Tech Life A two phase process

How To Not Throw Up

As soon as you decide to become a professional nerd, either via a university degree or simply because you sit up all night writing Python to scratch your particular technical itch, you think you absolve yourself of having to stand up in front of a group of people make a presentation.

And you might be right.

Then there’s a chance you’re going to build or think something brilliant, and no mailing list, weblog, or wiki is going to be able to contain this brilliance. Those who want to hear about your brilliance are going to insist that you stand in front of them and explain this bright thing that you did or thought.

Conflict. Yes, you want to explain your brightness, but, um, the last time you stood in front of people and told a story was Ms. Randall’s 11th grade English class, and you stumbled through an incoherent ramble about Henry David Thoreau and some pond.

Unlike that pond, you are immensely qualified to talk about your topic, but you’re totally unqualified to present in front of a group of people. It’s not just that you haven’t had the practice, but that lack of practice has given you the erroneous impression that there’s a good chance you might throw up if you have to stand up and tell a story in front of 500 people.

Not Throwing Up is a Two-Phase Process

This article is about presentations, not content. Both are equally important, but I’m not here to help you write your content, I’m here to transform that content into a presentation that doesn’t suck.

Let’s say you’ve written your 30 slides. A rookie presentation move is to: a) have too many slides, and b) stuff your slides with clutter, like wordy bullet points. Filling each slide with as much content as possible. This is your feeble attempt to get out of actually presenting. Your thought is, “Fill the slides with information and read the slides”. This makes sense to you, since I know you’re nervous, but my question is, “Why are you nervous?”

“I’ve never presented in front of 500 people.”

“So, you’re not confident you can do it?”


“Ok, so let’s focus on the confidence rather than creating more horrible slides.”

Phase 1: Practice endlessly. Confidence is going to come not when you memorize your slides, but when you move the content from one side of your brain to the other. Right now, your slides are sitting in the linear left side of your brain, the practical side. This is a fine place for the slides to be while you’re creating them, but before you get up on stage, you need to move them to the right side of your brain, the creative side. You need to be able to feel your slides.

Your presentation is storytelling. It’s a performance. It’s you on stage telling me and 499 of my friends a story about why you’re brilliant. That’s not a comforting thought since I know you’re already nervous about standing in front of 500 people and bumbling through your slides. And now you’re saying it’s a performance? My presentation regarding huge performance wins in garbage collection is NOT a performance.

Of course it is. Why else would there be 500 people sitting here wanting to hear about it? I promise there’s some art, some performance, in your presentation, and the best way to find it is to practice endlessly. The best way to do that is to stand up, walk around your office, and give your presentation to no one. Over and over again.

It takes some getting used to — pacing around your office or hotel room listening to your own voice — but that’s exactly what your audience is going to hear. You need to figure out how to listen to yourself tell a story while also critically listening to the story. You’re the presenter and the audience. Yeah, it takes practice.

Start with those three slides there about that one specific topic: Talk through it and listen to how it sounds. Does it make sense? Does it flow? Are you reading the slide or are you telling a story? How does it transition into the next point? After you’ve heard yourself verbally walk through a topic a few times, you start to hear what you’re trying to say, and you make discoveries like, “Uh, I’m making no sense” and “This is supposed to be funny, but it’s lame”, or “This topic doesn’t have any relation to anything near it.”

We’re talking hours of practice here, but you’ll slowly start to notice that you’re not just memorizing the content, you’re also memorizing the flow. You’ll start to notice where you’re repeating yourself, you’ll find key points in the strangest places, and you’ll stop to reorder and rewrite slides… a lot. Good. Keep practicing.

When you can sit at your desk with your eyes closed and talk through any one of your slides, you’re going to stop worrying about what you need to say and focus more on how you’re going to say it. This intimate knowledge of your content is going to give you confidence.

But you still might throw up.

Phase Two Throw-up Avoidance

A few years back, I gave a recruiting presentation at two different universities on the same day. Same presentation, same general age group of students, morning versus evening.

The morning presentation was in front of a packed room. Just after 10am. I was three cups of coffee into the day and so was everyone else. Three slides in and I knew this was going to be an easy presentation. Heads were nodding, laughs were coming from the least expected slides, and folks were actually taking me up on my offer: “Stop me if you have a question”. Captivated. 40 minutes of slides. 20 minutes of intense, engaged questions and answers. Mission accomplished.

5 hours later. I’m in another conference room 50 miles away in another university and everyone’s coffee has worn off. The room is half full and I’m a little tired, but I’ve done this presentation 30 times in my head, so when I start on slide #1, it’s on. I know this presentation, so why is everyone falling asleep on slide #3? There’s no laughing and, by slide #10, someone gets up and walks out. Ouch.

Hopefully, this is normally when you considering throwing up. I say hopefully because there are a great many presenters who don’t have a clue when the presentation is going badly. This is certainly a rookie mistake, but I’ve sat through a fair share of presentations by seasoned managers where they just flopped and didn’t have a clue.

You need to stop and listen to what your audience needs. If your presentation isn’t going swimmingly, stop five minutes in and look around the room. Is the audience looking at you? Or are they staring at their laptops? Has there been nodding? I know it’s been 10 seconds now and you’re still looking at the audience saying nothing — it’s ok, they’re just sitting there wondering if you’re about to throw up. You’re building tension.

More importantly, you’re figuring out the most important part of your presentation: which audience showed up? Here’s the rub: you can write brilliant, compelling slides, you can practice your slides 40 times, but you can never predict who is going to show up, and your presentation must be tailored to those who show up.

Ok, now throw up.

Phase 2: Improvise. This is hard and this is where our senior managers, with hundreds of presentations under their belts, screw up. First, they’ve stopped fretting, which means their presentations lack any sort of energy. Consequently, they don’t listen to the audience, so when the audience asks for something, they don’t give it. This is why they sound like bad used car salesmen; they’re just reciting the sales pitch and they don’t care what you think.

How do you need to improve? What is your audience going to ask for? They want one thing: they want to participate. No, they don’t want to get on stage and present your slides; they want to be included in this presentation — in this performance. I’m not talking about waves of applause, I’m talking about taking looking at a sea of people and knowing these people are listening to your every word. It’s a constructive silence directed squarely at you, and when you learn how to read it, it’s a high.

So, what are you going to do? How are you going to adapt? Maybe this crowd wants you to wake them up? How about accentuating your points loudly? How about a bit more walking around the stage waving your hands furiously? Perhaps you’re too amped and they want you to slow and pause between your words. Give them time for your words to soak in.

When someone walked out of my university presentation, I immediately stopped. I began reminiscing about my college years and the complex protocol I’d worked out for when it was ok to walk out of a lecture. This 5-minute irrelevant segue did two things: first, it reminded my semi-lucid audience that I was one of them, and second, since my segue was timely (person walking out) and humorous (maybe), we reconnected. They woke up and I dove back into my slides with my new college buds who were now clear that I cared about what they thought.


No lying. The ability to improvise takes experience and you’re going to have to live through and recover from a couple of horrific presentations in order to build up your improv repertoire. For these early disasters, I have three pieces of advice:

  • When you’re presenting, talk like you’re talking to one person who happens to have a thousand eyeballs. Don’t get lost in the sea of faces, pick a person and tell them the story. Not for the entire hour, just a few seconds. Then move on.
  • Use silence as punctuation. My favorite trick in the book especially since I’m a fast talker. When you hear yourself gaining verbal momentum, stop. Count backwards from 5. Walk across the stage. Resume. These breaks are going to give both you and your audience a chance to mentally regroup.
  • They want you to succeed. This piece of advice is in every presentation guide out there — because it’s true. Your audience is expecting you to rock their socks. They’re expecting an A+. That’s where you’re starting in their heads and walking on stage knowing this helps.

I don’t want you to throw up.

I want you to fret about this presentation, and if you’re not losing a little sleep, you don’t care. You’re not going to be motivated. You’re going to end up perpetuating the idea that nerds can’t tell a story. If you’ve been handed the responsibility of a presentation and aren’t the least bit concerned, give it to someone who is going to sweat this thing and then be prepared for that person to end up as your boss.

14 Responses

  1. John Muir 9 years ago

    “So then gentlemen … oh and I see the occasional lady too … we gather today once again on this ancient field of battle; to do as we have for the ages. You the listener, and I your tiresome host.”

    Damn, you mean I was supposed to empathise with them? Innovative advice. 😉

  2. I just had a paper accepted to a conference this summer and I’m shitscared. Thanks for this advice.

  3. Keith Browne 9 years ago

    For longer presentations, Mark Jason Dominus’s Conference Presentation Judo is a great start.

  4. True story:

    I was presenting a session (Lotusphere 2006) on supporting Visually Impaired Users. Several times during the presentation I pointed out that the mouse is absolutely useless to a blind or severely visually impaired user; and emphasized this by holding up and shaking the mouse attached to my laptop.

    It wasn’t until some post-session QA with some members of my audience (many of whom were partially or totally visually impaired) that when I held up the aforementioned mouse I never once used the word “mouse” to describe what it was I was holding up.

    All they got out of those parts of my presentation was me ranting “This is worthless to a visually impaired user!” -without ever knowing what This was.



  5. Mark Onyschuk 9 years ago

    Excellent post with lots of great info! I’ve done a ton of presentations to tech audiences and have benefitted from the fact that in a prior life, I actually was pretty serious about theater 🙂

    One tip I think is worth mentioning, is that while practicing a presentation (that doing it over and over in your office step) – video yourself and catch a glimpse of what’s going on from the perspective of someone in the audience.

    It’s amazing the stuff you’ll catch that’s tough to identify even if you’re presenting to a mirror.

    One of the benefits of practicing a presentation until you’ve “got it down cold” speaks to a later point of yours. Once you’ve got it down, improvisation is *easy*. It’s perhaps counter-intuitive, but having a presentation scripted and practiced doesn’t pidgeon-hole you into a particular delivery; instead, it gives you some freedom because it puts you in a position where you can spend your attention on the audience rather than on the particulars of delivering your message.


  6. Tony Wylie 9 years ago

    Good advice,

    I recently saw some execs from a computer company (they’re big and they’re blue) give a major presentation about a £10Bn, 4 year contract and it was without question THE WORST presentation I have ever seen, and my University Degree meant I had to sit through hundreds of my peers doing presentations so I know a bad one when I see it. Five minutes research on the web could have improved this no end.

    Perhaps I should point them in this direction…

  7. This is a terrific post, one of the better pieces of thinking and writing I’ve ever seen on presenting, well done.

    I’ve just finished a twenty year run as a presenter and have done thousands (1000s) of talks to audiences small to very large all over the world. I absolutely agree with everything in your post and all of the comments (so far) are spot on.

    Given the “throwing up” nature of your post, I’ll add some techniques that I’ve found useful:

    1. Make sure you’re in the room early and talk with people as they arrive. Not just casual conversation but serious stuff, including a bit about topics you might cover in your talk. Keep that going as you set up your AV, pour water, etc.

    Then, when the talk begins you’re already moving, already revved up on the topic and you have people in the audience who you can have eye contact with who you are somewhat familiar with.

    2. If you lose your way, start to implode in self-consciousness (it happens to all of us, it’s not a matter of if but when) here’s a way out:

    Ask a question of the audience. Even a somewhat rhetorical question. Like Rands says in the post (walking across the stage), this small pause will give you a chance to catch your breath, recompose yourself, etc. Take some discussion (no matter how large the audience) and when you catch your stride again, move back to the main topic.

    3. My talks tended to be like Eddy Izzard standups but sometimes I got lost trying to weave it all together at the end. If this happened I simply asked the audience for help, saying, honestly, that I was getting older, losing my memory and a breeze came through and blew away my bread-crumbs. The audience was always happy to help me find my way back and generally, the pause helped me regain my composure.

    For what its worth a number of years ago as I was trying to find a way to stop presenting I made a laundry list of things for presenters to consider. It’s not what your post is but it might be useful to those reading here: Tips for Presenters.

  8. Great post. I have some tips on my own site (which I won’t link to directly, as that’s a little shameless, even for me). There’s one trick that I learned from a psychological counseling class that has come in handy a few times. If you’re having difficulty with something (be it a patient’s problem or a presentation), be honest and share the problem with the audience. It’s your first presentation since middle school and you’re a little nervous? Feel free to mention it before you get going. No one’s going to fault you for it.

    My last presentation was nearly killed by a laptop disaster. The host thought I was going to bring my own laptop, I thought the host was going to be providing one. All I had on me was a CD of my slides. My slides for a presentation on visual perception. Luckily we realized our mistake about fifteen minutes before the presentation. After calling everyone we knew, I was able to call in a favor from my former employer at the university. It did require, however, that I run across campus, make sure the laptop had everything I needed, and then run back to the classroom. I arrived just in time, out of breath, sweating, and a little disheveled. Then it was time to present.

    “Before I get started, let me just take a moment to explain why I look like this. We discovered, just moments ago, that we had no laptop for this presentation. So we called, um,” I looked at the host, “Everyone?” I looked back at the audience, “Everyone. And luckily we were able to get a laptop in the nick of time. It involved a lot of running. So again, sorry if I’m out of breath for the first bit of this talk.”

    It went over really well, and the presentation was very well received. 🙂

  9. pawliger 9 years ago

    Great, great, points. The one about “silence as a mental pause” is wonderful. All speaking courses and books emphasize minimizing “er’s” and “um’s” and what they often don’t say is what that removing them will then leave – silence. Silence is truly a “pause that refreshes” – both you and the audience.

    Another point from my own experience: if you are doing a live demo of something on-screen, be extra-prepared, and extra-practiced. Do not deviate from the practiced script. There lies madness. And maybe even have a “canned” completed project already done so if somethine does happen, you need not re-do all the steps so far. If you are extra prepared like this, 95% of the time you won’t need to be. And you – and your audience – will be very thankful when the time comes and you did need to be.

  10. Steve 9 years ago

    Practice is the thing. Toastmasters is wonderful for this, however much it may seem like a relic. You’ll never have the speaking fast problem if you go to Toastmasters. They catch that early and let you know.

    Jonathan’s tip of mentioning you’re nervous. Big no-no. They know you’re nervous, and they don’t need you to tell them. Or they don’t know you’re nervous, so why give away the secret.

    Pawliger on demos: Never do that, especially if there’s an online component. Save screenshots.

    Recording your speech is essential. Video is great if you can do it. You dread it like the plague, but you’ll be relieved that you aren’t as bad as you thought.

  11. To address Steve’s criticism, I didn’t mean to imply that you should always share your state of mind with the audience. Breaking the fourth wall, as it were, can definitely hurt you if you don’t know the right time to do so. In my personal example, however, there was no reasonable way to hide the fact that I was perspiring and out of breath, and I would rather the audience not waste its attention wondering why this was the case. So I got it out of the way in 30 seconds and gave a good talk.

  12. Klaatu 9 years ago

    Rands, what Steven and J. Dobres said!Toastmasters is crucial, also running through the technology (no laptop disasters) before you make the presentation.

    Being that I am a geek who interfaces with the public the two things that will help one overcome presentation nausia are 1) friendliness and 2) humor. Although jokes are good especially if you’re good at telling them, it can be something as simple and cryptic as flashing a yelling Pants from your laptop screen background onto the projection screen while you are opening up the Powerpoint program. Better yet, make the last slide bacround a tye dye or Hawaiian shirt background with your acnowledgements.

  13. SimonTeW 9 years ago

    Great post and good comments from others, also.

    A couple of points from my experience:

    1) Nervousness. During a couple of presentations I’ve been so nervous I could hardly breathe – the breath was coming in but not getting out again, my voice seemed to be catching in my throat. One was on a presentation course where we were videoed. I had felt like I was dying on stage and I was very surprised to see that in the video none of that came across. Others in the course said the same thing. Strangely this has been a confidence boost – even if I’m dying inside I know that most of the audience won’t see it.

    On the other hand, (pun intended) anything that you do with your hands will show all too plainly how nervous you are. Brits will remember the famous interview between demon interviewer Jeremy Paxman and politician Michael Howard a couple of years ago. Howard looked cool, calm and collected until he pulled some papers out of his pocket and they were trembling like leaves in a wind. I have been caught out pointing to something on an overhead projector, and also using a light pen to point to something on a screen. Both magnify quivers enormously.

    A last point about nervousness: I find I speed up when I’m nervous. I may have practised a talk to fit into a certain timeframe but when I do it for real I get through it quite a bit more quickly. If you’ve got a certain slot to fill and you finish early, don’t be tempted to improvise and pad it out. I’ve done that and it was a disaster. Better to ask for questions or just finish early and let the audience have a break, even if it’s just standing and stretching – they could probably use it.

    2) Preparation. The best advice I’ve had about preparation came from RNZAF instructional technique training. Although the technique is specifically for instructional talks I have found it adapts well to both general presentations and writing reports. This is a top-down preparation technique that involves 5 stages:

    a) Determine the Objective of the presentation. What do you want to achieve? Think in terms of what you want the audience to be able to do at the end. Write it down using “action” words. eg Don’t write “The audience will understand…”. Instead, write “The audience will be able to describe…”. Sounds pedantic but it really clarifies your thinking.

    b) Determine the Enabling Objectives. What topics do you need to cover to achieve the Objective? Brainstorm and list them down then rearrange them so they’re in a logical order.

    c) Determine the Teaching Points for each Enabling Objective. Okay, this is aimed at instructional talks but it just means listing the facts you need to get across for each topic. Once again, once you’ve got the list rearrange them into a logical order.

    At this point you’ve got your presentation. No need to write it down like a speech, word for word. Just list down the topics with factual bullet points under them.

    d) Determine the Method of Presentation. What’s the best way of getting the info across? eg a demonstration, a discussion (with participation from the audience), a one-way talk (you talk, they listen). This depends not only on the subject of the talk but also on the situation – are you showing a group of high school kids how to change a car tyre or are you presenting a scientific paper; are you talking to half a dozen people or 200?

    e) Prepare your Presentational Aids. eg Powerpoint slides, handouts, animations on a laptop. Do this last for two reasons: i) The important bit of the presentation is the information you put across, not the bells and whistles. If you’re pushed for time which is better – to have a talk without handouts or handouts without having an idea of what you’re going to say? ii) Your talk won’t depend on the presentational aids so if something goes wrong with them (eg no laptop – see comment above) you can still present your talk.

    Some further points about preparation from my own experience:

    i) Know your subject before you start your preparation. If you can understand the subject and hold it all in head it makes it so much easier to determine which topics you need to cover, and what the teaching points are.

    ii) Preparation really is the key and you shouldn’t skimp on it. In my experience the preparation time should be at least 4 to 6 times the length of the presentation. For short presentations of half an hour or less expect to spend even longer, proportionately, on preparation.

    iii) Practise. If you use the list of topics and bullet points that I mentioned above, rather than a written speech, you won’t ever sound like you’re reading your talk because you aren’t! But you do need to run through the talk a few times to yourself so you’re comfortable with it.

  14. Tom Moffat 9 years ago


    Despite having just finished my second year at University, I have already had to give a couple of presentations. The thing I always found was the fact that I often became intimidated by the amount of people I was talking to, and would often find myself talking to the back wall, ceiling or floor of the theatre but never directly to the audience. In future I will follow your tip of picking out individuals in the crowd of faces for a few seconds and talking to them. I have had speakers talk to me like that in the audience before and I have never quite understood why until now.

    Thanks for the great advice!