Public speaking and doing presentations

Work presents me with plenty of opportunity to grow, professionally. One of the my many favorite things to do at work is to teach, if I can. Sometimes it’s one-on-one, and other times it will be via a class or user group setting. I’ve gotten some good feedback over the years, that has helped me evolve my teaching/speaking methodology.

Today at work, I attended a presentation from my group where I didn’t need to speak and instead, I was just listening. I was thinking of how I approach a presentation. So, I thought I’d jot down these ideas, as I’ve found these to be helpful over the years:

BEFORE:

  • Don’t eat before – depending on the time of day, you may just want to have a very light meal or snack. When you have a regular (or large) meal, you don’t want to burp, hiccup, etc while you’re speaking. Don’t worry, even if you’re hungry – your body can actually live for several days without food! It’s best to speak on an empty stomach. (diabetics excluded, here)
  • Don’t drink carbonated drinks – this causes a similar problem. You don’t want to burp your way through a presentation. Drink water, tea, etc – but stay away from carbonated drinks like soda.
  • Get a good night sleep the night before – there are two reasons for this. First, you don’t want to yawn your way through a presentation and secondly, when you are presenting (especially a class that is several hours long), that can be mentally exhausting. There aren’t many scenarios in life where you are speaking for 4 or 8 hours straight, throughout the day. Make a point to go to bed early the night before and even do first-night-clean-sheets (I know that makes me sleep like a baby).
  • Take time to gather the right material – when you experience something successful in life, very rarely was it accidental. If you go to a concert and the band, the lighting, the sound are all top-notch, that’s no accident! If all that work was done right, it will seem as if it was happenstance, but rarely does success “just happen”. So, make a point to be over-prepared for your presentation. Anticipate what questions people might have. If you simply throw-together a presentation last-minute, it will show.
  • Take time to take care of the technical overhead – this is similar, having a smooth presentation doesn’t happen accidentally. Worse, no one is going to “care” about your presentation going smoothly more than you. It’s also not going to look as bad for anyone, other than you too! So take the time to make sure you have the number right, make sure you’re sending out the “presenter” link of a LiveMeeting (Jamie, I’m looking in your direction!!), make sure the facility will have power and a network connection. If you are connecting to a projector, make sure you have the right cable, etc. In other words, make a point to make sure the technical minutia is dealt with BEFORE it’s time to speak. This is overhead and a distraction that will take away from the effectiveness of what you’re presenting. Don’t forget the power supply for your laptop. Don’t forget to turn off your cell phone. Bring a USB thumb drive in case you need to move your content to a second computer, due to technical problems.
  • Get a peer review for your content – if you are presenting any sort of a opinion (not just a list of facts), work with your peers to get their thoughts. Is there any controversy in what you will say? Could something be said better? Have you forgotten anything? Lean on your peers for this, and let them to go you for help, when they are presenting too. Everyone is the better for doing that.
  • Include samples – “a picture speaks a thousand words”. If you are trying to present a concept, use pictures, graphs, code, diagrams, whatever it takes to get the point across. Make your samples proper too. Avoid “foo” and “bar”, that rarely helps explain something. Use a real example. I often use “Customer” or “Products”. For example, a data structure might be called CustomerDetail, with properties like FirstName, LastName, etc. A psuedo-real example will will go much farther than WindowsApplication1.Example.Foo.Bar() will. Take the initiative and time to set up a proper sample well in advance. Again, you’re better off having too much material than not enough.

DURING:

  • Manage your time – as a speaker, you are responsible for managing your time. So if you have an hour – don’t just “hit the start button and we’ll see how long it takes!”. Instead, make a point to budget your time, and stretch or condense as necessary. I typically break up a presentation into quarters. If I have an hour, and I have 30 slides, that means I need to go through 7-8 slides every 15 minutes. My big checkpoint is at the half-way mark. If :30 minutes has passed and I’m not on on slide 15 – then I speed up or slow down accordingly.
  • Manage your voice – depending on whether you are presenting in a classroom, over the phone for a webcast, whether your voice is amplified (via a mic), etc – manage your volume appropriately. If you are in a room with a microphone at the podium, you can (and should) speak in a normal voice. Only in a classroom with no amplification should you ever really try to project your voice. It can be exhausting to listen to a speaker that is yelling/speaking loudly for a long period of time.
  • Try to eliminate your “Umms” – for me, I say (or used to say) “Uhhh” and “Ummm” as “filler words”. In other words, I might talk like this: “Next we’ll, ummm, take a look a look at the… uhhh.. next slide” – if I were talking slowly. I found that I would “fill-in” the empty spaces while I was thinking, with filler words. Some people make noises, some people say “ya know”, some people hum, some people say “like”, etc. If you don’t think you do have an “Umm” problem, record yourself for a few minutes and listen for it – you may be surprised! How do you get rid of it? Well, someone once told me: “if you are thinking in those pauses, just don’t speak or don’t make noises – just be quiet instead”. It was as simple as that, for me. It took a little bit of practice, but it now feels very natural for me to NOT speak when I am thinking – and I think my sentences come out clearer to my listeners too, with less “noise” (literally and figuratively)! So now, I might say: “Next, we’ll….. take a look at the…. next slide” – no more filler “noise”!
  • Be an empathetic speaker – this is a big topic. However, I think this is one of the aspects that can have the greatest impact. This means try to understand and anticipate what listeners might be thinking. If you just said an acronym, think “are there people that aren’t going to know what that means?”. If not, then take the couple of seconds to define the acronym. This notion is also important on the bigger level, like when you are trying to describe a concept. If you know this concept is new to some people – make an analogy, have a diagram or drawing, use an example, etc. People learn by associating with something they already know. If you just bulldoze through content without people making a connection to something they know, then often the point is lost. Also, stop and see if there are question – encourage listeners to interact. One person speaking up and asking a question, may end up answering the same question 10 other people had. If you are teaching new material, make it interactive and encourage questions frequently. Keep in mind too that people also learn from repetition. So, if you can approach the same concept from a few perspectives, that will often help explain the concept. Try to be empathetic to read whether people are “getting” what you’re trying to explain.
  • Close your E-mail / Close your IM – you don’t want messages, especially embarassing ones, popping up while you are sharing your screen.
  • Clear your browser history – not that you go to porn sites or something, but having URL’s in the browser dropdown or having things show up in the auto-complete of a textbox can be distracting (and potentially embarassing). Just avoid it, and clear your history and forms, in your browser.
  • Clean off your desktop – similarly, items on your desktop can be distracting, it’s best to just create folder called Save, and drag EVERYTHING (except computer, and recycle bin) to that folder. Potentially you could leave your powerpoint and samples on your desktop, though.

AFTER:

  • Follow-up – make a point to share your presentation somewhere where your viewers can download it. This way they can go back over what you presented, and perhaps glean some information that didn’t sink in right away – and also, if you had links or resources listed, they would likely be interested in those too. If you used sample code that had anything significant, consider sharing that – and make a version for C# and VB.NET (for presenting .NET material). Lastly, encourage feedback, good and bad. Hopefully you’d want to know what works and doesn’t work so that you can become better over time, right?!

Anyhow, those are some of the major things that have helped me present better. Well, better than I used to. Spending time on the prep, makes it so the day of the presentation, I don’t really need to worry about anything. I can just dig into the content and logistics are taken care, I have a solid slide deck, I have sample code, etc – I’m just ready to present! Hope this helps!

EDIT (on 7/22): Updated after watching some sessions on mvcconf.com 🙂

Posted in Professional Development, Uncategorized

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