I try to do at least one or two technical presentations each year. The last couple of presentations I’ve done have been co-presentations with Leon Bambrick. I’ve been pretty happy with how these talks have gone, and I think Leon is a great presenter in his own right. But I also believe there are some intrinsic advantages to co-presenting.
I’m convinced there is a good reason very banal content like the home shopping network and morning television uses two or more co-presenters. They know that it keeps people interested! Humans are naturally social creatures and the interplay between the co-presenters feels more natural, whereas listening to a single person talk for 30 minutes or more feels tiring. There is a natural cadence to a conversation, with pauses between each person speaking that can seem more like an awkward silence for a lone speaker. This plus the variety in tone and style of the two speakers can help to keep the audience’s attention longer.
Co-presenting requires more co-ordination, which would ordinarily seem like a bad thing. The net result however is you’re better prepared for your talk, because you have to be. When you’re the sole presenter there is a temptation to leave finalizing and practicing your talk to the last minute. And while you feel like it is reasonable for you to stay up until 3:00 AM preping your slides, social norms prevent you from asking that of your co-presenter. So the net result is that the work gets brought forward and you practice sooner and more often than you ordinarily would have.
Co-presenting also forces you to actually talk. When you start out presenting it can feel awkward to actually say your talk all the way through, over and over, to no-one in particular. You feel that you already have the ideas in your head, so why waste time actually verbalizing them? Something will come out on the day, but if you don’t practice the actual words you want to use to express your ideas the words that come out won’t be as clear and concise as they could be. Your talk will have all the “ummmms”, “you knows”, and other verbal tics that everyday speech has. Co-presenting forces you to actually practice the talking part, a lot, because while you might have a rough idea of what the other person intends to say when you both look at a slide you really need to know for sure.
Driver and Navigator
For technical presentations you may want to perform a demo of some kind - maybe even some live coding. Having one person able to continue talking and making eye-contact with the audience while the other is “driving” the apparatus of the talk (writing the live code, advancing the slides, cueing the video) can help to keep the audience’s attention. The roles don’t need to be fixed either for the duration of the talk, you can swap which also helps to keep things interesting.
With two people working on the slides there is less need to seek outside review. You’ve both vetted your work as you went along. You’ve listened to each other say their parts many times and hopefully given them lots of feedback along the way.
The history of entertainment is filled with comedic duos from Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin to Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza. Having a co-presenter can be a good opportunity to inject some humour into your talk, which can be harder to achieve as a solo presenter. Banter about who did more of the work, whose fault it is that the demo didn’t run properly or the technology interests of the co-presenter can add a bit of humour without violating anything in your conference’s code of conduct.
Technology is on your side
Modern screen-sharing and video chat applications make it easier to practice, since you don’t need to be physically co-located to practice. Shared slide decks that can be collaboratively edited mean that everyone is always up to date.
The two things that co-presenting absolutely requires are commitment and trust. The person we’re co-presenting with is going to see us at our worst and least polished presentation-wise, so make sure you choose someone you can work with in these areas. If you’ve been wanting to get started with technical presentations but haven’t found the courage yet co-presenting could be a good way to get started.