Standing in front of PowerPoint Part 2: an idea, some inspiration, and a crisis

In the second of a great three-parter, Chris Ratcliff talks us through what it’s like to go from attending security conferences to speaking at them. This post is specifically about honing the idea for a CFP through to preparing the presentation in its entirety. If you’ve ever thought about speaking at a conference, these posts are full of helpful, reassuring and practical advice. If you’re already experienced in conference speaking, there will be so much you can relate to (hi, google image search!) and probably something you can learn from, too.

In the last post I talked about my introduction into the world of security cons and why people talk at them. With a desire to present at Steelcon 2016 here’s how I went through the process step by step.

 The subject. A tricky one. I still don’t have a technical field of research with breakthroughs I can talk about. Can I do people-y stuff again? Do I have anything to say? I keep work stuff separate from what I present about otherwise it opens a whole new can of worms.

I do have an interest in cars, and I’ve done a bit of tinkering with them. I start thinking, I start talking in my head. I start doing a presentation just to see where it leads, and I think I can bring some insight. I’m really interested and excited about the subject. This is key, as if you’re not passionate then that will come across. Most of all, I think I can add value to the event and to the community. Great, I have an idea, and I have a sense of purpose.

The CFP. This is the tricky bit. Most cons have a Call For Presentations where you submit your idea and an abstract that will become essentially your advert in the event schedule. You want to give a flavour of your talk without going through the content, to be detailed enough as to why you should present, and to attract attendees to come and see you! I’ve seen some really underplay their value, while others really go OTT to stand out.

My success ratio isn’t brilliant, so I wrote what I thought was best, and bounced it off a few people with more experience than I who helped shape it to a couple of simple sentences. I submitted it, and it was accepted!

I had an idea, and I had a slot. So now I just have to write and prepare and give my talk. Easy, right?

When it comes to presenting, I’m constantly aware of other people who do it really, really well. Great presenters tell great stories, and I’m a huge stand-up comedy fan. Dave Gorman’s Googlewhack Adventure is a fantastic story, but it’s also a good example of working with Powerpoint. Steve Jobs’ Apple keynotes are case studies in what to not include in presentations, and how to build a narrative and take the audience with you. TED talks can be great too, watching people like Mark Ronson ooze his personal calmness or Adam Savage be passionate is inspiring and informative. It’s not just about what they say, it’s how they say it.

These people are professionals at this though, how does this apply to me?

Every time you can watch anyone get up and talk, you can learn about presenting. If you attend an event with many speakers, watch each and look for things you could do too, what the speaker did well, and also where they could have improved and apply all of those to yourself. It may feel like imitation at times, but it’s a great way to identify a good trait and try it out.

I had an idea, a concept. I wrote down four major bullet points for my talk:

  • Attacks
  • Issues
  • *Things*
  • Future

I’d start slotting things into those headings, and discarding ideas that didn’t fit. I carried on presenting my talk to myself while out walking or doing the shopping or cleaning the kitchen. Letting my mind go down new paths and make new connections. I’d jot down ideas or update notes on my phone so I didn’t forget them – though ‘photo of footwell’ in isolation isn’t always very helpful. I started outlining what slides would be needed. With a couple of weeks to go before the event, I obviously had a full slide deck ready for polishing.

Or not.

The more I outlined the slides, the more research ideas turned up, which meant more Googling, which opened up yet more avenues for discovery. I had my slide ideas though, I had my bullet points, I had to move on.

The notes that make up a presentation
The notes that make up a presentation

The Slides. Or how I learned to stop worrying and love Powerpoint. It’s really easy to get distracted, and I did, with relatively trivial things. With the presentations being recorded, should by slides be 4:3 or 16:9? I tweeted the organisers and the head AV guy, I looked up how to set them differently in Powerpoint. That probably lost me a couple of hours overall. It’s the little things, the animations, the choice of fonts and colours that can take hours to choose but add little if the content isn’t there. I was in a time crunch so ploughed on, which was actually a blessing in disguise. The worst habit people have with Powerpoint is too many words. Putting up sentence after sentence which distracts the viewer, and can lead to you reading the words off the screen too. A bad habit, but very easy to do.

I didn’t have time to write words, and words which I’d have to stick to rigidly. Instead I hit Google Image search. I’m looking for images to illustrate my point – or be a punchline – and then it’s onto the next.

My way is not to write out talks long hand, but essentially make sure I know the bullet points I want to hit in a slide, and what gets me to the next slide. In some cases, too, knowing when to trigger an element within a slide.

On that note, if you’ve never used Powerpoint with a multiscreen set up then you’re missing out on Powerpoint’s great presenter view. On your screen you can see the next element to be displayed, your notes, the elapsed time and the current time. To have those available to you is a god send. You don’t have to remember every slide, or turn to face the screen the audience are watching. One tip: make notes very short and in a decent sized font!

The crisis. It will come, one day. About 10 days before Steelcon it hit. Should I really be doing a talk? Is it technical enough? Should I have more actual examples and less of my conjecture? I know I can stand up and talk, but what if people say it was too self-indulgent or, even worse, boring? The crisis is like stage fright for your Powerpoint deck. I reviewed the slides, I made sure things still fitted and were relevant. I even looked back at the stuff I’d cut out. Actually, would it be better in, or was I right to cut it? This is the moment that panic can set in and rash decisions made, but best to be methodical and stick to the course.

The Crisis Hits
The Crisis Hits

For me the worry was that the more I researched the topic of car hacking, the more I found whole reams of working groups, forums, projects and documentation outlining how things work and the standards they use. If anyone had an interest in car hacking, and they did more than 5 minutes Googling then they’d find most things I would talk about and more. Heck, I cited two PDFs in my talk that I find fascinating. They go into the greatest depth about car hacking and anyone who’d read them would realise I was barely scratching the surface. There was some original thinking though, but it was around the industry and not massively technical. I hoped I wouldn’t lose my audience.

Rehearsal, or do what I say, not as I do. You should absolutely rehearse your talk. The process of doing it and refining and iterating will help you give a more polished talk and iron out any bugs or errors. And I didn’t. Well, that’s not strictly true, but I never performed it. I went through it again and again, I drummed in the words and the ideas. I stepped through the powerpoint deck, going through the bullet points, the asides, the links and making sure it worked.

So far so good. In the final blog of this series it’s the big day of the talk itself, and then reflecting on how it went.

By Chris Ratcliff