Posts Tagged ‘ professional development

Speaking

This past weekend, I had the most challenging experience I’ve ever encountered as it relates to speaking in public.

I’ve been blessed with opportunities to speak at Dev Connections, SQL Saturday events, User Group events and of course, in my day to day life as a consultant I speak to differing audiences on a fairly regular basis.

I’ve read a lot over the years as it pertains to giving a good presentation, I’ve seen many good public speakers and some real duds as well.

However, I now have a new found appreciation for folks who speak to audiences on manners that aren’t technical or in general, targeted topics / concepts.

This past weekend I gave a eulogy.

The individual I gave it for was close to me, however, even if they hadn’t been, I believe that the same challenges would have existed.

It’s interesting – one of the first rules in public speaking is to “Know Thy Audience” – this is, of course critically important to being an effective speaker, consultant, employee, manager, CxO, etc…
So, what is the audience for a eulogy?

Well, it’s obvious, right?

Clearly, it’s full of people who knew the deceased – but then there are some wrinkles in the midst of that – differing relationships – from Mother, Daughter, Wife, Husband, Son, Father, Brother, Sister, 1st cousin, 8th cousin, grandkids, friends, colleagues, etc… and then in the midst of that wrinkle there are some very significant generational gaps. From toddlers to seniors who were born during the great depression.

Wow. Imagine preparing your favorite technical session with that audience in mind – and then, do it without a slide deck. Do it when EVERYONE is watching YOU. Do it when you see tears streaming down a cheek. Do it when there are tears streaming down your cheek and the only thing you can feel is a lump in your throat the size of a grapefruit.

The purpose of this post is to challenge you, the reader, to get up – be bold. Speak. It’s to challenge you in your personal life. Take that risk. I don’t know what it is, but take it. There is but this moment in life, seize it.
It’s tough, I’m not going to lie. However, it does get easier. You will get better. You’ve heard the old adage a thousand times “Practice makes perfect” – while I’m not sure about the “perfection” aspect of it, it certainly makes one better, a lot better.

Had I not faced my fear of speaking in front of my peers on technically related items, I’m not sure how the Eulogy would have turned out – and let’s face it, what’s more important in life, providing a good technical session or being able to prepare oneself for a life event that takes on a very real sense of importance?

I’m not trying to diminish or otherwise negate the importance of technical sessions – they have provided me with a great deal of knowledge over the years and I have certainly benefitted from them, however, having attended many of them and given more than a handful, it’s my experience that, having given a eulogy, my approach to giving technical sessions is going to change – perhaps drastically.

First and foremost, preparation.

In the normal course of giving a technical presentation, I will typically come up with what I think is a good idea. Then I’ll scribe an outline, put together the demo’s I believe illustrate the points / relevant technical details and then create some slides, add the detail to my outline and practice.

In the course of giving the eulogy – it was a very different experience. First, I ASKED many people what they thought of different ideas, I bounced around different stories, I THOUGHT a lot about the audience. I wrote some notes, scribbled down thoughts over the course of a day or two, then sat down and wrote it out.

Then I practiced. I practiced in a way I hadn’t before. I practiced speaking the eulogy out loud with my favorite music playing. I practiced it while driving the car. I practiced it walking around. I practiced it while hitting golf balls.
This was different for me – it had been my intent to practice in enough “distracted” environments that when it came time to do it “live”, I’d be ready for the grapefruit in my throat, I’d be ready for the faces in the audience who were looking at me.
And you know what? It worked. Was my delivery flawless? No. Did I recite the eulogy from memory without once checking my notes? No. Did I have some unexpected hiccups? Yup. Did they throw me? Nope.
Was I able to connect with every person in the Church? I haven’t a clue – but I do know that out of the ~ 175 folks in attendance, I was blessed to hear many of them say “thank you, it was so eloquent, etc…” Afterwards, I asked a couple of different generational groups what they heard me say – and guess what? They heard the same thing. Victory. In a big, huge way.

How many times have you walked out of a technical presentation with a different set of “facts” or even “ideas” about the subject matter than the guy who was sitting next to you? I can answer that for you, it happens very often.

Now, I’ll likely take some flak for this, and all I can say is “bring it on” – here you are: if your session has folks walking out with differing ideas of what you just spoke about, you weren’t as effective as you’d hoped. Yup, that’s right, as a speaker, you failed them, and you failed yourself.

I’m guilty of this. I’m absolutely certain that there’s been ambiguity in my sessions. I always chalked it up to “different people have different levels of understanding”, so, it’s not on me.

But guess what? It is.

Here’s the thing – when I give presentations to my clients, I can often anticipate the outcome of the conversation. If I cannot anticipate the questions which will come my way, based on information which I’ve delivered, then either I don’t know my subject area well enough or I haven’t done enough due diligence. If the “takeaways” from a client presentation are not 100 percent clear to the client and myself, I’ve failed us both and my time as being their consultant will surely come to an end at some point down the road.

This is where I see this fork in the road. Giving a presentation to a client or giving a eulogy both have different levels of meaning and importance. Giving a session at a conference doesn’t have the same types of pressure. There are different pressures with technical conferences – there’s the being grilled / vetted by your peers if you are wrong. There’s absolutely accountability from an accuracy of the presentation standpoint.

BUT,

There’s NOT any accountability from the perspective of WHAT you conveyed to your audience in terms of the HOW’s and WHEN’s and WHY’s.

This is really important and I’m *finally* getting to the heart of this post.

If you are going to give a presentation or if you are going to attend a presentation and the speaker makes a statement such as “this technology will save your DBA staff so much time” or “this new feature will help increase your performance” – stop. Full stop. Are you sure? How sure are you? I’ll answer this for you, you aren’t. Neither the speaker, nor the attendee.

However, as the speaker, you can be sure. As the attendee, it’s your responsibility to be sure.

It’s always amazed me how often I’ll give a presentation and the amount of questions at the end aren’t more numerous or specific with implementation details or their specific environment or challenge.

Know Thy Audience pertains to the speaker. Know Thy Self pertains to the attendee and Mr. / Ms. Attendee, if you don’t know the subject material being presented on then please do one of two things, either learn it before you attend the session or spend a significant amount of time after the session learning WHEN and WHY it *might* be a good idea to implement.

I cannot count, on both hands or feet, how many times I’ve seen terrific technology used in the wrong manner, resulting in botched software, poor quality, high TCO, headaches, nightmares, well, you get the idea.

This also comes back to an old post on technical debt I wrote once. It feeds into it perfectly and, for those of you who speak, you have a larger responsibility, and for those attendees, you also have a larger responsibility. Don’t feed the monster which is technical debt. While we’ve all done it, most often out of the best of intentions, there exists an opportunity to acknowledge the reality and learn from it.

So, here’s the challenge to the speakers out there – focus less on breadth and depth of a topic and focus more on the relevance of a topic. Attendees, do yourself and your respective companies a huge service and ensure that you are ready for the material which is about to be presented.