Presenting Technical Material Well

One of the obvious things that people go to defcon/blackhat for are the talks. These presentations often cover very edgy "omg I can’t believe he just did that" type material. However, just as often, many of the presentations quite frankly are not very good at all.

Last year I attended a variety of talks but one in particular has stuck with me. It had some of the most interesting material of the whole conference– but I left half the way into it. The presenter was just so difficult to listen to, I couldn’t take it.

I don’t propose to be an expert, but I’d like to offer some things that I’ve found helpful.

  1. Assumption is the mother of all screwed up presentations.

    Nothing is worse then doing a presentation and seeing that blank look of WTF on everyone’s face. Every time you get that look, understand that it’s your fault.  By and large learning is about connecting dots.  If you aren’t doing that for the audience, expect to lose them.  As the presenter you are responsible not just for delivering material, but bringing people along side you.  This includes researching and knowing your audience before you start.

  2. What problem does your presentation solve / show?

    A big part of bringing people along side you is helping them understand the significance of your presentation.  Why should they care about your new tool, how is it different than anything else?  What ground does your research cover? What are the take aways I should leave with?  It’s NOT the audiences problem to derive value.  It’s their problem to derive personal relevance. I assume every presentation I go to will be valuable, even if it’s not relevant.

  3. Keep it simple

    One of the talks this year was about capturing GSM network cell phone calls.  Even though I know little to nothing about the topic, at the end I felt like I could explain how the attack and technology basically worked.  The presenter kept the material simple and gave great examples in a way that I could understand.  He walked the audience through each step of how to get to where he was.  If you want a model for a good presentation, go watch this one.

  4. Practice the presentation

    Time out how long your presentation actually takes.  Give it in front of a mirror, or even better record yourself on a webcam.  Watch yourself like a hawk for distracting physical affectations and wasted words.  It’s okay to be nervous, but it’s better to be bold.  Listen for when you pause, or say the word “um”.  Those things need to be controlled and used only intentional.  It’s also not a bad idea to run through the presentation with some friends.

  5. Make it fun if you can, but you’ve got to strive for captivating

    One of the best talks I attended this year was just fun.  Listening to a presenter talk about how they messed with their co-worker was hysterical.  More importantly, it was personal and captivating.  Personal examples/stories about real experiences are often the best material to cover. 

I would also highly recommend getting into some form of public speaking training program.  Find the toastmasters in your area.  These guys and gals are great at helping you through much of the above.  Also, think back to what presentations you liked and didn’t like.  Try and model what aspects of that presentation made it fun and compelling.  Imation is a perfectly valid way to learn.

Hope that helps…

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