It is a common belief that the great speeches of history have all been given without the aid of PowerPoint. I beg to differ. I believe I have found the prime counterexample, which I present to you below, exclusively in this newsletter. Sadly, next week we shall return to our poor traditional orators who have failed to produce a single slide amongst themselves.

As a tech conference speaker, you’re going to have to produce a slide deck for your talk. After you’ve been giving talks for a while, you can think about doing a Grey Young and give a talk without slides – awesome and scary!

But for now, you have a slide deck to worry about. Producing a great deck that also looks good is an art. There’s no set path to making it happen. But there are classic mistakes that you can avoid. As with many things in life, it is often what you don’t do that is the key to success.

Here are three classic mistakes that frequently occur in tech talk slides. Just avoid these, and you reach the next level of awesomeness without even trying.

First, you dump lots of code in a tiny font onto a slide. Not only can we not grok that amount of code in the time available, but you expect us to understand it while listening to you talk? Nope.

If you are going to use code in your talk, the best way to do it is with a live demo, from your editor. Zoom up the text size, and make sure the code is syntax-highlighted in strong colors on a white background. Black backgrounds do not project well, and your code will be harder to read.

If you do want to put code into your deck, keep the volume way down. Removing everything extraneous is not only recommended, it is necessary—you just don’t have the space. Get rid of all the boilerplate, and yes, the error checking code. You’ll be presenting, and you can explain that these are just code extracts. Keep it to a few lines at most, and a few slides at most. That is really the limit that your audience will tolerate, even if they are coders.

And don’t just cut-and-paste the code onto your slide. The syntax highlighting will disappear. Take a screenshot from your editor.

Second, you braindump everything you know into multi-level bullet points on slide after slide after slide. You know what this says? You didn’t put any effort into structuring your message so that is comprehensible for the audience. And that’s sort of the whole point of attending your talk!
A good talk will always need some effort put into the dispositio. Bullet points tell me you did not do that.

Bullet points are just an awful way to present information. If you end up with significant amounts of text, then you should be writing a report or an essay instead. Slides are meant to illustrate an idea, not be your speaking notes. Writing out what you are going to say as bullet points, and then reading them off, is the greatest oratorical sin of our age. Even if you are a reasonable speaker, you still end up reading them off, as the bullet point structure takes over your brain.

So what if you do need to show a list of things? Pick the top three, and don’t have sublevels. I’m really not sure when you would ever need to break this rule. Any list that has more than three items is reference material, not a condensation of your insights for the audience.

Third: boxy boxes boxing boxier boxes. Present a slide like this at any tech conference, and you won’t get invited back. Leave the visual box hierarchies to bored teams in corporate conference rooms taking part in obligatory company training programmes. Or Oracle salespeople.

Present a slide like this, and you’re just showing your contempt for the community, and odds are your talk is just a product pitch. BOO!

Slightly more acceptable is the good old boxes and arrows slide. You can get away with one or two of these, but the ice is thin, and you’d want to move over it quickly.

Creating a great deck is pretty hard. It’s the number one cause of speaker procrastination. But if you just avoid the three mistakes above, you’re already halfway to glory.

Can I ask you for a favor? If you enjoy this newsletter, and if you find it useful, please consider recommending it to a friend who is learning to give technical talks, or who aspires to do so. I meet so many cool programmers who have brilliant things to share with the world—that’s you!

Please help me to improve this newsletter – I’d love to hear your suggestions! You can email me directly: You can tweet too: @metsitaba. Thank you so much for reading!

A special thanks and shout out to Tammy for helping to make this newsletter even better!


Speaker Profile

Amy Herman
Visual Intelligence [V] [NSFW]

This is a real treat. Amy Herman is just a fabulous speaker. I wish I had that level of verbal, facial, and postural control. Her deck uses almost no text at all. Set yourself a challenge – do the same.

Just a heads up for those of you in shared office space, the talk uses a lot of classical paintings as source material….

Learn from the best

   There are no words...   There are no words…

Doug Zonker [PDF]

There are no words…

Presentation Zen
Garr Reynolds

Don’t be put off by the 2008 publication date or the focus on PowerPoint. This book is about timeless techniques for building presentation slides.

It does present the techniques as a set of “rules”, but you’re smart, so first learn the rules, and create good slides. Then learn to break the rules, and create great slides.

10 tips on how to make slides that communicate your idea, from TED’s in-house expert

Yes, it’s another TED listicle. Still good though!

Aaron Weyenberg is the master of slide decks. Our UX Lead creates Keynote presentations that are both slick and charming—the kind that pull you in and keep you captivated, but in an understated way that helps you focus on what’s actually being said. He does this for his own presentations and for lots of other folks in the office. Yes, his coworkers ask him to design their slides, because he’s just that good.

We asked Aaron to bottle his Keynote mojo so that others could benefit from it. Here, 10 tips for making an effective slide deck, split into two parts: the big, overarching goals, and the little tips and tricks that make your presentation sing.”

Three Conferences

Developer Week SF Bay Area

The Oakland Convention Center will come alive with over 8,000 developers at the world’s largest Developer expo and conference series. We previously highlighted Developer Week Austin, so now it’s time to head West in February if Austin wasn’t in the cards for you in 2017.  In addition to the conference, there will be over 50 city-wide partner events, perfect for networking, so take a look at the agenda and start marking your calendar.

RubyConf India 2018

This conference is a 2-day, single-track event focused on the Ruby language, framework, and tools. RubyConf India is designed to complement other Ruby events globally, bringing folks together in Bengaluru, the center of India’s high-tech industry. You say you don’t speak Kannada, the official language of Bengaluru? Well, it’s your lucky day –  the entire conference will be held in English!

AFCEA Tokyo Technet 2018

Konichiwa Tokyo! AFCEA Tokyo Technet 2018’s content spans a variety of topics, from information technology and cyber-security to intelligence and telecommunications. It serves the local Japanese and U.S. military, government, and academia, in and around Tokyo, to educate and advance professional knowledge. This years chosen theme is “Transformation,” highlighting the advances in technology, particularly cyber-security, in the past few years. March also begins the Sakura, or cherry blossom season, so you may be in for a real treat!

CFP Calendar

These are the CFP deadline dates and submission pages.