The truth about the presentation process

Having the opportunity to speak to an audience who cares what you have to say and believes they can learn something new from you is a totally surreal experience. Especially when you consider that months of work pours out of you in under an hour.

I’ve been speaking at conferences since the fall of 2008. Before being literally pushed into it by my dear friend Matthew Knell at BarCamp Philly, it had honestly never occurred to me that public speaking would be something I’d ever do. Now more than four years later, due to awesomely supportive friends and mentors, countless all-nighters, and a good dose of self-determination, I’ve given nearly 50 presentations in 20 cities across 4 continents.

But I want you to know the truth: it’s still so f’ing hard.

I write one or two presentations a year and try to get as much mileage out of each one as I can, sharing my message far and wide. In 2009 and 2010, it was Evangelizing Yourself and DIY UX: Give Your Users an Upgrade (without calling in a pro). In 2011, it was Design Principles: The Philosophy of UX.

My presentation for 2012, What’s Your Problem? Putting Purpose Back into Your Projects, was by far the most difficult to create.

I had been thinking about the topic for so long that I was dying to get started on the talk. I pulled resources from across my library, conducted a tremendous amount of additional research, and spent two weeks performing an affinity diagram of all of my notes. When I finally put the notes onto slides, the presentation was 200 slides long. I had enough material for a book.

At that point I was so immersed in the topic, but I was struggling to communicate why any of it mattered. I felt like I was trying to say something I had almost heard many people say before, but that had never really been given the attention it deserved. Yet the more I tried to discuss it, the more obvious it all sounded, and the more I began to doubt myself. Was this really something new that needed to be said? Did everyone else already know this stuff?

By the time I woke up the next morning, I had convinced myself that it was revolutionary, that I was going way out on a limb. But now it felt like the message had no connection to anything I had ever said before, that it didn’t fit into the narrative of my career.

You could say I was taking it all way too seriously.

Over the course of a month, I scrapped the whole presentation and rewrote it from scratch 3 times, each time creating more than 80 slides for an hour-long session. I’d have to talk like the Micro Machines guy if I was going to pull it off.

I was still working on the slides 15 minutes before I went on stage with it for the first time. I had been hiding in a room for two days of the conference leading up to that moment, working and reworking it. I was completely panicked and went into it with no confidence whatsoever.

As soon as I got off the stage, I was thrilled to have it over with. It was a really sucky feeling. I had no sense of whether it was effective or clear, and I certainly hadn’t enjoyed giving it. But when a few people approached me stage-side saying that it really resonated with them, I suppressed my doubts and accepted the praise.

Two weeks later, I gave the presentation again as a keynote and again I had an overwhelming feeling that I’d never really connected with the audience. I was so disappointed and dejected, always wanting to make a positive impression, wanting to give people their money’s worth, wanting to make a difference. I hadn’t trusted my gut the first time and was just so sick of failing with it that I had avoiding doing the hard work that needed to be done.

When I got the audience evaluations, the truth could no longer be ignored: it bombed.

I wanted to give up on it entirely, permanently delete it from my Dropbox and never think about it again. But I had already committed to presenting it in other venues and once I make a commitment, I find it nearly impossible to break it. I was foaming at the mouth (and probably a few sheets to the wind) when I cracked that sucker open again and had a long, hard look at what I was doing wrong.

In re-writing the talk, I went back square one and looked through all of my original material. Everything was telling me that solutions fail when the problem hasn’t been fully articulated. So I ate my own dog food and I wrote out what I felt the problem was that needing solving; why was it important for me to spread this message. Once I was clear on my goal, every single piece of information that appeared in my talk had to support that goal and make a point that nothing else already had. In addition, keeping the problem at the forefront of my mind opened up a whole new set of solutions to pull from, not just the most obvious ones that I had found in my texts, but more inventive, evocative, unexpected ones as well.

When I hit save for the last time, I knew I had something really special. I knew I had done it.

When I gave the presentation the next time, I could feel the difference on stage. I was more confident in my delivery and the energy in the room was perceivable. I didn’t measure its success based on the number of Twitter mentions or stage-side visitors — I knew it in my heart. People telling me that my message would reshape how they approach their work was just the cherry on top.

Why did this talk take so many drafts and such a deep failure in order to finally succeed? In part because the moment you become convinced you’re good at something is the moment you start to suck at it. And also because as time goes on, you become attracted to topics that are more complex and a lot tougher to tackle.

If it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing. I can assure you that the rewards far outweigh the costs.

So what are you working on?

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  1. says

    Thank you for this! I’m working on my very first tech conference talk, and this entire post really resonated with me. I’ve been adding and deleting and rearranging slides like an insane person, and my presentation isn’t until June! Thank you so much for sharing your experience with the madness that is presentation preparation!

  2. says

    Whitney (and Jennifer), what you’re describing is pretty common when you start developing a speech by gathering information and pooling everything you know. Weeding through all that material can be exhausting, and since there’s no one creative way to organize everything you know, can take you through many, many drafts.

    If you start, on the other hand, with the question, “What’s the single most important thought I want my audience to remember?” and build your speech out from there, the process is much more organic, and ultimately much simpler. It can still be hard to isolate and define the core of your “key message,” but once you’ve reached that insight, the rest follows naturally. (And it’s much easier to play with one sentence until you get it right than it is to play with 200 slides until you get them right!)

    I explain how to do this in Chapters 4-7 of my book “Speak Like Yourself… No, Really! Follow Your Strengths and Skills to Great Public Speaking.” Let me know if you’d like a complimentary copy, or check it out at

  3. Jamie says

    Whitney, it was perfect that both this post and your “Empathy is the Antidote to Shame” post came delivered to my inbox together. I’m sure you planned it this way. Thank you so much for sharing the story about your path to an awesome presentation, and the failures that it included. It is so easy to look at others’ careers, people that I admire (like you!) and only know about or focus on the “highlight reel” of their successes, but that when you look at your own endeavors you focus on your shortcomings. Thank you for continually “teaching by showing” and sharing it all with the world. Thank you. Very. Much.

  4. says

    So true. But the reverse is also true. I’ve given some of the best talks when I thought I sucked. Maybe because I tried harder. My TA tells me that the lecture on visual hierarchy I gave last week (in an undergrad HCI course) was the best he’s seen me give. Which is interesting, given that the night before I was lamenting about how much it sucked and redesigned it from scratch.

  5. says

    Hi, Whitney. The moment you got clear about your intention, i.e. your goal, and let it drive your content was the moment this talk turned around. That’s a great lesson for all of us, no matter whether we are giving a speech or leading a meeting. Intention trumps all. Thanks for sharing this experience.


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