Career Presentations/Speaking

How to be a speaker if you don’t have any experience

I recently did a presentation for the Intuit Girls Who Code class – it was the first of many presentations I hope to give throughout my career. Some people seem to feel that public speaking is one of those fears that is even greater than death. I’m not a big fan of being put on the spot either, but with enough preparation (and maybe a friendly starting audience), it can actually be a pretty enjoyable experience. Now, I don’t claim to know it all from just one presentation, but these were the things I used to get started.

The Start

In the beginning, the first two hurdles I saw were:

  1. Opportunity
  2. Topic

Opportunities are actually a lot easier to come by than most people think. Presentations aren’t necessarily shown to hundreds of people at a time. In fact, that’s probably the worst way to get started as a speaker. There are plenty of opportunities around in unexpected places. Here’s some examples:

  • You have a new coworker that doesn’t know how to use Git. Create a presentation and teach them all about the wonders of this versioning tool. (1 on 1)
  • You have a group of summer interns that need to come up to speed on the best coding standards for your team. Grab all that information and create a presentation that’s way more interesting than the boring wiki you normally tell new team members to read. (1 on 5)
  • Worked with some interesting new technology that not everyone on your team knows about? Present all your findings during a lunchtime/staff meeting. (1 on 10-20)
  • Go back to your alma mater and teach your 21 year old self how to do something that’s not pulling all-nighters and partying too hard. (1 on 50-100+)

You can scale your talks accordingly. Start small with friendly people that will give you great feedback…then work your way up to a larger and more intimidating audience. Once you master the few, working your way up won’t seem too bad.

Topics on the other hand…this is one that I struggled with more than finding opportunities. Especially when you’re early in your career, sometimes it’s hard to figure out what would be an interesting topic to teach others about. Topics can be too basic, too complex, too narrow, too generic…the list goes on and there’s extremes at either end.

This one is more personal – what works for some may not work for others. I took some advice from Zach Holman, who has an amazing resource on speaking. In particular, he states that anyone can be an expert on most things if they focus and narrow in on something that they’re passionate about. Even if you’re not a complete expert in that particular area, it’s really about “making your audience reconsider their own perspectives. You don’t have to be smarter than them or even be more correct than them to do that.”

Generally, chosen topics are about something that you have done or experienced personally. However,  another way to think about it is that the best way to learn something is to teach it. If there’s a particular area that you’re interested in learning more about, the best way to thoroughly understand that area is to teach it to someone else. You can’t teach what you don’t know.

Drafting Your Presentation

Once I figured out my topic, I made the mistake of jumping right into keynote and inserted in a bunch of images and text on slides that I eventually rewrote and reordered later. It’s best to have a coherent train of thought going into creating the presentation – otherwise, it’ll be jumbled and messy, the opposite of what you want it to be. There will be so much content that you’ll just want to get down and it won’t make sense until you figure out the structure of your presentation.

It’s also quite important to focus on the audience at hand. The same topic can be presented in a variety of ways depending on who is doing the learning. Data structures and algorithms, for example, can be quite a dry topic for a group of 16-18 year olds. However, changing up your talk a bit to include more interactive segments (like human birthday sorting) can make your talk much more fun and the audience will get a lot more out of it.

To simply things, I ended up creating an outline of the key points I wanted to hit during my talk. After that, I elaborated on the particulars for those key points and then was able to seamlessly weave the portions together. Here’s the outline I came up with for my talk:

Audience: Girls Who Code summer immersion camp, ages 16-18, limited technical understanding

Topic: Awesome mobile app experiences – ratings and reviews

Interactive intro: screenshots of their favorite social media apps

  • Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram
  • Ask how many use these apps on a daily basis
  • Ask how many couldn’t live without these apps
  • Ask how many have actually rated these apps

Why are app ratings/reviews that important?

  • Ranked higher in the app stores
  • Get discovered by more people
  • Learn what users love/hate
  • Learn what users want to see in the future

Go through some bad app rating scenarios

  • Screenshots of collected app ratings and talk about why these are not great experiences
    • In the middle of something (after app has just launched)
    • Seemingly random/after app has been opened x times
    • Right after a new version comes out
    • Just boring…nothing exciting about it, nothing that entices the user at all

Walk through Intuit Online Payroll rating example

  • Demo the app and show the rating experience

Highlight key things that draw the users in in the IOP example

  • Winning/wow moment, positive moment
  • After they’ve finished their main course of action
  • Re-direct user when they don’t like it (leads to less negative ratings)

Highlight things in other apps that work (payroll example isn’t super relatable compared to social media apps)

  • Facebook: quick rating 5 star system
  • Quick surveys
  • Incentivizing?
  • Make it as easy as possible – link straight to the app store review page

Show the results of the campaign

  • Talk about hero example

Have the girls partner up and brainstorm ways to create an awesome rate-the-app experience for their favorite app

  • Create mockups/sketch out designs

Once your outline is done, then create your presentation. I won’t go into what makes a great presentation, but there are plenty of resources out there.

Practicing and Delivering Your Presentation

The saying is right – “practice makes perfect,” or in this case, practice makes better. Once you have all your content, it’s up to you to stand up and actually practice out loud.

The first time I ran through my presentation, I hated it. I thought it was a stupid topic and I didn’t know why anyone even asked me to speak in the first place. My presentation didn’t flow, it was jagged and very rough around the edges, but I kept at it, made some changes and it got better. And better. And even better. And then I practiced it in front of a couple of friends who gave me even more feedback until I was ready.

The first time you run through your presentation, it’ll be hard. There will be some transitions that don’t go as smoothly as you thought they would. There will be some awkward pauses as you stumble over information from your presentation notes. If you’re demoing anything, that takes even more practice since demos always seem to go wrong at the most crucial moment.

Holman suggestions recording yourself so that you can pick up on all the “ums” and “hmms” in your talk and be conscious of any other nervous habits you may have also. Audio recording is good, but if you can get a video of yourself, that would be better. I once watched a friend give a talk and while she probably could have worked on not trailing off at the end of her sentences (something an audio recording could’ve told her), the thing that bothered me the most was that she kept pushing her hair back behind her ear every few minutes. You’ll be able to see what your body language is like while you’re giving a presentation and if there’s anything you should be aware of (doing or not doing).

The best advice I can give here is just to practice until you’re mostly ok with your presentation and then try to find someone as close to your target audience as possible to present to. The closer your buddy is to the target audience, the more likely it’ll be that they’ll ask questions and react as the actual audience. You’ll definitely get feedback from your practice buddy – tell them to let you know stuff like whenever things aren’t clear or if the pace is too fast or slow. You should also keep an eye on how they react too – if any parts seem boring or confusing, it’ll show in their body language.

The Day Of

The day has finally come! You’ve practiced plenty – you’re going to do great. Some things to keep in mind:

  • The audience is reacting differently than I thought they would. What do I do?
    • My presentation ended up being a lot more interactive than I thought it would be. I thought I would have to pull teeth to try and get the girls to give me any sort of feedback, especially after the activity at the end. Turned out I was wrong and nearly every girl wanted to share what she had thought of. I ended up having to cut a portion of my talk to leave enough time for Q&A, but I felt that I had driven the point across well enough to cut out the last bit.
    • The audience can react more negatively though, or just give no feedback at all. Some of your jokes falling flat on a more serious audience for example? Since you’ve practiced your presentation with the jokes, it’s fine to continue if it’ll throw off your game modifying your presentation on the spot. If you’re ok with ad-libbing a little bit, then maybe it’s best to just focus on the content. You should definitely read the room while you speak to keep a pulse on the audience.
  • What if someone asks a question I don’t know how to answer?
    • The great thing about social media is that you can always answer someone’s question later. It’s completely fine to own up – “Sorry, I’m not sure what the answer to that is at this moment, but I can definitely get back to you through Twitter/email/Hangouts/Facebook.” People understand that you might not know everything and will respect you more for owning up, than for trying to BS your way through an answer.

One last thing – keep your phone on complete silence. If your audience members use Twitter or other social media, your phone may start buzzing like crazy if they’re quoting everything you say.

After it’s Over

Check out social media to see if anyone has tagged you or mentioned your talk. You’ll be able to see feedback on what your audience found interesting and things that they learned from it.

If you can find another opportunity to present the same presentation again for a different audience, do it! The more times you deliver a presentation, the more comfortable you will be with the content. As you master the content, you’ll be able to focus less on that and more on your actual presentation skills. You’ll also be able to take some of that social media feedback and refine your talk even more.

Happy presenting!

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