What makes a great tech talk?
As someone who spends a reasonable amount of time writing, rehearsing, and giving tech talks, I often find folks new to speaking about tech asking me: how do you do it? How do you know that you will be able to write and give an excellent tech talk?
The simple answer is: I don't know. An excellent tech talk isn't definable and solvable like an engineering problem. It's part tech, part passion, part storytelling, and part luck. But in thinking about speakers and talks that I've looked up to throughout the years, I believe that I've found a few key ingredients in any tech talk that I've seen and would consider "great." In reviewing these, I actually came to appreciate what I somewhat already knew: the "tech" part of the talk is probably the least important part of a great tech talk. Yet, as professionals, that is what we get wrapped around. And it is what worries us when writing a speech. The best demo ever - that's what will save my talk! But in the end, it's not just the tech content that counts, so let's look at the five critical ingredients for a great tech talk:
- Story & Narrative
- Connection to the Audience
- Call to Action
For each ingredient, I've included a talk that best illustrates that principle and a link to the talk. As an aside, every moderately good talk I've ever written was inspired while listening to or after hearing a great talk from one of these amazing technologists. Remember: good artist copy, great artists steal.
Story & Narrative
Keynote: Reflections: Kelsey Hightower, KubeCon CloudNativeCon North America 2019
Stories are how humans have always learned and taught each other. From the earliest stories around campfires to teach about the dangers of predators or the ways to find food to the modern world where we are bombarded by stories that we now call "marketing," - stories have always played a pivotal role in learning and teaching.
And so, without a story, your audience is already lost. You can show some of the most incredible technology, a fantastic demo, and wow people with statistics...but if there is no connection to the real world - to their lives - then it will go in one ear and out of the other. And the story doesn't have to be complicated - a story is, after all, just a beginning, middle, and an end...maybe a conflict or two. But telling the story - showing how the technology or what you are presenting applies to real people in the real world - is critical to getting your point across.
It's so critical that some of the best tech talks are only stories. In the "Reflections" Keynote at KubeCon CloudNativeCon 2019, Kelsey Hightower - of the most respected tech speakers known for his impressive and fun demos - didn't even appear to bring a laptop on stage. Speaking from the heart, Kelsey tells the stories of the early days of Kubernetes, of showing inclusion, of practicing intentional inclusion. And with those few simple but powerful stories, the audience is captivated and learns more in 15 minutes about what it means to be an inclusive open source community than they would have with hours of slides of fancy graphics and data.
More from Kelsey
- Kubernetes and the Path to Serverless
- Kelsey Hightower's Best Live Demo Yet
- TechExplorers: Kelsey Hightower
- HashiConf 2017 Keynote
Zebras All the Way Down: Bryan Cantrill, Uptime 2017
Stories will help you make your talk more personal - both for you and the audience. But that won't carry much weight for long if you don't have passion for the stories and how they apply to the problem and solution you're trying to present. For the audience to stay engaged throughout the talk, they need to care about what you are talking about. And if it isn't clear from your speech, word choice, and energy that you are passionate about your topic, there is no way your audience will come along with you and care about what you have to say.
No one will ever accuse Bryan Cantrill of not being passionate. And in his talk "Zebras All the Way Down," he brings that passion to advocating for one's own healthcare to understand at a deep level how our systems are impacted by the various layers of software. And that includes a lot of software we don't think about like that below the operating system. Turning a personal story about his physician father and his sister who had a rare condition into the way to think about solving hard debugging problems, Bryan brings the audience along. He makes you care about what he has to say...even if what he's talking about is far removed from your daily work.
More from Bryan
- Debugging Under Fire: Keep your Head when Systems have Lost their Mind
- Corporate Open Source Anti-patterns
- Fork Yeah! The Rise and Development of illumos
Connection to the Audience
Why Open Source Firmware is Important : Jessie Frazelle, GOTO 2019
Once you've brought your whole self to the talk - your stories and your passion - you still need to ensure your audience will be engaged and want to hear about those things from you. To do that, you have to build a connection with your audience. The way to do this may seem simple on the surface, but it does actually take some effort. You need to understand at least two things about your audience: who they are and why they showed up to your talk.
First - who is your audience? You have to understand who they are - what are their roles professionally? What is their experience like personally? What makes them passionate, and what are their stories? Understanding your audience will help you shape your talk to match their interests with your passions - a surefire method for success.
Second - what did they show up to your talk? You've already won a little bit here - they came to the conference or meetup, they saw your abstract and maybe a little bit about you, and chose to come to hear what you had to say. That should give you confidence that the audience wants you to succeed just as much as you want. Think for yourself: have you ever shown up to a tech talk hoping the speaker would bomb? Probably not. So that's half of the battle won already, but you can't take it for granted. They showed up expecting to learn or get something out of your talk. You need to think about how they apply what they want out of it and then deliver.
A great example is Jessie Frazelle's talk at GOTO Chicago in 2019 on "Open Source Firmware." On the surface, it might not seem like a great example - Jessie even has a disclaimer at the beginning of the talk. She's "forcing" an audience of software engineers to get a few rings lower than they are comfortable - down into the UEFI kernel, management engine, and other low-level firmware pieces. But Jessie's passion for this part of the stack and showing the audience how it directly applies to how we all build software with many abstraction layers above the firmware is offered throughout the talk. Jessie convinces the audience to care about the software turtles all the way down. Along the way, she teaches about the stack of code we don't know about...and the rings of trust below "0" and the kernel.
More from Jessie
- Breaking Containers: Chaos Engineering and Kubernetes
- Benefits of isolation provided by containers
- Container Hacks and Fun Images
The Art of Code: Dylan Beattie, NDC London 2020
Once you've got your audience bought in - and know what you're going to tell them and why - you've got to write the talk. Until now, not much has been focused on that. There are a lot of methods out there for outlining, writing, and structuring your speech. Far too many, in fact, for me to get into here. And that's not my goal - there is a one-size-fits-all method for creating a great tech talk. Much like many technical problems, the answer to "how should I structure this thing" is "it depends." However, the best tech talks I've ever seen strike a balance - a balance of the tech and the stories, learning and entertainment, questions and answers.
This balance boils down to balancing the "three S's of a great tech talk":
Even though one of these S's (stories) repeats one of our early items, I think that only serves to express how important it is to a great talk. You must tell a story. But unless you're giving a keynote at a conference where you're the most respected person in the room (shoutout to Kelsey Hightower), the stories won't always be the whole package. In most tech talks, folks are coming to learn something about technology or how humans interact with technology - so bringing substance is essential. You have to prove you know what you're talking about and that it matters to your audience.
But, as we've discussed already, that substance can't be just dry numbers on a chart or some other way to present cold unconnected data. While that is often the business of any serious engineering endeavor, a presentation on stage is more than that. You must also bring style - charisma, humor, fun visuals, and passion - all ways you can make sure style is balanced with the substance of your talk. Sure, some have a lot more style than others - but those with no style are the ones that are quickly forgotten.
Perhaps one of the best speakers when it comes to this balance is Dylan Beattie. In "The Art of Code," Dylan takes us through various elements - from maths to retro computing to programming Fizz Buzz as an 80's hair ballad, complete with guitar playing and singing from Dylan. However, Dylan balances the exciting talk style with the stories he wants the audience to hear. And he sprinkles in the substance about how we as technologists have a responsibility to the world...and need to not take ourselves too seriously.
More from Dylan
- Fractals, Factories and Fast Food
- Architecture: The Stuff That's Hard to Change
- Ctrl-Alt-Del: Learning to Love Legacy Code
Call to Action
Why work doesn't happen at work: Jason Fried, TEDx Midwest
This last key - a meaningful call to action - is the one I struggled the most to name. As they say, there are only two hard things in software development: naming things, cache invalidation, and off-by-one errors. The connotation behind "call to action" may come off at first as sounding too "sales and marketing" like many software engineers. But that connotation does not impact the importance of a call to action. Using the strictest definition of the word, it is a vital part of your talk.
As we discussed, your audience came to your talk, hoping for you to succeed. They've now sat through you talking "at" them for 15, 25, 45 minutes or more. So the call to action is not for you - it's not self-serving like a sales pitch. Your call to action at the end of your talk should be your gift to the audience. It should be about them, not about you. It should give them concrete next steps they can take to positively impact what you were talking about in their own lives, organization, or world. This call to action is what you want the audience to remember, and the best tech talks are also the most memorable.
And they don't have to be about tech at all even. In Jason Fried's TEDx talk "Why work doesn't happen at work," Jason presents the main ideas around how we've become accustomed to working together are broken...and, more importantly, offers concrete ways to fix them. And while those calls to action are simple, they also go to the heart of Jason's story and passion: making it less crazy at work by freeing up people to do their best work with time and space.
So, given that you've come this far, I hope I've shared my passion for great tech talks with you. Hopefully, that passion is shared, and you've found a new way of thinking about your own talks. So what is my gift to you for having come this far? Well, it's going to sound like an oversimplified call to action, but I'm telling you it's exactly what you should do:
Go give a talk
Your unique stories are valuable. You are passionate about things that others should care more about. There are audiences out there - in meetups, small events, or large conferences - that want to hear what you have to say and will be rooting for you when you get up in front of them. All that's left is to strike a balance between those stories and substance with some of your own personal style to make it exciting and engaging.
So go forth, and write that talk. I'm confident you can do it.