Become A Better Speaker

That’s a big title.  Expect “(on the margin)” in tiny font after the title.

What Other People Say

Let me start off with some great resources, and then I’ll move to a few things that have helped me in the past.

Troy Hunt

Troy is a master of preparation.  Check out his prep work he did for NDC.  I don’t remember if he linked in either of these posts, but he will schedule tweets for certain parts of his talk because he knows exactly when he’ll get to that point.  Also check out his speaker anti-patterns and fix them.  Of his anti-patterns, I most hate the Reader.  Please don’t read your slides; your audience can read faster than you can speak, and your audience can read the slides later.  Tell engaging stories, tie things together, and give people something they can remember when they do re-read those slides.  You’ll also enjoy his checklist of the 19 things he needs to do before the talk begins.

What I get from Troy:  Practice, practice, practice.  One thing I want to get better at is taping myself and forcing me to listen to it.  There are verbal tics which you can only find when you listen to yourself.

Brent Ozar

Brent is a top marketer in the SQL Server world.  Here’s some great advice from him on delivering technical presentations.  He’s absolutely right about giving people a link at the end telling them where to get additional materials.  He has additional information on how to handle slides, working with the audience, and getting prepped for the session.  I think his music idea is interesting; at a couple all-day cons we’ve hosted locally, the guy who hosts tends to put on some early morning music before festivities begin.  It lightens up the mood considerably and works a lot better than a bunch of introverts staring quietly at their phones for 40 minutes until someone makes a move to begin.

What I get from Brent:  I’ve cribbed a few things from him.  All of my slide decks have two pieces of information at the end:  “To learn more, go here” and “And for help, contact me.”  The first bit then points to a short form address URL I bought (http://CSmore.info) and which redirects you to the longer-form address.  On that link, I include slides, a link to my GitHub repo, and additional links and helpful information.  The second bit on contacting includes my e-mail address and Twitter handle.

Paul Randal

Paul has a great Pluralsight course on communication.  This course isn’t just about presentations, but there are two modules, one on writing presentations and one on giving presentations.  I highly recommend this course.

What I get from Paul:  Practice, prepare, and don’t panic.  Compare against my previous review of this course.  Things will inevitably go wrong, so take spare cables and extras of anything you can fit.  At this point, I even carry a mini projector in case of emergency.  I’ve not needed to use it but there might come a day.

Julia Evans

Julia has a fantastic blog post on improving talks and conferences.  I definitely like her point about understanding your target audience.  Her argument in favor of lightning talks is interesting, and I think for beginners, it’s a good idea.  For more experienced speakers, however, 10 minutes is barely an introduction, and sometimes I want a deep dive.  Those have to be longer talks just by their nature.

Another great point she makes is to give hard talks:  aim for beginners to scrape part of it but for experts to learn from it as well.  I absolutely love Kyle Kingsbury’s work too and he helped me get a handle on distributed systems, but in a way that I could re-read his posts several months later and pick out points I never got before.

What I get from Julia:  Find your motivation and make your talks work better for a broader range of people.  I have one talk in particular on the APPLY operator which has the goal of making sure that pretty much anybody, regardless of how long you’ve been in the field, learns something new.  There are a couple of examples which are easier for new users to understand and a couple of examples which are definitely more advanced but still straightforward enough that a new user can get there (even if it does take a little longer).  Ideally, I’d like all of my talks to be that way.

What I Recommend

Here are a few recommendations that I’ll throw out at you.  I’m going to try not to include too much overlap with the above links, as I really want you to read those posts and watch those videos.

  • Practice!  Practice until you know the first five minutes cold.  There are some presenters who will practice a talk multiple times a day for several days in a row.  I’m not one of those people, but if you’re capable of it, go for it.
  • Record yourself.  Find all of those placeholder words and beat them out of yourself.  I don’t mean just “Uh,” “Er,” “Um,” “Ah,” and so on.  In my case, I have a bad habit of starting sentences with “So…”  I’m working on eliminating that habit.  Recordings keep you honest.
  • Tell interesting stories.  To crib from one of my 18th century main men, Edmund Burke, “Example is the best school of mankind, and they will learn at no other.”  Theory ties your work together, and stories drive the audience.  Stories about failure and recovery from failure are particularly interesting; that’s one of the core tenets of drama.
  • Prep and practice your demos.  If you’re modifying anything (databases, settings, etc.) over the course of your demo, have a revert script at the end or revert your VM.  That way, you won’t forget about it at the end of a great talk, give the talk again later (after you’ve forgotten that you never rolled everything back), and have your demos fail because you forgot.  Not that this has happened to me…
  • Speaking of failure, prepare for failure.
    • Have extra cables.  I have all kinds of adapters for different types of projectors.  I have VGA, DVI (though I’ve only seen one or two projectors which required this), and HDMI adapters for both of my laptops in my bag at all times.
    • Prepare to be offline.  If your talk can be done offline, you should do it that way.  Internet connections at conferences are pretty crappy, and a lot of demo failures can be chalked up to flaky networks.  This means having your slides available locally, having your demo scripts available locally, etc.
    • Have your slides and demo scripts on a spare drive, USB stick, or something.  If all else fails, maybe you can borrow somebody else’s laptop for the talk.  I had to do this once.  It was embarrassing, but I got through it and actually got good scores.  The trick is to adapt, improvise, and overcome.  And you do that with preparation and practice.
    • Have your slides and demo scripts available online.  I know I mentioned assuming that your internet connection will flake out, but if your system flakes out and someone lends you a laptop but can’t accept USB sticks (maybe it’s a company laptop), at least you can grab the slides and code online.
    • If you do need an internet connection, have a MiFi or phone you can tether to your laptop, just in case.  If you have two or three redundant internet sources, the chances of them all failing are much lower than any single one failing.
    • Have a spare laptop if you can.  That’s hard and potentially expensive, but sometimes a computer just goes bye-bye an hour before your presentation.
  • Install updates on your VMs regularly.  Do it two nights before your presentation; that way, if an update nukes your system, you have a day to recover.  Also, it reduces the risk that Windows 10 will pick your presentation as the perfect time to install 700 updates.  Very helpful, that Windows 10 is.
  • When in doubt, draw it out.  I have embraced touchscreens on laptops, bought a nice stylus, and love drawing on the screen.  I think it helps the audience understand where you’re going better than using a laser pointer, and sometimes you don’t have a whiteboard.  If you don’t like touchscreens, ZoomIt still works with a mouse.
  • Speaking of which, learn how to use ZoomIt or some other magnification tool.  Even if you set your fonts bigger (which yes, you need to do), you will want to focus in on certain parts of text or deal with apps like SQL Server Management Studio which have fixed-size sections.

There are tomes of useful information on this topic, so a single blog post won’t have all of the answers, but hopefully this is a start.

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3 thoughts on “Become A Better Speaker

    • That’s an interesting read. It’s almost the exact opposite of my pre-talk (and even intra-talk) philosophy. It sounds like it works for her and for you, which leads me to say that, like everything else, it’s important to pick a strategy that works for you. Thanks for the link.

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