Anatomy of a Great Talk

Start interesting.

Big splashy image. Provocative statement. Thought-provoking question. Dancing on-stage.

That’s the first thing your audience wants to see. We have faith in you — but not that much faith. Make us care, immediately. The best talks are the ones where not only are we looking forward to getting the information but we’re eager to hear it from you.

Tell us why we should care.

You’re not just giving your talk, you’re selling your talk. And to do that, you need to tell me why it’s relevant.

“This affects you every time you do X.” “50% of people believe Y, and here’s how that affects your decisions.” “What you’ll learn from these lessons is how to do Z.”

Don’t rely on technology.

Live demos, slides, or video are great if they work. It’s terrible when they don’t and the speaker can’t go on without them.

I listened to a speaker the other day who really needed his video — but first his computer crashed and then the conference wifi went down. He tried to speak without the video, but it threw off his entire game. He kept making little tangent complaints about technology. He kept glancing over at his laptop screen as though to will it back to life — and every time he did it completely derailed his talk. It was painful to watch.

Contrast that with a second speaker with the same problem. The second guy shrugged, closed his laptop with an audible click, and just talked with no distractions and a blank screen behind him. The audience quickly forgot that he’d ever had background props planned and focused on the speaker.

Remember Twitter…

If it’s a technology talk, your audience wants to have something pithy and interesting to tweet. It may be petty, it may be the downfall of civilization, but it’s true: a talk with no tweetable sound bites feels like a disappointment.

Have some funny bits. Make a memorable analogy. Use an unexpected phrase.

…but make your audience look up from their laps.

You may be rocking it with the retweets, but if you aren’t getting any eye contact, you’re failing as a presenter. There’s a reason why people go to conferences and listen to talks instead of reading lines of text — it’s the human connection. Your audience is probably lazy: we’re not seeking it out. You need to force us to engage.


(A long pause forces everyone to look up: we’re afraid we missed something.)

A joke.

We look up when we laugh, and smile at the person next to us.

A tone change (the snarky comment, the drawn-out vowels, the quiet statement when you’ve been talking loudly).

Variation in your pace and tone of speaking helps jerk people out of autopilot so they can better absorb what you’re talking about.

Leave us wanting more.

If you have 20 minutes to talk, plan on your slides ending in 15. If you have 50 minutes, plan on ending in 45.

The only thing worse than the speaker who races through their slides, talking quickly and sweating nervously — is the speaker who only gets through 4 of the “8 principles” mentioned in the title of your talk. Worst case scenario is that you don’t get questions and your audience gets an extra 5 minutes for a bio-break.

Is content king? No, when you’re talking, it’s confidence, relevance, and humanity.