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Sheelah Brennan

On Conquering Fear: How to Give a Successful Technical Presentation

I have a confession to make: I've always had a strong fear of public speaking. Despite taking a public speaking class in college and a workshop or two in the corporate world, it's always been something I've dreaded. It probably has something to do with being an introvert and not one that loves the spotlight.

At the beginning of this year, partly inspired by the Technically Speaking newsletter, I promised myself I'd give one technical presentation to work on overcoming my fears. That big day came last week, when I presented a talk, “Automate All the Things with Grunt” at ABQ Webgeeks, a local friendly group of developers that meets monthly. Although I usually remain nervous during my entire talk, dealing with a dry mouth and use a lot of filler “um's”, this talk was different. I was able to get rid of the nerves very early on and ended up enjoying teaching my audience something that I know very well.

Everyone hears about building a talk that caters to your audience's interests and skill level, but here's some additional strategies that worked for me.

Prepare Early

I deliberately finished the code for my project (accompanying the talk) and presentation slides about two weeks prior to the talk. I think earlier might have been even better.  This allowed me to start practicing my talk regularly over the two weeks, getting more familiar with the workflow that I used to present the material. It also gave me time to tweak the slides as needed when I thought of ways to explain concepts in simpler ways.

Be Comfortable with Your Presentation Technology

I decided to use Git to present my project's code in its different stages, putting each stage in its own Git branch. This way I didn't have to do any live coding, which can be tough. It also made it easy to walk through the different steps in the talk, as all I had to do was use run git checkout <branchname> to go to the next phase. I named each branch numerically so it'd be easier to keep track of what phase I was on.

Have a Backup

I used Keynote for my presentation slides, but I made sure to have a PDF copy of the slides with me (and another PDF copy saved in Dropbox just in case the inevitable happened (“oops — dropped my laptop!”). I initially wanted to use a cloud-based solution for my slides but didn't want to have to rely on a good wifi connection being available since I wasn't sure where I'd be presenting. Since I was using a Git repo with a local copy on my laptop to show code samples, I knew everything would still work fine without wifi.

Remember to Breathe

It sounds funny but it's true. It's easier to just breathe through your chest instead of your diaphragm when you're nervous, which can cause even more tension. As a yoga fan, I've learned a lot over the years about the calming benefits of deep breaths. I found some helpful breathing exercises specifically designed for public speaking anxiety and made sure to make time for a few rounds in the hours before my talk.

Arrive Early

I made sure to arrive at least twenty minutes before my talk so that I had time to get familiar with the room layout, get my laptop set up, test the wifi, etc. Another nice benefit of arriving early enough is that you can greet the audience as they arrive, which can also help quell pre-talk nerves.

Aim for Good Posture and Positive Body Language

It's hard to think about posture and body language during a presentation when you're focused on the speaking itself, but good posture helps you present more confidently and project your voice more easily. I often find gesturing awkward, but even just keeping your hands out of your pockets (caught myself doing that early on — oops!) is a good first step. I also found an interesting Lifehacker article about how thinking about your toes can make you a stronger presenter, so I tried to do that as well.

Get the Audience Involved

I think this was one of the most important strategies for me. By asking for a show of hands at the beginning of the talk (asking a question), I began getting the audience involved. It can help remind you that they are there to learn and are on your side. I also said early on in my talk that questions were welcome at any time. I didn't want to go for a more formal questions-only-at-the-end approach like I had in the corporate world.

Remember Your Talk's Purpose

The purpose of my talk was to teach my audience how to get started with Grunt, a JavaScript-based automation tool, so that they could walk away and feel ready to use it on their own. By keeping in mind that my only purpose was to teach them the basics of Grunt (not to teach them the most advanced-level material, and not to just be liked or seen as some kind of guru), I was able to focus on the education aspect of my talk and try to deliver an easily understood presentation that would help attendees be better developers.

I'm going to definitely be using these same techniques for my next technical presentation, and there is definitely something to be said about doing something regularly that scares you. I hope this helps others out there who have similar doubts about their public speaking abilities.

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