My previous post on interviews and a number of conversations this year inspired me to write this post. I am lucky enough to have been selected to speak at numerous events over the past few years and I am really lucky because I thoroughly enjoy doing them. The feedback I receive from those sessions has been wonderful and it seems that in general most people really enjoy them.
This leads to some misconceptions though. Recently people have said to me “Oh I am not like you, I get far to nervous to do a session” and also “I am so glad that you get just as nervous as me before presenting I thought it was just me” even though I have blogged about this before. I think it is important for newer speakers as well as more established ones to know that more presenters than you realise get very nervous before they speak.
Many don’t publicise this (which is fine) but I will. I get nervous before I speak. I know that it doesn’t show when I start my presentation but it is there. My stomach does back flips, my hands shake, I forget to bring things to the room. I worry that I will make a catastrophic mistake or that I’ll open my mouth and nothing will come out.
It’s ok. It doesn’t last very long, it’s gone at the moment I start speaking. Other speakers need a few moments into their session before they stop really feeling those nerves but it goes.
Whenever I am involved in a conversation about nerves and presentations on twitter I respond in the same way
— Rob Sewell – He/Him (@sqldbawithbeard) December 1, 2016
I love this quote by Joan Jett (young people link) To me it means that you should be nervous before speaking because that energy will ensure that you give a good presentation. If you get up to do a presentation and you are blasé or complacent about it this will be obvious to your audience and not in a good way.
So what to do?
You can’t just approach a presentation knowing that you will be nervous and expect it to be ok. You need to have a background of confidence that your presentation will turn out ok.
You need to practice.
You need to practice your presentation.
You need to practice your presentation out loud.
You need to practice your presentation out loud more than once.
You have to get used to hearing your own voice when presenting. It can be off-putting hearing yourself blathering on and you don’t want that to surprise you or interrupt your flow. This will also help with projecting away from your screen and into the room if you practice correctly. Imagine all the people in the room and try to speak in their direction with your head up and not pointing down at the screen.
You also need to practice your timings, so that you know that your session will fit in the allocated time. Make notes of your timings at certain points in your presentation so that when you are presenting your session you can be aware of whether you are still on your expected time. Some people will speak faster in their actual session than the practice and some slower. As you practice and learn you will understand your own rhythm and cadence and be able to alter it if required. This will help you to build that confidence that your presentation will be ok.
You need to practice.
You need to practice your demos.
You need to practice your demos more than once.
Being able to reset your demos and run them through will teach you more skills. Using Pester to make sure your environment is in place correctly will help.
Run your demos with your machine set up as it will be for the presentation. If you need to have PowerPoint, SSMS, Visual Studio, Visual Studio Code and three SQL instances running then practice with them all running. You should do this so that your timings when running your demos are the same as when you actual present your session. This is even more important if you are doing a webinar as that software will require some of your machines resources which may slow your demo down.
Knowing that your demos are consistently repeatable and how long they will take will also help to give you the confidence that your presentation will be ok.
Deal with them
If we accept that you will have nerves and that’s not a bad thing you have to be able to deal with them, to use them to make your presentation rock.
This is a distinctly personal thing and I have no idea what will work for you. You will have to try some things and see if they work or not. Recently I found a new way for myself
— Rob Sewell – He/Him (@sqldbawithbeard) May 20, 2017
Normally I like to be in the room I will be presenting in before I do my session as this gives me something that I can listen to, I can see and feel the layout of the room and also usually prepare my laptop with the correct programmes and run Pester to make sure all is as it should be for my demos. In Portugal I was chatting with someone and missed the start of the session and because of the room layout I did not want to disturb the presenter before me. Slava Oks was giving a presentation which I started to watch and it was so mind-melting I completely forgot that I was presenting in the next time slot! Surprisingly, I had almost no time to be nervous and for this time that was a good thing. The fact that I had already opened my presentation and run my Pester tests also helped.
Some speakers like to be amongst the hustle and bustle of a common area. Some like the peace and quiet of a speaker room or work area. Some put their headphones on. Some go outside. Some pace up and down. Some sit quietly. Many sit in a session in the room. Find the one that works for you.
A few deep breaths
Then just before you are giving your presentation take a few deep breathes, reassure yourself that it’s all good and go and be amazing.
Deep breaths will also be useful if you start to feel nervousness overtaking you during your session. Stop, take a deep breath and carry on.
Incidentally, during a presentation in Exeter at my first SQL Saturday I felt decidedly light-headed and as if I was going to pass out. I had literally forgotten to breathe!
What about…… ?
Don’t forget to leave time for questions at the end. Don’t practice to fill all of the allotted time with your presentation. You will need some time for the audience to ask you questions about your presentations.
Having people ask you questions is a good thing. It means that people are engaged in your presentation and interested in what you have shared. Well done, you have achieved what you set out to do and this is some validation
Repeat the question
Repeating the question that you are asked is recommended best practice for presentations but it has another advantage to you. It allows you a little thinking time to organise your thoughts and calm your nerves if needed.
I don’t know
It’s ok to answer a question with I don’t know. Follow up by asking if anyone in the audience can add some value or say I will research that and find out for you come and give me your contact details afterwards.
Some events will provide you with feedback from your attendees. You can also ask your friends or other friendly community members for feedback on your session. Use this to improve. Don’t take all the feedback to heart. Look for trends in the data. Don’t let the poor feedback get you down and don’t let the good feedback go to your head (Remember the complacent quote at the top of this post!)
On a side note, whilst providing a score for feedback is useful, what is more useful is some reasoning behind the score. Remember also that the speaker is a human being with feelings. Be kind whilst being constructive.
Don’t let worry about nerves prevent us from hearing the great knowledge and experience that you have to share. You wont be alone in feeling nervous and you can help yourself to overcome those nerves and get as much out of speaking as I do.
You will find members of the SQL community wiling to help you if you visit the SQL Community Slack you can ask questions in #presentingorspeaking