Last year, out of no where, I decided that I wanted to present at the San Diego Code Camp after receiving the email announcing it. I had never attended a code camp but I wanted to go. Why I wanted to present, not having any previous experience with code camps, is beyond me. I’m a very shy person.
I knew that I wanted to present about aspect oriented programming since I had already done a user group session about it and I was pretty familiar with the topic. But for some reason, I wanted to do another session (yes, two sessions!) on parallel programming.
I had enough time to build my slide decks, notes and examples but I still found myself making last minute changes. I was not prepared. I did not practice at all. I had pages of notes that I thought I could just read from. Bad idea. The first session on AOP went ok because I was already very familiar with the material, but the parallel programming session was a flop in my opinion. I stuttered, lost my train of thought and was confusing the audience. Even worse, I went 15 minutes over and I wasn’t even 1/2 done with my material. People started leaving.
Last weekend was the Fullerton code camp in which I also had two sessions. With 2 previous code camps under my belt, and a mass of user group sessions and an entire PluralSight course, I still found myself making last minute changes to the slide decks and notes but I nailed both of my sessions. I received many compliments on both sessions which was not entirely surprising. This is not to say that I’m being arrogant, but I made several changes to my approach and I was expecting them to pay off. It did.
Having no speaking experience, I really didn’t know what you needed to do other than makes some slides and do some examples. I’ll be standing in front of a crowd of people who all attended knowing I would be speaking. Some of them are just there for the swag, but still they expect a good performance. I can’t hide behind anything. I’m there face to face with 5-100 people.
My slide decks were basically for me, not for the audience. I made my slide decks packed with text. I thought the more info I put in there, the better. This is a big mistake. First of all, the audience isn’t going to read all of that text (if they can even see it). Second of all, they are looking at ME, not my slides.
I found myself reading the slides instead of talking to the audience. This makes for a poor performance.
I have a problem when it comes to vocalizing my thoughts. Sometimes I get things mixed up as they come out or I forget how I wanted to verbalize a thought. To help this, I had pages and pages of notes. I thought I could address my notes at any time and make sure I hit the nail on the head. Wrong! I had paragraphs of notes which made it hard to find specific points quickly so I lost my place and I lost which page I was on. Big mess. Confused myself and confused the audience.
After realizing the flaws on this approach I moved to a very succinct bullet point list with all the points I wanted to make in a specific order. It was easier to find my place, stay on track but did nothing to help me remember how to say what I wanted to say and I left out large chunks of information that I really needed to deliver to the crowd.
Being a shy person, it was hard for me to get up in front of people. I don’t like being the center of attention. Knowing that I have a problem with verbalizing my thoughts, I was nervous even more than normal. I was not confident that I knew the material well enough to not have my notes and slides as crutches. I stuttered, said “uh” a lot and was always forgetting what I wanted to say.
Biggest reason I was not confident is because I didn’t practice. Sure, I would read my notes over and over but I never practiced saying anything out loud. I never liked to hear myself. Voice recordings, video, voicemail, it doesn’t matter. I don’t like listening to myself talk. It’s weird. You get what you pay for and that’s the truth of it.
Things have changed. I’ve learned a lot since doing my first speaking session 3 years ago. But it’s taken a long time and a lot of embarrassment.
My slide decks are barren. They have become my list of bullet points. They offer only a hint on what I’m currently blabbering about or they display some diagram or example that I’m explaining. Some people have asked me to send them my slides before the session, and I do, but really it’s pointless because the slides have no context now.
This works. The audience doesn’t care about your slides, they’re looking at you. The slides are just there for reference and whenever I feel lost I can quickly glace at the screen as I’m changing slides. I make it look like I’m just making sure the slide actually changed
I have combined the two previous techniques on notes. First I create my list of bullet points; the things I wants to talk about. Then from that list, I create the slides. Then I write out detailed scripts on each point/slide. Up to 10 pages for some topics.
The difference is now I use that script to practice, not a reference during a live session.
No, I don’t like talking to myself and I don’t like hearing myself. Heck, I don’t even sing out loud to my favorite songs. But, they only way (for me at least) to really practice and get it down is speak out loud. This is where the script comes in. I start by reading it quietly to myself to check for any weirdness. Then I read it out loud. After making any changes, I read it out loud again. Then I read it as I’m flipping through my slide deck as if I’m doing a real session. I do this as many times as I need to. Then I’ll glance over it just before a session is going to start. Now I don’t need to do this and when I realize that, it means I’ve prepared enough.
Confidence isn’t affected by stage fright. It’s affected by how well you know your material. The more confident you are, the better you will perform. You’ve already done this (assuming you practiced enough). You know how it turns out so just do it again. The only difference is that some people might be watching you. The audience is attracted to confidence. Even if you’re full of crap, you can BS your way through a tough session by showing confidence. This is how salesman sell crowds.
Be prepared. Don’t wait until the last minute to check if you have a cable. If you have a mac, you should have the correct converter cable. The audience might not have one you can use so don’t bother to ask. Know what your setup will require. This is usually a VGA cable. Have HDMI only? Well I’m sorry but the majority of projectors you’re going to be presenting on will be VGA so go buy an adapter or use an old laptop.
Show up early enough to figure out the lighting. Some places leave you to fend for yourself and it can be tough to figure out the lighting and AV systems.
Practice! This should be obvious, but you really must practice. More than once. If you can do a video of yourself or even an audio recording, you will benefit from it. You can see any weird ticks you have and hear how many times you say “Um” or “Uh”. If you’re confident (practiced enough) then you should be fluid and won’t need to use filler words.
Practicing also help you nail the timing. You only get a certain amount of time. You don’t want to go over and you don’t want to go under. Going over leaves out points that need to be made and the audience feels obligated to stay until you finish which upsets them because they want to go to their next session. Going under feels like a rip-off. They came for the show not the previews.
Address the audience. Ask them questions, get them involved. This helps you loosen up and feel less nervous. I like to start off by asking about their experience with the specific session topic. It makes them feel comfortable with you. This can be hard to do if you’re not confident though. Try a few things and see what works. Be sure to talk to the audience, not just one person. Move around, come out from behind the podium. Stepping away from the podium shows confidence. You shouldn’t need to be there unless you’re doing a demo.
Get some equipment. I highly recommend getting a presentation mouse. It’s a small device that let’s you go back and forth on slides without being at the podium. I believe this has improved my presentations tremendously. I’m not rushing back and forth to the podium to change slides so I am free to roam and talk.
A laser pointer is also a great tool. Sometimes the projector screens are pretty high up and you can’t point out specific things unless you go back to the podium and use the mouse.
Don’t do live code! The audience doesn’t want to see you write code. They want points, content and action. This is a time waster. Especially when you make mistakes and have to figure them out. Don’t copy and paste either. Open the completed project and walk through the code. If you go to fast, it doesn’t matter. You can always send them the code and they can go over it later.
Everyone has their own personality. I’ve seen many great speakers of all different types. Some of them were witty and energetic and others were plain Jane. Be yourself. If you know what you’re talking about and you’ve practiced your material, things will be fine.
Don’t be discouraged when you have a bad session. Sometimes they just don’t work out. Oh well. I’m just now finding my groove and it’s working. But I still have a lot to learn.
I’ve had many flops, regardless of how nice the audience is after, I know I sucked and I fix the things I did wrong so next time will be a little better.