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Getting started with public speaking - the "soft" skills

In my previous post, we looked the what you need to be aware from the technology/hardware perspective in relation to public speaking. As per the Boy Scout's motto, you need to "Be Prepared" so hopefully you can use that post as a handy reference for when you need to deliver a talk. In this second post in the series, I'll focus on what you need to do as a speaker to improve your skills and enhance your chances of getting your submissions accepted. In the end, it's all about having fun while you share your passion and knowledge. However, in order to get there you need to put some effort.

As I mentioned in my previous post, there are only very few talented natural born orators that can inspire and leave a lasting impression with audiences with little or no difficulty. And although this would be true for general talks, technical talks require extra effort and additional preparation (with all the demos and what have you), even for the fortunate few. In order to get comfortable with your public speaking and have people enjoy your talks, you need to work towards certain skills. You may be awesome already, so feel free to skip this section, but we all have to start somewhere. My first few talks were OK (In retrospect, I'd say subpar if I'm honest with myself) and I'm sure my audiences were kind enough to "tolerate" me. But I've seen what talented and thoroughly prepared speakers can achieve so my goal is to continually improve. This post includes many of the tactics I follow so I hope you'll find them equally useful. If not, feel free to let me know because feedback is always welcome!

Practice makes perfect

Many successful and established speakers say the same thing. You need to practice your talks and you need to put the time to make sure you're adequately prepared. Although there's no absolute metric, we're talking about lots hours! Some even go as far to say that it should be 1hr of preparation for each minute you have to speak. I personally don't come close to this but I still put a lot of hours and effort in each talk I deliver. What kind of preparation, you may ask? There are many aspects to a technical talk including the research, the demos, the software download and updates, the slides, the practice, the content etc. As you start to deliver more talks you get to know yourself better and what level of preparation and practice gets you to the point that you can feel comfortable and confident with your slides, demos and content of your talk. Getting the timing right, staying within your allocated session time and making sure that the demos work no matter what failures are thrown at you require practice and preparation. In part 1 we examined how we can prepare for all hardware and environmental failures. Practicing your failback/DR plan and ensuring that this can be done with minimal disruption both to your flow and the audience's attention is an art and something that will come with experience.

Welcome to Toastmasters

One of the best ways to get some training on public speaking without paying a fortune is through Toastmasters. They provide an amazing set of tools, resources and the necessary support to help you get off the ground and to overcome your various shortcomings. I'm not a native English speaker so I have the added issue of "language pre-process", a kind of middleware, if you will, that is ever-present in both my verbal and written communication. Written communication is easier to work with because it provides plenty of time to review the text and fix as necessary. I can use a dictionary, the web and various editing tools to help me write better. But verbal communication is about body language, confidence and, finally, content. Add fact that you only have one chance to get it right and that first impressions count, you can see how getting it right is very important.

To be able to confidently get up in front of a group of people and deliver successfully takes effort and practice. Toastmasters is the ideal place because it provides this friendly, helpful environment to practice your craft and get immediate, honest and constructive feedback to help you improve. It's an iterative process but as long you're aware of what needs fixing and you pay attention you should experience improvements in a short period of time. The skills acquired through Toastmaster are not just for public talks. They give you the foundation to improve your daily interactions and conversations with your friends and family and become more wholesome professionally by being able to communicate with precision, confidence and authority. Additionally, because Toastmasters can't be used for technical talks, you get to come out of your comfort zone which can be great for building your confidence further. I can't praise Toastmasters enough and I would highly recommend you give them a go. Find a local Toastmasters club here.

Practice on your dog/furniture/spouse or kids

Once you get one of your talks accepted, you need to start planning. The sooner you do this the better. Believe, me! I had some "fun" long evenings and nights, spilling into the early hours of the morning because I left things till the last minute. Even if your session is a few months away you need to decide how to take your abstract and translate into a talk long enough to fill your slot. You need to understand what the "juicy" bits are and how are you going to present them in an exciting and interesting way. Your planning should also take into consideration the demos necessary to complement your talk, if demos are applicable. There are lots of sources online that explain how you should prepare and write a talk and this is probably outside the scope of this post. However, I would be more than happy to talk about my approach so if you're interested let me know in the comments below. The focus of this section is to amplify the importance of practice. You need to ensure that you practice your talk many times both in your head and out loud. The first one helps you get comfortable with the task at hand and your material. The second one ensures that you can run through your deckware™ and demos in the allocated time without feeling that you're on a race. The goal of practice is to help you project confidence as you speak without making you sound over-rehearsed. It sounds easy but the truth is that, based on personal experience, I avoid over-rehearsing to avoid the "robot" mode. And while this stands true for your talk, you need to apply the opposite logic to your demos (see subsequent section). Due to the fact that I travel a lot, I don't have the luxury to rehearse in front of other people so I use the mirror. It's a cringeworthy experience, believe me, but one totally worth it! You need to try to put yourself in "speaking" mode while you or your "torture" subjects observe you. Assuming you know your content, you're looking for the hints about your body posture, gestures, smile etc. Remember that the verbal part of the communication with your audience is only a small percentage of the overall experience. I will refer you back to Toastmaster who should help you iron out any problems with both verbal and non-verbal communication. However, practice will help you become better!

User groups and Conferences

Being accepted to talk at conferences, especially as a newcomer can be challenging. This is because larger conferences have some expectations in terms of delivery skills, quality material and experience dealing with larger audiences. My first "big" break was at DevWeek 2015 and the pressure was much higher. It was also a 90-min talk which made things much harder so early on in my speaking "career". Needless to say that my .NET Core demo on a Mac failed miserably and I failed to recover gracefully. It left a bitter taste but I learned my lesson! Where does this leave you? Start small. User groups are the perfect environment to "sharpen the saw" and put into practice what you've learned. I always treat user group talks as a full blown conference talk even though the environment is much friendlier and a lot more forgiving. These are free events and run very frequently so there's a good chance you could schedule something in even at a short notice. If you can't get a full slot, ask to do a lightning talk. I'd be hard pressed to find a user group organiser saying no. You also need to make sure you ask for feedback in the end. You could be totally open and ask for feedback up front and get it on the spot or be a bit more diplomatic and ask the organisers to gather feedback on your behalf. I've used both approaches. Once you've delivered a few talks and you feel more comfortable standing in front of an audience, you could work your way up and submit to larger conferences. Unlike user groups that tend to be more informal, conferences have a formal process where you're usually asked to deliver an abstract or multiple ones with the subjects you want to talk about. Getting the abstract right is a challenge and I'll be happy to cover this on subsequent post. Conference organisers may ask for previous talks so having some experience with user groups and even recordings could help in getting your talk accepted.

Working with demos and code

There's nothing harder than talking over demos. If multitasking was ever needed it's here. Yes, I know, multitasking is a myth. But unfortunately, in this instance the myth is busted. Doing code demos or product demos is the hardest bit, even when things go perfectly well and according to plan. For this section, we'll assume that you have to do some technical code demos. The language doesn't matter. What matters is getting a process that works for you and allows you to showcase the value proposition of your talk. There's nothing more powerful than demo'ing a feature you just talked about in the previous slide. B

Know your audience -> although demos can be very impactful, you need to ensure that you have the right audience in front of you. If you're addressing non-technical (i.e. PMs, C-type execs etc) then going 400-level with the demos and running a gazillion scripts from the command line will alienate your audience. Therefore, you need to scope your talk with the conference/meetup organisers prior to your session. If you need to do demos to less technical people, you could focus on high-level, GUI-based (an established IDE) may help "drive the message home" without losing everyone in the process. BTW, by IDE I don't Vim or Emacs #troll. Imagine if you had to talk about Docker and Containers to 2 different audiences:
- Developers would like to know how to create containers using the CLI or GUI tools once they go through the first few slides introducing the subject - Managers, PMs, C-type execs would be focused on the value proposition, benefits, costs, learning curves etc. Demos from the CLI would be unrelatable and may have an adverse effect by showing unnecessary complexities etc

Find the right balance -> regardless of the audience, please avoid killing people with PowerPoint! The tricky bit is finding the right balance between your slides and demos. I would say that a 60/40 or 50/50 split is ideal (for heavy technical talks). You also want to ensure that you jump into some demos fairly early on into your talk. Don't leave them till the end, as by then you may have alienated most of your technical audience. Intersperse your demos throughout your talk at key points to help crystalize the features and cool stuff you talk about.

Killing people with PowerPoint

They are called bullet points for a reason! Because they can "kill" people with boredom…. If you've never experienced this then you've probably never attended a corporate meeting, a university lecture or most meetings for that matter. Using PowerPoint is so easy to do and a pitfall that many of us fall into. PowerPoint feels familiar, safe and cosy because it allows us to "hide" behind it. It's an excellent tool that helps with footnotes, hints and content, tons of content, enough to bore thousands of people within 10 mins. Once again, I'm not the first one to talk about this and there are excellent articles and books written about it. The goal here is to make you aware of this plight, especially if you're just starting out as a speaker.

As a speaker you want to be comfortable using PowerPoint but you want to avoid relying on it. Could you deliver your talk if the projector were to fail totally on you? Would you remember the basic points of your talk and could you build on top of this in a way that you can stand in front of your attendees for 1hr and get everyone excited and interested on your subject? If you can get to this level, then PowerPoint becomes a nice-to-have tool in your arsenal instead of a handicup. As a speaker you also need to be aware of this:
- If you sit still while presenting, the audience will most likely focus on your slides - If you move around the stage, the audience will follow you

What you want to do is use these 2 principles to keep your audience engaged. If you put all your content in your decks and you read through them, you may as well skip the whole talk and email everyone the slides. Our value as speakers is to take a subject, create some pointers around it in the form of a PowerPoint deck, and then talk over these points adding our own experiences and value.

If you feel extremely brave and confident, try to do a talk without any slides and see how the dynamic changes. For certain, you'll have all eyes on you. The full audience's attention will be aimed at you and your talk. It's surprising how much more effort you need to put to make this a success. But the impact of such an effort can be huge. Unfortunately, experience has taught me that although this may work for TED talks, talking for an hour without any slides may have an adverse effect as people's attentions have a short span these days. I've used this format for lightning talks (5-10 mins) and it's been great, but for longer talks, it's helpful to you and your audience to have some slides, even < 10 just to provide visual context and help your audiences remember what you talked about. To make it more impactful, you could use images that correlate with your content and can help create a strong impression. Humour works really well but you need to refrain yourself from turning your technical talk to stand-up comedy. Use it in moderation, especially if you don't know your audience

Summary

You may have noticed by now that there's a common theme between my 2 posts on public speaking. It's all about preparation and practice. Preparation for all eventualities and practicing your craft. Hopefully you now have enough information to guide you through this process as you get started with public speaking. I know it sounds daunting and there's a lot to take in but trust me: once you get the hang of it, you'll find great enjoyment and gain invaluable experience while you learn about all the cool tech that other people use and you expand your professional network. What's stopping you from getting started? Is there something you feel that's missing from my 2 posts that could help you more? As always, if you want someone to mentor you or support you on your journey, reach out to me and I'll be happy to help you (in my limited experience and success in public speaking)


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