This week the Calgary Code Camp is coming up where I'm giving two sessons on XNA Development (XBox 360 debugging from a laptop baby!) and I've been reflecting on my own presentation skills for the past while. As it is with being a busy-body, I've been heads-down building projects so my conference attendance has been down. The last conference I spoke at was DevConnections in Vegas back in November and with personal and professional commitments, I'm not looking to speak until next year at DevConnections again (sans the odd gig here and there like the Code Camp and various user group presentations or webcasts). This has given me some time to look at my presentation skills and ask "Do I really have what it takes?".
I’ve only been presenting at code camps, TechEd, DevConnections and user groups for a couple of years now and I feel that I get pretty good scores. 80% of them are in the 7-8 range with a few (10-15%) being a 9 or 10 and some (5-10%) being a 3-4. I consider this pretty good but not great. Certainly not anywhere near a Kimberly Tripp, a Dino Esposito, or a Scott Guthrie. Is there a way for mere mortals to evolve from mediocre to great? My main goal here is that I feel that if someone pays top dollar for a conference, I really want to give them as much bang for their buck when they're taking time out of their schedule to sit down and wallow through what I have to say. It's only fair.
Getting to the subject line of this post. Kimberly Tripp is IMHO by far the best presenter I've seen. Ever. She even tops people like Scott Guthrie, Scott Hanselman and others (sorry guys), all of which I have the utmost respect and admiration for. The question I've been mulling over in my noodle is how does one become a Kimberly Tripp? No, not how do I look good in a dress and pumps, but how does one get to become a speaker who consistently gets flawless scores and really gives you, the community, the value-add that you pay for at a conference? What is the secret?
I did a bit of a poll from various speakers I know of to get their opinions on what it was to reach that upper echelon of the presentation platform. The answers I got were pretty on-par with what I've been thinking of so no surprise there. In short there's no cookbook here and no magic pill you can take and as Richard Campbell said, "it's a complicated subject".
One thing that I want to mention here is that the very best speakers out there are making a living as a speaker. I have my day job and I speak as often as I can, but that equates to a few conferences a year at best. The top dogs out there are doing 60 shows a year with 4-8 talks per show. This has two effects: one is that they're extremely well practiced in their art and the other is that they're familiar to their audience. Thanks to Richard Campbell for pointing this out to me.
Here are some tidbits I picked from speakers and combined with my own cup of reason here's some ideas on how to hopefully improve your presentation skills.
- Spend time on your presentations. Rushing at the last minute is the last thing you should do as with Murphy's law, anything that will go wrong does. Screwing around rebuilding VMs (it happens sometimes) is not something you want to be doing hours before you're about to go on with your audience. I think it's okay to tweak things (see below on the difference between your presenation and the show notes) but complete overhauls or doing things on the fly is a no-no.
- Follow your own rules. Julie Lerman has some safety nets and rules that she follows (as do I) like "thou shalt not code in public in a language that though dost not dream in". I think this is pretty key as you have to know your stuff inside and out in order to really be there for someone when they need an answer (or at least know where to look). Learn it inside and out and look at questions posted by the audience as areas that are things they're interested in. After all, we're here for presenting and sharing knowledge that is important to you, not the other way around.
- Have passion for what you do. Passion and knowledge go hand-in-hand with presenting. If you're not passionate about your subject then you won't emit that to your peeps. On new topics I spend a few days before my presentations just getting deep into something not only to grok the topic but to really find the elegance (and ugliness) of something buried deep in the subject. This really helps me get excited about new topics and hopefully that shows in my work.
- Watch everyone and build your own style. A disadvantage to being an MVP is that we're generally ahead of the curve when it comes to technology. At the last PDC I was rather bored as everything there was old news to me. At TechEd it was the same. However I try to get into see other people present, not for the content but the style and techniques that they emit. Learning from the best is the best way to learn, and you can't get that from a book. So if you're planning on getting into the speaking world spend some time watching the top dogs and seeing what makes their sessions that much better. What do you like about it? Then take it home, twist it and make it your own.
- Give yourself time and use a little patience. I cook from time to time and it's never a good thing to just toss something in the pan and fry it on high heat (sometimes, but not always). Many times you cook it on medium heat, stirring it and letting the flavor seep in to add to the taste. Presenting is like that so give it time. The more you do it, the better you should get and you'll learn from your own mistakes, tweak a few things, and then come out next time with something even better.
- Learn, learn, and then learn some more. If you speak at TechEd then you have access to the speaker coaching provided by Microsoft. Rocky Lhotka highly recommends taking advantage of this resource as these guys know all the tips and tricks and have the experience. I'm definitely going to see if I can do this next time round as it sounds like a great resource to tap into.
- Take advantage of opportunity that presents itself, and make the opportunity happen if it doesn't. I've only been publicly speaking for a few years (and it shows) but others have been out there forever. Get involved with groups like Toastmasters (and similar groups) and look for opportunities to speak. Even if it's standing up in your own development group or department and talking about a cool new technology you see benefit from, it's a way to dust out those cobwebs and get the nervous bug out of your system. The more you do it, the more comfortable you'll feel.
I wanted to mention one thing about doing last minute changes. I'm one of the worst people for that and usually update my presentations right up to the last day. Julie Lerman had a tip about this in a blog entry:
With most conferences,speakers need to submit their powerpoints way in advance of the conferences. Attendees are provided with books filled with the printouts of the decks so that they can take notes during the conference. It is not uncommon with a new talk to fine tune it between that early preparation and the actual time you your presentation.
Though this has only happened once, it struck me (and stuck in my brain) when an attendee wrote on an eval that it was a pain that the slides in my talk were different than the book.
So this time around, rather than hoping that I'm going to remember in the middle of a talk and say "oh, I changed this slide a little (for your benefit)" I am just putting tiny little notes on the bottom of modified slides: "This slide is slightly modified from the original printed version".
I found a follow-up by Billy Hollis on this (who is an additionally awesome speaker) that was a great tip:
I solved this one long ago. Any text that's changed from the printed version I format with light green color. And I tell the audience that anything they see in light green is new or changed. With that visual cue, they don't seem to mind minor changes at all. What's confusing is knowing there is some change, but not being sure exactly how much.
Hope these tips and ideas get something sparked for you and hope to see you out there speaking some day!
P.S. Julie Lerman has a category on her blog here with lots of tips and her presentations mixed in. It's a good resource and a great read so check it out!