A Technical Presenter’s Journey Part 6: Tape Thyself

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After missing Monday due to a holiday here in the United States, we are back today with part 6 of my technical presenting series. If you’d like to participate in this series, please contact me via the link above!

Today’s post is brought to us by Lee Dumond over at LeeDumond.com.

Performers do it. Politicians do it. Pro athletes do it. Why not you? If you want to get better at any activity – whether it’s delivering presentations, or tacking a few extra yards to your tee shot – one of the most effective methods is to watch yourself in action.


Justin Etheredge over at CodeThinked has put out a call soliciting tips on giving technical presentations. Today I’m writing about one technique that’s helped me a great deal to become a better teacher and presenter.

Presentation I believe that good, honest feedback is crucial for improving your performance as a public speaker. However, the methods we use to gather that feedback are often flawed.

For example, it’s natural to ask a friend or colleague in the audience how he or she thinks we did. On occasion, this tactic may actually yield a valuable nugget or two. However, more often than not – especially if your friend thinks you really flopped –they will straight up lie to you. You know this,because you’ve done it. Everyone has, at one time or another. It’s just a lot easier to give a buddy a pat on the back and say “I think you did great” than to risk hurt feelings and possibly a damaged relationship by being brutally honest, even when brutal honesty is what’s needed most.

Justin’s earlier post in which he offered a critique of his own performance at the Hampton Roads User Group reveals another flawed approach (sorry Justin…):

Since the user group was about 2 hours away I had plenty of time to let the evening roll about in my head and I came to several conclusions.

Relying on your own impression of how a presentation went is even more fraught with peril, because you will lie to yourself – more readily than others will, in fact. Not on purpose, mind you. But it’s simply a fact that we do not see ourselves as others see us. True, complete, accurate, 20/20 self-awareness is not a trait most human beings possess. Not only are you very likely to gloss over or completely miss important points about your performance, you are just as likely to be harder on yourself than is really warranted or necessary in other areas. This will cause you to waste time and effort working on things that seem of exaggerated importance to you, but may not be truly useful in improving your overall performance as perceived by your audience.

The Camera Never Blinks

Camera A video camera is an invaluable tool for showing you exactly how you did, without pretense or prejudice.The camera won’t lie. The camera doesn’t care about hurting your feelings. The camera isn’t tinged by the fuzzy lens of self-perception.

If you want to get better at giving technical presentations, you should be recording every single one them on video. First, ask the host if they’ll be taping your presentation. If they are, make it clear that you’d like a copy sent to you as soon as it’s available. If not, ask if it’s okay if you bring your own camera.

You don’t need anything fancy here – an el-cheapo camcorder will do, along with a tripod and an AC adapter (you don’t want to be running out of battery juice right in the middle of your talk). Just set the rig up in the back of the room well in advance, and turn it on 10 minutes or so before you start. If you can, zoom out so that you can get as much of the audience (from the back, obviously) in the shot as you can.

Of course, if at all possible, you should use a HDD or solid-state camera that will allow recording of the entire presentation without having to swap out media.

Tips for Video Self-Critiquing

Once you have the video in your hot little hands, here are a few viewing tips:

  • Resist the temptation to watch the video as soon as you get home. Letting a day or two pass will let you approach it with a bit more perspective.
  • If you aren’t accustomed to watching yourself on video, you’re going to be very uncomfortable doing so at first. You won’t be able to glean very much feedback while you’re shuddering with embarrassment. It may take a few screenings before you get over the initial visceral reaction; once you do, you’ll be ready to approach it in a more detached (and therefore productive) manner. Again, perspective is key.
  • Take notes as you watch. Jot down anything that “jumps out” at you or strikes you as significant.
  • Try to answer as many of the following questions as you can:
    • How did I sound? How was my speaking from a purely physical standpoint? Was I loud enough? Did I enunciate clearly, or was I mumbling? Do I need to work on my diction?
    • How did I look? Did I look nervous, or confident? Flustered, or in control? Did I display any odd verbal or physical ticks that I need to work on eliminating?
    • How was the pacing? Did I use effective techniques to vary the tempo, mix it up, and keep things interesting? Or did I just stick to a monotonous pace all the way through? Were there parts where the presentation seemed to drag a bit? Did I end up rushing it at the end to get it all in? Did I make good use of my time?
    • Did I make good use of my visual aids? Did the presentation materials seems detailed enough, or too detailed? Did the slides serve their function of supporting the verbal portion of the talk, or did it seem as though my talk was merely supporting the slides?
    • Was the presentation properly focused on the central topic? Did it seem too broad, or too narrow? Did I stick to my notes and my game plan, or did I let myself get sidetracked and go off on tangents?
    • How quickly and effectively was I able to recover from the unexpected – an equipment glitch, a code example that didn’t work, or a rude or hostile audience member? Was I able to pull it together when I needed to?
    • How did the audience respond? Did the material seem to go over their heads, or did they find it too trivial? Did they seem engaged, or bored? Were there portions of the talk where people seemed to react more positively or negatively? 

Remember, when you’re in the fishbowl, everything appears magnified. In the heat of a presentation, the slightest misstatement can be humiliating, the tiniest glitch may seem like a disaster, and a single droopy eyelid from the audience makes you feel like you’re about to get the hook. You will be surprised by how differently things appear given a little time, distance, and the neutral context the video camera provides.

Take a Cue From a Champion

Whether it’s your first presentation or your hundredth, I believe any presenter can benefit from systematically analyzing his or her performance via video, much the same way as a professional athlete would.

In 2002 Tiger Woods, with the aid of a high speed camera, was able to analyze flaws in his swing and correct them.

I felt like I could get better. People thought it was asinine for me to change my swing after I won the Masters by 12 shots. … Why would you want to change that? Well, I thought I could become better."

If the world’s most famous athlete can use video to improve his game, so can you!

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