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Tips for Improving your Conference Presentation: An Interview with Matthew McCullough

People need to share their experiences in the software development and technical spaces, and your story can be one of those important ones shared with an audience. Matthew McCullough offers his ideas on how to create a cohesive action plan for submitting a speaking proposal and delivering a presentation at a conference. With a few quick tips, it’s not a scary as you think!
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InformIT: You recently gave a presentation at OSCON on Submissions and Presentations made more effective with 10 quick tips, which is based partly on your book, Presentation Patterns: Techniques for Crafting Better Presentations. Why do most presentations have so much room for improvement? In other words, why aren’t human beings better at this?

Matthew McCullough: I think I can best explain this by paraphrasing my co-author Neal Ford. He asks us to think back to our high school or college math endeavors. Most of us attended classes that gave us a vocabulary, process, and category in which to place and solve numeric problems. Next, think about writing. We've all had classes that taught us how to construct impactful and clear sentences, and perhaps even hang those off of a bigger story arc. Many of us have dissected classical, respected pieces of prose within the rigors of a class. Educational institutions have clearly grown to include solid treatment of these two important business topics.

But where was your course on teaching within the unique constraints of a PowerPoint or Keynote slide deck? Did you have a class that taught the blended best practices of business communications and well-tested patterns of information sharing in time-constrained bites with a glowing screen behind you on the stage? Did you ever have a professor share a vocabulary for concise communication about the now ubiquitous slideument form of expression? We are aware of only a rare few such classes.

And yet, nearly every person employed in the modern business world is expected to construct and deliver presentations. Some frequently. Some occasionally. These smart business women and men are doing so primarily with no presentation assembly patterns to reference. They've sourced their presentation-construction skills merely through osmosis from their colleagues whose shoulders they've peered over. This is not high-fidelity learning of excellent practices.  This is nearer to "just blindly doing the best I can" without any sense of what might work better.

InformIT: Why is finding your motivation and passion for a topic the single most important thing you do for your presentation?

Matthew: Audience members are in your room, listening to you teach. They are not there under any form of duress, but because of an interest in your proposed topic. You've already established common ground with them before you've spoken a word on stage. Because you have secured a speaking slot on your presentation's topic, the audience automatically sets their own expectations that you have something interesting to share with them that might change the way they think about a process, strategy, product, or legislative action. They want to be convinced. They also want to be compelled. And even on the driest of topics, they wish to be slightly entertained.

Convincing, compelling, and entertaining successfully are all actions that require an underlying motivation. Most audience members – actually, let me broaden that to just people in general – are adept at sniffing out sincerity. They can tell by your cadence, gestures, voice intonation, and a myriad of other signs whether you genuinely care about your topic. Whether fair or not, they instantly give you credibility points for that sincerity. They listen more closely. Feel more positively aligned with your topic, and generally, walk away with more stored facts the more passionate you are about your topic.

Though I like to remain positively focused on how to succeed in presenting, let me assure you that any converse extrapolations you may make about lack of passion in a talk are all very true. I'm sure you can recall the agony of listening to someone who clearly did not care a whit about the topic on which they were speaking. That is a failure for both presenter and audience alike.

InformIT: I love your advice that one way to assure a good presentation is to focus on helping others do better--by teaching a skill, changing an opinion, or sharing a story or a lesson learned.   Can you tell us a little more about this advice, and perhaps point to a particular presentation that does it well?

Matthew: Some of the most enjoyable and impactful presentations, whether sales pitches or charitable calls to action, follow this pattern of focusing on the impact to others. One of the best known examples includes Vice President Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth.

InformIT: You mention that knowing your audience is important. Can you highlight a common (false) assumption that you see people making about their audiences that causes the presentation to miss the mark?

Matthew: The most common assumption presenters make is their audience's knowledge of a topic. I find that the team lead or coordinator wants to be overly proud of their team-mates skills – and that's great – but that can be to the detriment of their learning. Presenters should begin by asking some gentle questions that reveal a sampling of the true domain knowledge of the audience.

InformIT: I thought it was interesting advice to pay attention to the social diversity and age diversity in an audience. How should this influence your presentation?

Matthew: We hear so much about sensitivity and inclusiveness these days, but we forget it goes way beyond the typical points of conversation. A presenter wants to have the greatest impact she or he can have during the time they have the audience's attention, and that means grabbing on to things that have meaning for each audience member. Age is one of the vectors that, with a little pre-event research, can have a tremendous impact. Comparing the topic you are talking about to one that your audience may know from yesteryear is a differentiating connection with them that only an invested presenter could establish.

InformIT: Overall, what’s the biggest mistake presenters make and how can they avoid it?

Matthew: The biggest mistake I have observed is presenters working on slides before the story. The majority of the excellent presentations I've attended have been based on one of the classic exposition patterns we see exhibited in classic literature and modern Hollywood films. In short, get your story polished to the nines first and foremost and be minimalistic with the concluding slide design.

InformIT: You mention that crafting a story is important for any presentation, with a focus on exposition, a climax, and a conclusion. Can you give an example of how you can take a technical presentation and give it a meaningful storyline?

Matthew: Technical presenters overlook that their audience members are a lot like them; the audience wants some of the juicy details about how wrong turns were corrected and decisions iteratively improved along the way to using a framework, language, or tool. A presentation purely about how to do something "right the first time" overlooks the fallible nature of everyone working in the domain and thus makes the story less genuine, and therefore less memorable. Craft the story such that most audience members could see themselves taking a similar imperfect path, but ultimately ending up with the right decisions and best outcome you've crafted as the story's conclusion.

InformIT: You say that fewer than 10% of people practice their talk before they give it. Why do you think that is? Can you explain why you think practicing your presentation is so important?

Matthew: Watching oneself on video can be agonizing. The mistakes are so raw and visceral, you can scarcely believe that's you on the screen. But push through it. If you don't watch yourself, practice, and polish, the audience will get that first raw edition. If, on the other hand, you do practice, record, review, and tune, you'll instantly stand out from the crowd. Audiences are acute detectors of presenters that have invested in the quality of their delivery. Provide them with a noticeably polished experience.

InformIT: You suggest that marketing your presentation is something you shouldn’t leave up to the conference managers. What you have found to be some of the most effective methods for marketing one’s presentation?

Matthew: The answer here is far from novel, but yet still insufficiently used. Presenters should find the canonical speaking event URL that lists their presentation and post a link to it on their established social media channels like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. A quick invitation such as "I'm speaking about topic at the venue next Friday and I'd love to have your support of a friendly face in the front row. Details at URL."

InformIT: I like your presentation advice that you’re just having a chat with your audience and that they want you to do well. Despite this great advice, I’m sure many folks still get horribly nervous – so nervous that it may dissuade them from submitting a proposal in the first place.  Can you give any additional advice to help people be less nervous before a presentation?  What has worked for you and others – and what hasn’t?

Matthew: The usual advice about viewing the audience in their underwear does the opposite of what I think is most helpful. Great presenters have friends in the audience. That means you can try and seed the front row with some people you know. But where that's not possible, be early to your talk and just say "Thank you for being here. I really appreciate it and aim to make good use of your time with some sharing of my experiences on topic."  It is amazing how that little pair of sentences can prime the audience to be more receptive to your message, more friendly in their response, and, as a bonus, give you some already-known-to-you eyes to engage with during your talk.

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