Public speaking for programmers

It was a big project. Product managers were running around confirming details. Sales staff were calling their clients to do pre-launch informing with materials obtained from the marketing department. And management wanted a briefing on every aspect of the project given to every staff involved. This meant there would be people talking about how the product worked, the terminology used in the technology, the major companies involved… and the web application for supporting this project.

So I was happily coding one day, when my team leader came over to my desk to tell me that, since I was the one who single-handedly developed the web application for that big project, I would be the one to present it. I nearly freaked out. The last time I did any presentation in front of an audience was when I did my thesis dissertation. There were only a handful of people then. The number of people for this briefing was about 50. They range from customer service, sales, middle and upper management, marketing, technical, and of course the other speakers who were well versed in the business itself.

I was to present the workings of the web application, so that customer service would know how to retrieve information, sales people would know what to tell their customers and so on. And I’m supposed to be on stage for about 20 minutes. Oh my goodness.

Be prepared
It doesn’t matter if you’re a manager, or a technical support or a programmer. Prepare the material for presentation. In my case, a flow of the links and how they were connected to each other. But I made a fatal error.

When I finally reached the crux of my presentation, I couldn’t get any data to appear. There wasn’t any “Server application error” (which would be disastrous to my reputation). When I clicked the “Retrieve” button, there just wasn’t any data. The audience started to fidget. “Oh no, I’m losing it!”, I thought. Then it hit me. I didn’t put in enough test data! I readjusted my retrieval criteria, and finally got the result I wanted, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I might not be well versed in the business knowledge as my fellow speakers, but I darn well know everything about the web application.

The sequel
After that briefing, I thought I was out of it. Then I was informed that there would be an official product launch, and customers would be invited. And I was to present the web application. It’s no black tie affair, but is still formal enough to give me butterflies in my stomach.

I practiced my presentation. Over and over and over again. I prepared enough test data this time. I went through every single web page and thought of something relevant (or clever or funny) to say. I imagined how an actual customer would hear me, and I’d have to tone down the technical jargon so they could understand and relate to me.

On the day itself, I went early to prepare myself. I had my tie on, which I don’t normally have to wear, so it’s a little uncomfortable. I was to speak near the end of the entire event, so I had a chance to listen to the other speakers. When it was my turn, I clipped on the microphone and faced the audience. Oh dear, that’s a lot of suits. Alright, focus, focus… The web application was essentially a business tool, which meant it’s boring. I injected some humor, radiated every bit of charisma I had, and basically wove a story around the application. I even tried to sell with a story of how the customer can benefit from the product (even if it was wildly imaginative).

TIP: Do NOT crack any jokes that are sexual, political or religious in nature.

So everything was going fine. Until I saw the event organiser making hand gestures at the back of the room. “Lengthen! Lengthen the presentation”, she mouthed. I managed to present for about 20 minutes, and the flow of event items was such that we were early by about 10 minutes. I needed to add about 10 minutes more.

Luckily, I had some backup stories. Unluckily, one of them wasn’t too well prepared (I made it up just before my presentation), and I blurted out something that didn’t quite come out the way I wanted. I violated the tip I gave above. It might have been construed as a sexist remark, and it was a good thing I breezed right through to my next story.

The end
So what have I learned? As a programmer, I may not be business savvy, but I do know my stuff. Being prepared was my best defence against the fear of public speaking. I learnt how to continue talking, keeping the audience informed, while waiting for the web application to load the next page. This seemed very important to me. I’ve seen speakers who just stop talking and wait for their application to load, or their PowerPoint slides. The flow of your speech becomes halted, and the audience can feel disconnected because of the silence.

Well, until next time then. Maybe I’ll have to speak to an even larger audience. Wait, oh dear, I think I’m gonna be sick…