IT Consulting: Public speaking and the equation of fear

I am not one of those people who is a naturally born public speaker. My friends, who have known me for a while (the decade+ club), would attest to this statement. My earliest memory of public speaking was a debate class in high school. In this particular debate the only point I won was that it was not acceptable for the other team to make fun of our inability to debate during the debate!

Fast forward twenty years.

The day before my I was scheduled for my first large-scale public speaking event I walked in the door to the room I was assigned for my presentation and I stopped dead in my tracks. Ok, exactly whose bright idea was it to call this a breakout room when it looked like they just put a roof on a coliseum? I started walking down the center aisle and was looking for Greek columns, marble statues, or worst case, a gladiator or a lion. The only things in this room, other than an incredible number of chairs, were several big screen displays flanking each side of the podium because the room was too deep to actually see the speaker at the front of the room. As I walked to the front of the room, up the stairs, onto the stage, and behind the podium, the sense of dread was a physical shroud around me… What had I done? Who was I kidding? I had no business speaking here, on this stage, to the people who would be out in the audience. I left the presentation room that night with a deep feeling of dread knowing that the next time I walked onto that podium was the real deal.

Welcome to TechEd 2005. Session name: MGT300 Architecting and Deploying Microsoft Operations Manager 2005 and the first large-scale public speaking engagement in my life.

The next day as I walked up on stage (and made my final decision between fight or flight) all I can remember from the first five minutes was stark, raving terror. However, after those first five minutes I came to an incredible realization that I was actually enjoying speaking in front of this crowd. When the presentation was over I ended up speaking for an additional 30 minutes beyond the duration of the presentation to answer extra Q&A. Walking off of the stage was one of the best feelings in my career (only to be later superseded by seeing my first book in Barnes&Noble, System Center Universe 2012 and the CFF story from a humorous perspective).

So what was the result? I scored pretty well for my first time with a 7.7 out of 9. My session was the highest attended MOM session @ TechEd 2005 and I actually got negative feedback because there wasn’t enough seating available in the session; which in hindsight is kind of funny.

Speaker training is a great way to improve presentation skills and is provided for at least some of the conferences. These sessions help presenters to sharpen their presentation skills through working with a highly skilled speaker trainer. As irony (or God, who at times appears to love irony) would have it, I ended up doing my speaker training the day after my presentation. This is ironic because if I had done my speaker training before my presentation there is no way I would have had the guts to walk up on that stage. I walked away from my speaker training with the conviction that my trainer only refrained from calling me stupid and ugly because that would have completed the full book of available insults (flashback to high school debate class goes here).

[Seven years later, no trace of this session exists even on the web. I found an old copy of it and looking through it’s not a bad presentation though not very relevant to most of the world now-a-days as architecting MOM 2005 solutions isn’t exactly an important topic anymore. In hindsight with 47 slides for a 75 minute presentation there were way too many – my speaker trainer was right on the mark with that feedback]

Fast forward seven years.

Recently, I was in my car driving to a public speaking gig on Operations Manager 2012 and the realization struck me like a slap across the face. I had absolutely zero fear about the upcoming presentation. Not a smidge. Not a twinge. Nothing. Being an occasionally introspective guy this brought me to the logical question – WHY?

This brings me to the main topic: Public speaking and the equation of fear

There are four primary factors as to why I had no fear for this presentation: (rating from –10 to +10 with 10 being a best case and -10 being a worse case). Adding each of the four values provides a range from -40 to + 40. I will go through three different examples covering my most recent presentation, System Center Universe 2012, and TechEd 2005.

Please hear me out on this, I’m not expecting that you are going to sit down and figure out the point system for your speaking engagement. This is more of an exercise to point out what key factors are involved in a public speaking engagement so that they can be focus areas to minimize public speaking fear and therefore to make you (and me) better public speakers.

My Rating System:

0 to 40 = Little or no fear

-10 to 0 = Some fear

-20 to –10 = Lots of fear

-40 to –20 = Stark raving terror

Recent public speaking gig example:

For my recent no-fear public speaking engagement the following was the four factors:

  • Experience & training: I’ve now had seven years of public speaking sessions and trained by watching other public speakers and by having had excellent public speaking trainers train me. As of today I score myself as a 5 on a –10 to 10 scale considering all the experience and training I have been fortunate enough to have received up to this point.
  • Subject & presentation familiarity: The topic is a subject that I live and breathe in on a daily basis and have been done so for more than seven years now. For OpsMgr 2012 I’ll give myself a 9 on a 10 scale as I have been studying and working with the product for quite a while now.
  • Venue & Audience: This was a small audience (less than 50 people) in a location that I know well. This is almost an optimal speaking gig, so I would give this a 9 on the 10 scale.
  • Additional Stress: Really none on this one at all. There were no surprises for the presentation and there were other people in attendance that I could lean on (such as my sales folks, presenters on other topics and such). This is almost an optimal speaking gig, so I would put this at a 9 on the 10 scale.

Fear = (Experience & Training) + (Subject & Presentation familiarity) + (Venue & Audience) + (Additional Stress)

Fear = (? + ? + ? + ?)

Fear = (5 + 9 + 9 + 9) = 32

[My score of 32 here makes a lot of sense for why this one was not stressing me out at all]

System Center Universe 2012 example:

System Center Universe was a different result for the same equation:

  • Experience & training: I’ve now had seven years of public speaking sessions and been trained by watching other public speakers and by excellent public speaking trainers. For SCU I am holding to my score of 5.
  • Subject & presentation familiarity: I was somewhat familiar with Virtual Machine Manager but not to the depth that I know Operations Manager. For SCU I would put my score here at a 1.
  • Venue & Audience: This was a huge geographically dispersed audience (in the thousands) in a location that I did not know well. I would put my score here at a –5.
  • Additional Stress: I was a last minute replacement for another speaker who had been snowed in and we had been having technical challenges. I would put my score here at a –8.

Fear = (Experience & Training) + (Subject & Presentation familiarity) + (Venue & Audience) + (Additional Stress)

Fear = (? + ? + ? + ?)

Fear = (5 + 1 + –5 + -8) = -7

[I was sweating bullets at System Center Universe so my score of –7 here makes sense]

TechEd 2005 Example:

TechEd 2005 was a very different result for the same equation:

  • Experience & training: I was pretty new to public speaking having little experience and no formal training. In hindsight I would put myself at a score of –5.
  • Subject & presentation familiarity: While I was solid on MOM 2005 I was only a couple of years into it at that point. In hindsight I would put myself at a score of 0.
  • Venue & Audience: This was a huge room in a location I had not been at before. I would put my score here at a –8.
  • Additional Stress: This was my first large-scale public speaking gig, and at the last minute my colleague who was going to be up there with me wasn’t there. I would put my score here at a –9.

Fear = (Experience & Training) + (Subject & Presentation familiarity) + (Venue & Audience) + (Additional Stress)

Fear = (? + ? + ? + ?)

Fear = (-5 + 0 + –8 + -9) = -22

[My score of –22 which is stark raving terror and accurately describes what I was feeling]

What I’ve learned about public speaking:

Public speaking is an art form, and different artists have different styles. Just because I admire another public speaker’s style doesn’t mean that I could ever speak using their style and vice-versa. I still have a lot to learn about public speaking and have accepted that I will never truly master this art, but I enjoy continuing to hone my skills. I’m sure that there are other lists out there but these have been really useful to me.

These are a combination of my own insights and the notes from my speaker training sessions that I have attended through the years; prioritized top to bottom:

  • Mitigate fear by tackling the components in the equation of fear:
    • Prepare, Practice and then Practice some more: Preparing for a speaking engagement will require significantly more time than the time required to actually do the presentation. Going through the presentation in advance will strengthen the content and provide a better idea of the timing of the material. Dig deeply into the presentation topic so you feel not only confident of your ability to do the presentation but that you can effectively address Q&A requirements (Hint: if you do not know, get the question written down, provide your blog link, research the topic and blog the answer)
    • Train on public speaking and get speaking engagements to get more practice: Watch other public speakers and learn from what they do and how they do it. If you see something that another presenter does that you think is useful – use it! If you see something that a presenter does that you think is not a good idea – avoid it! There are also great organizations like toastmasters who can help to really skill up on presentation skills.
    • Know your venue & audience: Knowing what level of content to provide is a key to a successful presentation. If you are speaking with non-technical folks, doing a 400 level depth technical presentation is a bad idea and the reverse is also true. Knowing the location of the presentation in advance and what is and is not available in the room can help to target how you perform the presentation. Questions such as: Is there a whiteboard? Will I be wearing a microphone? Can audio from my laptop be heard in the room?
    • Avoid additional stress where possible: Get a good night’s sleep the night before. Avoid a lot of coffee or water before the presentation. Turn off cell phones and email.
  • Don’t use too many slides – one every 3-4 minutes at most. Set a pace for the presentation which provides a pause at each slide for the audience to read the slide.
  • Don’t sound like you are reading the manual. In most circumstances, a presenter who is excited to present is far more interesting than one who appears bored by the topic.
  • Get the audience jazzed up for the presentation. Use a pre-show PowerPoint deck if possible.
  • Give-a-ways are a great way to get people to really ask questions.
  • Create a hook for the presentation. Highlight the problem that we are fixing for the hook. Why this is important? What is relevant to this audience?
  • Door points – what do you need to remember – recap it at the end of the presentation.
  • Create a rapport with the audience. I will often discuss how technology impacts my family with examples such as my son’s gaming server in my cloud environment, my wife’s replacement VDI pc, or how to train your son to hack a Kinect through videogame bribery.
  • Ask them to please hold questions until the Q&A piece of the presentation.
  • Your hands should be at sides or in front above the belt. Use chest level gestures.
  • Don’t look at the screen/slides. [No really, don’t look at the screen it is bad for the audience and if you are wearing a microphone it messes up your audio]
  • Getting out from behind the barrier/podium is ok. Walking is Ok, but pacing is not.
  • Spell out acronyms – don’t assume that everyone in the audience knows what a certain TLA means (Three Letter Acronym)
  • Eye contact – identify one person in each of the four quadrants of the audience. Talk to one group looking at that person and then move to the next quadrant on the next talking point.
  • Set the overall theme in the beginning of the presentation.
  • If you are co-presenting or someone is introducing you when you are not presenting, look at the speaker and stand off to the side.

Summary: Hopefully this blog article has brought up a few good ideas to consider related to public speaking. Public speaking does not have to be stressful and can be a really fulfilling experience. Key points to remember: prepare and practice, watch other public speakers, know your audience and the venue for your presentation and avoid additional stress before the presentation.

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