting a chance to see your idea.

If you feel uncomfortable then fill that time by taking a drink of water or walking to a different part of the stage. The latter is my favourite because it gives you excuse to take another pause to walk back.

Dry throat

Your throat will get dry during your talk, this is part of our fight or flight response to stressful situations; it’s the adrenaline. If it happens, don’t let it throw you, focus on pausing between points. Take a drink of water to insert a pause into your presentation, but don’t panic if taking a drink doesn’t fix the problem, that’ll just make it worse.

Don’t beat yourself up

Lastly, don’t beat yourself up afterwards.

Public speaking is a skill that needs practice, it’s not something that any of us are born with. This is why they make us practice public speaking in high school. But it’s probably been a long time since you and I were in high school, and we probably didn’t realise the importance of what we were being taught at the time.

So, don’t expect to be awesome every time, and don’t put yourself in a position where your talk must be awesome. This isn’t an interview, it’s not a binary thing, even if you were nervous, or talked too fast, or realised that you crapped up one point in your argument, it’s still ok, the audience will still get a lot from it.