The Years of Speaking Technically
I was trying to tie this to "The Year of Living Dangerously" but, well...
On June 13th, I presented two sessions at SQL Saturday Houston #408. It was important (to me), because it was the first time I'd presented two sessions, and because it finished off my second year of speaking at SQL Saturdays. For those of you who have just started speaking at technical events, and for those who want to but haven't yet, this blog is for you.
For most of my adult life, I've spoken publicly. I majored in Communications at the University of Arizona and I was in leadership for a community service organization for about ten years. I also spent a couple of years teaching Computer Science at our community college here in Tucson. I think that the largest group that I've spoken in front of was about 750 people. Not enormous, but large enough to think twice about. I've spoken through translators (fun fact - sarcasm does not translate well) and I've given emotionally tough presentations that ended up with most of the audience in tears. None of that scared me as much as speaking at that first SQL Saturday.
I had been thinking about presenting for the last five years or so, but coming on board with SQL Sentry seemed to be the tipping point. Our company likes to give back to the SQL Server community and speaking at SQL Saturdays is one great way to do that. Working with people who had been presenting for years gave me a great opportunity for advice. To be honest though, that's part of what was terrifying. How in the world could I ever measure up to an Aaron Bertrand (b/t) or Kevin Kline (b/t)? What could I speak about that hasn't already been covered by someone with more knowledge and experience? What do I do with the inevitable question that I can't answer? While teaching, I had time to build a rapport with my students and if there was a question I didn't know the answer to, I could get back to them during the next class. I could build up my credibility during the semester. A SQL Saturday is one day - one session during one day - in front of people who probably don't know anything about me other than what I put on my bio slide.
Throwing caution to the wind, though, I put together an abstract and submitted to SQL Saturday Albuquerque in 2014. Amazingly enough, I was accepted to speak. It didn't go perfectly, but it went well enough that I was encouraged to continue. As of now, I've presented at seven SQL Saturdays during the past two years and haven't been pulled out of a presentation yet. So, what have I learned?
Before you speak:
- Speak about things that interest you. These might not be the coolest or newest topics, but you'll give a far better presentation. If you're interested in it, chances are others will be as well.
- Reach out to friends/co-workers for ideas on sessions. One of my (unexpected) favorite sessions came from a friend who saw a need and convinced me to write that presentation.
- Read up/test/learn about your subject. Try to know more than what you're actually presenting. This helps A LOT as questions come up.
- Practice, practice, practice, practice - Before presenting you should be pretty close to being able to present from memory, even without the slide deck. Now this doesn't mean you necessarily memorize word for word, but that you can talk to each slide or through the demo without having to see them. Unfortunately, practice doesn't mean in your head. Stand up, move around, and present out loud. This helps in a couple of ways - you don't run into the issue of 'getting lost' in your script and you sound more relaxed (conversational) while you're presenting.
- While you're practicing, try to get as close to the environment as possible. You probably don't have a projector or screen, but you might be able to substitute a TV. Use the laptop/tablet, mouse, and presenter remote that you will be using during your presentation and practice duplicating/extending your screen. That piece has bitten me more than once.
And while you're speaking:
- Be happy to be there. While you being happy won't necessarily impact all of your audience, you seeming like you don't want to be there WILL impact your audience.
- Ask for and read your evaluations - Especially since I haven't been speaking for long, I bring up the evaluations at the beginning of the session and again at the end, letting them know that I'd appreciate any feedback. I've typically had a good number of attendees provide evaluations and I've made some good changes to my sessions as a result.
- Watch your audience - Think about the times that you've sat through sessions. Not all, but most people exert some sort of body language to indicate their level of interest. Are they looking at you or down at their desk or phone? Are they fidgety? Are they taking notes? There may be portions of your presentation that work really well, or portions that don't work at all - pay attention and adapt.
- Most rational people understand that you're not going to know everything on a given topic. If you're asked a question that you don't know the answer to, it's okay to say that. If you can, get their contact information and get back to them. Fight the urge to make up an answer - that never ends well.
- Don't let anyone hijack your session. There will be questions, but if they continue and/or go off topic, let them know that you'll be happy to talk with them after the session. Unlike teaching, you don't have another time to finish.
Keep in mind that this is a process. While you will get more comfortable presenting in front of people, you'll (hopefully) always be creating new content. Each time though, you'll be getting better at putting together sessions that will be both interesting and informative. While I was definitely nervous at the beginning, speaking at these events has actually become something that I look forward to.