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Presentation: An Audience Perspective

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This weekend I attended RailsConf. This was my first multi-day conference. It was a great experience that I’m sure to repeat over the coming years. Met a lot of great Rails developers, working on interesting and disparate projects. Met a good number of Harvest users who spoke to me using words like “enjoy,” “love,” and, most surprisingly, “famous.” Even met people doing Important Stuff (tm) who didn’t particularly care to hear about my story.

Watching speaker after speaker is terribly motivating. Soon the realization that this blog has pretty well been dormant in 2008 came to mind. The realization that I’ve not prepared a proper presentation…ever…entered my thoughts. As I sat in sessions, I found myself, with a wide sliver of irony, writing down presentation techniques that pleased and bothered me.


You have to include humor in your talk. Most presenters are aware of this. However, many presenters front-load their humor. It’s difficult to lace the entire flow of information with engaging humor, but this is one of the most outstanding ways to provide a positive experience for the audience - one that causes them to pursue the topic after the fact.

In the case of technical talks, one must be careful not to make the humor the focus. But generally speaking, presenters tend to err on the opposite end of the spectrum.

A consistent metaphor

Several sessions included an interesting, nerdy metaphor. Don’t meticulously introduce the Star Wars comparison and then drop it for the rest of the presentation. Lace that damn B-wing throughout the slides.

Know your environment

Your super-sexy, light-on-dark TextMate theme is most likely going to cause the audience fits. They will yell at you, especially if it is the cranky third day.

Greater than 15 lines of code is unlikely to be readable by the audience. Know how to zoom or bigify your code or think of other creative ways around the problem.

Slide titles should be mid-screen or higher. Cool MTV banner titles along the bottom of the screen are likely difficult for most of the audience to read, save for the most ideal conference situations.

Unless the presentation calls for frequent interaction with your computer, stand up. Give yourself the air of authority and the confidence that you are qualified to share information with the group. Don’t pace, and get yourself some sleep the day before.


Don’t hope your talk will fit into the given time slot, know it will fit. Err on the side of too short, please. Don’t promise time for questions unless you’re certain you can deliver. Plan for interruptions (technical issues, in-presentation questions, rambling, etc). You will be refreshing and set yourself apart if you deliver a well-tuned, concise message.

Tell them what they want to hear

Or Pander to the crowd.

Or Tell them what they already know, in a new way.

Or Inspire them to pursue what you know they want to pursue.

Littering your presentation with known community mores will give you at least a knee-jerk positive reaction. The audience wants to laugh, nod, clap, and feel assured in their own choices. Be a catalyst.

Ideally your whole presentation shouldn’t be comprised of such a message. But if you don’t have anything nice to say, reflecting your audience is probably your safest option.

If all else fails, blow their minds

Announce a product, process, tuning, enhancement, iteration or whatever that carries along with it jaw-dropping statistics. The nice thing about this is you don’t have to necessarily give the product in question to anyone to prove your statements - at least not right away. Plan on delivering something within a few months, and deliver something within 50% of the improvements originally touted, or you will be blasted.

This talk can be combined with telling people what they want to hear to make a powerful concoction. It is workable to describe utopian worlds where downfalls are leveled with a Sim-City-like ease. Again, any improvements will be welcomed, and the army of supporters from announcement-time will do all of you defense for you when the rubber meets the road.

It’s not about you

Indeed, some speakers enjoy well-attended presentations due to their niche fame. Still, it is not about them. It is about what the speaker can do for me, the audience member. How do you help me to relate to you? How do you help me fit your perhaps only tangentially applicable message into my situation? How can you generalize the information you have for public consumption? How can you make it all about me?