3 Thoughts on Giving A Big Talk

How to convey ideas and excitement.


October 8, 2013

Last week I had the opportunity to give the opening plenary talk at the Teaching Professor Technology Conference.

The topic of my talk was The Teaching Professor in 2020: Shaping the Future in a Time of Rapid Change.

This was the biggest talk that I've given so far in my academic career. The conference was sold out (650 attendees), and my talk was kicking off the conference. 

The thing is - we don't really learn how to give big talks.  

Maybe some folks have professional training in presenting. Certainly there are lots of great materials and books on how to give a great presentation. I read a book called How To Deliver a TED Talk - it  had some good nuggets.

But mostly I think us academic and edtech types are on our own in figuring out how to give an effective keynote or other big talk.  

We learn from experience. We learn from watching others. We learn from our mistakes.  

Is there a better way?

Here are a few observations from my big talk experience. I'd be interested in hearing about your ideas and experiences:

1. Time Consuming:

It was amazingly time consuming to prepare this talk. I basically put in about 5 solid days of preparation. Prep hours for the talk occurred mostly during nights and weekends. Regular work does not stop to make room to prepare for a big talk.

The advice I got from Malcolm Brown, Director of the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (and terrific keynoter), is that it takes about as long to put together a big talk as it does to put together an article. My experience tracks pretty well to Malcolm's observation.

Five solid days to prepare a big talk may sound manageable. But this focused time does not capture the fact that I was thinking about the talk much of the time I was not engaged in something else.  

The talk was on my mind when I exercised and when I fell asleep at night.  When I drove and when I was just sitting thinking. It is the combination of direct work (researching, writing, designing the slides, practicing, etc.) and thinking about the talk that makes the commitment to put together and deliver a big presentation so time consuming.

2.  Energizing:

It was refreshing to devote so much time to one project.  I'm a blogger, a writer of quick and short pieces, and I've been missing the opportunity to spend large chunks of time on a single project. In my fantasy world I spend many (if not most) of my time writing. I have ideas and outlines for numerous articles, book chapters, and at least a couple of books.   

I'm always amazed at my colleagues in academic administration, folks without any protected time or direct career imperatives to publish, who manage to churn out long articles and books. These people are amazing. Perhaps in the future my work and family situation will be more conducive to longer research and writing projects. I hope so.

But for now the deadline and date-certain nature inherent in agreeing to give a big talk was exactly what I needed. Sacrificing some weekends and nights felt like a small price to pay for being prepared to give a decent big talk. The approaching date of the conference provided all the motivation I needed to leave aside other demands and focus on the talk.  

As I got deeper into the preparation I found the process to be energizing. The intense focus in the service of creating something to be shared with colleagues allowed me to make new connections and come up with new ideas.  

By the time the day of the talk arrived I was exhilarated with the thought of sharing what I had discovered. Actually giving the talk was a joy.   

3.  Design Focused:

I use PowerPoint.  

Part of me says I should finally let go of PowerPoint, move to the coolness of Keynote or the motion of Prezi.  

Or follow what Ray Schroeder does and build my talk around an open Web presentation.  

We see amazing presentations where the speaker uses nothing but her voice. At the Teaching Professor Technology Conference Brian Kibby, President of McGraw-Hill Education, gave a terrific plenary session, Gradually, Then Suddenly: How Technology Has Changed Teaching in Higher Education, without any slides or visuals.

But I still like slides.

My approach to putting together my deck is to use words and text very sparingly.  Most of my slides consist of images. The images are meant to evoke an emotional response. To make a point that connects with the argument that I'm making.   When I use words I present them to also trigger emotional responses.   I'll use words that and text that feels and looks more like images.

Finding the right images for a presentation is a challenge.  You never want to be hokey or manipulative or superficial.  Never use an image for its own sake.  Any image needs to complement and add to your argument.  To work in conjunction with what you will be saying.

I find it difficult to find good images. Google Images, Bing Images, and Flickr can be hit and miss. Sites like Shutterstock are excellent but expensive. And I don't have a ton of native design talent or any great image editing skills.

I'm also a presenter that uses lots of slides.  One image per slide. A few words per slide.  A fast rotation of what is on the screen.

The amount of time it took me to put together this latest big talk has convinced me that I need to get more training in design. That I need to read more books and spend time on more websites and get more formal training in how to design an effective presentation. Any ideas of where to start to get better at presentation design?

What has been your experience in giving big talks?

How did you get better?

What do you like to see when you attend a plenary or keynote session?


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