Thoughts on public speaking / presenting / teaching

A colleague of mine asked me this on Twitter the other day:

When you started speaking did you know straight away that it was something you loved doing?

My answer: No.

It’s a really good question, and I said I’d go more in depth.  We have to go way back in time.  In asking the question, I believe my colleague was thinking about speaking in the SQL Server community, but for me it started before I found the SQL Server community.

I don’t think there are many people that love public speaking from the get-go.  At the University of Michigan I had to take Communications 101 (a public speaking course) in order to graduate.  I dreaded it.  Most people did.  But I took in in the fall of my sophomore year and got an A.  (Yes, I went and checked my college transcript.)

But the first time I really spoke to a group of peers and professors to explain or teach something was my first year of graduate school.  We had a day to celebrate the accomplishments within the Kinesiology department, and I had been working on a grant that tested the effects of Botox on children with cerebral palsy.  My advisor, Dr. Brown, wanted me to present our initial findings.  I had 10 minutes.  I created 10 slides and had a one minute video to show.  I remember Dr. Brown telling me that she used talk about one slide for 10 minutes, she had no idea how I’d get through all 10.  I was terrified I’d finish in 5 minutes.

I have hazy memory of my talk – I remember what I wore, I remember thinking my voice was shaking, I remember feeling nervous, I remember nodding at Dr. Watkins to start the video…and that’s it.

I can’t remember any feedback, but I do remember thinking I didn’t want to do that again.

Flash forward a couple months to Dr. Brown’s idea that I could teach the motor control section of the Movement Science 110 course.  Teach to freshman and sophomores.  People who were PAYING a lot of money to go to school at Michigan.  Again, I was terrified, despite Dr. Brown’s logic: I’d get paid, I would experience teaching, and it gave me a chance to learn the material even better.  I didn’t even have to create the content – I could just use what she had already been using.  I don’t know if I even tried to argue, I probably knew I wouldn’t win (Dr. Brown was pretty persistent).  So in the fall of 1997, I started teaching.  On the first day I had student argue with me about theories.  THEORIES!  I was teaching science.  I wanted to quit, but I didn’t.  I taught that class for two years, and I probably learned more than my students did.

Fast-forward a couple years to my first job in technology, at a software company, providing technical support.  I was soon asked if I was interested in training customers as well, as there was only one other person who handled training at that time.  I said yes – voluntarily this time.  I learned the software, I learned how to teach other people how to use it, and I got better.

By the time I worked in the Database Services department at Hyland I sought out opportunities to teach.  Every year there was a user conference, and during my first year on the team I asked a senior member of management if I could help with his presentation.  Now, I don’t remember the impetus, but we started co-presenting, until the year that he looked at me and said: “You can do this without me, I’m about to retire.”  I taught that class at multiple conferences over the next few years.  I asked to add database classes to the conferences and I developed and delivered those.  I provided internal training and recorded material to be viewed by partners and users online.  By then, I loved it.

When I discovered the SQL Server community and found out there was a conference every year (the PASS Summit) my initial thought was, “I want to present at that!”  And so I worked my way up.  I presented to my user group in the winter of 2010, and then at the Cleveland SQLSaturday in February 2011.  My first Summit was that same year, with a lot of other SQLSaturday events in between.

I’ve now been “presenting” off and on for about 20 years.  And I put presenting in quotes because I don’t think of it that way; I think I’m always teaching.  I’ve gotten a lot of experience in those years, and as a result I’ve gotten comfortable in front of a crowd and have developed my own style.  And while I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, I still work to improve.  I tweak every session trying to figure out how to make an explanation even clearer.  I change demos all the time, trying to get them *just right* so they easily demonstrate a concept.  I continually read an audience and make adjustments on the fly when I can.  It doesn’t end, and I’m ok with that.  I do enjoy presenting/teaching now, but I didn’t when I started…because it was uncomfortable, because it was hard, because I didn’t know what I doing.  Because like everything else, it takes practice to become good, even if you have a knack for it from the start.

The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint
The greats were great cause they paint a lot
~Macklemore and Ryan Lewis

6 thoughts on “Thoughts on public speaking / presenting / teaching

  1. Thank you for writing this up. It has given me a clear direction now.

    Reading your background it all makes sense, I thought that you were an outstanding tutor during IE2 (last year) – very engaging.

    cheers.

    1. Arun-

      Remember that everyone’s path is different. And you may find over time that even after Z number of presentations, you don’t enjoy it. And that is OK, it really is. If you don’t love public speaking, don’t do it! The reasons people like presenting vary – find what that is for you and run with it. And if you don’t find it, then maybe writing is the better option. You don’t HAVE to present. You don’t have to write. You just have to be happy in what you’re doing 🙂

      Erin

  2. Thank you for posting this. I just started a new gig and one of the things they asked me to put together was a short and long term goal plan. Short term is to present locally. Long term is to present at SQL Summit 🙂 Yikes, I just sent my boss my goals!

  3. Hi Erin,
    This is a fabulous post. I have spoken at Chicago SQL Server user group couple of times and have presented to 5 SQL Saturdays in last one year. The last presentation was in Madison WI on April 8, 2017. But I still do not feel comfortable speaking because English is not my first language. I will give it a try few more times but You are right, you have to enjoy the process otherwise what is the purpose of doing it. My purpose to speak was to share my knowledge and interact with leading speakers. But I can share my knowledge by blogging also. And for interacting with leading speakers, I am now more involved in my local user group as a volunteer and I do volunteer at other SQL Saturdays also.

  4. Hello Erin,
    Thanks very much for this encouraging post. I always dread idea of public speaking. But from the experiences you have shared, its clear that practice is the only cure for this fear. Ten thousand hours…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Other articles

Imagine feeling confident enough to handle whatever your database throws at you.

With training and consulting from SQLskills, you’ll be able to solve big problems, elevate your team’s capacity, and take control of your data career.