Brent Stewart

Live life on purpose

Preparing for my first talk at a conference

I am getting ready to head off to my first conference speaking engagement, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to capture my thoughts on the whole preparation process.  The talk I am giving is one that I have presented to my local .NET user group, so I already had most of the content, but there was a lot of refinement needed.

When I was younger I was quite nervous to get up in front of people and talk, but as I have gotten more life experience I realize that this is not something to fear.  I’m actually quite excited about the prospect of speaking and almost regret not submitting more than one talk.  I have reached a point in my software development career where one of my favorite things to do is to impart knowledge to my peers.  So I hope this is the first of many speaking engagements.

The single largest concern on my mind going into this experience is how I am going to warm the audience up.  I have watched talks by other wonderful speakers and the one thing they have in common is their ability to get the audience’s attention and hold it.  Many use humor to engage the audience which I feel is one of my strong suits, so it is the tact that I would like to take.  But humor must not be forced and I have struggled with how to weave it into my presentation and make it feel natural.  I know that if I can just make that first connection that I will be ok.

During my preparation I have ran across many useful and thought provoking tips.  Some of the common themes include:

  1. Break your session down into smaller chunks.  For example if you have an hour long presentation, then break it down into a 5 minute intro, five 10 minute segments, and a 5 minute summary.
  2. Keep your slide content to a minimum.  Don’t write what you are going to say on your slides.  The audience won’t be listening because they will be reading your slide, and you will be just re-capping what is written (boring).
  3. Practice, practice, practice.  Don’t just think to yourself that you can wing it.  Make sure you know your information forwards and backwards so you can focus on your stage presence and not spend all your mental focus on trying to remember what comes next.
  4. Pay attention to what your body is doing.  Watch out for unconscious nervous habits like swaying from side to side.  These can be quite distracting and take away from your presentation.  Record yourself and watch for any nervous habits such as touching your face or putting your hands in your pockets and jingling your keys.
  5. Make sure you have a backup plan because Murphy will strike.  My business partner will be there, so I am using his computer as my backup and I am making sure I have all my materials on a thumb drive.  Plan for internet outages, or other worst case scenarios.
  6. Spend time in the speaker’s room and get inspiration from your peers.

Here is a checklist of items to bring to your talk (backups on everything you can):

  1. Computer
  2. Power supply
  3. Video adapters (plan for every possibility)
  4. Thumb drive with backups
  5. Extra batteries (mouse, clicker and anything else battery operated)
  6. Clicker or some way to advance your slides without using your keyboard
  7. Notes printed on a piece of paper
  8. A Timer
  9. Water
  10. Lip balm
  11. Tums

Things to think about ahead of time:

  1. Watch what you eat prior to your talk.  No matter how comfortable you think you are, your body will still experience stress and you don’t want to add upset stomach to your list of concerns.
  2. Get some sleep the night before your talk.  Prepare ahead of time so you don’t have to stay up all night trying to polish your talk.
  3. Make sure your slide deck will work in the resolution and format of the projectors (4:3 or 16:9).
  4. Pick your outfit carefully.  Decide what impression you want to make on your audience.

Have a checklist to go through just before your presentation.  It should contain things such as:

  1. Make sure your video adapters are working
  2. Make sure your clicker is working
  3. Check internet connectivity
  4. Put your computer in presentation mode (turn off all notifications, Skype, etc…)
  5. Silence your phone
  6. Use the restroom – don’t forget to check your appearance as well
  7. Check your zipper

Hopefully I am prepared and can start my speaking career off on the right foot.  But even if I run into unexpected issues, I know this will be a great learning experience.

The winds of change

Just a few weeks ago I decided that a change in my career path was needed.  I have been working for the same company for over 5 years and have recently been feeling like I was stagnating.  Even though my job provided me opportunities to learn new technologies and to stay near the bleeding edge, I still didn't feel like my career was progressing.  This is the same feeling that always seems to precede a job change for me.  But this time I didn’t want to just sign up with a new company and wait for the feeling to return in a couple of years.  This time I decided that I would take my destiny into my own hands.  I am going independent, well as independent as I can afford to be.  My ultimate goal is to create software products that I can monetize, but until I can depend on my products for income, I will be working as an independent contractor. 

I have wanted to be my own boss for years but I always found an excuse to not take the first step.  I finally decided it was now or never, and never was even more terrifying than the prospect of being out on my own.  So I started the ball rolling and within a couple of weeks I had secured my first development contract, and immediately gave my notice.  So as I wrap up my last few days with my current (and hopefully last) employer, I am looking back at where my career has taken me and have come to some conclusions.

The first thing that I have discovered is that my career has lacked focus and that I have relied on dumb luck to be where I am.  I have had the opportunity to work with a lot of clients in many industries and have learned much over the years, but never have I directed my career with any overarching goals in mind.  Sure I have passed on maintenance developer jobs and have taken jobs because of the technologies or opportunities that they presented, but there was never a clear path or even a real understanding of the end game.  I was experiencing first hand Zig Ziglar’s statement that “If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.”

Next, I noticed that I wasn’t working towards the goals that I did have.  In the past I have set some goals for myself and they look great on paper, but goals are just dreams unless you take action on them.  Some of the goals that I had set for myself were not realistic and others were just too vague, and yet others seem achievable, but I have made no action plan to reach them.

The last big item that I realized about myself is that I have let fear guide my career path.  I am not necessarily a bold person who takes unnecessary risks, but I am someone who has had to deal with quite a bit of fear and uncertainty in my personal life.  This is one area where I think my experience works against me as I am now much more capable of seeing the dangers and risks of my choices.

So how does this self-reflection help me?  What changes am I going to make?  Well, first I am going to map out my career goals and know my end game strategy.  Of course I fully expect these goals to change over time, so I need to make sure to revisit them and check that they line up with my expectations.  Secondly, I plan to change how my goals are managed.  I need to review them at least weekly and do a thorough re-evaluation monthly.  I need to align my weekly tasks with my goals and make sure that I am making the needed progress.  Lastly, I need to reinforce my belief that the largest personal growth comes from moving out of your comfort zone.  The best way to do this is to continually force myself to do things outside of my comfort zone.  For one, I have been wanting to do some speaking, so I am planning on volunteering for a talk at my local .NET user group.

I hesitate to publish these personal blog posts, but I figure that there maybe some of you who suffer from the same issues and that reading about my struggles may help in some way.  I also hope to follow up this post with some progress reports so others can see my changes in action.