Public speaking tips for tech writers – by Swapnil Ogale
Swapnil Ogale | October 29, 2020
STC Summit, Denver 2019. This wasn’t my first presentation, so I was reasonably confident and only a little bit nervous on the morning of my presentation. I had been in Denver for the last 2 days and thought I had a measure of Denver’s rarified air.
By the time, I got to the conference venue, I felt my lips go completely dry and I started to panic a bit. Thankfully, there was a little newsagent/gift shop within the hotel, so I could quickly go and purchase some lip balm before my presentation. I wonder how I would have gone with the presentation, had it not been for that lip balm!
It was only later that I read “Colorado’s high altitude and dry air mean that lips get as parched as skin”.
Public speaking brings out a range of emotions in different people. Some take to it like a duck to the water, while it may be a bit of a challenge for others. I am not a natural speaker, so I probably fall in the second category. Stage fright is real and there is no avoiding that. Like any other skill, you become better with practice.
There are some roles that require you to speak publicly, at events, conferences, meetups and even internally within your organization. Traditionally, a Tech Writer is not expected to do a ton of public speaking on a regular basis, but I feel there is so much domain knowledge and product experience Tech Writers pick up and possess, it is actually critical for them to hone this skill at every opportunity they get.
Over time, this can actually help them articulate their ideas better working across different teams. I’ve also found that this confidence helps you assert good decisions with documentation. Public speaking provides a way of engaging with the documentation community at conferences and meetups. From experience, it has often also proved a deciding factor in job interviews, especially where you can demonstrate you have good public speaking skills.
In this post, I cover some tips on how to prepare for, and better yourself at public speaking.
If you feel you have an idea of a talk, but probably not enough substance, reach out to your network. Talking to different people in your network, you will get a chance to flesh out the idea and probably also receive input on what to include and what others would like to hear for this topic.
Seeking help and conversely, giving help to other potential speakers is not only a great habit, but it also helps build a strong network for public speaking, and opportunities to hone your craft.
Trust your instincts
A great way to find out what works, and what doesn’t is to attend other similar themed events or conferences (if it sits within your budget and time!). Over time, you pick up an instinct and can smell out a good talk from a bad one. Events and conferences are great places for picking up ideas, so be open to completely discarding your previous idea and going with something entirely new.
Technical writers are generally inquisitive and don’t mind sniffing out details or chasing information, so these skills come in really handy when you are trying to piece together a talk.
Pitch early, pitch hard
One of the main reasons some people are reluctant to propose a talk is that they fear they have nothing to contribute. This is not entirely true. Every tech writer has a story to tell, an experience they can recount that made a process or a product better.
It is just a matter of crafting a story around your experience and pitching a proposal. You may get knocked back a few times, but if you pitch the story at the right audience, your proposal will be accepted eventually.
What goes in a good pitch?
Borrowing this from the Write the Docs example proposal:
Include a brief story, typically two to four paragraphs, that describes your personal work experience with the topic. Make sure the proposal appeals to the audience.
Include a list of things that our audience can learn from your talk, such as:
Lessons that the audience can apply in their own work
Things that audiences should research further
Spoilers that provide details about the talk
Makes your audience think: “Oh yes, this talk could help me when I do X in my work!”
Craft your talk
Once you have braved and conquered the proposal process, it is time to start working on your talk. I generally like writing down any thoughts I have around the talk topic on a blank document and then try to organize it into relevant sections. This is pretty much a core tech writing skill. Making sense of the information chaos and creating order of it.
Once you have a general idea of various things you aim to cover in your talk, start working on the presentation material. There are a variety of tools you can use for your presentation. While Powerpoint still remains a popular choice, you can also use Google Slides or Canva for creating more engaging presentations.
A few general rules of presentation material:
Do not cram every slide with information. Keep it minimal and engaging.
Illustrate 1-2 key points per slide and let your public speaking skills guide the delivery and context around the slide.
Instead of making your talk feel like a fact and figures exercise, craft a story. I personally liked reading about these storytelling approaches when I first started public speaking.
Most conferences and tech events should have a code of conduct for their events, so be mindful that your talk does not violate any of this.
Practice, practice, practice
It goes without saying that the more you practice, the better and more natural you will sound during your talk.
Practice in front of a mirror to get your body language correct. I personally found recording my talk in front of the web camera helped me identify and correct my posture (Who knew I used to sigh a lot during my talks!)
Practice in front of your teammates or do a practice run at a local meetup event. As tech writers, we are sometimes reluctant to put our hand up for anything outside documentation, but I’ve actively volunteered to do product demos and help trainers with creating training material because it helps us become confident speakers.
Practice doing the talk without any slides or visual medium. Once, at a local meetup, I hit a technical snag and was unable to get my slides on the projector. Thankfully, I had my presenter notes on small handwritten cards, so I used them as a prop instead and delivered my talk.
Be prepared for questions
Always be prepared for questions at the end of the talk. Some of these questions may not directly relate to the talk you presented, but keep an open mind and think through how you can tie the question in with your talk and the research you would have undertaken for your talk. It always makes it easy to answer questions through the talk prism.
Here’s a quick tip for technical writers in particular. If you are presenting around a product or a process you have improved, keep a list of questions handy that you already know the answers to and practice reading it back with your teammates.
Did I mention practice?
I think I did. There can be no maximum amount of practice you can undertake. If you have an opportunity to actually use the room or online medium where you will be presenting, it is worthwhile doing a quick demo run so that you can practice your movements, your clicker actions, your webcam placement, and voice modulation and projection.
On the day
Here are a few tips I’d definitely recommend, especially if you get nervous or develop a stage fright on the day.
Make sure you have familiarized yourself with the physical room or virtual platform you will be presenting in.
Liaise with the AV staff to ensure your laptop is set up correctly and the microphone works! You may have a preference for a lapel versus a handheld microphone, so make sure the AV staff is aware of this.
If you are using a clicker for going through the slides, make sure it works as expected. A few years back, at a talk in front of 200 people, I was handed a clicker and the USB dongle that needed to be plugged into the laptop. About 3 slides in and I realized I wasn’t clicking at all, as I had left the USB dongle in my pocket.
I generally avoid reading my notes or looking at my talk on the day. If anything, I’ll look at the design and make sure the slides look ok either across the room for onsite events, or online if it’s a remote event.
Dress in comfortable clothes for the talk. Nothing worse than being in physical discomfort while you are trying to share your experiences with a room full of people. Personally, I love to dress up for a talk. It gives me a sense of purpose during the talk.
Having access to a glass or a bottle of water during the talk is a good idea to keep hydrated. Having a sip in the middle of a talk is also a good way to regroup your thoughts, or break an idea down, or even better, for theatrical effects.
I’ve also made sure I have access to good quality lip balm, from experience!
It is important to get attendee feedback, and if possible access to the audio and video from the presentation for self-improvement. Over the last 2 or so years, I’ve found this immensely useful to look at and catch my “uhms and aahs” from the talk and to generally gauge the audience cues at various parts.
Another great thing about access to audio and video from the talk is being able to use it as part of your portfolio or demonstrate this to potential employees. For a recent job interview, I was actually asked to submit video links from my presentations to demonstrate public speaking skills.
Conference organizers also send out surveys to attendees to provide feedback to presenters. This, according to me, is extremely valuable as it allows attendees to provide individual comments around tone, accent, pace, depth and value provided. I deliberately use a lot of casual terms and humor in my talks, so it is important to get feedback that this was not incorrectly received or violating any code of conduct at such conferences.
Public speaking adds a lot of equity to a technical writer’s professional career, so it is a worthwhile art to follow.
It has been a very fulfilling skill I have picked up as a technical writer. It has allowed me to contribute to community events, organize conferences and meetup events and stand and speak fearlessly in front of a varied audience.