This is a T-SQL Tuesday Post in response to Andy Bek’s kick off about growing new speakers. You can write your own advice for new speakers, or blog your journey to speaking.

I’m always trying to encourage new speakers and the biggest fear I hear is “I won’t be any good at it”. Well, you won’t be perfect at it, that’s for sure. You may start off really bad at it. I’m here to tell you “That’s OK”!

Seriously, like most things in life the first you do something is unlikely to be your best ever attempt at it. Think back to the first time you’ve done most things and you’ll probably remember how you screwed it up, or how you had to do something super simple. That’s how we begin.

The big trick is to minimise two things:

  1. The likelihood of being awful
  2. The likelihood of wrecking your reputation

Minimising awfulness

People have been delivering presentations for thousands of years. There are a lot of materials devoted to the topic out there. Research is your friend! Don’t give yourself analysis paralysis by saying you have to read for years, but checking out some online articles will definitely stand you in good stead. Most advice boils down to:

  1. Nail the intro – make sure you have a thorough introduction and practice it as starting well is the hardest thing to do when nervous
  2. Sensible flow – have a beginning where you set the scene, a middle where you explore the topic, and a conclusion where you bring it all together
  3. Only do demos if you’ve tested and practised it lots of times (and have a video backup of it!)
  4. Err on too few words than too many on the slides
  5. Practice your talk out loud

Preparedness is your friend. The more effort you put into building a solid presentation and your comfort level at delivering it, the better it is likely to be.

Whenever you do anything that takes practice to hone, you don’t start off trying to build a masterpiece. You start off with simple pieces. Don’t do high-risk topics or styles, until you’ve nailed the basics. As you hone your skills, you can take more risks.

Minimising reputation risk

This is easy. DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT present at a ginormous conference for your first presentation.

You need to be hitting up local user groups with smallish numbers of attendees to inflict your first talks on. I’ve seen stellar first timer presentations, most are mediocre, very few are terrible. None of those outcomes is disastrous unless you majorly screw up in front of a few hundred people! Everyone in the room at the user group will think you’re tremendously brave for getting up and presenting and wants you to succeed.

In terms of which user group to pick, some folks recommend your local one where you are comfortable with the people, and others advise going somewhere far away so the people won’t know who you are. Go with whichever one scares you less. Remember, you’re picking the first location to minimise risk, in order, to minimise fear.

As you practice, you can grow your audience size and the pressure on you to deliver a top-notch talk. Use the small events to get feedback so you can improve for the big events.

That’s it!

Start, start small, learn, iterate – it’s basically the agile methodology applied to presenting. We allow for technological outputs to start out small, simple, and not perfect so why aren’t we applying the same thing to our talks?

A note to (potential) new speakers: It’s ok not to be perfect!
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One thought on “A note to (potential) new speakers: It’s ok not to be perfect!

  • 27/11/2016 at 22:57

    Yes to everything Steph wrote.

    Also, thank you for pushing me to submit my first sessions. It’s made a massive difference to my confidence and I wouldn’t be where I am now without that push from Steph 2 years ago at SQL Bits.

    To the reader who is considering giving their first talk: Just do it. I promise you, the worst case scenario is way less bad than you think.

    Look how badly I murdered the beginning of this talk… And they still asked me to do it again.

    Really, the vast majority of people are also terrified of speaking, and for that reason they respect anyone who has the guts to try, even if they mess it up.

    And if you do mess it up noone will care. So you messed up a talk, your slides were dull, your demo broke and someone asked a question that you didn’t know the answer to… If you open with “this is my first talk. I’m a bit nervous but I’m going to give it all I’ve got” the audience will want you to succeed, they’ll forgive you for every mistake and give you the benefit of the doubt wherever possible. And if they are the sort of people that won’t give first time speakers the benefit of the doubt you probably don’t want to work with them anyway.

    Just do it. After one session you’ll either decide you hated it and move on with your life, or any other outcome will be positive – wherever it leads you.


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