I recently presented (Oct 21 2016) a talk at PuppetConf 2016. This was my first time attending any PuppetConf, working PuppetConf as a Puppet employee and my first time presentation at such a large event. It was in a word, overwhelming. Not only did I need to prepare a 45min session, but also prepare 4 or 5 demos for the Windows booth, which I would be working as part of the conference.

With so much that went on, I thought I would blog some things I learnt while preparing for, and working at a large conference such as PuppetConf.

1. Start early!

I am a natural procrastinator and this was a hard hurdle to overcome. Unless I had given the talk before (Nope, this was the first time) or I felt super comfortable talking off script (Definitely NOT!) I needed to have a plan of attack. As my talk was in October I set the following deadlines:

  • October - Practice the talk and only do minor tweaks. This month was basically a write-off due so there’s no time to make sweeping changes.

  • September - Complete and then deliver the presentation, at least twice, to a group of peers. Use meeting requests to book out people’s calendar

  • August - Write the presentation. Add placeholders for demos if not complete, just get something written I could talk to

  • July - Cleanup all loose ends so I could dedicate as much time as possible in August

Yup, I started back in July for a talk in October! and I still could’ve used a bit more time. It’s amazing what just happens and takes your time away from the presentation, for example, it wasn’t until September that I found out I would need to create 4 or 5 Windows demos!

2. Get other people to hold you accountable

As a procrastinator, it was far too easy for me to not work on the presentation. By booking practice sessions of my presentation well in advance, and with meeting requests, I set myself deadlines. Which if I didn’t meet, everyone would know! Nothing hones your focus like looming deadlines and making a fool of yourself in front of your co-workers!

3. Practice often and get feedback

This is a common refrain from public speakers. During my practice session with my team I also tried to present at a similar time of day. In my case it was just before lunch, so I wanted to know what it felt like when on an empty stomache or when my audience was pre-occupied with what was for lunch.

When you do practice, make sure you solicit feedback from your audience. It really helps fine tune the flow of a presentation and see any biases you might have e.g. Assuming someone has prior knowledge of a technology.

4. Find help from other speakers and colleagues

There is a wealth of information out there about how to not fail at public speaking. This link was really helpful for me, as well as this TEDx talk on how to speak so that people will listen and finally this TEDx talk on how to avoid death by PowerPoint.

Also, ask your co-workers, friends, family etc. for any tips or practice the talk for them.

5. Take care of yourself

My talk was at just before lunch so I made sure I had a big breakfast prior so I wasn’t hungry during my talk. I also grabbed a snack from the breakfast bar for later on, just in case. I also avoided staying out late at the conference party the night before. I needed a good night sleep so I would be fully awake and focus.

As I was also working at the conference, I was speaking to so many many many many people. I was thoroughly over being social, and just wanted to be alone. Take that opportunity. Find a quiet place and recharge. I also found I wasn’t the only one feeling that way too.

Don’t let this stop you

Sure it was a lot of work and scary, but it’s ok. If it’s not scary then you are probably ignorant of all the things that can go wrong! In the end though, it was a fantastic opportunity to tell a story to hundreds of people. Most, if not all, are not there to see you fail, but to learn something. They are on your side!

Hopefully next year, I make less mistakes … but I wouldn’t count on it!