Getting up in front of a group and talking about something for any period of time can be scary. But it can also be a great way to share your knowledge, to increase your knowledge, and to help others. In the tech world there is so much to know and learn, it’s basically impossible for an individual to learn everything they need to know on their own. Giving and receiving presentations can be a great way to share certain types of ideas, especially in the tech world. In this blog post I’m not going to try to convince you that you should present (though I would encourage considering it). The goal of this blog post is to give you some ideas on how to get started if you have some interest but no experience yet.
The first challenge you may have when getting started presenting is deciding what to talk about. Deeply technical presentations or presentations given by people with years and years of experience can be very valuable. But they aren’t the only type of valuable presentation. Just because you don’t know everything about a topic doesn’t mean you can’t give a presentation on it. And just because you don’t have years of experience doesn’t mean you don’t have something valuable to share with the world.
For me personally, I find that I do better at presenting when the topic is something that interests me, something I have a lot of experience with, or something that I feel strongly about. If you want to present at a specific event you might have to choose a topic that aligns well with that event, but otherwise I would recommend starting with something that is important to you.
Going from zero experience to doing an hour long presentation in front of a room full of people may be a bigger initial step than you want to take. (Though if you’re comfortable making that big of a step, go for it!) It can be helpful to take some smaller steps first. Here are a few ideas of smaller steps that might help: - Blog posts - If you want a chance to sort through your thoughts at your own pace without the pressure of having a bunch of people staring at you, a blog post can be a great way to do that. Sometimes before doing a presentation I’ll write my ideas down as a blog post to organize my thoughts and to make sure I have enough interesting things to talk about on the topic. If your company (or another organization you’re affiliated with) has a blog (like this one) you could try writing your post there. Or you can always start your own blog. Even if no one reads it you can have a place to write down your ideas. - YouTube - This isn’t one that I’ve tried, but I have talked to other people who put together their own YouTube channel with short versions of things they want to present on. This does get you in front of people (assuming someone watches your videos), but it’s not in real time. It gives you the opportunity to do several takes at what you want to say. That both gets you more practice presenting and allows you editting options after the fact. - Mentoring - For some people, talking to one person at a time in an informal setting can be a lot less intimidating than talking to a room full of people in a formal presentation setting. If that sounds like you, maybe consider finding a person or two that you can help mentor. They can be your co-workers or people you meet at community events. This can also be a great way to help out people new to the tech world. - Lightning talks - Preparing enough material to talk about for an hour can be a lot different than preparing enough material to talk about for 5 minutes. Lightning talks can be a great way to get a little bit of presentation experience before trying something with a bigger commitment. If your work has a venue where volunteers can sign up to give lightning talks that can be an easy way to get started. Many meet ups and user groups set time aside during their meetings for lightning talks. If neither of those are options for you, getting a group of coworkers or friends together might be an option.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. If you’re feeling nervous about doing a large presentation in front of a large group of people, see if there are ways you can reduce the scope of what you’re presenting or who you’re presenting to. That might help you feel less anxious.
When you do decide you want to do a longer presentation there are a lot of options you could explore. Here are a few: - Company events - Does your company have one or more venues where you could present? Many employers have some type of brown bag or other type of learning program where internal presenters share materials with their co-workers. Others have a quarterly (or annual or some other cadence) conference-like event. If your company has something like this you might consider trying to present at this type of event. Depending on your company, these events might be smaller than other events. And you might be presenting to people you work with every day instead of total strangers (which I guess could be a pro or a con). If your company doesn’t have something like this but it sound interesting to you, you might consider trying to start it. - User groups - Many areas have meet up or user groups that have presentations. Some are technology specific (e.g. Node.js, Android development, .NET, etc.) while others are more general (e.g. software development, machine learning, software craftsmanship/crafters, etc.). Many of these groups have a presentation as part of their regular meetings. If they do, they are probably always on the look out for people to give presentations. If you don’t already attend a meeting or two like this, try to find one that fits your interests and schedule. If you do attend one, talk to the organizers about what it would take to do a presentation. - Local conferences - There might be a conference across the country that fits exactly what you want to present. If so, try to present at that conference. But travel and hotel accomodations as well as time away from work can make that type of presentation experience more complicated. It’s also worth looking to see if there are any local conferences near where you live that accept volunteer presenters. Some local conferences explicitly try to involve new presenters. Many local conferences are free or lower cost, so attendees may be a bit more forgiving than those at a conference that costs thousands of dollars to attend.
Whether you’re taking a smaller step to get prepared to present or doing a presentation at a user group or a conference, there are a few things that I’ve found helpful.
Most conferences or user groups have some sort of call for papers (CFP) or request for proposals (RFP) process. If you want to present at one of these event find out what the process is, and most importantly, when the deadlines are. It can be discouraging to get all excited about submitting a proposal to a conference only to find out you missed the submission deadline by a few weeks or months and will have to wait for another year to submit another proposal. If you can talk directly to one of the event organizers they can probably give you that info. Hopefully the website for the event has that information. If the website doesn’t have information about the submission process but does have contact information, try using that contact information to ask about the process.
Figure out what helps you feel comfortable. For me, being able to go over my presentation multiple times by myself (to figure out wording and timing and everything) helps me feel a lot more comfortable. Practicing on your own might be what helps you feel more comfortable. Practicing in front of a small group first might help. Having good notes that you can reference might help. Integrating your favorite internet meme or pictures of your cat might help. Try to find things that will help you feel more comfortable and confident when you’re presenting.
Find other people who are also interested in presenting. If you have coworkers or friends or people you meet at user groups or conferences who are interested in presenting, get together to talk with them. They might know about good presenting opportunities that you haven’t heard about. If all else fails, go to a user group or a conference and ask one of the presenters for ideas and tips. Most presenters I know are more than happy to help out. That’s usually why they are presenting.
If you are new to presenting, and especially if you are new to software development, don’t feel like you have to be an expert on something in order to share useful information about it. Odds are if you just learned something that you found useful that there are a bunch of other people who would find it useful too. And don’t discount the positive impact that an experience report can have on others who are just a step or two behind you in their journey. Don’t try to pretend that you know more than you really do, but don’t undervalue the experiences you’ve had and the things that you have learned. The Dunning-Kruger effect is real, but so is Impostor Syndrome.
And finally, when you do give a presentation somewhere, make sure you actually can give your presentation. If you need to hook up your computer to a projector, make sure you have any necessary dongles. If you’re not sure what type of hookup will be available, ask someone where you will be presenting. If you will need internet access for your presentation, make sure you know how you’re going to get it and that it will be high enough speed and bandwidth for your needs.
Presenting on technical topics can be very rewarding. It can be a great way to help others and to learn more about topics you’re interested in. But it can also be scary. Hopefully this blog post has given you a few ideas about how to start making presenting a little less scary.