How to do a tech talk without utterly boring the audience

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Over the last year or two I attended numerous sprint demos, product demos and technical talks hosted by technical teams and individuals. Although I can definitely improve as a speaker myself, standing at the side-line and observing other speakers have made me pretty opinionated. I also get bored pretty easily and have a very short attention span, so the things I'll be saying might not be applicable to everybody. So with this disclaimer out of the way, let's see what you can do to prevent people from getting bored to dead….

Adapt to your audience
Most experienced presenters know that they have to think about the intended audience when they create the slides and presentation structure. But I barely see people adopt their presentation style, their vocabulary and slides they really show to the actual audience. Sprint demos tend to attract a variety of people, so be prepared to change what you were planning to demo based on that. Don't bore that product owner or COO with technical terms or the number of story points you've finished. Just skip those slides if you feel nobody cares about them.

Don't read from your slides

The best thing you can do to move away any attention from you is to put lots of text on your slides and read from it. But if you want people to listen to you, keep them as empty as possible. Ideally, you don't have slides at all (if you've ever attended a Dan North session, you'll know how powerful that can be). I need my slides to keep some structure in my talks, so I prefer to use just keywords and tell my story around them.

Don't try to impress the audience with loads of little things

Pick a couple of features that you think will interest the actual audience or are interesting for the people represented by the audience. Don't demo or name all those little features nobody really cares about. Just invite them to join you after the meeting or visit you at your work place instead.

Cut of any discussions not relevant for the rest of the audience

In every demo, you'll find somebody that likes to profile himself by asking lots of questions and making statements about what you could or should have done instead. Unless you really believe the rest of audience is interested as well, cut of that guy gracefully by proposing to discuss his point after the demo. The reverse is also pretty common; the guy doing the demo taking the opportunity of a question to show off how much he knows or how difficult it has been been to complete a certain feature. Although some of that might include a couple of valuable lessons, don't forget that the audience is there to learn something, not to see how great you are.

Prepare your demo environment

If you need to demo an app on a mobile device or a tablet install some kind of screen sharing functionality, so you don't have to ask hordes of people to look at a little device. Likewise, if you need to use a remote desktop session to demo something, make sure you create shortcuts that automatically connect and logon using the correct credentials. Don't let people wait until you've found the right machine and have them see you filling in the credentials wrong a couple of times. If you demo something using an IDE such as Visual Studio, hide all unnecessary toolbars, tool windows, etc. to allow people to focus on one thing. Oh, and please hide your start menu as well.

Don't touch that freaking mouse

If I had to name the single most annoying thing I see people doing is moving the mouse using the laptop's track pad. No, scratch that. The most annoying thing is people moving the mouse in an erratic pattern, revealing the presenters lack of preparation or their nervousness. So, unless you really need to show the audience what you're doing, remember keyboard shortcuts and ditch that mouse. But….if you really need to use that mouse pointer, bring a real external mouse. And never ever use a trackpad…..ever….

Avoid the sound of silence

If I've ever experienced a cringe-making moment while attending a talk, it must be that moment where the speaker ran into an issue with his demo and the audience of 70 had to go through 5 minutes of total silence. I felt so ashamed for the guy, I had to restrain myself from breaking the silence with some (bad) jokes. Having a technical problem or forgetting what you were going to tell now is something that happens to everybody. Just don't make it too big of a deal and avoid the silence. Explain what you are doing or make a joke about it. Humor is in my opinion the best you can do at that point, especially if it's self-effacing.

Size does matter

Sure, that tool or IDE looks cool on a HD or HD-ready projector, but don't expect people to be able to read those tiny lines of code. So please crank up the font size to 13 or 14 if you want people to be able to read your code. The same goes for your slide deck. If you need a small font size to get all that content on your slide, you must have violated tip 2. Oh, and don't forget to be prepared to change your color scheme. Although your slides may shine on your expensive display monitor, they may get unreadable on a projector. I've made this mistake myself a couple of times, especially when the company I was visiting thought projecting on a wall was a good idea…

Don't bother people with your personal life

No, I'm talking about those cute pictures of your kids… That might actually work to connect to your audience. No, what I am referring to is all those notifications that appear while you do your talk. Do you really want to let the audience see that email your wife just send about her 'plans' for tonight's date while the kids are out of the house? Or worse (but less likely in a sprint demo), having somebody you follow on Twitter tweeting about the worst sprint demo ever. So enable Presentation Mode or whatever it is called on your platform to prevent any notification for an hour or so. As a nice side-effect it will also prevent the screen from going into your screensaver.

Delegate note taking

The most unprofessional thing to do is ask people for feedback during a sprint demo or discover problems in whatever you're showing and have those same issues or questions appear in the next demo. So make sure you ask somebody from your team to actively take notes about product issues, unanswered questions or anything that needs improving the next time you do your demo.

Now let's hope I don't violate any of these myself the next time I do a demo or talk….

So what do you do to make your sprint demos shine? Let me know by commenting below or tweeting me at @ddoomen.



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