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public speaking: facing the sea of laptops

Public speaking is a strange experience if you haven’t practiced it much. You might be really excited to share some new knowledge you’ve gained, but you also might be extremely nervous and self-conscious. I want to share some opinions about public speaking, why I think it’s enjoyable, and how you can find enjoyment in doing it too.

why present at all?

What makes a technical presentation valuable? In simple terms, a technical presentation is only valuable if your audience can gain something from it that they can’t get from somewhere else. If your talk has little or nothing to add to what can be found online, you might as well not give a talk at all. To give a great presentation, you have to create an experience for the audience that can’t be had through any other medium. When someone chooses to come watch you talk for an hour, there is an expectation that you will treat their time as valuable. If 100 people are giving you an hour of their time, they are trusting you to provide some kind of value that no one else can give them.

How can you provide that extra value you ask? Let me share with you.

throwing the slides away

Remember, when you give a talk in front of an audience, the primary purpose is to talk, not to fumble with slides. No one will be impressed by your Powerpoint or Keynote skills. Your audience wants to hear from you, not your slides. Your presentation is not about what gets projected on the screen. The slides you put up should only serve as a simple visual aid to keep your audience tracking with your speech.

It helps to ask yourself, “If my slides didn’t work, and I had to give this presentation without my slides at all, would it still be worth it to my audience?” Projectors will have problems. Display resolutions will be off, bulbs will burn out, or you’ll forget your display dongle. This is how presentations go in the real world. Be ready to face the fact that your slides won’t work at all.

To give a talk without your slides means you’re going to be more exposed than you might be comfortable with. You’re going to have to leave the safety of the podium and actually walk out and present yourself to us in full. This is scary. It’s easy to stay behind the podium and dutifully click through your slides. It’s the safe thing to do, it’s expected, and it’s why a lot of people follow the pattern. It’s risky to put yourself out in front of your audience so forcefully. Your brain will tell you that people will laugh at you, that you might look stupid. Pushing past this fear and making your speech, style and presentation animated is the only way to succeed.

Remember, your audience wants to see you succeed. They want you to do well. They want you to be entertaining and funny and interesting. People are uncomfortable watching a presenter when the presenter is also uncomfortable. Conversely, when a presenter is relaxed, and enjoying themselves and engaging with the audience, the audience will return the favor.

telling a story with your content

I also want to talk about presentation content. For your presentation to be interesting, you have to put some of your personal story into it. Which talk sounds more appealing to you?

Coffeescript Basics, Syntax and Fundamentals

or

Coffescript: How MyCompany Switched, Cut Our Development Time in Half, and Doubled Our Happiness

The first talk sounds like it’s going to be something I can find on the Github README page. The second talk sounds like something that has the presenters personal story in it. I would bet the second talk is also going to cover some strategies of how they switched to Coffeescript, and maybe some snags they hit along the way. To a geek, who’s focused on technical problems (and trying to figure out if switching to Coffeescript will work for them) this sounds like a much more fulfilling talk. If the technical detail was all we needed, we wouldn’t need conferences or presentations at all - we’d just get everything online.

You have to tell your story. Your audience wants to hear from you. The most interesting thing you can say is not what a technology does, but how it applies to you and your audience. How did you use it to make your life better? What were the problems you faced along the way? Be honest, be open. No one wants to only hear about your awesome success, they want to hear problems you had along the way, and how you overcame them. This is why we have presentations, to tell personal stories. Explain concepts you had trouble with. Make the subject matter you’re trying to share personal and applicable to as many people as you can.

slow it down, enjoy

When you’re nervous, there’s a tendency to want it all to be over as fast as possible. Don’t give in to this tendency. Don’t pass up the opportunity to share something compelling with your audience. You’ve been given a unique chance to give something deep and meaningful. Have fun up there. If you remember nothing else, remember that speaking is a joy if you go slowly and speak from your heart. Getting people to look up from their laptops is hard; those glowing screens are quite enticing. In the end, if you can give your audience knowledge, connection, fun, and some good laughs, you win.

I want to thank to Noel, for reminding me about what it takes to give a good presentation.



about the author

Blake Smith is a Principal Software Engineer and leads the Infrastructure group at at Sprout Social.

Blake Smith

create. code. learn.