Live coding during a presentation

I’ve done a few talks in my time, and some of them have involved live coding to help take the audience on a journey to understand the lesson I want to teach. It’s a technique I use rarely however as it can easily get problematic.

Live coding for a presentation is not the same thing as coding for your job or a mob session. Live coding for a presentation has to be as slick and as polished as the rest of the talk. No googling the API docs, no stumbling over syntax errors (although don’t worry if you don’t spot them, someone will.)

If you’re nervous with slides, live coding can help relieve some of the pressure. It certainly helped me when I was starting out, as I could pretend I was having a conversation with my computer for some of the talk. Fortunately, it was a conference with microphones.

Live coding is also great for presenting something novel (or at least novel for most of the audience) as it gets to demonstrate that it’s real and it works. I used it, in one presentation, to demonstrate TDD.

Be careful though. Technology can let you down, so have a think about how you might demonstrate another way. Do you have a video you can show on someone else’s laptop? Can you demonstrate with screenshots? Could you whiteboard a solution?

If you don’t feel comfortable writing code in front of an audience, don’t. Can the code (I use VS code snippets, but there’s plenty of macro choices), so you can reveal it gradually. Or pre-build it and uncomment as you go.

If you are preparing code in advance, to distribute with the slides, heavily comment the code so that when people download it afterwards they understand the context.

I do love to see live coding done well in a presentation, but unless you’ve prepared it meticulously, it won’t go well. Think about the story, and how and when you’re introducing new concepts. Don’t be afraid to go back to something later (“Here’s how to connect, but I want to show you search first. I’ll come back to the parameters here once you’ve seen the search results.”) It’s OK to refer to your notes, especially if you’ve just thrown up a screenful of code for the audience to read. Make every interaction useful.

It’s OK to backtrack. Show the mistakes you made, the error messages you saw, and how you corrected them. You won’t be the last person to make that mistake.

Relax and enjoy it. If code is what you do, be comfortable with it, even if the nerves are trying to turn you inside out from your stomach.

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