Public Speaking: A Primer

It’s become something of a tradition for me to do a Valentine’s Day blog post (the 2008 one about SQL Server blogs is at Wow – so many blogs!) as we don’t do anything special otherwise – I don’t need a “Hallmark Holiday” to tell Kimberly I love her :-).

Ahem – well this year I’m choosing a topic where I owe a lot of my success to Kimberly – public speaking. Kimberly is renowned as a world-class presenter on SQL Server and I flatter myself that my reputation is getting up there too – with a *lot* of help from Kimberly over the years. In a recent blog post over on, Andy Warren kicked off a lively debate on speaker skills and how to improve – a general sentiment was that new speakers are often afraid to ask for help from more seasoned speakers, so in this post I’m going to brain-dump as much advice as I can for all the upcoming speakers out there.

Public speaking is something of an art and a science – there’s no totally right or wrong way to do it and you have to find the style that works. One of the top speaker trainers that Microsoft uses (and a friend of ours), Richard Klees, says that slides should have a minimal number of words and you should speak slowly. If you’ve ever seen Kimberly or I present, you’ll know that we do the opposite – speak fast and have packed slides – but it works for us. Since my first terrifying conference session at TechEd US in June 2006, I’ve presented countless chalk-talks, sessions, workshops, and multi-day classes around the world and I’m continually honing my skills. In no particular order, here are a bunch of things to consider that I’ve learned along the way – I’m going to be very honest with my thoughts, I’ll probably forget some stuff, and I may wander a little…

  • Choosing a subject. This may seem pretty obvious, but only speak about things you know. I’d never try to do a session on using the CLR, or writing stored procs – even though I know a few things, I can’t speak authoritatively and confidently about them. The best sessions are those on subjects that you know really well. Don’t try to cover too much in a single session – have a balance of depth and breadth. Be aware of the level (depth) of your session and only go to the level that you know about the subject. Different conferences use different levels, but here’s one I put together for the MVPs working on the MVP book, based on DBCC:
    • 100 – Beginner (e.g. what does ‘corruption’ mean?)
    • 200 – Intermediate (e.g. what do I do when corruption is detected?)
    • 300 – Advanced (e.g. how do I do take advantage of partial database availability and online piecemeal restore?)
    • 400 – Master (e.g. how can I fix broken system tables using the DAC and server single-user mode?)
    • 500 – SQL Server Internals (e.g. how does the read-ahead in DBCC CHECKDB differ from regular adaptive range-scan read-ahead?)
  • Know the audience. This plays into choosing a subject – I wouldn’t present on corruption survival techniques to a bunch of hard-core developers, nor would I present the internals of CHECKDB to a group of involuntary DBAs. Make sure that what you’re talking about and how you talk about it is appropriate to the audience otherwise they’ll feel frustrated and things won’t go well.
  • Demos. People like to see things in action – so most technical presentations include demos. A good presenter is equally comfortable talking off slides or talking through a demo. Demos need to be appropriate but are hard to get just right. People need to be able to follow what you’re doing – if you’re flying between windows and never explaining what you’re doing, that’s not really a demo. If you have a demo where something takes a minute to run, fill the gap by explaining about what’s happening. Protracted silence is not good in a presentation. Make sure your demos work – broken demos will happen to everyone (the joke is that there are ‘demo gods’ and some days they just don’t smile on you) but that should not be the norm. Make sure your demos are predictable and you know how to recover if something goes wrong. Run through your demos on the machine you’re going to do them on – I remember writing a corruption recovery demo and being startled in the live presentation when a database I’d corrupted at home behaved differently on SQL 2008 than SQL 2005. Don’t have over-complicated demos – they will break. Most importantly – a demo should show something you’ve talked about in action. If not, why are you doing it?
  • Nervousness. Everyone gets nervous – no matter how many times you present. The only thing that improves is how well you deal with it and how quickly it goes away. Well, I guess you also get less nervous as time goes on, but there’s always that little buzz of concern whenever I’m going to present. I think that’s a good thing though – if you get too complacent, you won’t do as good a job of preparing and making sure everything goes smoothly. Even for my corruption decks, I still spend 5 minutes skipping through the slides before the session to remind myself of the order of things and to get comfortable that I haven’t forgotten that I’m doing a particular demo, for instance. Once you start speaking, the nervousness should go away pretty soon as you get into the swing of things. One trick I taught myself when I was in China in 2006 presenting other people’s decks was to practice the first two minutes of the session until I knew what I was going to say off by heart. By the time I’d gotten through the prepared opening, I was comfortable and in the zone. Mental preparedness is a big part of not being nervous – I call it being in the zone – you’ve got your head ordered with what you’re going to say, your demos are all prepped, you’ve got everything setup and you’re just waiting for the green light. Kimberly and I both have our little routines that we go through to get in the zone.
  • Putting together a slide deck. This is the meat of the whole thing – your slides are what will guide you through your presentation. They need to tell a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end and then need to flow well rather than jumping around between topics. I like to have the end of one slide lead into the next one. Writing good slides takes time to learn  – I’m constantly tweaking slide decks to make them better. There’s lots of stuff written about writing slides so I won’t go into much detail – the number one thing I’d say is to use a readable font and project in 1024×768. Don’t pack your slides full (even though we do sometimes) and don’t write down everything you’re going to say. A slide should really summarize a couple of minutes of speaking. Don’t feel like you have to say everything that’s on the slides. Make sure that someone reading the slides offline can also get the idea of what you want to say.
  • Powerpoint. Much has been written about what to do and not to do when using Powerpoint. I could spend a whole other blog post on it, but this one’s long enough. There are a ton of videos out there – use “bad public speaking videos” in Google. One thing I will say though is the old “a picture speaks a thousand words” – I could spend 5 minutes describing a data record structure to a room full of people and none of them will have the whole picture in their head. Instead I have a slide with a picture of a record structure on it with annotations. Oh yes, and animations – they’re great but they don’t work very well on a printed copy of the slides…
  • Using humor. Making the audience laugh is a good way to get yourself and them audience relaxed (yes, the audience needs to relax too so they can absorb what you’re saying). I don’t like to tell jokes when I present, but I can usually recall appropriate Dilbert cartoons – and when Kimberly and I co-present, we make fun of each other, which most people find makes the atmosphere really genial.
  • Co-presenting. Only ever do this if you’re *very* comfortable with your co-presenter, otherwise it can be disastrous. Kimberly and I will only ever co-present with each other now (although Kimberly’s done it before with a few others) as we’re fine with interrupting each other and complement each other well. However, we had some issues when we first started doing that and we had to learn to tone down the “cuteness” of being co-presenters and husband-and-wife – and we have to be careful with what we say to each other depending on the feel of the audience – jokes about being her being blonde, or me being Scottish might not go over well. Co-presenters need to be matched in terms of ability, style, confidence, etc.
  • Why are you there? Give the audience some indication of why *you* are the one standing up there presenting to them. At the start of each slide-deck I present, I have a bio slide, but I only point out the relevant stuff. In fact, this last year in the corruption sessions I’ve taken to saying “here’s a whole slide of stuff about me, but all that’s really important today is that I wrote CHECKDB and repair, so that’s what we’re going to talk about”. The audience can read all the other stuff later if they want – the odds are they already know about you anyway.
  • Self-promotion. Be very careful. By all means have a slide with some of your qualifications, books, etc on it, but don’t labor the point. People aren’t there to hear about how wonderful you are. Don’t blatantly plug your services, books, etc within your slides. We got dinged by someone at TechEd US in 2008 because they thought when we mentioned our blogs we were trying to get people to visit our website to sell them stuff. We now make a point of saying that our website has no advertising on it – just free info and all the blog links in the slides are more free info. On the other hand, public speaking is a good way for you to advertise yourself and become well-known. The golden rule here is that if you present really well and come over as authoritative on the subject, people will naturally remember you and contact you if they’re interested in working with you.
  • Projection. You need to make sure the audience can hear you. That doesn’t mean you have to shout, but your normal speaking voice is usually not loud enough to carry across a room. Don’t talk down to the floor and if in doubt, use a microphone. At any conference, you *will* be forced to wear a wireless mic so try one out if you get the chance. Make sure you speak clearly and have good pronunciation. This is especially important if you’re presenting in a country where the language you speak is not the first-language of the audience (e.g. when I present at TechEds outside the US, or if you’re presenting in English but that’s not your first language – quite common in the US).
  • Tech check. Make sure that your laptop is compatible with the presenting equipment. Nothing says ‘amateur’ more than turning up to your session 5 minutes before it’s due to start and finding that your laptop doesn’t display properly. On the other hand – beware of over-zealous technicians that can really interrupt you getting ‘into the zone’ before your session starts. However, *always* be nice to the technicians otherwise you’ll get a bad reputation at conferences – I’ve heard of this happening. Make sure you’re really familiar with your laptop and how it displays.
  • Dress code. This depends on where you’re presenting. At TechEd, it’s brown or khaki slacks plus a TechEd speaker shirt. When I teach anywhere else, even user groups, I wear jeans, shoes and a dress-shirt. Dressing smartly makes me feel more professional and comfortable. Really the bottom line here is that you should be appropriately dressed – a 3-piece suit for a user-group is over-kill, but be careful not to under-dress too.
  • Practice. As with most things, the number one way to get better with public speaking is to practice. There’s a good reason why conference organizers (ourselves included) want to know your speaking experience – proof that you’ve had lots of practice and won’t tank in front of an audience. Try giving your presentation to an empty room, or to a friend or colleague. Best thing is to have a mentor that’ll help you.
  • Getting a mentor. Try to find someone who is a good speaker and that you trust. Have them watch your presentations and give you frank feedback. You’ll improve in leaps and bounds by having someone point out where you’re going wrong.
  • Feedback. If someone’s nice enough to give you constructive feedback on your presentation technique, take it as such. Don’t bristle or be offended – they’re trying to help you. Be open to criticism (self- or from others) – it’s the only way you’ll get better. If you’re giving feedback, think about who the person is that you’re giving feedback to and how they’re going to take what you have to say. Managing teams of people from diverse cultures at Microsoft helped me immensely here – feedback is hard to give and receive.
  • Take-aways. While you’re writing your presentation, think about what you want the audience to take home with them. I like to have a slide at the end that spells out what I think the take-aways are. Don’t ever end on a negative point though otherwise that’s what people will remember the most. You want to make sure that people don’t leave the room wondering what the message of your presentation was.
  • Writing an abstract. You need to make sure that there’s enough info in the abstract to make it compelling for people to want to attend the presentation – or not. Nothing annoys an audience more than an abstract that gives a false impression of what’s in your presentation – that means that people are wasting time watching something they weren’t expecting. The title of your presentation also has to reflect the content for the same reasons. Here’s one I’ve used for the last year that I think is a good example:
    • Corruption Survival Techniques
    • Your database is corrupt – what do you do? Well, it depends! How critical is the data? Do you know what’s really wrong with the database? What does all that DBCC CHECKDB output mean? Should you restore or repair? It’s all about limiting downtime and data-loss when a corruption occurs – from knowing the tools to understanding the implications of choices you make. In this demo-heavy session Paul and Kimberly will give you insight into how to recover from corruption without making things worse. Most importantly you’ll get step-by-step instructions for dealing with the more common scenarios.
  • Tangents. Don’t be afraid to take tangents, but make sure it doesn’t screw up your timing and that you get back on-topic. I keep a LIFO stack in my head to make sure I get back to where I started and will often say out-loud “Popping the stack back to…”. It shows that you’re flexible and able to wander away from the main stream of the presentation but that you care that the audience gets to hear everything you were originally planning to say.
  • White-boarding. Once you’re really comfortable presenting, you should be able to switch back and forth between using your slides, and doing ad hoc stuff with a whiteboard – or even doing a whole chalk-talk without any slides. White-boarding takes some getting used to – write legibly and big enough so everyone can see. Be aware of where you’re standing in front of the whiteboard and who can’t see because you’re blocking them – so move around. Write in black or blue – red and green can’t be seen very well from a distance. For extensive white-boarding, the marker will start to run dry because of the angle you’re holding it at – so make sure you have a few spares. We love white-boarding – and in fact our first “date” was two hours white-boarding partitioning schemes right after we met for the first time at TechEd. Sweet memories…
  • Props. I find that I’m much more relaxed if I have something in my hand to play with – like a paper clip or a water bottle cap – something small that won’t distract the audience.
  • Clickers. If you’re serious about presenting, buy a wireless clicker so you don’t have to walk back to your laptop to change every slide – it looks really bad and says that you’re an amateur. The one Kimberly and I use is at Make sure you have spare batteries with you too – but don’t go too extreme – we travel with 5 laptops between us – long story – see here
  • Movement. This really comes down to personal preference – but I don’t like to stand in one place. If you walk around a bit it gives the audience’s eyes something to follow and can be more engaging that just standing still. But don’t wildly gesticulate too much – both Kimberly and I do this sometimes when we get carried away. If you have a podium, don’t get into the habit of hiding behind it and using it as a barrier between yourself and the audience – come out from behind it and get used to feeling exposed. You’ll get used to it and will become a much more confident speaker. If you don’t, odds are that one day you won’t have a podium and then you’ll feel and look uncomfortable.
  • Dealing with questions. This is another personal preference and depends on your comfort level with what you’re presenting – questions can be very off-putting. No-one likes to be caught out but if you are, never make something up or try to weasel out of answering. A really powerful statement is to say “I don’t know the answer, but I’ll find out – come up and see me at the end”. People like to see that you’re confident enough to admit you don’t know everything. Don’t fall into the trap of letting people’s questions take over the session – know when its time to move on and politely say something like “we need to move on to get everything covered but I’ll stick around for questions at the end”. Don’t take too long answering a single question, and don’t let someone waffle on with their question either. Oh, most importantly – repeat the question for the audience – either explicitly, or say that you’ll repeat the question as part of the answer. Think about what questions people might ask and try to forestall them by answering them as part of the presentation – sometimes I’ll have a a Frequently Asked Questions slide that I’ll run through so everyone gets answers.
  • Timing. It’s really important that you don’t run over your allotted time. The audience needs a break, the next speaker needs to setup – it’s just impolite. On the flip-side, you don’t want to finish 15 minutes early in a one-hour session otherwise people think they’ve been short-changed. Getting the timing right is very difficult to do when you’re first starting out – you need to take into account demos, questions, problems but above all else, you need to keep track of the time while you’re presenting. Don’t look at your watch every five minutes though – have an easily readable clock on the presenting desk or better yet, a clock on the wall at the back of the room.
  • Eye contact. As you’re speaking, move you eyes around the room and look at people – it makes a connection and shows you’re confident. It also lets you see people’s reactions to what you’re saying. This is hard to do at first but if you force yourself it’ll become second-nature pretty quickly. Don’t go too fast though and you don’t have to hit everyone in the room. In a large auditorium with lights shining in your face, it’s impossible to see the audience, so just go through the motions as if you can see them anyway – it’ll look much more natural.
  • Thinking of a word. My brain has this weird thing that it does – every so often I’ll be in mid-speech and the multi-syllable word I really want to use next just won’t come. This can be really off-putting and worrying the first time it happens but I’ve learned to recognize when I’m not going to be able to think of the word and to describe my way around it, sometimes even saying “I can’t think of the right word”. I know this happens to other people too – just don’t spend 20 seconds standing there trying to rack your brain when it does – accept it as sign of fallibility in your aging brain and move on.
  • Hesitation. There’s a natural tendency for you to stop every so often while you’re brain processes what to say next. At these points, the best practice is that no sound comes out of your mouth. You want to avoid repeated sounds like “erm”, “ok”, “so…”. It’s incredibly hard to stop yourself doing this but if you can vastly reduce how often you do it, your presentation will look a lot more polished and you’ll seem more confident. My commute used to be about an hour each way into Microsoft, and I trained myself to not make noise when hesitating by spending a week trying to give a 5 minute speech on CHECKDB while driving without saying “erm”. It took a while and you’d be surprised how difficult it can be to work up the courage to start giving a speech to yourself in the car. Recently I was using Camtasia to record about 8 hours of presentations for Microsoft and I had the same problem getting started – mouse pointer hovering over the Start Recording button – you just have to go for it.
  • Confidence. Passion. Enthusiasm. If you can exude these three things when you present then you’ll go a long way. Nobody wants to sit and watch someone who doesn’t sound like they believe what they’re saying, or drones on in a monotone voice. When it comes down to it, what Kimberly and I present is really dry, technical information – how to recover from corruption, how to tune your indexing strategy, etc – but we’re *really* into what we’re talking about and that shows in how we present. If you’re not interested in what you’re presenting, you’re going to find it hard to present it with any energy and convince your audience that what you’re saying is worthwhile. A good way to feel confident is to tell yourself that you know more about your topic than most people in the room and that’s why they’re hear to listen to you – but don’t get freaked out if you see someone in the room who you *know* knows more than you. They’re still there because they’re interested in what you have to say.
  • Honesty. There’s no better way to bring the audience onto your side than to be honest with them about some feature or behavior that doesn’t work. Don’t try to give the marketing spin on a feature or avoid the difficult question because the answer isn’t what people want to hear. But on the other hand, don’t be downright negative either. Present a balanced view and give an objective opinion. If you think what you’re saying is going to disappoint people (like whenever I present about the new setup method for failover clustering in SQL 2008), add something funny like “I know, it’s pretty sucky, but I’m just the messenger!”
  • Arrogance. In no way do you want to have the audience think that you’re better than them – it really turns people off to be talked down-to. In some of my earlier sessions I would sometimes come across as arrogant when I was trying to express incredulity and you have to try hard to say things the right way. For instance, in TechEd US 2007 I presented a talk on database corruption and was listing some of the worst things that people do to corrupt databases. When I mentioned restarting SQL Server, I said something like (paraphrasing) “wow, what do these people know that I don’t? Restarting SQL Server isn’t going to magically fix the corruption”. Yuk. Although I was trying to express disbelief, that first sentence just screamed arrogance, and I got dinged for it in some people’s session ratings and comments (and Kimberly shouted at me!). Now I’m very careful to always word things to avoid coming across the wrong way.
  • Empathy. One of the best ways to ingratiate yourself with the audience is to empathize with them. Make the audience feel like you’ve been in the same situations they have, you’ve had to deal with the same problems they’re seeing, you’ve felt the same frustrations with SQL Server that they do. Your talk should let them know you feel their pain and that you’re going to help them with some of the info you’ll present. If the audience feels like you’re speaking from experience they’re more likely to want to hear what you have to say. But be careful not to take this too far or it can feel contrived and dishonest.
  • Total no-nos. There are some cardinal sins which almost guarantee you’ll irritate and annoy people (at best) or get thrown out of a conference (at worst – I’ve seen this happen at TechEd). In today’s age of (almost extreme) political correctness, you need to be careful that you don’t overstep any lines of good behavior or start talking about inflammatory topics – but don’t be scared to be a little controversial. I’ll happily call bad design decisions in SQL Server “daft”, and I did while still at Microsoft too, but I’d never use words like “stupid” or “idiot”. Don’t tell dirty jokes. Don’t ever discuss politics – you’re guaranteed to annoy at least one person in the room and you’re not there to discuss that. Same goes for anything to do with nationalism, sexism, racism, parochialism, xenophobia, etc – these are all very, very thin ice and you’ll get into trouble quickly. Never use a four-letter word while you’re presenting – you may not find them offensive but many people do. In fact don’t swear at all – if you can’t express yourself while presenting without resorting to swearing for emphasis then you shouldn’t be presenting. All these things can make people feel very uncomfortable when they hear them in a session. One cliche to consider is – would you be happy playing a recording of your session to your grandmother?

As you’ve no doubt gathered from much of the above, public speaking involves a lot of psychology and it can be really fun tweaking sessions repeatedly to see how the audience reaction changes. I really hope that all of this will prove helpful to some of you and I’d love to hear about experiences and things you’ve learned that I may have missed. This turned out *much* longer than I thought (a 5000-word essay), but luckily I’m badly jet-lagged from being in Asia for 3 weeks and I woke up at 3.30am.

To round out I want to leave you with a quote from one of my top-5 favorite, utterly stunning movies – Gladiator. In one scene, the old ex-gladiator Proximo (played by the late, master orator Oliver Reed) is telling the fallen Roman general Maximus (played by the excellent Russell Crowe) how to succeed: “Listen to me. Learn from me. I was not the best because I killed quickly. I was the best because the crowd loved me. Win the crowd and you will win your freedom.” Now, I’m not trying to say with this that public speaking is like gladiatorial combat, but that success comes solely from pleasing the crowd. If your talk ends with the audience thinking they’ve just been entertained, learned something useful, and not wasted their time then you’ve succeeded and can feel profoundly satisfied as the applause rings around the room.

And with that it just remains for me to wish my wonderful wife Kimberly Happy Valentine’s Day!

7 thoughts on “Public Speaking: A Primer

  1. Thanks a lot for the great tips, Paul. I’ve heard that many people fear public speaking more than death. I hope your tips will give more people confidence to share their SQL Server knowledge with the community.

  2. That was fanstastic. Thanks for posting it. Lots of really useful information. I really appreciate the comments on movement, but avoiding wild gestures and the comments on empathy and avoiding arrogance. Thanks again.

  3. I followed your advice on the eye contact one. I locked onto someone and looked at him, he then looked at me then started to stare at his watch…. OHHHH that threw me off!

    It was fun though.

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