Having worked in software development for nearly 20 years, I’ve had a number of opportunities to speak in public (local user groups, conferences, webinars, sales engagements). The last 3 years I have worked exclusively as a solutions engineer, meaning that part of my responsibilities at work, is to actively speak to others about technology.
I decided to put together some notes I had about things I’ve learned over the years, that I feel may be useful to others looking to pursue a similar career path, or just to become more comfortable and relaxed in a public speaking environment. I tried to organize this list in a an easily digestible format, so anyone who wanted to, could reference it quickly/easily.
More than anything: Plan ahead.
Just like any sport, the preparation that happens in advance is what improves ‘game day’ performance. Think ahead as to who your audience will be (developers, decision makers, marketers, etc) and try to plan your presentation for that audience. As you prepare, think of what you want the audience to walk away with, how you improved their lives. We live in the attention economy, so always try to think of how you will provide value to anyone who took time out of their day to view your presentation.
If you have a fear of public speaking, planning ahead will really help relax you. Really accomplished public speakers in our industry (Troy Hunt, Scott Hanselman) all will record themselves and rehearse their presentations in advance. You will feel more natural and more relaxed knowing you have computed the length of your presentation to your speaking time, and you’ve gone over how you will present the information. Doing this will allow you to make more eye contact with your audience, not depend on a script, and more generally be yourself.
If you still are nervous about public speaking, my final piece of advice would be this: it is immediately obvious when viewing a presentation those who prepared well in advance, and those who did not, and I’ve *never* (and I believe this goes for everyone), been frustrated with a speaker who I could tell put a lot of effort into preparing for their presentation no matter how positively or negatively it goes the day of the presentation.
Demo tools and strategies
A few suggestions on tools I use for my demos:
- An inexpensive presentation remote can allow you to walk more comfortably while you present. I do not recommend using the ‘laser pointer’ feature, but to slide advance, it is great.
- Learn the zoom and magnifier settings for your environment + IDE. You will present to various room sizes, and ensuring the code looks just as good in the back as the front is very important. I lost count how many times a presenter tried to figure this out ‘on the fly’ during a presentation.
- Setup a different browser profile user for your demos. This will clear any clutter away from your favorites, history, and so on. You can also remain logged into demo accounts, and generally simulate a user environment just for your demos.
- Clean off all of your desktop icons and clutter from your environment. Ensuring the audience is focused on your demo, and not your folder of hilarious reddit images will help you and the audience.
- Having a tool like ApowerMirror or Reflector setup (and tested ahead of time) will help ensure you can show any functionality that is needed on a mobile device.
- Become familiar with your ‘do not disturb’ settings on your laptop and/or phone. Nothing will throw off your rhythm more than a toast notification for something you didn’t intend for everyone to see.
- If you speak a ton, consider getting a tethering option from your cellphone provider that you can have handy as a backup should the hotel/conference/business wifi be unreliable.
- For software centric demos, it is easy to descend into “death by powerpoint”. Part of a well-prepared presentation is the ability to step through the actual software, and actually show people what you are trying to demonstrate. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an actual hands-on demo is worth ten thousand.
- Whatever software you are showing, be sure that you have tested and verified a good sample set of data has been loaded, preferably catered to your audience. It’s actually quite respectful to the dev team who built the software you are showing if you ensure the features they spent so much time building are coming through correctly to your audience.
Game day strategies
Once the big day arrives, here are some additional suggestions that work well for me:
- Get a good night sleep. It’s amazing what a good night of rest can do.
- The morning of, try to get some moderate intensity exercise. Exercise has shown in studies, and for me personally especially, to be a great stress reliever.
- Have a recorded video on your desktop software of whatever features you are going to show. I’ve been burned more than a few times by bad wifi, or a broken demo, to not have a backup on-hand that I can show and talk through. This will help relieve your stress as well.
- Download a clock/timer app on phone that stays ‘always on’ and keep it on the podium you are presenting. Have a mental checklist on where you should be in your demo at 10 mins, 15 mins, 30 mins, etc. Use it to help you with the pacing of your presentation.
- Turn off all notifications and even disconnect your device from the network (if you are able to).
- Relax. If you took all the steps to prepare, you should be able to be much more calm, and even enjoy yourself.
- Celebrate. After your presentation, do something you would find personally enjoyable (go out for lunch, have a glass of wine at dinner, etc) and celebrate your growth as a presenter.
- Gather feedback. Maybe not the same day as your presentation, but try to rewatch your presentation (if it was recorded), solicit feedback from your co-workers or peers, and keep some notes on things you want to try to improve for your next presentation.
- You will gain confidence and comfort the more you present. Start small, at a local user group (usually they have ‘lightning talks’, which can be 10-15 mins on any topic). Progress to a full speaking session, then maybe at a regional conference, and take opportunities to speak when offered at work in front of your co-workers.
- When you work on a presentation, consider how you will re-use that presentation many times in the future. Most popular speaking sessions have been delivered multiple times at multiple conferences. Pick a topic you enjoy, and continue to refine it, like a comedian would their act.
- Take notes about what you like about other presenters, and keep those in a notebook of some kind. Try to work those elements into your own presentations, but be sure to remain authentic, there is only one you.
- All of the general rules of well-being: meditation, exercise, diet, and sleep will help you improve your public speaking. Focus on taking good care of yourself, and you will have more energy for your audience.
- Even if you don’t feel like public speaking is for you, know that it is a useful career skill, and you will always have to speak in front of others, even if it is a very small group.