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Presentation Tips from Benelux

Note: This article was originally published at Planet PHP on 31 January 2012.
Planet PHP

I had a great time at the recent PHP Benelux Conference in Belgium. There was a real mix of very interesting people to talk to, and I came away from it buzzing with new ideas (and a ridiculously long todo list). Some of the conversations I had during the weekend were around technical presenting at conferences and usergroups, so I thought I'd collect a handful of the tips that were discussed into a post, and use a few of my favourite speakers at the event to illustrate them.

David ZAlke

David is the project lead on the Agavi framework, and the founder of the consultancy Bitextender. I've seen David speak a fair few times, and for my money he is one of the very best anywhere at presenting technical information in a clear, digestible way - his talk at PHP BNL 12 about Hadoop being no exception. There are principles at work in his presentations that are worth noting:

Make concepts concrete with examples and demos - When you're talking about a technical subject, you're usually introducing some technology that the attendees are unfamiliar with. Most conference talks are 45min-1hr, including time for questions, so there isn't time to teach a subject - rather you have to focus on inspiring. This means it's vital to mix conceptual, general information with specific, concrete examples and demonstrations so that people can immediately see applied what you have just described to them.

David is brilliant at this, constantly switching between the idea he has introduced, and practical applications. For example, in his PHPBNL12 Hadoop talk he discussed the idea of writing mappers and reducers in PHP, then showed it with actual code examples and a demo. After proving that, he then discussed the value of combiners as a way of reducing data transfer, and then showed that. If he had described them all at once then just showed the final demo, his talk would have been less memorable and less effective.

Structure your talk to repeatedly ask and answer questions - One of the worst sins in a technical presentation is to be boring, but that's exactly what many presenters end up with (and I'm as guilty of that as anyone). This usually happens out of the best of intentions, as the speaker wants to introduce sufficient background before moving on to how the subject of the talk solves the problem. Good talks repeatedly introduce problem/solution pairs, so that there is a constant stream of interesting contrast. David is very good at breaking down a problem in to these steps. In his Hadoop talk he bounced between problem and solution very smoothly:

  • Problem: Big data is big - reading 180GB of a disk will take ~45 mins
  • Solution: Split your IO across many machines
  • Problem: But now you need to coordinate those machines
  • Solution: Mapreduce paradigm

By introducing problems then solutions, he holds the interest of the audience, and naturally splits the information into bite sized chunks.

Rowan Merewood

Rowan is a technical lead in the Sheffield office of consultancy Ibuildings in the UK, and a conference regular. He spoke at PHP Belenux on project estimation.

Care About The Visuals - Presentations, even technical ones, are not about the slides - they're about the speaker. That said, if used effectively slides can make a big difference in how well the audience understands the topic. You don't need a slide for every point, and you definitely don't want to fill your slides full of text, but you should pay attention to making every slide you use, clear, effective, and attractive.

Slides form the back drop, and particularly on a large stage you can be quite a small figure walking in front of a big glowing wall of picture or code. Rowan always puts a great deal of effort into coming up with a theme for his slide design, and it immediately sets the tone for his presentations. Take a look at the day of the dead style figures in his estimation talk, the comics and characters from his legacy code presentation or the Alice in Wonderland theme in his depedency injection talk. Not only are these vi

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