Public Speaking Tips at IT Conferences

Recently I was asked by my manager to think about how I go about presenting at IT conferences.  I’ve now been presenting at IT conferences like VMworld and EMC world for the past five years and have seen my speaker scores steadily improve.  For me personally this has been the greatest achievement of my career so far, becoming a comfortable public speaker and learning how to present not only content, but make it interesting for the audience.

First I wanted to start with a little history on my public speaking.  This is by far the most nerve racking thing I have EVER done in my life, and on this first day I would have done anything to get out of presenting a session.

It is said that the fear of public speaking is a fear greater than death for most people. – Robert T. Kiyosaki

I can certainly agree with the above statement.  For me my first ever “public” speaking session was at VMware’s Partner Exchange conference in 2011.  I went to the desk to find out how many people were attending and I was told 252 people.  I froze!  I was literally rigid for about 5 minutes.  How do I get out of this situation?  I must be able to do something to get out of this.  I even remember phoning my dad telling him and asking how I get out of it.  He told me I had no way out unless I wanted to quit my job right that second.  So off I went and presented the session.  I had prepared, I knew the content, I rehearsed (too much) and it went ok.  No one laughed, no one heckled, people listened to what I had to say.

I didn’t become a public speaking expert overnight.  Not in any fashion.  I was (in my own opinion) terrible, but the important part was I got through it.  I knew I could do it again, and for me pushing my boundaries is what I do best.  To give you an impression on how bad I am here is a quote from one of my colleagues who I have co-presented with on a number of occasions:

Most people know that I have presented with Dave for many years now.  Early on we used to refer to him as “Bullet Point Dave” due to his uncanny ability to read the bullets on the slides.  Over the years he’s evolved tremendously in his presentation skills.  He’s taken feedback on his presenting style from myself and others and applied it.  When watching him present I even counted the number of times he said the word “okay” so I could provide him the information.  He admitted he knew it was a “tick” and has since improved on removing it from his presentations.  He’s become much more comfortable on stage and has grown over the years as a presenter.  We all have things we can work on to become better presenters and Dave has come a long way in the last few years. – Chris Colotti

This quote is why we push our boundaries and come out of our comfort zone.  Its to get better at something and to gain recognition for the hard work we have put in.  This quote really pleased me, as it proves to myself what I can achieve with effort and hard work.  Thanks Chris!

So enough of my and more about tips on how to present.

Public Speaking Tips

“Know the Audience”.

If you are presenting at an IT conference you need to understand the audience.  This goes for any presentation.  Who you present too shapes the content of the presentation.  Whether you are doing a talk, presenting slides, or doing whiteboard sessions its important to understand who the audience is going to be.

Think about it like this, if you are presenting to a room full of CEO’s or Business Owners, drawing diagrams on how a particular software feature integrates with Microsoft Active Directory and what IP port group it uses is of no interest to the audience.  On the other hand, talking about business value and business development is of no interest to an IT Admin.  Understanding the majority of the audience is key to a successful presentation.  Also make it a story, not just a presentation where you talk at people.   When I give talks I tend to go back to my support days and involve my past experiences:

  • Windows NT 4 – Always blue screens
  • Windows 2000 – Multiple Windows/consoles managing different systems
  • Windows 3.11 – Every disk was numbered wrong
  • VMware ESX 3.5 – Trying to automate a build

Talk about your past experiences and how they relate to the presentation your giving.

Interaction – Ask Questions

Its important you make the session as interactive as possible.  The biggest issue I have at tech conferences is you get one or two guys who have 65 Powerpoint slides and they just talk non-stop for 60 minutes.  Ask questions, start mini-conversations, ask why they gave you that answer.  If you dont have time in your session for interaction, you have created too many slides.  Cut it down, if its 65 slides of bullet points of features no one will remember it anyway.

Ask questions

    • Get participation
    • Ask why to the answer
    • Start a mini conversation

Got a friend in the audience?

    • Pick on them
    • Call them out
    • Have them participate
    • Make sure they know the answer… J

Two presenters on stage?

I have provided an example of how to present with a co-worker.  Validate what they are saying.  If you are on stage you are up on stage to talk.  Don’t just stand still for 30 minutes until its “your turn”.  Involve yourself.  Discuss the parts the other presenter is saying.  It also breaks up the monotony of one voice, and gives your co-worker a breather.  He can sip water, rest for a second.

Don’t be a “Dave Bullet Point” Hill

This example has two aspects to it.  One – don’t create slides like this.  They are awful to present, they are awful to read and really dont give the audience any value at all.

public speaking tips

This is the slide I earnt my badge, nickname or title of “Dave Bullet Point Hill”.  I literally stood on stage in front of 950+ people and read it word for word!  I think enough is said on that particular incident!  If you do have slides like this and insist on presenting, pick a couple of points and talk about them.  Talk about one disadvantage, why its a disadvantage, why your not concerned about it, but dont just read the bullet point.  The audience can already do that for you.

Tell a story

This is probably one of the hardest aspects of public speaking, making it personal.  Lots of people don’t like doing this as it brings “them” into the forefront of the presentation, but if you make it personal its easier for the audience to relate to you.  For example if your talking about photography, talk about how you take photo’s of your kids or your dogs or cats, bring something from your home life into the discussion and it makes it a lot easier for people to relate.  Even if your talking about the deepest most technical feature you have ever come across, still make it personal.  Include parts about how you figured it out, why you figured it out, or why you invented it this way.  Include your opinions and thoughts, not just “feature a does xyz and this is why it does this”.

Personal Tips

I am going to finish with some personal tips of my own, that I have picked up over the years.  These are not for everyone, but I find them to be helpful and its a good reminder for myself of what to do before I get on stage.

Don’t worry if you forget to mention a key point.  The audience will never know you forgot – Duncan Epping

This is by far the most valuable tip anyone has ever given me.  I used to rehearse and rehearse and rehearse to make sure I never missed something.  No one will ever know if you missed one of you key bullet points you wanted to talk about, so dont stress about it.  If you miss one, simply move on and build on something else in the next slide.

Please note – If you are a CTO/CEO and presenting to the world the latest product your company is offering, missing the key bullet point can be a disaster for you and your stock 🙂

So on to my personal tips:

  • Remember to breath
  • Nerves are important… If your not nervous your over confident!
  • Have a drink… The pause really isn’t as long as you think
  • Move around… You are not a statue
  • Have a contingency plan… What happens if laptop crashes
  • Pretend you want to be on stage even if you don’t
  • Have fun… There are worse jobs

The two biggest ones for me are remembering to breath and having fun.  If your not enjoying it, no one else will either.  Embrace the nerves, without them you will be too cocky!

Finally, if your going to move around, please dont do what the UK’s ex-priminister is doing in this video.  The audience cant keep up with you.

Great Resources

BBC Speaker Resource

Duncan Epping – Confessions of a VMUG speaker

Eric Siebert

Ultimately rememeber – HAVE FUN 🙂

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8 Responses to Public Speaking Tips at IT Conferences

  1. Jason Boche August 18, 2015 at 4:46 pm #

    Great post Dave – thank you for sharing. I like to get to the room ahead of time, well before everyone else when it’s empty. Get comfortable. Sometimes like at VMworld I’ll even visit it the day before when it’s empty and all is calm. For some reason that is far more relaxing than walking into a room of 300+ people 2 minutes before go time.

    • David Hill August 27, 2015 at 7:06 pm #

      Thanks Jason! That is a really good tip. You are very right it is always a good idea to get to the room early. Certainly saves on the stress of running in and getting “mic’d” up at the last minute. See you at VMworld.

  2. Vic Camacho August 18, 2015 at 6:55 pm #

    Another tip under the “Got a friend in the audience” heading. Invite one up for model a t-shirt being given away. 🙂 I kid of course.
    These are all great tips! One thing I like to do, is practice in front of a big mirror as though I was presenting something. It’s helped me notice my mannerisms, posture, hand gestures…etc. “Have fun” also resonates with me. I always think back to something I read about Vin Scully, the announcer for Dodger baseball. It was said that Vin Scully didn’t announce games, rather he talked about baseball with his closest friends. That’s the approach I like to take. Simply talking to my friends about something I’m rather passionate about.

    Great post my friend.


    • David Hill August 27, 2015 at 7:07 pm #

      No one makes a better T-Shirt model than you Vic 🙂

  3. Colin Westwater August 18, 2015 at 7:30 pm #

    Timely advice for me. I was at my local VMUG and there was an appeal for us, the users, to present as it was turning into a Vendor Group. That stuck with me.

    Now I have just designed and setup a new vSphere environment and I am thinking about ‘volunteering’ to present it at the VMUG. I would rather face a firing squad but it’s time I gave back instead of consuming all the time.

    I will take this post on board when thinking about what I do if/when I present


    • David Hill August 27, 2015 at 7:08 pm #

      Thanks, I hope it helps.

      VMUGs are a great opportunity to present to your peers, who are also a friendly bunch. I have certainly enjoyed my time at VMUGs.

      Good luck and let me know how it goes.

  4. Stephan Petermann October 29, 2015 at 9:40 am #

    Great post and many thanks for this. It really helps. Very good tips and you are fully right. We have to do it, to have fun, otherwise we have to look for another job, where we can do our work in a dark room.

    My personal experience is really of course to train your presentation, but in time you have to do it in front of a bigger audience, the story will change a little bit, because no one wants to recite memorized texts.
    You have to tell the story with heart and soul incarnate …
    At the end of the day, please imagine the following: How many people of the audience will be able to do a presentation like yourself…

    Great post David, thanks a lot



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