Developers Behind the Podium

Like it or not, at some point in your career as a software developer you will have to give a presentation. These kinds of experience range from presentations in front of managers, other developers/architects, clients, conferences, etc. Many developers dread this - especially those who tend to be introverted and more concerned with technical details than intrapersonal communication skills. On top of this, even those programmers who have the gift of glib can choke in front of an audience.

I recently attended a presentation where the material was well thought out, conducted by a recognized expert in their respective discipline, attended by some top-notch developers and architects which, well, failed miserably. The presenter certainly knew his subject matter, and the information was delivered in a straight-forward manner. Despite all of this, there were shortcomings - some minor, like not having a standard break schedule; others major, like not cracking down on audience members who took cell phone calls in the middle of the conference.

Below are some tips taken from my own personal experience conducting presentations and conferences, along with observations made at this latest presentation (which will remain anonymous to protect the not-so-innocent).

  • Get your name out there This seems like such a small detail, but it shouldn't be omitted. Put your name up on a whiteboard, in the footer of your presentation PowerPoint, on a placard on the podium - somewhere for the audience to reference. Even saying your name at the beginning of the presentation or including it in the hand-outs sometimes isn’t sufficient; also, not having your name where people can read it can cause people to be reticent to ask you questions, since they aren’t comfortable addressing you as "hey you".
  • Give copies of relevant materials to attendees Provide copies of your presentation or any other relevant materials to the attendees. These can be hard-copy, or soft-copy if the overwhelming majority attending will have laptops with them. Having a copy of the presentation helps the audience follow the material, and will assist them in absorbing the information you're presenting. It also serves as a reminder of what was discussed for later review, discussion with colleagues, etc.
  • Lay down the law Mandate rules for behaviors which could potentially be disruptive. If you don’t remind your audience to set their cell phones to silent, they’ll likely leave their ringers on - they might even talk during your presentation.
  • These are the breaks Let people know in advance when breaks are. This minimizes the number of people who will leave mid-discussion for biology reasons, make/take phone calls, whatever. Keep breaks short - it’s better to have a few 5 minute breaks for biology and phone reasons once an hour, with 30 minutes for meals, rather than having one long lunch break and less frequent mini breaks. This will help to keep content fresh in attendee’s minds, making transitions between sessions after breaks more fluid. Having hourly or bihourly 5 minute breaks helps keep everyone focused, and will work to minimize the number of people leaving the room during your presentation.
  • Pareto applies Don’t overload your discussion schedule. Assume that you’ll cover 80% of what you want to cover. If you’re working with an abnormally productive group, keep that 20% extra in reserve, allowing you to be flexible. It’s better in this sense to commit on your outline to cover 80% of what you want, keeping the additional 20% ready if necessary, than committing to 100%, only getting to 80%, and having the audience feel as though they didn’t get everything they paid for. You typically won’t cover every topic you want due to questions, breaks, etc. The Pareto principle certainly applies here.
  • Late comers are disruptive Lock the door once the presentation begins. Late comers typically ask dumb questions, and waste the time of those attendees which arrived on time. Be certain to advertise that late comers will be locked out; this works as a very effective disincentive for people who tend to arrive late, and shows people that you value your time, which will also work to have them show respect for your time. It also ensures that late comers won’t ask for a refund - if you’re upfront about this, then you limit your liability.
  • Know your subject matter I shouldn't even have to say this, but I have attended training seminars where the "teacher" did nothing more than read off of slides, and essentially knew nothing of the material they were covering. Don’t give a presentation if you don't know the material; know your stuff, or wait to present until you do. When you do present, have an outline, but otherwise speak extemporaneously (that is, improvise).
  • Stick to your timeline Begin and end the presentation when you state you will, unless extreme circumstances force you to behave otherwise. This is fair to your attendees - they might have obligations outside of the meeting that fall close to the start/end times, and can’t be flexible. If you start late or end late, you might interfere with their other obligations.
  • Keep it real Give real world examples in your presentations; don’t dumb things down simply to make the conference move along faster and reduce real questions. All too often I've attended seminars where the reference material had been stripped of any value because only the most basic of concepts were being covered.
  • Take it offline If your presentation covers advanced material that a subset of your group would want to discuss, have an optional "round table" session after the primary discussion. This can be immediately afterward, or even take place in a less formal setting (say, restaurant or bar). This gives more interested or curious participants the opportunity to get more in-depth, without inconveniencing the majority of the attendees.
  • Questions? Don’t allow attendees to derail your speech. Keep questions within a certain timeframe - for example at the end of each presentation portion, and make sure you only address questions which are on topic. Too often attendees can ask questions which are irrelevant to the topic at hand. If one or more users become repeat offenders, simply stop answering their questions and redirect them to alternate resources (email, wiki, blog, forum, user group, etc).