Mind of the Speaker - How Do You Feel About Your First Presentation?

The first time we do anything, we're terrified. Asking out that first date, submitting that first patch, reviewing someone else's code for the first time. Surprisingly, how we feel about it (e.g. "OH MY GOD I DON'T KNOW WHAT I'M DOING") has very little to do with how well we actually do at it; sometimes we're right and we end up doing terribly, and other times we're wrong and it ends up going well. It's different for each person.

In October of this year (2016), I attended the DevIntersection/AngleBrackets conference in Las Vegas, as I did twice last year. Once again, as I am fascinated with the process involved in speaking for tech conferences, I tracked down as many speakers as would talk to me and asked them three simple questions:

  1. Who are you, and what do you do?
  2. What is the most important thing for a speaker to remember while they are on stage?
  3. What was your first conference-level presentation about, and how did it go?

NOTE: A couple speakers couldn't remember their first conference presentation, so instead I asked them about a particularly memorable one.

This blog post gathers the answers I got to the third question: What was your first conference-level presentation about, and how did it go? The answers I got varied mightily, both in how well they thought the presentation went, and how well they thought it was going to go.

Don't Bother Applying

Let's get the worst out of the way: sometimes you do so bad at your first conference presentation, the conference doesn't want to have you back. Ever.

Kathleen Dollard (.NET coach and Director of Engineering, ROI Code): "Oh, terrible. It was some terribly-named thing like 'Data in the Dog House' or something stupid like that. I absolutely bombed. I was so bad. I won't tell you what conference it was, but it was a conference that [told me], 'yeah, don't bother to apply again.' But [my colleagues] told me, 'you shouldn't quit,' and I said, 'oh, ok, I'll try again.' It was terrible, absolutely terrible."

Technical Issues

The bane of any tech speaker's existence is technical issues, especially ones they can't control and are powerless to change.

Dan Wahlin (consultant, author, founder of Wahlin Consulting): "I think one of the more memorable ones would have been a TechEd one I did. We had some serious technical issues. In that case, I'll have to admit, I don't think I was [prepared], because I just assumed that you show up and everything works; that you're just there to speak. So being prepared for the things that don't go so well, goes a long way."

John Papa (Pluralsight author, speaker): "One of [my presentations] that was not so great, because they're more fun to talk about, was when I was on stage and talking about a topic (I think it was ADO and RDS, one of my earliest talks), and we had some technical difficulties again. The slides didn't work at all. So I had to do an hour-long presentation without slides. Part of the [problem] was, within a minute, I realized it just wasn't going to work. Nothing was working. So I was like, "well, now I've got to teach for the next 59 minutes about this topic without any computer. [But I can say] that it was a good experience, in the sense that I realized that I didn't need the visuals to do it. It was also good to realize [what] Dan mentioned: have backups, be prepared. It was humbling, because I know it didn't go as well as it should have."

Sometimes, though, the technical issues are caused by your own worst enemy: yourself.

Javier Lozano (Owner of LozanoTek): "[It] was many, many years ago on WCF. It went surprisingly well, [and] the reason why I say [surprisingly] that is that I did something very stupid. WCF was in beta, and I upgraded to the latest beta bits. Just the bits, but not my code, and my code wouldn't work. So I'm freaking out thirty minutes before [my talk], trying to undo all that, and it was very, very painful. Out of all of the demos, I was able to get four of them working, rather than the eight that I had to show. It was one of those [things where] I apologised to everybody, because it was a stupid mistake [to] upgrade all of the stuff. That was a lesson that I never, ever repeated."

Wrong Format

Occasionally speakers, who at their core are really teachers, get up to present a session and realize that the format of that session is just completely wrong for their current environment:

Phil Japikse (Consultant, speaker, author, blogger (skimedic.com)): "My very first conference-level presentation was about the data access blocks in .NET, and it went terrible (sic). I do a lot of instruction [and] classroom-style teaching for customers, and I'd been doing that for years. A buddy of mine was running a show, and he knew I was teaching. He had an open slot, and he says 'will you come give a talk on the data access blocks?' I said, 'sure! I use them all the time.' So I built a classroom-style presentation for a code camp, and realized pretty quick that that's not the right format. I was trying to teach like [I would] in a classroom, as opposed to just step back and get people excited about it and move on. So I learned pretty quick to adjust my style."

Someone Else's Content

One speaker had what seemed to me to be a rather unique experience: she was presenting someone else's content!

Julie Lerman (Consultant, Vermonter, blogger at The Data Farm): "It might have been at a Microsoft community event in Boston, oh, a thousand years ago. Microsoft tech [had] developer evangelists at the time, although that's not what they were called. It was people from the community doing [the] speaking, and it was a really big deal, and they gave you the content to do, so it was really hard. My talk was [something] like 60 slides, and I had a half an hour to talk, or something like that. It wasn't my content; I had to do somebody else's talk! The first time I did [that talk], it went so badly. It was so bad; I couldn't even believe that I could be so bad. And then we did a new iteration; we did that whole thing again with the same people, [about] a week later, and I totally nailed it!"

Roller Coaster Ride

A couple speakers had a wild, up-and-down experience doing their first conference-level presentation. In one particular case, a speaker was thrown into the fire, so to speak, and ended up with people clamoring to get into his sessions:

Mark Miller (Chief scientist at DevExpress, expert in great design): "I think my first one was pretty crazy. I substituted for another speaker that couldn't make it because his wife was having a baby. I was kind of irreverent and nobody had ever seen anything like that before; they were used to a professional setting. I had three different talks at that conference, and by the last talk I had people following me and trying to get in to my sessions (because everybody was like 'who's this guy?'). I remember getting into my last session, and there was just a crowd of people trying to get into it. I was trying to get by them, and somebody was like 'who's this guy?' and some other guy [says] 'some hotshot speaker!'"

For at least one presenter, the presentation started out really well and ended, well, differently:

James Ashley (Freelance HoloLens developer at Imaginative Universal, Microsoft MVP - Emerging Experiences): "I can't remember my first [conference presentation], but I'll tell you about one that I remember really well. I'd picked a new technology topic and was feeling sick, so I showed up thinking I would get some small corner room somewhere (this was a conference in Tennessee). Instead I got a thousand people in the room. I totally bombed it. Lost my place, got overwhelmed, barely dragged my way to the end. Yeah, that was great experience."

My head is still spinning from that one.

Preparation

I firmly believe the best way to give a stellar presentation is to practice the hell out of it, and a few of the speakers agreed with me.

Robert Green (Developer Evangelist and speaker, Microsoft): "[Laughs] Oh boy. I might wind up dating myself. I believe my first [presentation] was on doing client-server development in FoxPro. It went fine, because I knew a lot more about it than the people in the room. I go to a talk to learn. I don't necessarily go to a talk to hear the world's foremost expert on something. If I can, that's great, but I go to a talk to learn. So I think people learned a lot in that talk, and so I think it went pretty well. If you want to be a speaker, of course you need to know your subjects, but you don't have to be the world's foremost expert to teach people thing."

Tim Huckaby (CEO of InterKnowlogy, software guy): "I worked on a server produce team at Microsoft in '98. I was just a lowly dev on an architecture team, but all the business people, all the [project managers], were busy. Back then Microsoft had this conference called TechEd. [It was] an enormous conference. And they said, 'well, Huckaby has a personality, let him do the presentation,' since none of them wanted to do it. So I did, and it went amazingly well. I prepared the hell out of it, I studied the hell out of it, I knew the product like the back of my hand, because I'd worked on the product. I just had all this insight that I'd gathered up from the team and my experience. It was the highest rated presentation in the conference. And it was the first time I'd ever done it! They're like 'oh my God, you were awesome,' and I'm like 'really? I though I was horrible.' Because we're all our own worst critics."

People Showed Up!

Because presenters do tend to be their own worst critics, sometimes speakers are just surprised anyone showed up at all.

Jes Borland (Senior SQL Server Engineer, Concurrency): "My was in 2011. I presented at a SQL Saturday, and my topic was completely not technical. It was 'Make Your Voice Heard,' and how to further your career through using forums and blogging and Twitter and LinkedIn. It was great! People had so many questions. They wanted to know how I had gotten started with those things. They wanted to know what my tips for success were. They genuinely looked up to me. Being able to do that was awesome."

Erin Stellato (Principal Consultant, SQLSkills): "My first conference-level presentation was in 2011, and it was specific to capturing baselines in SQL server. I was on the last day of the conference in the last timeslot, and was of course concerned that no one would show up. Lo and behold, people did show up, and I had questions and I had good feedback from that, and it ended up being a great experience."

Credit Where It's Due

One speaker credited his first talk going so well to a person who'd inspired him to do it in the first place.

Pete Brown (Music app and Internet of Things developer, Microsoft): "I was just thinking about this the other day, because I owe a lot of that to a guy who was a vice president at the last company I worked at; his name was Tom O'Connell. He got me in to speak at an event called Explorer 99, and I was talking about a Visual Basic library we wrote to make it really simple to build forms-over-data applications, where all the entities and everything inside the VB app and all the rules [and so forth] were generated from UML models. I thought it went pretty well."

Following the Big Name

One speaker was terribly nervous to even give his first presentation, due to the fact that he was following a big name in his field:

Burke Holland (Developer Advocate, Progress Software): "My first conference presentation was on HTML5 when [that] was a new concept. I was sent to TechDays in Canada, and I had the first session after the keynote in the keynote room. The keynote was by Scott Hanselman, who I did not know and had never seen a keynote from before. So as a speaker, I had to get up there on stage, after [Scott], and be like, 'well, I hope you enjoyed that, and now... this.' And it went great! It was a great experience, but it was absolutely terrifying."

How Was Your First?

As you can see, many speakers did well, and many did terribly. But, considering the fact that I got to interview them at all, their experiences with their first conference-level presentation didn't stop them from doing more.

Have you done presentations of any kind, not just at conferences? If so, do you remember your first one, and how did it go? Share in the comments!

Happy Coding Speaking!

Post image is Hayat Sindi, found on Flickr and used under license

Matthew Jones

Matthew Jones

I'm a parent, a husband, a geek, a web developer, and a speaker, in roughly that order.

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Mind of the Speaker - How Do You Feel About Your First Presentation?
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