No one wants to eat you.

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“When are we going to see you up there?” Mark Vaillancourt had just finished presenting DANGER: The Art and Science of Presenting at SQL Saturday #238. He and Mike Donnelly had put the question to me as they were packing up. I demurred; surely that was best left to experts like them. They persisted, noting how I was always at our user group meetings and how a novice viewpoint was often more helpful for beginners. Being an audience member was one thing, I protested, and speaking was quite another. They kept on the offensive but I managed to slink away without any firm commitments. Nonetheless, they’d struck a chord.

Little did they know, earlier that year I’d made a commitment. During Denise Jacob’s keynote at That Conference in Wisconsin Dells, she had us make a pact with our neighbor. We were to construct a talk description, and to keep us honest we’d email each other our progress. I’d never met Max Zirbel before and honestly I haven’t interacted with him since, but I did promise to write a talk about using XML with SQL Server.

I’d only had a few moments to consider, but it was a natural choice. Most of my day job is establishing automated connections with our customers and suppliers. The modern web runs on JSON (finally supported in SQL Server 2016), but many of our partners still use XML; the rest cling to an older format called ANSI X.12, which we convert to XML using a third party tool. So at the time, I was steeped in building and shredding XML in SQL Server.

And I knew the SQL community would be a welcoming one. PASS local chapters are the fertile fields of the “farm club system for speakers”. Speakers are nurtured at their local user groups, get their wings at their regional SQL Saturday event, and then take flight at PASS Summit. Under Mike Donnelly and Tracy McKibben, PASSMN was welcoming new speakers to whet their appetite for speaking by trying a lightning talk at a monthly meeting. That’s the baby step of public speaking– 10-15 minutes in front of a couple dozen of your peers.

So thanks to outreach by community ambassadors, a supporting user group, and inspiration and accountability from a summer conference, I was in.

Funny story, though. Despite having diligently tested my tech before the user group meeting began, as soon as I plugged in my MacBook Pro, it crashed– as in a complete, immediate reboot. What a start to my first talk! While it was rebooting (which of course felt like it took forever), I told the story of the scene from the West Wing episode “Game On”, where Abbey Bartlet cuts her husband’s tie just before he goes on stage for a nationally televised debate. There’s a mad but successful scramble to replace it with nary a moment to spare. If you can face a mini-catastrophe and survive it, it builds your confidence and distracts you from the dread of something bigger. And it worked. When I got logged back in to my laptop, I was off to the races.

I tell this story not only to show new speakers that it can be done, but to remind industry veterans that often it takes specific, direct invitations and support to bring folks into the fold. Make that effort, especially with underrepresented groups. Our community is stronger when more are sharing with a diversity of backgrounds.

So thanks Andy Yun for making this week’s T-SQL Tuesday about growing our speaking community.

Now I’m no expert at public speaking; I only have a handful of presentations under my belt. But I’ve spent some time learning about the process, and I have some advice.

  • Start small and grow big.
    • Talk about your idea with a friend.
    • Gather your thoughts and share them with colleagues over lunch at work. Good food distracts them from any mistakes. Their split attention will blunt the pressure.
    • Give lightning talks at user groups. You are likely to be given the opportunity if you ask. They have a low bar because they’re not the headline content and even if they’re bad, they’re brief.
    • Find local code camps. They are free, low pressure, community-run events with your technical peers. They often accept all submissions.
    • If you’re working with SQL Server, submit to SQL Saturdays. They are free, weekend training days put together by the local PASS chapters. The SQL Server community loves to share, so not all of these events accept all speakers. Usually preference is given to local or regional applicants.
    • Submit to a paid conference. (I recommend That Conference, where I was selected to speak in 2015.) Often you will be provided a free ticket to the event and sometimes a portion of your travel is covered.
    • Try a big conference. The premiere event in the SQL Server community is the PASS Summit (though Microsoft Ignite draws big crowds and prestigious speakers).
    • Keynote. I have no advice here, as I haven’t reached that level yet.
  • Everything old is new again.
    • Don’t think you can’t cover a topic because “it’s been done”.
    • It hasn’t been done by you.
    • Don’t think you have to be an expert on your topic.
    • Giving a presentation about something gives you an opportunity to learn it really well.
    • Having just learned something gives you a fresh perspective.
    • And don’t underestimate what you already know.
    • Remember that anything you know now– no matter how trivial you think it is– at some point you didn’t know. Other people are still there.
  • You will be scared.
    • You will be filled with adrenaline. Your body will revolt.
    • Practice helps, but even veteran speakers feel it.
    • But remember, nobody wants to eat you. (Thanks Mark!)
    • You will be fine.
    • The audience wants you to succeed. No one will heckle.
  • You can do it.
    • New speakers, especially from marginalized communities, are vulnerable to imposter syndrome.
    • Remember, other people don’t know more than you. They know different than you.
    • You are an expert at something– your own experiences, for example.
    • Speakers are just regular people who took the step that you are now taking.
    • Take it with pride and recognize you belong. Putting yourself out there is the accomplishment.
  • Grow a thick skin and look on the bright side.
    • At some point, you will ask to speak and you will be rejected.
    • It’s them, not you. Or rather, they’re flooded with options, and there are several reasons why others were chosen which are unrelated to your abilities.
    • Someone will give you a bad review.
    • It will loom large, having an outsize impact.
    • But there will be more positive than negative reviews. It’s human nature.
    • And there will be someone you’ve reached. You will have made your ripples. Center on that.
  • Normal slides are fine.
    • There are a variety of modern presentation frameworks which allow you to zoom in and out of a larger concept map.
    • These can be distracting and playing with the tool can be a time suck.
    • Concentrate on your content first. Make bare slides in Keynote or Powerpoint to start with.
    • Use slide templates for the same look and feel on all pages if you want that effect.
    • Generally, dark text on light backgrounds works better for projectors.
    • Often, conferences with sponsors will have guidelines for your slides and might require specific sponsor slides to be included.
  • Keep your slides spartan.
    • People will reflexively read your slides instead of listening to you.
    • People in the back won’t be able to read small print. If you can’t read it in thumbnail view, it’s probably too small.
    • Use the visual medium of slides for visual content– sign posts, thematic images, and explanatory diagrams.
    • If you want your slide deck to be a reference, put the information in the speaker notes or appendix slides; don’t whisk them dismissively past the audience. They will feel cheated.
  • Fancy slides can be better.
    • Striking slides can be memorable and grab audience attention.
    • A good combination is a full screen image with minimal text where it fits.
    • This encourages brevity and preserves the beauty of the image.
    • Use Flickr to search for creative commons images (free to use with attribution).
    • Be sure to use high contrast between text and image (light on dark or dark on light). Add a background to the text to enhance contrast if needed. Vary its opacity for a professional touch.
    • This can be fun but will take an enormous amount time for image selection, scaling, cropping, and text tweaking.
    • This is also more fragile when porting to different environments (e.g. Keynote <-> Powerpoint).
    • Ultimately, your slideshow is just the sideshow. You are the main event.
  • Practice
    • This is hard. It seems silly to talk to yourself.
    • Recording and watching yourself works wonders, but you will cringe and it will be painful.
    • If you do a realistic run-through, you can establish timing. so you know if your pacing is on track during the main event.
    • The more your practice, the more comfortable you will be with the material, and the more confident it will make you.
    • For public speaking, the more confident (not arrogant) you are, the more successful your presentation will be, irrespective of content.
    • Strike a power pose before you, even if it doesn’t really work.
  • Prepare.
    • Get your presentation done early. I always fail at this, but it’s the right way to do it.
    • Learn how to make things big– really big– in your demo tools.
    • Get ZoomIt on Windows or at least practice using WindowsKey+ to use the built-in magnifier. Mac also has built in zoom.
    • Eventually, your demos will fail, so make slides which show the demo as it should have gone.
    • Get to your venue early and test your tech. Bring all of the dongles. Many projectors still have only VGA. Even those with HDMI can be flaky.
    • Remember to turn off notifications during your presentation.
    • Get a clicker so you can free yourself from your computer and get closer to your audience.
  • Talk with the audience. Don’t read your slides.
    • If all you’re doing is reading slides, you’re not adding any value.
    • Also, it’s boring.
    • However, when you’re nervous and you have no other choice, it’s better than running out of the room or standing there silently.
    • And if that is the only way you can see yourself presenting for the first time, do it anyway. Your audience will forgive you.
    • The more you prepare, the easier it is to avoid this trap.
  • Explain “why” more than “what”.
    • Motivated audiences are more engaged. Show them why they should pay attention.
    • Also, the “what” is often covered better in documentation and blogs.
    • You will be tempted to write a lot of demos, and people will say that’s what they want, but most demos are visually anticlimactic. It’s the narrative that’s powerful.
    • Connect with your audience using stories. Make your audience the hero who uses your topic to save the day.
    • If you’re brave enough, be vulnerable with your audience. Show them how you failed so they can relate and build trust.
  • Be yourself and be excited.
    • Technical content can be boring. You probably aren’t. Infuse yourself into your talk.
    • Enthusiasm is more important than anything else.
    • Why are you bothering with this if you aren’t excited? It’s a lot of work.
    • Energy and apathy are contagious. Choose wisely.
    • The audience will forgive almost anything if you have the right attitude.

Why bother with all of this? Well, it does help your career; it sets you apart and creates an aura of expertise (whether or not it’s deserved). It can also pay your way to conferences you otherwise couldn’t afford. But ultimately you have to love sharing knowledge and helping people. If you don’t, it will be a chore and a grind, and you won’t be successful.

So pick something– anything– you know and offer to teach it to someone. Then keep taking small steps to build your audience from one to some to many. You will grow through the process and you will help others grow. And that’s good for all of us.

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