Bad Talks And How To Avoid Them
I have given a lot of talks over the last ten years or so some good and some bad. There are three talks that specifically stand out in my mind and bad talks from the last few years. The first was an introductory talk that we call ‘Essentials’ that I gave at StrangeLoop in 2011, the second was the same Essentials talk that I gave at the Indianapolis Java Users group last year. The third and final talk and the one that got me thinking about this topic was a talk on release handling in A Coruña Spain last week. Each of these talks was bad, far below what I consider an acceptable level. The reason these three stand out is that they were all bad for the same reason and that reason was over-confidence.
What do I mean by that? For better or worse, I am an expert in Erlang. I have been writing Erlang code and studying the Erlang Virtual Machine and runtime system for the better part of ten years. I am confident in my knowledge of Erlang. I also have a huge amount of experience as a speaker. I have been getting up in front of people and giving talks about various topics since I was nine or ten years old. I have, specifically, been getting up in front of technical audiences for the better part of ten years and giving talks on various topics. So when you are very comfortable in front of people and you know your material well it is easy to get lazy. That’s what happened in each of these cases. I got lazy; I assumed I knew the material well enough to give the talk and didn’t give enough effort to preparation.
In the end, giving a good talk is less about knowing your material then about making sure your material is coherent. You do need to know the material, of course, but you also need to go through and make sure the information you are providing is in a form that your audience can consume. That is a very different thing then giving a talk off the cuff. So even when you know the material you need to order that material and massage it. You need to present it. Then you need to get familiar with that order and that presentation so you can integrate it into your approach.
I gave the Essentials talk again in A Coruña and did pretty well. All it took was going over the material once or twice, making sure I understood the order and form and the reason for that order and form. That small investment in time resulted in a huge improvement in the quality of the talk. I should have done the same thing for the Release Handling talk, but I fell into the old trap again. I won’t say that I won’t make this mistake again because it’s the trap that is so easy to fall into. However, its something I am armed against now and will hopefully avoid.