How I Wrote my First Technical Presentation

After working in development for 13 years I finally gave my first technical presentation last week, and I wanted to share my experience in the hopes that it might help someone else.

“Just write a great description for your talk, send it in, and then you’ll have no choice but to pull it together sometime before the conference.” As I gave this advice to a friend, I saw that this could be the answer to my own public speaking aversion as well.  If I waited until after I had put together a great presentation it was just never going to happen.

So, a few weeks later I sent an email to a local user group suggesting a topic I had recently learned quite a bit about and implemented for work, the Apache Solr Search Server. He was very receptive and we set a date about one month away, on which I would give the presentation.

The panic set in two weeks from the presentation date. I thought I should learn more about Apache Solr and desperately tried to study the book I had, but kept finding myself too anxious to do anything but re-scan the same paragraph over and over (which I fruitlessly forced myself to do for way too long).  Then, when I saw the date of my talk was a little over a week away I began on the slides.  It was the first time I had used PowerPoint in over a decade.  I had no idea how to start so I just forced myself to keep making slides until I had about 15, which I thought was a good start for a 30-minute presentation.  This took quite a few hours and quite a few beers.  They were terrible slides and I knew it, basically just lists of bullet-points.  And my self-doubt kept interrupting after each one saying, “this sucks, your topic sucks and so do you.”  Which is hard to get past when the work you are doing does actually suck.  And so it was with great difficulty that I finished my first draft.

A couple saintly friends of mine were willing to sit through my first practice. Not only were they terrible slides, but it was a boring topic as well and I was not a good presenter. They stopped me shortly after I had begun and said they were having trouble following. I hadn’t defined several terms. I hadn’t really said what Apache Solr was. I hadn’t explained why someone might want to use it. It was hard for them to pay attention when they didn’t know the relevance. It was just me talking about configuration files. Instead, they said, I should tell a story. ( I thought, “Once upon a time there was this software program…”) But they were right, and I had to write the whole thing over again, which I did that very night, with a few less beers this time.

Thus began my endless rounds of practicing, and then tearing apart my slides. I practiced in front of both technical and non-technical people. I ended up defining every technical term I used, even things I was pretty sure my audience would know, such as API.  As my sister advised, it takes 10 seconds to offer a quick definition and it is a kindness to anyone who might not know. Slowly my presentation took on a shape with an introduction, middle, and conclusion, and with all necessary pieces such as About Me and Questions?

I allowed the rising panic I felt as the date approached to drive me to keep practicing. I got pretty good at explaining my slides. I had even put in a few that made people laugh. I practiced 6 times in all.

On the day of my presentation, I was nervous still (maybe the panic had just become habit by then) but felt more confident due to all the time I had put in.  If I didn’t do well, at least I had given it my best shot, but I was pretty sure I had beat that presentation into something decent. Finally it was time to speak, and it went pretty good. The audience laughed at the appropriate spots. A few times I felt like my knees were trembling but the feedback I got was that I didn’t seem nervous. (Evidence that nobody can tell) At the last minute I had decided to demo an app made with that technology so they could see it in action, and that ended up not working, but I was able to skip over that pretty quickly. It was just extra anyway, not fundamental to understanding my topic. I told my audience I was a new public speaker and asked for any feedback they might have (something I read in “Lean In”), and everyone said I did great and there was nothing negative.

Then I was so relieved to be done and have this monkey of a presentation off my back. I was proud of myself for doing something that scared me so much, and I had created a pretty good talk that I could give again. It was surprising, not only to me but to those friends who had watched my initial efforts, how much improved my final presentation was–almost unbelievable. And I have volunteered to give it again already, to a different group in a few weeks, and I’m not that nervous about it anymore.

So the moral to this story is that all you have to do to speak in public is find somewhere to start and keep going.

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