Joseph Wilk

Joseph Wilk

Things with code, creativity and computation.

A Developers Guide to Creating Presentations

So your talk got selected. Great!

Oh Crap! Now hits the panic, you have to actually create a presentation.

Every presenter wants to give the best possible presentation they can that sticks in peoples minds.

Here are some hard earned lessons for getting the best out of your presentation.

Accept that most of our preconceptions of how we learn are wrong.

Forget those high information dense, black and white acetate slides with professors droning on about solving the towers of Hanoi while you scribble your own notes while downing your fifth coffee.

“Attending a lecture is a passive experience for the student. Of all teaching events, the lecture is most likely to promote basic assumption dependence and sleep”

The good news

That does not mean you cannot give a super dense, deeply detailed presentation. It means if you want people to get the most out of your presentation you need to think outside a boring lecture. Luckily Fun, humor, creativity, color, interaction, invoking emotions are a key part of helping people learn effectively. Think back to your favourite teacher, why were they your favourite? I’m guessing they introduced some of those things in their teaching.

Creating a presentation

Lets look at some general ideas to help make your presentation great:

1. Dedicate time

Creating a presentation, content, theme, styling, finding pictures, practicing all take time. As you get better you can speed up and hone your tactics for presentations.

My first presentation took 3 months. Make sure you start early and give yourself enough time!

2. Research the current state of the art

Doing a talk on Continuous Deployment? Search for every Continuous Deployment presentation that has been given. Watch them all, steal the good ideas and throw away the bad. Try and make sure you are saying something new or presenting a different slant on the topic.

3. Don’t be on your own

Experienced speakers have developed a repertoire of little tricks, ideas and thoughts for presentations. They have also sat through a lot of presentations and have good experience of being the audience. Don’t be shy finding someone who has spoken before for some advice, even finding someone who would be happy to be your mentor.

If nothing else watch some of the most popular speakers on Confreaks and see what tricks/styles they use.

Conferences are not very good at helping get the best out of you when it comes to creating your talk. Once your talk is submitted and accepted you are often left on your own until the day of your talk. I believe this is something fundamentally broken with conferences today. Realise this and find someone to be your mentor.

4. Practice frees the subconscious

Practicing a presentation is an important part of getting better and more confident at giving presentations. Practice wherever and whenever you can, at work, at your local meetup and in the shower (yes I’ve done this). Don’t forget you are not learning if you don’t get feedback from your audience.

There is however another secret reason to practice.

When you know a presentation and are confident in giving it you become freer to improvise, to play to the crowd, to react to the room. Your mind is no longer concerned with messing it up, its free to improvise and be creative. Understand what I mean? Watch any of Jim Weirich talks.

5. Borrow confidence from the Samurais

The hard truth is its easier to pay attention to someone who seems confident about what they are saying than someone who is very nervous. There is an old and secret trick I learnt to calm nerves before a presentation:

“When faced with a crisis, if one puts some spittle on his earlobe and exhales deeply through his nose, he will overcome anything at hand. This is a secret matter.”

Bushido: The Way of the Samurai

While it sounds a little silly, I found this trick to be very useful. It gives you something to focus on to calm yourself, a ritual with which you find a sense of comfort and deeply breathing is a well know way of increasing oxygen to reduce stress.

6. Talk to your audience

If you want to engage your audience you need to talk to them, not your notes or your laptop. Look around the audience as you speak. This engenders engagement with the whole audience, eye contact draws us into a conversation and draws the audience into your story.

Going further always try and remove any obstacles between you and the audience like those pesky lecterns or table. You want the audience to connect with you and associate you as one of them. This can help encourage people to listen to what you have to say. Barriers create a separation between you and the audience, and while that can be overcome why add the challenge in the first place.

7. Time

If you have a 40 minute slot for talking, you do not have to fill it. In fact most peoples attention span dips massively towards that figure. Personally I believe 30 minutes is the sweet spot for a presentation. Though you should not feel pressured to pad your talk. Use what time you need to get your point across in the most concise way you can.

8. The final curtain, end you presentation

The end of the presentation is one of the most powerful moments to set the mood of the room and help fire the discussion in the after talk chit chat. You have done all the hard work to get here, don’t wimper out with a quiet “thats all” or a jarring quick finish.

You want too leave a short summary of the ideas of your presentation, big questions the audience can discuss afterwards. The best presentations leave the room alive with discussions.

Creating your slides

Now lets take a deeper look at some ideas to help you create great slides:

1. Learn your tools

You know your developers tools right? Spend any time practicing and getting sharper with your IDE?

If you want to make great presentations you have to invest time in mastering your presentation tools.

Have you ever watched the Keynote tutorials? How about spending an hour playing with animations and find out whats possible. Why not look and see what is possible with presentation tools from watching other peoples talks.

2. Shape first, design later

Before getting too caught up in making your slides beautiful and full of pictures of cats, first think out the flow, order and shape of your presentation. A good presentation has a natural flow where each slide leads into the other.

I usually start first by brain storming all the ideas I have about a presentation on sticky notes. No need for each sticky to contain exact details, just words, ideas or thoughts. Leaving a mass of mess on the wall.

Then on another wall try and extract a story putting the stickies into a beginning, middle and end

3. Deviate from the default

Keynote and Powerpoint provide lots of nice default (boring) themes. Default themes are good way to knock something together quickly. But if you use a default theme its hard to stand out from the crowd.

Do you want your presentation to stand out and be memorable? Do you want people leaving your presentation remembering the funny use of star wars Lego characters.

4. Experiment with design

Don’t be afraid to play around with the design of your slides. Experiment lots until you start to like what you have. I spend the most time on the first slide and I usually have hundreds of different designs until I’m happy.

5.  Pick an original theme

Pick a theme/style for your presentation. Try and choose a theme that has sufficient material so you can find lots of pictures. Look to other peoples presentations for ideas.


Street art

Tv Programs / Mad Men

Silent Movies

6. Kill them with your first slide

Your very first slide will probably be looked at longer than any of your other slides. You want to immediately capture the audiences attention and excite them. Show them how you are going to tell them the story of your presentation, introducing your theme.

Which of these first slides would most engage you?

7. Fonts make the theme

Default fonts can work in a presentation if you have little text on the slide or you have very powerful images/colours. If you want to make your presentation standout try different fonts. There are thousands of readable fonts free to download. Explore which ones work for your presentation and your theme.

For example this slide uses a font which fits very well with its DIY/tools theme:

Always remember to pick a font that does not compromise the readability of your content. Use that font consistently throughout your whole presentation.

8. Live and die by your theme

Maintain consistency of your theme throughout. The more daring and original the theme the harder it can be to find media. With great risk can come great reward.

9. Invest time or money into images

There are two paths to great images that help make your presentation stand out.

Buy images

On average I spend £100 per presentation on buying images (Mostly on That is one of my key secrets for standing out in a presentation. Spending money buys you great, high resolution and original images.

Hunt or create images

There are lots of free sources of images on the Internet such as flickr. It can take more time to hunt around and find the right images but its possible. Or create your own images to give your presentation that personal, unique touch.

10. Minimalism is king with content

When we first start a presentation we often overfill the slides with content. It makes sense as we are thinking out what we are going to talk about.  As you practice your presentation, slowly that content sinks into your brain (or your notes) allowing you to ween out as much content as possible from the slides. Leaving the minimal possible text on the slide. The audience is left listening to you rather than trying to read overly detailed, complex slides.

Anti-patterns of presentations

There are some common anti-patterns in presentations. Lets look at some with examples:

1. Bullet points of death

You can get away with a few of these slides mixed into an interesting presentation. Rely on them too much and it gets boring quick.

Do you want to keep my attention?

2. Breaking continuity of images, text and content

One of the hardest challenges of adding images to your presentation is ensuring they feel part of the presentation, fitting with your content and style.

Lets look at an example where images do not fit in the presentation:

Now improve that slide by making the image feel less jarring with the rest of the content.

Using framing or picture frames is a easy way to help a image fit in a presentation.

Without a frame:

With a frame:

3. Inconsistent design

If you want to make your presentation beautiful having consistency in design is important.

Consider how the diagrams in this presentation break consistency.

We have non-shaded, hard edged blocks of colour in one diagram.

Then in following diagrams we have round blocks with shading.

4. The death of colour

Colour stimulates my brain. Do you want to stimulate it or send it to sleep?

5. Live code demo fail

You have 30ish minutes of my time. I don’t want to spend that time watching you make typos and debugging an error. You immediately make me lose my concentration, I’ll start flicking through my twitter feed. You have been working hard through your presentation to engage me, why throw it away?

Either practice a heck of a lot or pre-record your demos. I personally use Screenflick for all my recorded demos.

6. Black and white code.

How often do you read source code without syntax highlighting?

For me, that’s never. Highlighting code is also a great excuse to add some colour and life to your slides.

Its not tricky, for example extracting syntax highlighting from Textmate to Keynote.

7. Hello my name is

The slides where you tell me who you are, what company you work for, what open source projects you work on, your cats name, your dogs name, and what you ate for breakfast.

Earn me wanting to know who you are through giving a stimulating presentation.

Content over character.

Avoid breaking the flow of the presentation with a slide which has nothing to do with your topic or content.

Final words

Creating a presentation is hard work. Creating a great presentation is lots and lots of work and even then you are never sure if your audience will think its great. Public speaking is stressful and takes a lot of concentration and confidence.

No matter what happens with your talk, be proud of yourself. You decided to put yourself out there, up on stage trying to explain your ideas to people. This is already a great achievement. Don’t be too dishearten or critical of yourself if you are not happy with your talk.

Take a moment in that euphoric buzz of the applause to enjoy yourself.

Then work out how you can do better!

Good luck!