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Getting Started with Technical Presentations

I was talking with a gentleman last night after the Greater Charleston .NET User Group about career development. He's not currently a DBA, but that's what he wants to go in his career. Since DBA work isn't his day-to-day job, he asked for ideas about how to keep his skills current and advance his learning. Both I and Lou Vega (a Device Application Development MVP), aka BrainThump (@BrainThump on Twitter), suggested working on and delivering presentations as one of the avenues to do so. But getting started with presentations can be a bit frightening. Here's how to make it easier.

Pick Something You Are Passionate About

It's significantly easier to present on something you are passionate about than it is to present on something you are not. If you really love some aspect of the technology you're working with, that's a great candidate. Or if you are learning about something and want to go deeper, this is something else that might make for a good presentation. In the first case, think about what that technology does and why you love it. Build your presentation around those things. In the latter case, take notes as you hit difficulties and as you have those "Aha!" moments. Personal experience goes a long way in presentations. It shows that you care about what you're talking about, that you've actually used it, and your experiences may help others avoid issues you encountered and improve the overall learning curve for those who hear your talk.

Start Small

I've seen a growing trend in usergroups to allow for a short presentation before the main one. If you're not used to giving presentations, that's a good place to start. 10-15 minutes goes by really fast and you don't have to build what may seem like a monolithic presentation to get some practice in. If you're in a user group that doesn't do this, suggest it the leadership of that group.

Build an Outline

Before you start building slides and writing code, build an outline. The outline will help you organize your thoughts, will show you if there is a logical flow from one subject to another, and will likely give you a roadmap on how to build your demos, if you have any. Even if it's only a small presentation, you still want an outline.

Research Your Topic

Even if you know your stuff on the topic, still go and do some research. Is there anything new or noteworthy being discussed? Is a major player using the technology? If you can work these types of facts into your presentation, you'll likely be providing information others didn't know, and that's valuable. Also, it will give you a new appreciation for the topic, and that will help you give the presentation.

Get the Right Equipment

If you're going to become an active presenter, at the very least you're going to need a laptop to present with. If you're just looking to do one or two speaking engagements, and it's a slide talk (no code), then it may be okay to send the slidedeck on to the organizer(s) that'll run off someone else's gear. But having your own laptop, even in these situations, is really the way you want to go. It'll be important for the next tip.

If you are going to do a lot of presentations, make sure your laptop can handle the applications you're going to use. Quite a few regular presenters build virtual machines which they use for their presentations. That's typically a good idea, but it's not absolutely required (for instance, I don't, but I do have one available if all else fails). If you're going that route, make sure your laptop can handle doing the presentation and giving the hardware needed to the VM for a smooth running presentation.

Another thing to consider is either a wireless mouse built for presenting or a presenting device. Being tied to a mouse wired to your laptop limits your ability to move around and be a bit more natural in your delivery. I have a nice presenting device which allows me to cycle quickly between the slides and even have mouse functionality if I need it. But a basic wireless mouse will do if you that's all you have.

Practice By Yourself

You've got your topic, your outline, you've done your research, and you've built your slides and code samples. The next thing to do is to practice. The first step is to practice on your own. If you've got a video camera where you can record yourself, even better. The point here is to work out the kinks in the presentation that often get forgotten about. Things like switching between PowerPoint and your application, making sure the right project/files are loaded, that you've done the steps to prepare your environment, and that you know what to do to clean up afterwards so you can be "reset" for the next presentation. Run through your presentation a few times. If you've been able to record yourself, watch over your presentation carefully and take notes. Look for space filler words ("Ah," "Um", etc.). Look for areas where the presentation didn't go smoothly because of a technical issue (like switching between the slides and the application). And look for repeated bad habits. As you practice, seek to eliminate those issues. Check your timing. If you're going long, see if it's because of a technical issue. If it's not, consider how to pare down your talk. If you're running short, do you have enough material? Or is it because you're getting nervous and speaking faster?

Consider Groups That Are All About Speaking

If you find yourself struggling, consider joining a group or organization like Toastmasters. Those groups are all about developing the ability to speak better in front of people. These groups tend to be supportive in nature and you should feel that both as you speak and as you hear others speak. The types of speeches you'll give won't likely be technical in nature, but they will develop you as a speaker. For instance, the first speech you give in Toastmasters is an ice breaker, where you talk briefly about yourself. It's there to get you started. The next speech works making sure you have structure to your talk: a definite beginning, middle, and ending. You get the idea. Even if you feel comfortable speaking, still consider these types of groups. There's always more to learn with regards to the craft of public speaking.

Get Feedback from People You Trust

Once you've practiced a few times on your own, gather a few folks you trust to give you honest feedback. Run through the presentation once, let them critique while you take notes. Try to make improvements and gather them again to see if you did better. Because you're presenting to an audience, you may have a tendency either to speed up or to slow way down, so watch your time. Ask them to note if you are doing either of those things.

Find the Right Audience

The perfect place to start is with your local user group. If there's not one near you, look to see if there's one in a nearby town. Attend at least a few times before presenting if you're not doing regular presentations. This will mean you get to know the folks there and they will get to know you. It'll also give you an idea of the types of questions they might ask or what you may need to do to tweak your presentation to hit a chord with your audience. As you get better at presentations, look for other opportunities in other groups and possibly at conferences.

Take a Deep Breath and...

Go for it! You may make mistakes. You may get nervous. You may have some difficulties with the slides and the demos. That's all part of the learning process. Don't let the potential for an issue dissuade you from giving your presentation. And certainly don't let issues during a presentation stop you from giving more. You'll get better. You'll work out the issues. And you'll feel more comfortable each and every time you get up to speak. Don't get me wrong. You'll likely always feel nervous. I do. And everyone else I know who presents a lot do as well. Nervousness is a natural reaction, but you can overcome it!




K. Brian Kelley - Databases, Infrastructure, and Security

IT Security, MySQL, Perl, SQL Server, and Windows technologies.


Posted by Steve Jones on 18 April 2009

Excellent advice. I'd also add going to see some presentations and paying attention to what you like and don't like about the delivery. See what works well, and doesn't for other presenters.

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