Keynotes: Lessons learned

I’m a technical guy and I wasn’t used to public speaking. On the other hand, I’m part of this small company, and we need to promote ourselves a bit. So eventually I had to do these public speaking thing – and I hated it, immediately. However time flies and I got quite used to it, especially when my audience started to give me some feedback on my keynotes. The more I talked to an audience, the more experience, and the less nervous I got – like talking as a nerd to the other gender 😉

Today I really like to speak in front of people, especially when I’m well prepared. But I had to learn a lot about presentation techniques, the right tools and common mistakes. I’m right in the middle of learning how to get a message successfully across to the audience, and I have to learn a lot! Though, here are some of my tools I use in my technical keynotes, and some tips which I had to learn so far.


Apple Keynote

When it comes to the design, layout and presentation of slides, Apple’s Keynote is my favourite software. I’m kind of an Apple fan, not because of the brand and fancy stores, but because Apple built some really nice products which just work – and Keynote is one of these products. It will help you to position objects, resize graphics and integrate fancy, but not annoying animations. Keynote also gives you the ability to display presenter notes on your private display. I really like that feature, and I always use a few keywords for each slide, so I can cheat on them to check if I’ve said everything I had to.

Of course you can use Microsoft’s PowerPoint, or even the open-source alternative OpenOffice’s Impress, to create simple slides. Though, if you want to see an astonished audience, you should really use a proper presentation software, and IMHO PowerPoint and Impress are not very well built. They feel very sluggish and I don’t get comfy with with them – might also be my habits!


If you’re a Linux guy like me and you’ve to demonstrate a product in front of an audience, then the chances for the involvement of a Terminal are really high. Make sure you’ve configured proper colours (white-on-black or black-on-white) and setup a bigger font size, so people can read your terminal without pinching their eyes.


If you don’t know tmux, shame on you! Most of the time, you’ve got two separate screens – a presenter screen (i.e. your notebook display) and a public screen. If you do some live demos on your shell, tmux might come handy for you. Just open a tmux session on the public screen, then connect to the same tmux session on your presenter screen – or vice versa. Now you’ve shared your terminal/session without sharing or mirroring your whole presenter screen. You can even have some presenter notes on your private screen.


If you’ve the chance to do some live hacking, you should really use a proper editor. I’m a big fan of SublimeText, and a bigger fan of keyboard shortcuts. Make sure you’ve configured your editor with a bigger font size than your usual one. For example, I use a font size of 11px, but on keynotes I increase it to 18-24px. The size depends on the screen/beamer resolution, and the content I’ve to edit. Sometimes it makes sense, to disable syntax highlighting for better visibility. To disable it in vim, just run :set syn off.

Public git repository

If you’re doing some live coding, people can get confused really fast. Not everybody is aware of the stuff you’re doing there, so they might need some time to analyse your tinkering later. When I do live coding, I split everything in smaller tasks, so that I can show and explain everything step-by-step. Instead of just explaining it to the audience, you can setup a public git repo in advance, and commit your changes after each step. People can follow your changes live, and they can analyse all of your steps even after you’ve finished your demo.


Less is more

Most of the people in your audience can’t analyse your slides, and listen to your words the same time. They can only read your slides, or listen to what you’re saying – but they can’t do both things simultaneously.

So you should keep your slides clean. Most of the time, keywords are more than enough. There are even a lot of slides, which are better suited with pictograms and images, instead of text.

I use a slide size of 1920 x 1080 and my font size is about 64px. With that configuration, I force myself to use keywords or only short sentences on my slides. When my text is getting to long, I see it immediately and I think about how to shorten it, or even replace it with a keyword or image.

Guy Kawasaki is a really nice bloke, and has a lot of great tips for keynotes. One of his well-known rules is the 10 20 30 Rule (you should really watch this).


This is a really important step: Be prepared, which means quit all non-relevant applications, and open the required ones. Test your demo in advance, check if your internet connection is stable. Have a backup plan, like a prepare virtual machine with the software already installed. Disable all services which can disrupt your keynote, for example OS X notifications. You don’t want show your audience a mail of your mummy popping up, asking you to pick up the laundry. Also have a pointer utility ready, because nobody wants to see your fingers. Use a pen, laser pointer or the virtual pointer of your presentation software. For example, if you remote control Apple’s Keynote via iPhone, you’ve great utilities to point and draw on your live presentation. Whiteboards and flip charts are great tools to explain something to your audience, so make sure they’re ready when you want to use them (markers ready, boards empty).


You need to catch your audience from the beginning, so don’t try to show them a huge amount of boring slides about yourself, or the company you’re working for. Of course it’s required to show them who you’re, what you’re doing and where you’re working. But this message can be delivered within 1 minut,e and one or two simple slides. I often try to make fun of myself, for example by joking about my dialect or something else. After that, dig right into your topic and try to catch the attention of your audience. There are several ways to do that:

  • Challenge your audience by question some of the current and well-known paradigms. But be careful, don’t offend anyone!
  • Embed your audience by asking a specific question to the audience and get them into a conversation. Then build up on that conversation and show them your slides and opinion.
  • Be funny and start with a joke, or something they can laugh about. Sometimes animated gifs provide a great opportunity.
  • Start with something unexpected like a completely different story, which ends with a punch line related to your topic.


If you’ve a presentation with multiple topics, you should really think about breaks. Sometimes people get confused, when you’re jumping from one topic to another. I like to split my keynotes into different topics, and between each topic I add a dark slide with just a title on it.

Screen area

If you’ve a proper presentation facility, this might not be as important. But most of the time, I face some simple setups, like a mobile beamer on a table, projecting it’s picture to the wall behind myself. In a normal conference room, the wall isn’t that high, and the bottom line of the projected picture ends up just over the table. If this is your setup, you should really look forward to use only the upper half of your screen for live demos, so that your audience can really see what you’re doing there. I always walk into this trap when I use a shell, because of it’s nature to push things down. So don’t forget to hit Ctrl-L or type clear now and then.

Stand up

To be honest, I don’t like to stand in front of the audience. I’m an engineer, I like to sit in front of my notebook. Though it’s much more comfortable for your audience, when you stand in front of them. Try to be relaxed, and take a position next to the public screen. If you’re nervous, keep something in your hands, for example a presenter remote.

Talk slowly

When I do presentations, I tend to talk too fast. People will always mention that after I’ve finished, but they never say it while I’m in the middle of my speech – probably they’re not able to get a word in edgeways. Try to talk calm and slowly, and also try to speak towards your audience, so that they can understand you clearly. If you use breaking slides like I mentioned before, it’s also a good point to breath deeply and take a sip of water.


It’s really important to communicate with your audience. You’re here to show something to them, and not the projected picture on the wall, so talk directly to them. Try to find eye contact, try to understand if your audience is interested, bored or unable to cope with your statements. Even if you’re the main character in this role play, people in the audience tend to be much more shy than you’re. So keep an eye on them, and ask if you see when a group apparently starts to argue about something.


After you’ve finished your keynote, share all the required informations with your audience. Publish your slides on a public share and give them your contact details. If you’ve used a public git repo for the live demo, share the URL as well.


  • short life

    Thanks for publishing such useful information.

  • bathroom renovations

    These are very useful tips. I will be sure to try them out the next time I am presenting my ideas to investors.

  • customwritingcompany

    I’m looking for the tool to generate presentation speech from a custom Microsoft’s PowerPoint pptx file. How do I do this without registrations? I need speaker’s notes for 1 page only from each presentation (I have 4 files for my online school).

  • klingeltone

    I like what you share. Thank you so much. Keep it up.

  • pole barn

    what a lesson!