Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Guest post: Presenting gives me nightmares, but I still do it. Here's how.

(Editor's note: Reader Cate Huston escaped from graduate school to be a Software Engineer at Google. She used to be an international hobo, teaching programming in the US and in Shanghai, training in martial arts in China, qualifying as a ski instructor in Canada, and aimlessly wandering around Europe. After nearly 7 years as an expat, she's now readjusting to life in London. You can find her on Twitter (@catehstn) and on her blog, Accidentally in Code, where this post first appeared. It's reposted here with her permission. I've shared with her that Winston Churchill also practiced by trying out key lines on unsuspecting colleagues in advance of his speeches. Thanks, Cate, for contributing a speaker's perspective.)

I get very nervous presenting, although it’s something I do relatively often. This is not out of enthusiasm for getting up on stage, but rather because I find myself in the position of being the least unwilling engineer.
After my last presentation I was told that I didn’t need to be nervous, because I was good at it (and also because I have a “great personality” – awwh) but I don’t think nerves are a bad thing, within moderation, if you harness them to give a better talk.
There are plenty of people I’ve seen present who frankly should be more worried, because they are appalling at getting their points across. Every time I see someone like that present, I think “this is why I worry”.
Anyway, last time I was so nervous that I was actually having nightmares the night before (about someone who used to be underminey and gaslightey, which I don’t think is unrelated to what I was nervous about). I got more and more jittery as my time approached. And then I got up to the podium, completely focused on the points I was going to make, and the stories I was going to tell, and rocked it.
Aside from the compliments above, people commented on:
  • The delivery of my jokes.
  • Their concrete takeaway.
  • An adjustment in their thinking in relation to a point I made (x2).
  • Something they are going to look into as a result.
And ranking in my top two favourite pieces of feedback after a talk:
“And you’re an engineer!” – we have a bad rep, sometimes deservedly so.
(My other favourite piece, from another talk, was “I thought you were going to end with ‘and then we all
die’, but you didn’t. How did you do that?”).


The vast majority of my prep time is spent constructing a narrative. An arc that will tie what I’m going to say together, and then I’ll fit the bits and pieces of factoids into it, as they work. If they don’t, I’ll leave them out. It’s easy to get attached to ideas and facts that you want to talk about, but they aren’t always relevant. If they are but don’t make the cut, they can still come out at question time.


This is very tied to the narrative. A presentation is an opportunity for you to influence people’s behaviour, what do you want them to do? I wanted people to take a broader view on something, understand better where we are, and use that to influence their priorities and choices going forward. We’ll see how that worked out as time goes on, but when the goal is for people to take a broader view, then I need to draw focus away from details. When the goal is influencing priorities and choices, I have to contextualise that and make it clear that this is more important than they realised.


I can’t talk about this better than Denise does on The Eloquent Woman, so I won’t. Groupings are your friend here, details can be grouped, linked together, and lifted up into three distinct strands. Optionally illustrated with pictures of adorable kittens.


You have maximum attention at the start, why waste it telling people who you are? Better to capture that attention so they listen, and impress them so much they want to find out more – and make it easy for them to do so by, say, taking up a small corner on your slide template for your twitter handle.
Screen Shot 2014-01-17 at 10.18.11 PM


One of the things I’ve been working on is removing wishy washy caveats from my writing and my speaking. This is my blog, of course it’s what I think, and find relevant. Same with talks.
Statistics are so useful for me here, especially talking to engineers. I collect surprising and shocking statistics and pepper my talks with them. So statements like “The tech industry is hard on women” or, “studies show that women leave the industry at greater rates” become “63% of women in STEM report experiencing sexual harassment” [source]. “Mobile is increasing in importance and longer term people expect to be able to do everything on their phones” becomes “13,000 people a year buy cars on the EBay mobile app. There is nothing people won’t do on their phones.” [source].


I never start with time. Never. I’ve now given enough talks of varying lengths that I have a good idea what is enough content for a given length, and then can adjust accordingly, if time is tight. But in general I aim to use 60-70% of any time allotted to me, and then either finish early, or leave time for questions.
Basically I make a judgement on what points I can make in that kind of time frame, and aim to present them as succinctly as possible, within the narrative. It’s better to come in early than waffle. Especially in a work context – no-one has ever complained about a meeting or talk ending early. It just leaves more time for questions, or for getting back to work!
In Extreme Blue we had to distill our summer’s work down to a four minute presentation. At first I thought it would be impossible. It wasn’t.


Here’s the thing about a talk made up of stories – you can break it up into pieces. I think my manager had heard the key stories from my talk in the couple of days before I gave it publicly. At no point did I ask him to sit down and practise with me, though! Same for friends I’ve been hanging out with, and err, men on dates (such a mystery why I’m single, really). I’ve practised my talk in bits to unsuspecting people, with the added bonus that since they think this is a conversation (no really, it is) they will respond, and comment, and pick apart my thinking if they find it lacking.
In the shower, or whilst swimming laps, or walking are good times for me to go through all the pieces in my head (stretch goal – start talking aloud to myself around the house).
Nothing beats nerves like knowing you’re prepared. Nothing.


On the day, I was tweeting about how I always present in four inch heels, and that’s not what I’m talking about here, although it goes without saying that I carefully consider my outfit (yet more great comments on The Eloquent Woman).
If I’m talking about mobile, or my career (working in mobile), I present from a mobile device. If I have to use the standard laptop, I put my notes on my tablet. I keep my slides to a minimum, but if I don’t need them – why use them? I gave a talk about my career path once using the Google Maps app (connected my iPhone to the projector) and zoomed around talking about the places I’ve lived and the things I did there.


I normally don’t remember the 15-30 minutes following a talk, as I calm down from all the stress. I definitely don’t take in anything anyone else is talking about. When I presented at Ignite, I came down off the stage and went straight to the bar for vodka. I’ll also really need some alone time soon after. I’ve learned to adjust my expectations accordingly, and just admit that I was so stressed from it that I didn’t know what’s going on for a while, or need to have a social break. People are usually pretty understanding – especially if they liked what I did.


It’s a lot of work for me to give a talk. A lot of time, a lot of stress. This 10-15 minute presentation was probably about 10 hours of work, not including surreptitious practise time! Recall the nightmares the night before.
But, even 35 people, and 15 minutes, is a lot of other people’s time to waste by giving it badly. About 9 hours of their time, which makes my prep time seem reasonable. Setting objectives for what I want my talk to achieve also makes the prep time seem worthwhile.
For more on presenting, I highly recommend The Eloquent Woman blog.
I'm offering a new workshop on women and public speaking. Be The Eloquent Woman will take place in Washington, DC, on Feb. 28, and in Oxford, UK, on April 2. The day-long workshop will help you build confidence and competence as a speaker, and help you subvert the expectations that many women face when they speak. Please join me for these unique professional development sessions!

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