Justin Etheredge at CodeThinked has asked for people to post some tips and tricks for giving Technical Presentations. His idea is great: provide a repository of Best Practices for technical presenters written by the presenters themselves. The following is my contribution to the cause.
Confidence is King
One thing that keeps never-before presenters from becoming first-time presenters is the misconception that we (the presenters) are all experts on our given topic. The term expert is pretty specious these days, and as such has lost some of its value. [Digression: If you aren’t sure what I mean, check out The 4-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferris. It includes a simple checklist on how to become an ‘Expert’.] Yes, most of us select topics we feel pretty comfortable about, but I know some presenters who intentionally select topics they aren’t familiar with just so they have some motivation to dig in and learn the topic.
Unless you are watching a presentation from a known authority, like ScottGu, take the presenter and the material with a grain of salt. Yes, you should rightfully expect that they know what they are talking about, but understand that this is largely because they spent the time preparing the material. They have invested the time necessary to research, learn, test, and try the particular techniques involved. They have developed a presentation with an eye towards organization, clarity, and delivery. And they have practiced giving the presentation, probably more than once. They appear to know what they are talking about because, well, after all that they probably do!
My point is, if you did this kind of leg work on a particular topic, you would be just as qualified to present. It’s not that presenters have some special power or ability, or that they have been anointed by Microsoft, it’s just that they have put in the time and learned the material. And a funny thing happens when you know the material: you have confidence, and in public speaking Confidence is King.
Be Humble: No B.S.
If you’ve ever seen a presenter try to B.S. his way out of something, then you know exactly what I mean. An audience can tell right away if you don’t know something, and it can get ugly if not handled properly. Fortunately, yours truly is here to share with you the magic phrase that will get you out of this jam. Ready? OK, repeat after me: “I… don’t… know.” You might want to practice it a few times to make sure it rolls off the tongue naturally.
All kidding aside, don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know an answer. It is OK to make an educated guess, but if you are guessing or are not completely sure of the answer, say so! I promise that everyone in the room will understand and appreciate your honesty, which will only serve to increase your credibility.
How you handle it is up to you. A lot of presenters will promise to find the answer and post it or email it. You could give suggestions for where the questioner can look, or what other person to ask. You can even volunteer to meet with the questioner after the presentation. However you choose to handle it is fine, just be prepared because it will happen. Don’t let it derail your presentation, just handle it and get back to your material.
Assuming you know your material, there is another thing that will boost your confidence: you must realize that they are there listening to you for a reason. Hopefully, the reason is that you know something they want to learn. Coming to grips with this can itself generate confidence and improve the presentation. But, don’t get cocky! Stay humble and remember the presentation is not about you, it is about the exchange of information. You are simply a conduit for that exchange.
To sum it up, have confidence in your knowledge and your presentation. If you have done your preparation properly, then you’ll do fine. But don’t let it go to your head: remain humble and don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something. Now, say it with me…
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