Getting started in speaking publicly – clear and concise presentations

Well, I had wanted to come up with a clever reply to my husband's oh-so-romantic blog post (here). And, well, in all honesty, that *is* the best present for me… but, probably not what most would say is romantic ;-). We've both had quite an effect on each other's presentation styles. We constantly remind each other of what works and what doesn't work. In fact, we even take notes when we watch each other's sessions so that we can very clearly and concisely state what we think works and/or doesn't work in a session. So, that got me thinking that I'd like to add a few things – mostly about how to get started in presenting – as his list for tips/tricks in presenting was extremely thorough!

Presenting tips:

  • Demos: OK, everyone says this – yes, your demo should work. A demo that fails is easily the most frustrating thing to happen on stage. Not only is it frustrating for you (as the presenter) but the attendees feel like their time is wasted. And, in all honesty, this should never happen. When it does it usually happens because of one of the following: the demo wasn't prepared, the demo was overly complicated or something changed recently (and you hadn't recently tested it). And, all of these are preventable.
  • Passion: Paul mentioned that you need to find a topic for which you have a passion – and I completely agree. This is probably the most important part for me. I've often been asked to talk about X or Y and if I can't find something really compelling to focus on, then it's definitely not my best session. In fact, less and less am I presenting other people's content and/or other people's abstracts. I really want to construct the session, the content and the message (in general). Having said that, what I want to add is passion/excitement/fun. The more fun you have with a session (and, I don't mean jokes – I just mean good content that makes sense and that is interesting), the more fun it will be to present. If you're having fun and presenting something with passion (that you have specifically for that topic), then it's contagious. People will remember more and take more away with them.
  • Mentor: Paul mentioned this in his post, Greg Low mentions this in his series Presenting at Large Events, and large conferences such as TechEd have people like Richard Klees on-site to help with this as well. But, if you can find a colleague or other presenter to really watch your actual session (and you watch theirs), then you will get the best feedback. The actual session – in front of real attendees – is the only place where everything counts (unfortunately, all of your presentation gotchas don't always show in a "test run"). So, it's here where you can get the best feedback and where you can really learn.
  • Don't stop learning: I've presented in one way, shape or form since 1987 when I gave "short-courses" on WordPerfect for the local students and staff at my University computer center (where I worked). And, in over 22 years, I still read evaluations, still look for books on presenting, still read blogs, watch webcasts, etc. A session can *always* be better. A presenter *always* has things they can work on.

Getting Started (which can also translate into improving your own skills/knowledge and even your own position within the company):

  • Create a work/study group: Something that can help to "find the right tool" for the job is to divide and conquer. In our technical fields, no one can ever know everything. And, sometimes we get stuck in a rut – solving problem after problem with the same solution. I always use the "tool" analogy because I think it works well. If you have a problem in your house you don't always grab the hammer, right? But, I don't know how to use every tool either – if I don't know exactly what tool to use, sometimes I'll ask someone else to look at something. Sometimes a second set of eyes is exactly the thing to do. They might see an easier and/or a quicker solution. So, since you can't know everything – know a lot about a lot of things. Have a small work/study group that meets weekly or bi-monthly where each of you tackles a topic, a feature, something. Or, maybe you all read different blogs or newsgroups – then come back together and each do a 10 minute presentation on what you found. This can keep you better informed about other tools you might need to use someday AND can help you to start presenting (on a small scale)

NOTE: Before you do any of the following, you might want to check to see what your company policies are with regard to blogs, user groups, conferences, etc. With an appropriate disclaimer and/or no direct references to the company, you might be fine. Just check to make sure! 

  • Present at a local user group and/or consider creating one if one doesn't exist: these a typically 10-50 people who meet at least once a month. Some user groups are much larger… But, this is a great way to learn more AND present what you know to a bigger group but, with (usually) a bit less pressure. The PASS website has a large list of chapters: Consider even working with the local user group to have a side group that meets solely for improving presenting skills – you can present to each other in the same way that the work/study group would but this is a group outside of your company.
  • Create a blog: there are lots of sites you can join to blog on and my personal opinion is to see if you can write consistent posts for a month or so (without them being published publicly) and then slowly publish the ones you've written so that you can stay ahead of the game. Blogging is hard. I have a hard time keeping up with it but if you have a good message – that's useful to others – then it's worth it.
  • Create podcasts to post on your blog: This can be another way to present but without the stress of an audience.
  • Write for magazines (TechNet, MSDN, SQL Server Magazine): This is a bit harder but if it's a good article then it's likely to be published either in print and/or on their associated websites. This can give you more exposure and in turn, help you to hone your message and your presentation skills.
  • Submit sessions for larger conferences: This is the hardest and will take the most time. It's really nothing personal if you're not chosen the first or second time around (and these days the large conferences are even more competitive so it's *really* hard – don't get discouraged!!). Most large conferences want people who have a name that attendees can recognize. So, this takes time. The previous bullets *will* get you to a point where submitting to a larger conference makes sense – but, even then it's still not a guarantee that you'll be accepted. The more you blog, write, present at user groups, etc. the more people will get to know your name and your presentation skills. This is what the larger conferences are looking for – people that can give a good, technical session and make those 75 minutes the attendee spends with you worthwhile. Consider getting into a speaker competition like Speaker Idol which is usually at conferences such as TechEd but I've also been seeing this in local areas as well (with local user groups).

Key point: Clear and Concise "Presentation" for every aspect of life…

So, in re-reading Paul's post, I also read the comments and followed the links (which is what got me to Greg Low's 4 part series on presenting for large conferences – which is a really good series btw). In his presentation he mentioned a flight attendant… which, then made me surf/read a few things there. And, somehow I go sidetracked and ended up:

here: Galley Gossip: Flight Attendant Pet Peeve #1: Answer please!
and here: A woman missed her flight at the boarding gate HKIA
and even here: An open letter to unsatisfied users on the newsgroups

And, the combination made me think of a few things that really can go back to presenting but also just in general about comments, criticisms, and everything in life. If you want something then you need to ask for it precisely. If you want to get somewhere or do something or improve your position (in life, in work, whatever), then you need to be specific, concise, and clear. It's all about the presentation. Paul says this occassionally to the girls: Stop, Think, Speak. It's somewhat frustrating when he says this to me but it's usually after I've had a couple of glasses of wine ;) but, I think it's really interesting in the context of user groups, forums, presenting, life… You need to *present* something clearly and concisely for people to understand.

If you're posting a question on a forum and/or newsgroup – take time to research it first. Take time to present it clearly (what version, what's the EXACT syntax (can you provide a repro script?), what exactly are you doing, what is it doing that's wrong, what do you think it should be doing?). The better your question (i.e. the presentation), the easier it is to get people to understand. And, in the case of a forum/newsgroup, the easier it is to get a [useful] reply. Remember Tom Cruise/Cuba Gooding, Jr. in Jerry Maquire – "Help me, help you."

If you're presenting a session – present the problem (or idea), present the solution (code/demo/etc) and summarize why it works. Clear, concise and then follow through. And, this also reminds me of the most important presentation skills that everyone says but that I'm going to repeat one more time… your demo should WORK. Keep is simple. Straightforward (concise) and simple demos are really the most effective!

So, on that note, I'll remind you to look at one of the links I already posted above. This woman is very clearly stating the problem and reasonably coming up with a solution (to her missed flight): A woman missed her flight at the boarding gate HKIA. Yep, that's going to get someone to help you. Hmm. Clearly, she did not see Jerry Maguire.

Thanks for reading!

2 thoughts on “Getting started in speaking publicly – clear and concise presentations

  1. Cool post dear (from a computer in a different part of the house :-) To add a little – if you’re *replying* to a post on a forum, make sure the answer you give is correct and is appropriate to the original-poster’s scenario. Don’t post a 2000 solution for a 2005 question – this especially annoys me in the data corruption forums I monitor, when getting the right solution for the right version *is* critical.

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