I don’t know what I’m talking about but he does…

Tonight was the open space discussion meeting on technology at MapQuest. I’ve never been to one of these before. I didn’t know how to act. I was one of the facilitators there and as such I was expected to speak intelligently on any technologies, topics of interest to the overall group. I have a crazy love/fear of public speaking. Basically I suck at it. I’m a shy person in general and not a good conversationalist. I suck at conversation. I’m terrible at on the fly thinking but yet I love to thrust myself into situations where I have no choice but to come up with material on the fly because I love being the center of attention but I hate planning. So tonight was another one of those situations, only I did do a fair amount of planning. You can’t plan for the unexpected so whatever planning I thought I did was in vain.

At my company I happen to work with some of the top developers in the state. These are likely the top developers in America and like in top in the world, some of them. Those developers who know their stuff know who they are. We got a lot of great guys who are much better at things like organization, public speaking, and engaging the audience. I wish I were as cool as them. Tonight wasn’t too bad, though. I met an old friend and made some new friends. I spoke as smartly as I couldn’t on things that are still brand new to me. I held my tongue on topics that were considered company hush hush. And I gave an overall marginal speech on Java mobile technology. Of course I focused heavily on software development life cycle which lead into discussion on how we use Maven.

What I’ve learned is that I tend to present too technical to people who would otherwise be interested in the high level ideas above the frameworks. As a gear head (and I am the most hardcore gear head you’ll ever meet, if you ever actually meet me… most of you know me solely from my blabbering on this site) I can’t help but obsess over the nuts and bolts behind the thing that people care most about. but enough about me because I don’t know what I’m talking about. Mobile is still new to me and I learn new things each day.

I want to speak on some cool cats in my company. One guy in particular really had me engaged in another recent developer gathering we had about a week ago. He conducted an open find-the-bug detective thing where we as a group were all invited to go through an exercise of tracking down a thread deadlock condition on a Java server application. (Simplified, a deadlock is when the computer is trying to do “thing A” and “thing B” at the same time but “thing A” is waiting for “thing B” to complete while “thing B” is actually waiting for “thing A”. It’s kinda like those awkward moments on the news where the anchor man starts to speak over the interviewee phoned in over satellite but pauses because of the delay while the interviewee interrupts his speech to let the anchor man finish talking, or even better described in this uncomfortable dance situation.) The concept was brilliant, the presentation was engaging, and the guy really knows his stuff. As a result I want to lay out what I think is essential for a good presentation or tech talk.

Make sure the meat of what you say is applicable, relevant to things your audience deals with or needs to deal with, and full of good information. I screwed this up on a Maven talk I gave where I focused sooo heavily on live demos and pretty slideshows with razzle dazzle that I lost focus of giving out meaningful information.

Forget Razzle Dazzle
It’s cool to have text fly in from the lower left with a slight spiral using PowerPoint or key note but what it takes away from the actual content (see above) actually hurts the overall presentation. Unless your presenting a stellar new UI framework, interior decoration idea, art project, or other visual product where razzle in the key ingredient leave this crap out of your slideshows. Your audience will appreciate it and it will leave you more time to focus on content (see above).

I don’t care how chock full of goodness your content is if your delivery suffers (as mine always does due to nervousness caused by not being prepared) then your message wil never get across. Delivery is actually more important than content because even a presentation with no relevant content will be received well and entice return vistors when delivered correctly. Delivery has nothing to do with razzle dazzle and special effects. you can have vanilla all white slides with black text but deliver it in such a way that the audience will swear that you used every eye candy feature in Power Point. Delivery is how you speak to the audience and how well you get them engaged.

Eye contact
Speaks to delivery. If you maintain eye contact with not just one but every member of the audience your message will be well received. Don’t make the mistake I always make of having a friend in the audience and focusing your message to the one person that appears engaged. The rest of the audience will feel ignored and that friend will feel singled out or stared at. If your eyes dance from one audience member to another everyone will feel included even if they aren’t interested.

As a presenter you have to be able to listen to your audience. Allow questions to interrupt but be careful not to get distracted by too many interim questions. the classic “hold all questions to the end” makes your audience (especially programmers like myself who love to ask what they believe are tough thought-provoking questions but are actually carefully self-crafted to make themselves sound more intelligent than the presenter) feel less a part of the overall presentation. Allow 1-3 interim questions whith brief answers while leaving the full elaboration for the end. Something like, “is it hard to target different types of phones?” can be quickly answered with, “we do face a number of challenges” while continuing with the current topic. At the end you can reflect with, “now someone asked about porting. Here’s some specifics that do do to ease our pain…” that shows both that you considered the questioneer and that you thought their concern was relevant enough to remember at the conclusion.

Fonts And amount of text
Use big and non-fancy fonts in any of your slides. Your audience needs to read your content. Sans serif works best and 24 point should be the smallest unless you have a small room full of people already familiar with the material. Also pay attention that your slides include only general topics and not full stories. Paragraphs are for word processors and people don’t come to your presentation to learn to speed read. The less text you put up the better.

These are tips that apply to any presentation that you give. They are coming from a person who has yet to give what I feel to be an adequate or above average presentation to take it with a grain of salt (and a sip of beer). One of these days I’ll actually follow some of the advice I give to others, but until then you are all stuck being my guinea pigs. Hit me up party people.

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