Tips for a great presentation

There's no shortage of people giving advice on how to improve your presentation skills and impact. I offer a short list of links at the bottom of this post. 

I though I'd take a few moments to share some tips I follow to help me make the most of my time in front of audiences.

Why listen to me? I've been doing talks on the PL/SQL language since 1992 and I am pretty sure that only 3 members of all those audiences ever fell asleep during my talk.

What are the (at most) three key takeaways?

Most attendees will forget most of what you said soon after leaving the session. Certainly almost every single technical detail will be lost. So you need to decide before you start your talk what  are the at most three things you want an attendee to remember.

Then put those in a slide and tell them right at a start.

Remind them during your talk when you are getting to one of those top 3 things.

Use the slide again at the end of your talk to drive the points home.

I also find it helpful to remind attendees that I do not expect them to remember all the details and while they are welcome to ask questions about any of the code, the most important thing to remember is why you would want to use a feature and how it will help you.

That way, you let them off the hook, give them permission to relax and not feel like they have to understand every single thing you say or show.

Who is in your audience?

My team of Developer Advocates includes two members who are tasked with helping open source developers be successful with Oracle Database. Developers from the world of FOSS (free and open source software) often have little knowledge about SQL and even less about technologies like PL/SQL, Oracle Text, Oracle Spatial, flashback, and so on.

Yet these same Developer Advocates also give the same or similar presentations at Oracle User Group events, Oracle Open World, and so on.

It has, therefore, been especially important for Dan and Blaine to ask themselves before they start a talk "Who's in my audience?" Are they mostly Oracle Database-savvy folks? In that case, they can go into a bit more detail on the SQL side of things and they might also position the non-Oracle parts of the stack different.

Conversely, if the audience is mostly composed of "next generation" developers living in the world of JavaScript or Python, the Oracle Database content needs to be positioned and explained differently.

If you are unsure of your audience, it will be quite the challenge to give a fantastic presentation (since "fantastic" is in the minds of the audience, not the presenter).

So ask yourself before you start: "Who's out there?" and if you do not know, make that one of the first things you do in your presentation: Ask the audience. Get a feel for who they are and what they are looking to get out of your talk. Then adjust accordingly.

What's so funny?

About your talk, that is.

If the answer is: "Not much." or "I don't know, never thought about it." then now is precisely the right time to think about it.

Everybody likes to learn new stuff, but what they like even better is to have some fun. So many technical talks are deadly boring precisely because the speaker thinks what they have to say is so seriously important.

That might be true, but that argues even more strongly for making sure you entertain your audience.

Now, you might not have many programmer jokes ready to go (if you want some just search for "programmer jokes"), but that's OK. I don't think you want to tell jokes, per se. Instead you want to inject light-hearted commentary into the presentation itself.

But, wait, don't most jokes end up making fun of somebody or something? Don't we have to be really careful about the "target" of our humor?

Oh my, yes.

Who are you going to make fun of?

Never anyone in the audience. Never anyone with less visibility, influence or reputation points than you.

The safest bet when it comes to telling a joke or making fun during your presentation is to make yourself the target of that joke.

Self-deprecating humor goes over well in a presentation. It comes in especially handy when you are having problems (projector bulb blows, the Internet is unavailable, none of your demos work, etc.).

Don't get flustered or upset. Instead, get people laughing, and they will be on your side and, as often as not, help you resolve the problem.

What words should I avoid using?

When you're presenting, you're the expert (even if you know only a little bit more than those in your audience). This automatically puts you on a pedestal, puts some distance between you and the attendees. This is not an all-good or all-bad thing.

It's a good thing because people came to learn from you and they are open to what you have to sya.

It can be a not-so-good thing if your expertise comes off as a put-down to everyone else. This can happen in very subtle ways, from body language to your choice of words.

I recommend that you avoid words like:


If it's so blindingly obvious, you shouldn't have to call it out. You might not need to even bother talking about it. But chances are what is obvious to you the speaker is not so obvious to attendees, and if it is not obvious to them, you just made them feel stupid.

and...."Of course"

A minor variation on "obviously," with all the same drawbacks. See above.

and...."Everyone knows"

Everyone knows that when you say "everyone knows", it is very similar to saying "Obviously" and "Of course." Everyone knows this, except for the ones who don't.

Use words that instead lift up the attendee, make them feel better about themselves, pull them into the talk, rather than pushpin them away. Invite comments and questions regularly from the audience, let them know that you, even you, had trouble getting your head around a given topic.

So: avoid put-down words....

Unless, obviously and of course, you are directing comments with these words jokingly towards yourself, as in:

"Of course, everyone knows that obviously I am an imposter."

Even More Advice

But wait, there's more! You might find these posts interesting as well:


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