Jake Worth

How I Talk: Researching and Preparing Slides

December 29, 2017

I’m writing a blog post series about preparing technical talks, here are the five parts:

  1. How I Talk
  2. Finding an idea
  3. Brainstorming
  4. Researching and preparing slides
  5. Practice and Delivery

Today, I’ll be covering the third step of my process: researching and preparing slides.

Research

When possible, I start in an unusual place for tech: the library. Libraries contain a wealth of information on many technical subjects. Connecting a topical web development subject to the history of computers or human inquiry is something Sandi Metz, a speaker I admire and emulate, does well. Even when the material isn’t there waiting to be found, there’s always something, as well as professionals who can help you devise a research strategy.

Technical talks, often mislabeled ‘hard’ talks, are what I prepare most often. They require experimentation. I use the ideas I found during brainstorming to try a lot of experiments in my text editor or REPL. Which are worth explaining?

Preparing Slides

After trying PowerPoint, Keynote, and even Vim buffers navigated with ]f and [f (an idea I borrowed from Steve Klabnik; not recommended unless you’re an unflappable speaker), I discovered Deckset.

Deckset is a feature-rich markdown slide builder, and I love it. If you know markdown, Deckset is fantastic. It lets me crank out ideas and proofs-of-concept right in my editor. If you feel that the hardest part of preparing a talk is putting together the visuals and notes you need to speak, then Deckset is worth trying.

As for slide design, I follow the guidelines put forth in Speaking.io and the Chicago Ruby speaking guidelines. To summarize:

  1. Make your text as big as you can.
  2. Use the most basic code examples that you can.
  3. Use high contrast colors, like black text on a white background. Subtle palettes like Zenburn don’t work on a projector.
  4. Don’t show code unless you want your audience to read every line; they will.

My talks don’t feature funny GIFs, pictures, or video. Why? I don’t trust myself to be funny, and don’t want to invest any of the time I have to prepare on that quadrant. It’s a strategy.

I structure my talks like essays, with an introduction, thesis, 3-4 supporting points, and a conclusion. Formulaic, but it works.

Something I often ponder is: could this be a blog post? One of the less effective types of presentations could be summarized as a person reading a blog post they wrote. A telltale sign of such a talk is when the speaker concludes with a link to a blog post with the same title as the talk. I’ve given a few like this that I didn’t love. A good talk isn’t a recipe for solving some narrow problem, it’s a performance that would fall flat on a page.

Conclusion

Researching and preparing the slides is a unique process and these ideas have worked for me in the past. Experimenting and automating my process has helped me to develop talks that are detailed and hopefully interesting to watch.

Next up in this series, I’ll be covering the step that I think defines all great talks: practice.


Jake Worth

I'm Jake Worth, a developer at Hashrocket based in Chicago. Blog About Now