I've always been fascinated by the idea of getting up in front of hundreds of strangers and being expected to present your ideas to them. It's simultaneously enticing and terrifying, and that's probably what draws me to it.
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:
- Who are you, and what do you do?
- What is the most important thing for a speaker to remember while they are on stage?
- What was your first conference-level presentation about, and how did it go?
The answers to the third question will be their own separate blog post, so for now I want to focus on the answers the speakers gave to the second question. What should a speaker remember while they are on stage? Let's find out!
First off, let's review the basic things a speaker should remember while they are on stage:
John Papa: "Their name."
Dan Wahlin: "To turn the mic off before they go to the restroom."
Phil Japikse: "To zip their fly. [It's] really key."
Julie Lerman: "I forgot."
Remember these things, and you're already well on your way to delivering a spectacular presentation.
OK, let's be serious for a bit. In any presentation, there are two incontrovertible pieces: the speaker, and the audience. Each of the presenters I talked to mentioned one or other, in some form, as the most important thing to remember when on stage.
This is who everyone in the audience is here to see. Some people show up at a presentation for the content, and some show up because they know who's talking about it. A speaker's job is to convey his ideas and content thoughtfully and clearly. But what about the speaker's job is important, and how can they effectively communicate their point to tens or hundreds or even thousands of people at a time?
A human's body language can tell you a great deal about them without the need for words. One presenter said he can improve the audience's ability to remember his key points by focusing on what his body language silently tells his audience:
Tim Huckaby (CEO of InterKnowlogy, software guy): "For me, it's body language, eye contact, and speaking TO the audience as opposed to AT them. That means moving around, wandering the stage, making sure you get eye contact as best you can. That keeps people engaged. The average human only digests about one-eighth of what you're talking about in an hour-long session. To improve that percentage, you move around, you're physical, and you're making eye contact [or] at least appearing to make eye contact with the audience.
Another mentioned his energy level will reflect his audience's:
James Ashley (HoloLens developer, Imaginative Universal): "For me personally, it's the energy level. As long as you have [a] good energy level, you can get through any talk. You can be totally senseless. But if you're engaged with the audience, they'll ride with you the full way."
For many presenters, the act of giving a presentation is analogous to telling a story.
Erin Stellato (Principal Consultant, SQLSkills): "You have a story to tell. Hopefully you've crafted that as part of your session. This is your experience that you're sharing, so it's going to be authentic, it's going to come from what you've learned and what you know. Trust in that [authenticity] as you're presenting that material."
Robert Green (Developer Evangelist, Microsoft): "You are up there telling a story. So before you give a talk, [ask] what is your story? What are you going to cover? What do you want people to learn at the end of it? Whether you're speaking for 20 minutes, 60 minutes, 75 minutes or a whole day, you're up there to tell the story. Understand your story, and how to tell your story, and then the rest is just slides and demos."
One speaker confessed that it is sometimes difficult to remember the story you've created:
Burke Holland (Developer Advocate, Progress Software): "For me, the most important thing to remember is what I am actually going to say when I get up there. That's probably the hardest part. As long as I've been doing this, it's so easy to get up there with your slides that you've rehearsed about twenty times, and go 'I have no idea what I was going to say on this slide, and I have no idea what I'm going to say on the next slide.' I've been speaking for about ten years, and I'm as nervous now as I was the very first time."
People go to presentations for the content. So how can speakers make sure they have the most important and effective content they can present?
Billy Hollis (Consultant, user experience designer): "The biggest thing is that there ought to be a unifying theme to what they're trying to communicate to the audience. Every session should have one big idea, or at most two big ideas, [and] everybody ought to walk out with those ideas in mind. You construct your session around that [theme] and while you're walking around talking about it, you always should have [those] one or two themes forefront in your mind."
Ben Miller (SQL Server expert, dbaduck.com): "[Remember that] the attendees are looking to get something out of it. You need to make sure that you're knowledgeable; that you speak clearly; that you articulate the things that you want to [say]; [and] that you accept questions."
A few speakers, rather than keeping their content or unconcious body language in the forefront, choose instead to zero-in on their on-stage behavior:
Dan Wahlin (consultant, author, founder of Wahlin Consulting): "Probably time. Otherwise what ends up happening is at the end, if you don't keep on top of [the time], then it looks like your whole thing was rushed even though you did a great job for three-quarters [of the presentation]. So I'd say time is one of them."
Joe Guadagno (Software Architect at QuickenLoans): "That you are going to get a question that you don't know the answer to, and that's okay, as long as you take the attendee's information down and tell them you'll reach back to him or her with an answer. It's totally fine to not know the answer."
Finally, one speaker felt it was important to remember that he wasn't the most intelligent person in the room:
Phil Japikse (Consultant, author, blogger at skimedic.com): "What I always try to remember is that I'm not the smartest person in the room; I'm the one who was brave enough to get up and talk about [the topic]. I try to learn from my attendees as much as I try to teach. In an hour, or an hour and fifteen minutes, I'm really not going to teach anybody anything; [rather], it's my opportunity to get someone to be enthusiastic about it. If I can get them excited and thinking about it and saying, 'hey, I should do more research into [this],' then as a speaker, I've won."
The other, and arguably more critical, part of any presentation is the audience. The audience is more important than the speaker in several ways. First, it is remarkably easy to have a speaker with no audience; just go to any downtown area and look for loud, brightly-dressed people yelling and swinging books around. Second, the entire purpose of a presentation is to educate the audience about something; if no education happens, was it a presentation, or just a speech?
The audience is critical to any presentation. But how do we cater our presentations to the audience that shows up?
Who Are They?
Let's start at the beginning: who is your audience anyway? A couple of speakers made a very basic point: your audience is made up of people.
Pete Brown (Music app and Internet of Things developer, Microsoft): "The other [thing to remember] would be the audience that you are speaking to: knowing what they already know, knowing what they don't know, understanding where their kind of humor lies, where their interest lies. "
Aaron Bertrand (Product Evangelist at SentryOne): "Everybody in the audience are people just like them (the speaker). I think a lot of people get nervous because they think that there's a lot of judgment going on, or if they make a mistake that's the end of the world, and that's just not the way it is. The people in the audience identify with you. [They know] that you're just a normal person, just like they are."
Not only is the audience made up of people, those people have perspectives that are just as valid as yours:
Kathleen Dollard (.NET coach and Director of Engineering, ROI Code): "That the people in the audience are what it's about. It's really easy to get caught up in the technology, because we get so passionate about [that], but it's really all about the people who are out there, how much they can handle, what they care about, what's important in their world. It's really important to look at it from their perspective and not just your perspective."
On Your Side
Here's the thing about audiences: if they showed up at all, they did not show up to see you fail:
Scott Hanselman (Blogger and Principal Community Architect for ASP.NET, Microsoft): "Remember that the audience is very likely on your side. In this particular instance, where [I] just got off stage at DevIntersections, my computer crashed, which was embarrassing. But the question is: does the audience care about that? [Do] they want me to fail? Or do they want me to succeed? So if I know that they want me to succeed, then I have less to worry about and I [don't] feel so bad. I'm still embarrassed that it crashed, but I was able to recover, and the audience cheered along [because] they were on my side."
Another speaker presented (see what I did there?) this same idea very plainly:
Jes Borland (Senior SQL Server Engineer, Concurrency): "Everyone in the audience is there because they want you to succeed. No one is there to say, 'oh, this person doesn't know their stuff.' They're there to learn from you! When they sit in your session, they want to hear from you. People are there to see you succeed."
Once you get past the irrational fears of judgment, the tricky part becomes trying to engage your audience in a meaningful way. That engagement starts by making everyone feel included:
Julie Lerman (Consultant, Vermonter and blogger at The Data Farm): "I try to make an effort to look across the whole audience instead of focusing on certain people, so everybody feels like I'm talking to them. If people ask questions, remembering to repeat the questions. It's sometimes difficult, but [I also try] to stay cool, calm, and collected."
Eye contact seems to be particularly salient to being an effective speaker:
Mark Miller (Chief scientist at DevExpress, creator of The Science of Great UI): "The most important thing is that you are there for the audience. You are there to communicate with them. So it's important to look everybody in the eye, to get a sense of where everybody is, and to react and respond to where they are."
Let's face it: to most people, tech-inclined or otherwise, the vast majority of technology presentations are boring. One speaker is keenly aware of this problem:
John Papa (Blogger, Pluralsight author and trainer): "For me, it's about engaging with the audience. Whatever you're talking about, especially in the technology world, it's usually not interesting to most people. We can be very boring people! You only have certain weapons with you: you've got your slides, you've got your demos, you've got your voice, and you've got your body language. You should use all those. You want to be interesting, you want to be engaging, and you want to keep people moving."
If you can believe that the audience is on your side, and you engage with them meaningfully, the result is the holy grail that most speakers strive for: relatability.
Javier Lozano (Owner of LozanoTek): "To me, the most important thing is... trying to connect with the audience. I could be behind a podium pontificating, and I'm going to lose people. So, I try to figure out how I'm going to share the content that I have as a story, so people can understand that 'hey, this is important.' But it's important in a 'here's how [this] relates to you' [kind of way]. That's the thing that I see as most important, because if people are going to be tuned out, then they can find a [better] use of their time than just listening to me talk."
One presenter effectively combined many of the previously-espoused ideas about the audience and decided that the ultimate goal is to help people:
Jeff Fritz (Program Manager for ASP.NET, Microsoft): "When I think about [being] a speaker on stage, I think about [how] I want to be relatable to my audience. The folks that are there learn from me, they're developers just like I was, sitting in that room 2-3 years ago. I want to be as relatable as possible and as accessible as possible, because people are going to walk away from that talk, and they are going to have things that they are going to remember about me. When they come back and have follow-up questions, if I'm accessible and relatable, they'll reach out to me on Twitter, they'll put a comment on my blog, and they'll ask those follow-up questions.
"Now, I've got a relationship with them, that make me more than just a speaker. It makes me a resource that people can work with."
It's difficult to pin down exactly what the most important thing to remember while on stage actually is. Some believe it's your body language; some, that the audience is not out to get you; some, that there should be an overarching theme; and some, that you'd better be sure of when your mic is off (or worse, on).
But there's no denying that each of the ideas espoused by these speakers is important to some degree. Using each of these ideas, as well as incorporating your own style and mannerisms, is key to delivering an effective, useful, powerful presentation that the audience will remember and refer back to.
Oh, and don't forget to zip your fly. That's really key.