Top 10 speaking tips for engineers

by Stephen Buxton

There’s less than a month to go before MarkLogic World 2012, the biggest event in the MarkLogic calendar. This is the third year I’ve wrangled the technical talks, and I’ve built up a set of tips for the speakers. Most of the speakers are engineers, and many of them rarely (if ever) speak in public. It occurred to me that others might be in a similar situation—someone with a very technical background who, once a year or so, represents his/her company and product to a large audience.

So here are my “Top 10” speaker guidelines for engineers speaking at MarkLogic’s user conference.

  1. Be in the room, ready to give your talk, at least 10 minutes before the start date. Don’t show up 2 minutes before the talk starts with a USB drive containing your presentation.

  2. Rehearse your final talk. Make sure you proofread and rehearse the final-final version of your deck, preferably out loud—to your wife/husband/dog. The more comfortable you are with the material the more relaxed and confident you will be on the day.

  3. Practice the opening. The first 30 seconds of a talk is when you’re going be most nervous (even if you’ve presented hundreds of times before). Practice what you’re going to say in those first 30 seconds, so you know it word-for-word. That’ll get you off and running smoothly, and you don’t risk missing something important like your name or title. Some people also memorize the slide transitions—the last thing you say on a slide, and the first thing you say on the next. This makes slide transitions smoother, and helps with pacing.

  4. Establish credibility. You may be a world’s expert (or even the world’s expert!) in your topic. But the audience doesn’t know that. Take a few sentences to tell the audience about the work you do. Give them a little bit of background that says why you are uniquely qualified to give this talk.

  5. Set the context. You have probably seen this stuff a dozen times before, and you eat/sleep/breathe the topic area. But a lot of people in the audience haven’t seen any of this material. For those talking about new and unreleased stuff, this may be the first time anyone outside of engineering and a handful of Early Access customers have seen it. Take a couple of slides to set the scene—this is who I am, this is what I’m going to talk about, this is why you care, this is what you may already know about the topic area. Don’t forget to talk about Your Product—blah may be wonderful, but you’re here to talk about how doing blah with Your Product is even more wonderful.

  6. Be enthusiastic and positive. You’re probably presenting a feature you’ve spent the past 6 months building. You know all the edge cases and the limitations and the gray areas. And you’ve rehearsed this presentation so many times you’re reciting bits of it in your sleep. But take a deep breath and realize this is a fantastic new feature that’s brand new to the people in the audience and they are going to get excited about it. It’s going to make their lives easier, it’s going to get them a promotion and stock options and a Ferrari, it’s going to rock their world.

    You don’t need to go all marketing overnight. Think of the first time you showed this thing to a colleague or to your boss—engineers often grab me and say “hey, wanna see something cool?”—capture some of that excitement and passion in your talk.

    You don’t need to lie about capabilities, just “accentuate the positive” (as the old song goes). Most negatives can be turned around and expressed as a positive. Sometimes this is subtle:

    • “it probably won’t do more than X/sec” -> “it can do as much as X/sec”
    • “it takes 50% less time” -> “it’s twice as fast”
    • “it won’t do X, it won’t do Y, and it certainly won’t do Z” -> “it will do A and B and even C!”

    It’s OK to say “this is still under development”, or “we’re in the early stages of testing this new feature”; it’s OK to answer questions with “it doesn’t do that, but it does this”. Don’t be apologetic (no software does everything anyone can ask for). If you don’t believe that your feature is wonderful, or if you think it can’t be described in a positive way, then you need to have a serious talk with your manager.

  7. What do you want people to take away from your talk? If you’re talking about some product feature, you want people to come away thinking:

    • I know what this feature is
    • I know why it’s useful to me
    • I’m excited about the possibilities
    • I can see how easy this would be for me to use
    • I have a general idea of how to get started with it, and I know where to look for more info if I get stuck

    Plus:

    • that’s a really smart guy
    • that’s someone really important, and I got to hear them talk in person!

    Conference sessions can be technical without being tutorials. You don’t need to teach people everything about a feature—they can go look that up later, and they will, if they know what the feature is, why it’s useful to them, and they’re excited about the possibilities.

    Look out for “so what?” and “it’s in the docs”.

    • if someone can say “so what?” to any bullet or voiceover point, take it out
    • if there’s a level of detail where someone would have to look it up in the doc no matter what you say about it, leave it out

    Get the concepts across, get people excited about the possibilities, and give pointers to where to look stuff up. Talk about what and how, but lead with the why.

  8. Practice the closing. A conference audience takes in a lot of information during a session. Have one or two summary slides at the end that say what you’ve covered, and emphasize why they should care (what’s in it for me?). If you do both the opening and the closing well, “book-ending” the talk with context, main points, and some structure, then you can relax in the middle.

  9. Polish your presentation style.

    • Start each sentence with a real word (as opposed to “so”, “OK”).
    • Don’t say “um”, “y’know”, “so”, “like” too much.
    • Don’t sigh.
    • Don’t try to avoid silence at all costs - it’s OK to pause and take a breath.
    • Don’t stare at the next slide like you’ve never seen it before.
    • Don’t point to the slide (you may not be able to on the day). Use a mouse if you need to.
    • Don’t look at the projected slide – make eye contact with the audience, and look down at your laptop when you need to.
    • If you’re wearing a mike, don’t keep turning your head as you speak (your voice will cut in and out).
    • And don’t forget many of the sessions are being recorded – even if everyone in the room can hear you, or hear a question from the floor, it will only make it to the recording if you say it into the mike.
  10. We’re all selling. Again, don’t forget to talk about Your Product – blah may be wonderful, but you’re here to talk about how doing blah with Your Product is even more wonderful. Bottom line, you want people to be more likely to buy more of Your Product after hearing your talk.

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