We just wrapped up the Ohio LinuxFest call for presentations, so pitching presentations is on my mind. Regional, volunteer-run conferences are not only a good way for people without a travel budget to see some big names in open source, they're also a way for first-time or inexperienced speakers to hone their presentation skills. Regional conferences also provide an excellent forum to educate users about your favorite project or topic.
But competition for speaking slots can be fierce. Established
conferences like SCALE, Ohio LinuxFest, and others receive many more
proposals than available slots. For example, the 2010 call for
presentations for Ohio LinuxFest received about 120 proposals for less than
30 speaking slots. Some of the talks for regional conferences will quickly
go to experienced speakers who have presented at the show before and/or
have established a name for themselves as a topic expert and competent
presenter. But most presentation committees for community shows also try
to select local talent who are new to presenting, and those slots will go to the speakers with the best proposals.
Pitching your Proposal
"Submit early and often" is a good rule of thumb. Speakers should
develop at least two presentation ideas, and submit them as early as
possible — certainly well before the deadline. It's usually a bad
idea to wait until the last minute to submit a proposal. In some cases, the
committee takes note of which talks come in early. Even if that isn't the
case, waiting until right before the deadline usually means that the
proposal you submit will not be of the same quality as a proposal developed
over the space of a few days. Submitting multiple talks boosts your chances
if the committee likes you as a speaker, but doesn't like one of your
topics or has to choose between you and another speaker who submitted a similar topic.
Presentation titles should be descriptive, short, and ideally something that will grab the attention of the presentation committee. A title like "Improving Kernel Contributions" is good, but "Anatomy of a Failure" was likely to garner more attention.
No matter how good the presentation title, the abstract has to live up
to it, provide the committee with enough information to understand what the
talk is about, and convince them that you'll put in the preparation
time. There's little confidence that a prospective speaker who submits a
one-sentence proposal is going to put in the time necessary to deliver a
really excellent talk. And that is the goal of any good presentation
committee: filling the schedule with talks that are not merely adequate,
but ones that are excellent.
An excellent abstract explains what the topic is, the scope of the talk, and what the audience will learn during the presentation. The last is particularly important. Many submissions merely describe the topic, but the best submissions explain what the audience will gain from attending the talk.
Most calls for presentations will also seek a biography. Writing a biography is often an unpleasant exercise, but it's the best opportunity to show the presentation committee that you are actually the right person to present a given topic. Or not. If two people submit an "Introduction to Fedora" presentation, one of them being Paul Frields, guess who's most likely to be awarded the slot? This is another reason to think hard about your topic, pitch more than one idea, and try to choose something unique.
Feel free to contact the chair of the presentation committee if they're listed on the Web site and you need clarification on what the committee is looking for.
Preparing the Talk
Don't make the mistake of starting with slides when preparing a
presentation. In fact, you probably shouldn't be at the computer at all
when preparing the first draft of your presentation. Instead of firing up
OpenOffice.org Impress or creating slides using
LaTeX's Beamer class, grab a stack of index cards and head off to somewhere quiet.
For most presentations, you should have an introduction that describes what the audience will learn and the key ideas or information you want to impart. For a standard 60-minute slot, you should focus on no more than three to five major ideas.
Once you've mocked up your talk on paper, then it's time to start preparing slides. Use whatever tool you're most comfortable with but avoid writing out the entire talk on your slides. Your audience is not there to read your presentation, they're there to watch and hear you. Many presenters tend to cram slides with information and then stand in front of the audience reading the slides. This is a sure sign of a talk that will put the audience to sleep. If your audience can glean as much information from the slides as your actual presentation, you're not doing your job as a presenter.
With some exceptions, such as highly technical talks that require code examples or other supporting text, your slides should be uncluttered and only contain the basic ideas of what you're saying. Slides exist to support the speaker, not the other way around.
Also, a word of advice about technical problems. Come prepared to give
your talk with no slides at all. If your laptop fails, the projector dies,
or any other audio/visual catastrophe occurs, you should be able to give a
talk with no slides at all. The best bet is to have index cards or a
bulleted list of ideas that you can use to refresh your memory if showing
the slides fails for some reason. Again, if by the day of your presentation you're not ready to do the presentation sans slides, you have failed to prepare adequately.
This is a lesson I learned the hard way at FOSDEM. Giving a talk on
openSUSE, I was too used to referring to the slides and not comfortable
giving the talk extemporaneously — despite knowing the topic
cold. The projector and sound system developed a major glitch, so I was
forced to work with no slides. I gave a substandard talk because I didn't
have adequate paper backup and hadn't practiced the talk enough. Max
Spevack followed my talk and had the same A/V problems that I had, but was able to do a fine talk using his notes. That was the last time I walked into a room to present without being fully prepared to give a talk with no slides at all.
The more practice you have, the better. Don't simply read through slides at the computer. Stand up and practice delivering your presentation out loud, preferably while looking at a mirror. If you have a willing audience, practice in front of them. Focus on making eye contact, smiling, and speaking at a slower pace than usual.
Remember that people are far more likely to remember the overall tone of the talk and general topics than details. If you're hoping to impart every detail of developing with Django in 60 minutes, you'll probably fail. Emphasize a few key concepts that you'd want attendees to remember, and focus on delivering an enjoyable presentation.
Timing is extremely important. Practice the timing so that you have enough material to fit the time, minus time for questions and answers, and no more. A common mistake is to show up with far more material than is possible to present in the time allotted. This not only robs the audience of the chance to ask questions, but also means you probably won't do a good job of presenting all of the material.
The other reason to practice extensively is to calm your nerves. Most people find public speaking unsettling to some degree, but knowing the presentation (and topic) backwards and forwards goes a long way towards making public speaking more comfortable. See Scott Berkun's Confessions of a Public Speaker for some excellent anecdotes and rationale why people find public speaking so uncomfortable, as well as expansive advice on improving speaking skills.
It's important to remember that most audiences are friendly and wish to see a good talk. They do not expect you to be a great entertainer or to exhibit unnatural brilliance. Focus on making eye contact, speak slowly, and pause from time to time to gather your thoughts. Don't be afraid of a moment or two of silence.
Do be conversational and vary your tone; try to engage the
audience. Don't be afraid to ask questions, as it's a good idea to try to get the audience to focus on you rather than the slides or (worse) their cell phones and laptops.
Giving a good presentation is not rocket science, or even kernel development. It is, however, a fair amount of work. Expect to spend at least ten to fifteen hours developing and practicing a good presentation. If it's your first, you might want to put in even more time.
This might sound like a lot of work for an hour in front of an audience, but it's well worth it. You'll find that you learn a great deal about a topic, even one you're an expert in, by preparing to deliver a presentation.
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