Tuesday, 30 November 2010

My thoughts on presenting

When it comes to presenting on Oracle topics, I am by no means a professional, nor would I consider myself an experienced presenter like Penny Cookson or Connor McDonald - in fact the delivery he mustered at this year's conference was outstanding.

I currently have seven presentations under my belt with 13 deliveries. I've experimented with a few different styles in an attempt to find what works best for me.

That being said, I'd like to offer a few words & discoveries to those newer at this to me, or even those considering submitting a presentation for your local event, without sounding like this.

#1 - nobody wants you to fail

Given the feedback and support I received as a new presenter, I immediately got the feeling that people wanted me to succeed.
As an attendee to many a presentation at conferences, branch meetings and other events - I'm sure I share the feeling amongst others that you will the person behind the lectern to succeed regardless of troubles faced.
As a volunteer at AUSOUG conferences, I've overheard conversations and witnessed feedback provided even when a demonstration blue screens at the critical moment - people are on your side.

We are all human, we want our fellow species to succeed in that position that many fear over death.

#2 - write a presentation

It sounds a little silly, but keep an eye out for an idea then start writing one. Do it from the top down - get yourself three main objectives, an agenda, a list of issues to cover, some slide headings... it flows. You don't have to commit yourself to a particular date - although that does help some people. However, once you have one in the bag, more ideas come from a variety of sources.
After years of looking procrastinating, now I've always got a handful of topic ideas that I'd love the time to investigate and write. If you're struggling to think of anything, look through past conference programs or have a look here - Tom Kyte started a discussion on it.
Stick with topics that interest you, because ultimately you will know these topics very well and that knowledge will enhance your career, either through product knowledge for your job or prospective clients witnessing your skills. Once again, I think Seth pretty much nails it.

Once you have it in the back of your mind, it's amazing where topic ideas come from.

#3 - be prepared

I'm not sure I can emphasize enough the importance of this one. I think Connor did the same when he was providing advice before my first session. I said above that people are ultimately there for the content - and if that isn't up to scratch, what do you have left? Your charm and charisma? We does that get car salesmen?

So what does it mean to be prepared? Ultimately, I think it means you must know your content. You must be able to rationalise a question and construct a response based on your understanding of the fundamentals, not just regurgitate a crammed fact. We all learnt from this mistake in high school. Sometimes with bleeding edge content you won't know information, or if the question borders the scope of your presentation. Then you just need the confidence to say "I don't know", then carry on further to say it would be good to investigate, or offer a way to potentially test the issue. That comes from understanding.

Preparation should also relate to any demonstrations you may have. Rule 1 - always have representations of your demo in slide form, you never know what's going to happen on the day. If you repeat the presentation one day, it will also be a nice reminder of how things were meant to happen. You can also use it to post your presentation on the net.

It's also a good idea to ensure your demonstrations are repeatable. Just like your polished production-level scripts, it's a good idea to have a test case that will clean itself up and be able to execute it more than once. People may like to see that example shown again. You don't want flaky demonstrations because it's difficult to think on the fly if something goes wrong.

Have a trial run at home. Present your slides to your wall/pet/partner/colleague - whatever works. Do it in front of a mirror to see your mannerisms and see if you move too much. Make sure you're speaking fluently, know what words you want to use. Make sure the slides flow and make sense together. Be consistent and make most of the clicking change the actual slides and limit internal events, you may forget they exist.

Connor gave me a rule of thumb and suggested you know the content of the next 2-3 slides. I noticed in Chris Muir's recent effort he had little grey text in the bottom corner to prompt what the next slide was about.

At the end of the day, the audience will know the difference between someone who has put the effort in and understands their content vs a fraud who is stumbling their way over plagiarised content.

#4 - simplify content

What do you want to see in a presentation? Nitty gritty detail that will one day serve as a reference item, or a bunch of ideas that you can use to add to your own repository of creativity?

I have been trying to limit the amount of code in my developer-based presentations. Nobody coming out of the seminar will remember code detail, but they'll remember the key ideas or words that they can look up during their own research that they will have to do regardless so they can apply it to their scenario.

My latest presentation was a bunch of simple concepts with perhaps the odd coding example that provides a starting point to a solution. It would be difficult to create and convey a bunch of case studies to attendees if you're trying to offer a decent amount of information without causing confusion.

Limit ideas/concepts per slide.

#5 - beware scope creep

After a while I noticed that 40 minutes to get your presentation out turns out to be a short amount of time. When I was in school I would think that even 20 minutes for a report felt like an eternity. I now need to ensure I stay focused on certain goals and not introduce too much semi-relevant information.

Phil Winstanley concisely covers some key tips in his 24 slides on good presenting. Slide 18 on structuring your presentation shows what I agree is key to avoiding scope creep.

- Key message
- Define the problem
- Benefits of solving the problem
- Proposed solution
- Reinforce key message
- Conclude and close

Information can be quite evenly shared over these points as well - it doesn't need to be all about the proposed solution. Everyone also needs to understand how to identify the problem and what the benefits would be if we tackled it.

Having a key message at the start helps put everything into perspective. Provide the big picture before attempting to describe the detail. Think about how you may wish this information presented to yourself. Sometimes it makes me feel better knowing that I've given the audience key objectives to keep pondering.

Think different. Your key message doesn't need to be displayed as an agenda slide.

#6 - get a hand-held presenter

This is the one I have, but companies like Logitech are always releasing snazzy new ones. Having a presenter will give you the flexibility to walk away from your laptop (or other device that does the job these days). I think the presenting style demonstrated by Dick Hardt was damaged by being chained to the laptop.
Beyond the obvious advantage of having a laser pointer, these devices allow you to step forward & back through the slides when you are ready. Mine also has a setting that allows me to set a timer, and it will vibrate five minutes before the end - a good cue for winding up.
Just limit the movement of the laser dot - just imagine what your pet would do with it zipping around the screen everywhere!

Having freedom to walk away from the laptop may help settle your nerves.

#7 - identify 2-4 people around the room to alternate your attention

I find that if my eyes focus on just a handful of people as I speak and wander about, I limit the amount of distractions I face and stop myself from getting dizzy. I also find these people a gauge on how the talk is going - whether I need to up the pace or concentrate on certain slides.
Don't make it a hard & fast rule that it will always be people sitting in the four corners - you won't always have people sitting in these locations and you kinda want to avoid the habitual sleeper. I also tend to avoid those of a particular authority as they can add undesired & unwarranted pressure.
I also don't agree with trying to imagine people naked - I'm sure that's just an old wive's tale. I prefer to think I'm just talking amongst friends.

This will ultimately limit your movements and allow people to focus more on what you have to show & say.

#8 - body language

Your body speaks a thousand words. It is often said that if aliens came to observe us, they would think the majority of our communication is non-auditory. I think this site explains my thoughts well. I let my enthusiasm for my topic (as nerdy as some people say it makes me) steer the ship when it comes to my movements, and that also seems to assist audience enjoyment and satisfaction - if I'm coming across happy, it's hard to ignore that contagion. Trouble is, with that I always forget to pause - I'm still learning the best time to throw pauses in. I've seen good presenters do it at the perfect moments, I'm still working on that skill.

Speak with the confidence that you believe what you're saying.

#9 - they are there for the content

At the end of the day, if your slides aren't projecting well; if you have an accent foreign to the majority; or your demo just isn't playing ball - people want quality verbal/visual content. If at least one of these succeeds, you've probably made your mark.

The rest will probably come with practice and experience.


No doubt over the months & years these thoughts will change and evolve into something else, but it's where I stand right now.

At the end of the day one may ask, why present? For starters, as an example, it helped provide me the opportunity to work for Penny in a job that suits me perfectly. You never know the opportunities it might present. You also gain thorough knowledge of your chosen topic - a skill that won't go astray in your day-to-day job. So there's two-three good examples straight off the bat.

I hope I've provided at least something to think about, so you can go away an adapt to your own style and scenario. No doubt some of the suggestions here may not fit the type of information you need to get across. For me they've worked for semi-technical Oracle developer information.

I'll leave this with another site I might start sinking my teeth into:



David Mann said...

Great info. I am presenting at my first regional OUG in exactly 60 days. Your suggestions will help me focus my efforts. Looking forward to checking out some of the resources you linked to as well.

Glad to hear you don't focus on code. I tend to digest tutorials at my own pace so was thinking of doing the same thing, maybe showing some key constructs during my demos but concentrating more on concepts and result... Then pointing the audience to a couple of full tutorials online so they can 'follow along at home".

Scott Wesley said...

Good luck with the first gig - they're all easier and better from there!

I'm two days away from another, but I haven't done it in a while - I forgot one of the jokes - but I did like the amount of code I didn't put in.