After attending a few different software conferences, I’ve begun to appreciate the skill involved in giving a good public presentation, and just how rare it is to encounter. I’m not claiming to be an expert, the extent of my formal public speaking “training” consists of a half-semester course in college, and I wouldn’t rate my ability as anything beyond “competent enough to present something to the office.” That said, I think we’ve all seen enough bad presentations to have noticed a few things they all have in common. My goal here is to offer some things that I’ve noticed from good presentations in the hopes of encouraging people to start emulating some better habits.
First and foremost: Give. A. $^!+. The fact that enthusiasm and interest are infectious is probably the biggest and most important lesson I learned from the 1 bit of training on public speaking I’ve received, but it’s stayed with me and helped a lot with anything I’ve had to present ever since. If you think whatever you’re talking about is dry and boring, it’s going to make it’s way into how you talk about it, and the rest of the audience is going to realize that it is dry, and boring, and probably lose interest. After all, you can’t be bothered to care about whatever it is you’re talking about, so why should they? In fact, if you can’t be bothered to have an interest in the subject matter, then why are you even talking about it to other people at all? Why not either just give up the topic, or at least let someone who cares take over the presentation part.
Here’s a real-life example of enthusiasm making all the difference. A couple of years ago, I attended AWS’s re:Invent conference. The night before the major keynotes were to start, I happened into a set of pre-conference talks and presentations, basically stuff they wanted to announce but weren’t important enough to warrant time in 1 of the “real” keynotes. At one point they had a head networking engineer (or something like that) get up and start talking about how they wired their data centers and the engineering specifics of some of the undersea cables they’ve had to lay to connect various data centers around the globe. I’m not a hardware guy, so this talk wasn’t really up my alley. But it was completely up the presenter’s alley. Not only was thinking about this stuff this guy’s job, but he loved his job. As a result, I wound really enjoying the talk and following along with everything he was saying, despite the fact that by all rights I should have been bored stupid. That’s the power of genuinely caring about the topic you’re speaking about. If you can’t bring that to a presentation, your best bet is to step aside for someone who can.
Here’s another tip that goes along with actually caring about the topic you’re speaking on – you should know who you’re trying to reach, and why they should be interested in what you have to say. Not every talk is for every body, so the people your talk is for need to be able to identify who they are. Not only that, but they should immediately know why they should care about what you’re saying. If you don’t have a hook that identifies your audience and gives them their own reason to care right off the bat, they’re going to just tune you out. People who know that you’re talking to them and why have a reason to be engaged with your talk. They’re going to pay more attention, and retain more of what you’re trying to tell them, and they’re doing it because they have a reason to care about what you’re saying. Always answer the question “who should care, and why?” when giving a presentation, preferably as early into the talk as possible.
If you’re going to use slides in your talk, and most people do, understand that everyone in your audience can read faster than you can talk. That means you don’t need to read off whatever text you put on the slide. Either mention it in passing, or just skip it altogether since the first instinct your audience is going to have when you put a slide with words on it up is to stop listening to you while they read the aforementioned words being displayed. If all you’re doing is reading the slide to them, they’re going to realize they don’t have to tune back in very quickly. At that point, congratulations, you’ve lost the audience. If you are going to put up text on a slide, do it right after you say it (ideally during some sort of natural pause in the flow of your talk), and keep it limited – never more than a slogan at most. All the text should be doing is reinforcing the 1 little thing you need to make gets stuck in your audience’s heads.
Public speaking is an important, but acquired after a lot of practice, skill. 1 of the downsides to it is that it’s not the easiest skill to acquire. The only way to really get good at giving public presentations is to, well, give public presentations. There’s the Toastmaster’s club, which is great for the actual talking part of public presentations, but I don’t know how well they help with the other stuff, like incorporating slides, videos, or other outside media. Another good tip I can think of is whenever someone from your team has to present something to a group at the office, volunteer to do the presenting. Your audience is likely to be small, and not have high expectations for the quality of the presentation (as opposed to the audience at a major keynote). The benefit with this is that you can likely tap a few other people to give you feedback on how you did so you can improve for the next time.
Public speaking is hard, and it shows. But that difficulty is what makes is a good skill to work on developing. There’s value in being able to ably handle a public presentation, especially once the audience extends outside of immediate co-workers. For starters, there’s not a lot of developers comfortable with presenting their work. Being someone who is means you have a wider skillset, which automatically makes you more valuable to have on any team. Getting confidence with public presentations gives you the option of being the face of your company or project at meetups, conferences, or even just be more confident in speaking up during meetings. Public speaking adds valuable bit of diversity to your skillset. The real value to developing public speaking as a skillset is that it increases your visibility, both inside and outside your company. I recommend taking the chance to practice whenever the opportunity presents itself, I think you’d be surprised at the fringe benefits it opens up.