Thursday, May 16, 2013

"Advice on Session Speaking" or "Want To Speak At Connect 2014?"

Since 1986-2006 and 2009-2012 as a music teacher, choir and chorus director, certified instructor and seminar speaker I have been talking in front of people a lot for a long time.  A lot.  Often daily but always multiple times a month.  That's a lot of time to get comfortable doing it.

Here's the problem:   I am not a natural limelight seeker.  I am not naturally witty or funny.  I am not particularly glib, never was overly easy on the eyes and, despite what I said before, I don't consider myself to be smarter than anyone else.  Not a great set of attributes to qualify one to deliver technical presentations.

On the flipside I can say this: While I have certainly given bad presentations and had bad teaching days, for the most part my teaching/sessions/presentations are markedly above average and every so often I deliver a really spectacular presentation.

When I think about the times when everything aligned for a great session (I felt good about the session, the evals really looked good, colleagues commented on how well it went, people seemed to be engaged, etc.) a few things seem to be consistent factors to the success of the session.

If I follow these guidelines, my speakin' tends to go pretty well.


Presentations typically are broken down into sections with subtopics.  First, I write down on paper my major subjects and how much time I want to allot for each section.  Then in the presentation software I create an agenda slide for each big section.  Next, I dive into each section and decide what are the major points I want to get across within the section (typically three) and finally I write the detail slides as needed.

Sometimes detailed screenshots are required and sometimes not.  Bullet points are just that.  Points on a slide.  They are not to be read. They are to be spoken to.  (I don't mean you never read them to the audience, I mean reading bullet points should never be what you are going to say.  They can generally read the slides on their own.)  Once the detail slides are completed, they are a combination of bullets to speak to and possibly screen shots to explain or serve as a resource for people who read the presentation later.

There is an art to this when writing a technical presentation.  You need to know how much information people can take in at a time and how you're going to logically "build your case."

While writing I also visualize how I will feel on stage when talking about this or that slide and how it is going to play to someone wanting to learn about the topic.  I often stand up and talk through the slides while writing them and that is very helpful to get the timing, rhythm and wording ironed out.

Another very important task I do while writing is to establish a demo plan/outline.  Since often the writing is completed long before the session has to be delivered, I have found that if I have written down what I want to show at certain points in the presentation while I am actively "in the moment" of writing then when the pre-presentation prep time comes along I find it much easier to get back into the mindset I was in when I was envisioning the presentation during the writing process.


My advice on prepping is to forget memorizing anything and just practice until you know what you're going to say when each slide appears.

Not only should you know what you want to say, you should actually say it.  Out loud.

You should say it out loud as many times as it takes until you just know what, and mostly how, you want to say it.  Mostly I find that when I speak through my slides out loud I discover things I want to not say and that is a great help.   Discovering the ways I don't want to start off when talking about this or that slide really forces me to focus on what I do want to get across.


In 1985 I headed off to my first church choir audition and asked my college director for advice.  His advice? Just get up there and start off by looking at them all with a big smile.  The audition went well and then I had to be interviewed by the church council.  The Pastor told me on the walk to the room to "just keep smiling like you're doing and it will be fine."  (Yes, I got the job.)

In theater there is a concept known as the Fourth Wall which is essentially the barrier between the performers and the audience.  It is often broken to great effect in theater and movies.  For me personally, I choose to ignore it.  That is not everyone's preference but it works for me.  Once I am set up in the room for my presentation, I typically try to engage people in the room in ways that allow me to get a chance to smile.  It helps me level off any tension I may have and helps set the tone for the presentation that I like to have which is essentially like I am explaining the topic to a few friends.


I don't care if your entire presentation is just how to use @DbLookup, you must be confident in the fact that someone will benefit from your knowledge, that there are people in the room who want you to succeed and that the people in the room expect you to be excited about what you're presenting or, at the very least, be genuinely interested in your content.

If you're not excited or interested, it is obvious and no fun for you or them.

A Goal

Having a goal for your presentation makes writing and presenting very easy.

I am motivated to educate others so they can go be heros.  Really.  I want to deliver presentations so that somebody in the audience will get interested in the concept or technique I am presenting and have enough information to be able to use my slides to go home and get it working on their own.  That's my goal when I speak.

To be fair I have never aspired to be a renowned speaker or be a TED talker and so I do understand that there are a lot of other goals, worthy and some less so, for giving a presentation or speech.  My point, is have a goal.

Tomorrow: How to handle criticism