My Favorite Suggestions for New Speakers

This morning I received an email from a reader who is presenting for the first time at a local PASS User Group in October.  The reader was seeking advice for a first time presenter, and even though I know there are many of great posts already out there (I just read this one from fellow Clevelander Craig Purnell ( t ) yesterday), I wanted to share my own perspective rather than just send a few links.  Then I decided to just make a post out of it.  So EB, here you go 🙂

In no particular order:

Rehearse your presentation, out loud, in front of someone else…or at least in front of the family pet.  This practice has multiple benefits:

  • First, you get used to hearing your own voice out loud.
  • Second, you get used to talking for an extended period of time.  In real life, how often is it that you talk for 45-75 minutes pretty much uninterrupted?
  • Third, you get an idea of the length of your presentation based on your content.

Brent Ozar ( t ) talks about rehearsing in his post, How Rehearse a Presentation.  He has some great insights, but remember that everyone has different methods of preparation.  Find what works for you, and realize that this may take some time to figure out.

Record yourself rehearsing.  This is painful, but has so much value.  If you can record it on video, I highly recommend it.  Everyone has habits, and watching video is the best way to see them.  If you cannot take advantage of video, at least get audio.  Either option will allow you to catch verbal ticks – saying “uh”, “um”, “so”, or “hm” repeatedly – and video affords the chance to catch physical ones such as pacing, standing still, using the same hand gesture, etc.

If you find a verbal tick, practice speaking a five minute section without that repeated phrase.  This was a recommendation that Paul Randal ( t ) gave me the other day.  I had recorded some content and said “um” a lot.  His suggestion was to speak for five minutes without saying “um”, and every time I did, start over.  It’s harder than you think.

Know the first minutes of your presentation cold, to where you can say it without even thinking about it.  Can’t think of a five minute section to practice?  Start with the first five minutes of your presentation.  Paul recommends  practicing the first two minutes, and I think it’s incredibly beneficial.  By the time you get through that first two to five minutes, the nerves will be gone and you’ll find your rhythm.

Remember that the audience is on your side.  People are often terrified to speak because the audience is an unknown.  It’s true, you don’t know what you’re going to get.  But the vast majority of attendees are good people, and won’t go out of their way to harass you.  And if you are concerned about this, have a seasoned speaker in the audience for support.  That person will recognize if someone’s harassing you and step in to help out.  My good friend Christina Leo ( t ) had a rogue attendee at her first presentation, last year at Chicago’s SQLSaturday, and several audience members were seasoned speakers who provided support.  In true Christina fashion she got through it and delivered a great session.

Don’t take it personally if someone isn’t paying attention, or nods off during your sesion.  Last year I gave a presentation at my then-company’s user conference, and part of the session included group activities.  We had attendees get in small groups of four to six people and answer questions and go through scenarios.  One person wasn’t with a group and when I went to him and asked if he was going to join one, he simply said “No.” and went back to his laptop.  I was taken back and stood there, utterly confused for a moment.  I noticed one of my colleagues, a seasoned presenter, looking at me.  He had witnessed the interaction and motioned me over.  I walked over and with wide eyes and asked, “What do I do?”  He said, “You have no idea what’s going on in his life.  I had a person in class once who was despondent and not paying attention.  I found out later he had just received word that a family member was very ill.  That person’s actions may have nothing to do with you and this session.  Let it go.”

It was excellent advice.  Don’t overthink it.  If I see such a person when I’m presenting, I avoid looking at them directly, and instead concentrate on those who are engaged, actively listening, asking questions, and nodding as I speak.

Expect that someone will get up and walk out of your presentation.  I have found that this rarely happens at User Group events and SQLSaturdays, but it will happen at events such as the PASS Summit or other paid conferences.  Don’t let it fluster you.  My friend Allen White ( t )and I talked about this last year.  I believe it’s because some people will not sit in a session that they think isn’t valuable to them if they have paid for the event.  For a free event, people are more tolerant.

Make a connection with your audience.  Don’t feel you have to look every person in the eye, but find those individuals who are engaged and speak to them.  If you try to make eye contact with everyone you might lose your train of thought.  Instead, look at people’s foreheads, right above the bridge of their nose.  When you catch someone who is involved – someone who asks a question or is nodding a lot – then make eye contact every so often.

Make sure your slides are readable.  Kimberly Tripp ( t ) has a great (and funny) post about this, and it includes even more links to other presentation-related posts.

Include your session abstract on one of your first slides to set expectations.  This is something I learned from Buck Woody ( t ) and I love it.  Session titles should be catchy, to first get the attendee’s attention, and hopefully they read the abstract and are interested in your topic.  However, to make sure people are fully aware of what you’re going to cover in your presentation, put your abstract up before you start your session.  Buck even reads the entire abstract out loud.  Sometimes I do that as well and hopefully you’ll never have an attendee write on an evaluation, “This wasn’t the session I was expecting.”

Tell a story.  People love stories.  Not everyone is a good storyteller…become one.  This takes practice, but it will serve you well.  Buck talks about this in his post of 20 Master Plots…a book I need to read.  The best stories are your experiences.  You want to talk about the importance of backups?  Talk about a time where you had them, or didn’t, and what happened.  If you can take technical information and relate it to real-life situations, people will not only remember the content better, but they will remember you.

Have confidence.  From the moment you walk into the room where you will present, stand tall and own the room.  It’s not about arrogance here, but if you step up to the front of the room with any trepidation, attendees will notice and you can lose credibility.  First impressions are huge, and that first impression for any attendee can occur at any time you’re in the room where you’re presenting.  Be ready.  You know the material.  You can handle anything.

Think about what you’re going to do before the presentation starts.  When I first started presenting I would stand at the front of the room or the podium and look busy.  I didn’t interact with attendees, and I barely looked at anyone.  Then I went to one of Brent’s presentations where he had a different PowerPoint going at the beginning, which had trivia questions.  It included SQL Server trivia and some fun facts about Brent.  I loved this idea and shamelessly implemented it myself (and of course told Brent I was going to do this).  However, I put my own twist on it to make it more “me.”  Before my sessions I have a slide deck which includes movie trivia.  If you’re a regular reader you know that I love movies.  The movie trivia breaks the ice and gives the attendees something to do (besides read email and tweet) before I start.  And, I can immediately start interacting with people.  Other presenters talk to attendees or encourage them to come up and ask questions.  Whatever method works for you is great, but whatever you do, be engaged with the audience from the moment you walk into the room.

Remember that becoming a good speaker takes practice.  When I first started presenting I was a graduate student, and I was actually teaching undergraduates.  Not just presenting, but teaching.  I had to make sure they learned something, and then I tested them on what I talked about.  I was terrified.  I am pretty sure I was awful at first (to those students, thank you for your patience) but I got better and more confident with every class.  You have to work at it.

In Summary…

Again, these are just a few of the recommendations that come to mind.  The posts I’ve referenced throughout (and listed again below) are ones I revisit from time to time, as there is always room for improvement.  Some people are natural public speakers, others practice a lot and become very good.  You need to become comfortable being uncomfortable, and you need to be patient.  Don’t give up, have confidence, and above all, have fun.


Public Speaking: A Primer – Paul Randal

Please don’t create a painful slide deck – Kimberly Tripp

How to Rehearse a Presentation – Brent Ozar

How to Deliver a Killer Technical Presentation – Brent Ozar

How I Prepare For Presentations, And My Speaking Schedule For This Quarter – Buck Woody

Book Review (Book 12) – 20 Master Plots – Buck Woody

SQL Saturday #67: In which I survive my first speaking engagement – Christina Leo

Presentation Tips – Craig Purnell

14 Responses to My Favorite Suggestions for New Speakers
  1. Thomas LaRock
    September 27, 2012 | 10:50 pm


    Great post with suggestions for new speakers to soak up. I would also add something simple: be yourself.

    It is important to understand what other people do to be successful, but at the end of the day you need to be yourself and not pretend to be like someone else.

    When you are yourself, you have confidence, and that confidence will come through as you speak.


    • Erin Stellato
      September 27, 2012 | 10:59 pm


      Thanks for the comment, and an excellent point. I completely agree. As much I might admire the presenting style of another, that style will not work for me because it’s simply not who I am. The same is true for blogging. You can try to write the same types of posts as other people, or try to be funny or whatever, but if that’s not fundamentally what you’re about, it won’t work.

      Thanks, and a very good reminder.


  2. John Sterrett
    September 28, 2012 | 2:50 am


    Great blog post. I am going to make sure I share it with some friends who are giving their first presentation up at SQL Saturday in Pittsburgh next week.


    • Erin Stellato
      September 28, 2012 | 1:56 pm

      Thanks John! And have fun in Pittsburgh!

  3. Rick Krueger
    September 28, 2012 | 9:22 am

    Erin, thanks for the great advice. I went to your ‘Making Sense of Statistics’ presentation at SQLSaturday #161. I thought your trivia before the presentation was a fantastic way to engage the audience before you even started. I’m thinking about doing something similar, once I come up with my own spin on it.

    • Erin Stellato
      September 28, 2012 | 1:55 pm


      I’m glad you found it to be a good way to start a session as well. I know that not everyone will like it – but I’ll never be able to get everyone to like something 🙂 I look forward to seeing what you come up with!


  4. […] at there is a great post this week about tips for new presenters. Ms. Stellato suggests, insightfully, […]

  5. Merrill Aldrich
    September 28, 2012 | 10:33 am

    Great post. Inspired by your second point, I put up some instructions for a simple recording setup here:

    • Erin Stellato
      September 28, 2012 | 1:54 pm

      That’s awesome Merrill, thanks for sharing!

  6. Edwin Sarmiento
    September 30, 2012 | 2:13 am

    Great post, Erin. Not too many presenters advocate rehearsals especially if presenting/speaking is what they do for a living. I treat presentations like a performance – I’m sure even The Grateful Dead or Pearl Jam practice before concerts and great actors rehearse their scripts before the film starts rolling. Rehearsing is important especially for speakers whose native language isn’t English. I did a blog post about my disaster recovery presentation at last year’s SQLRally explaining why I do what I do during presentations

    One thing I can add up is to create an exciting PowerPoint slide deck. As Brent mentioned on his blog post on how to deliver a killer technical presentation, everyone expects a set of boring, text-filled slides. In order for the audience to remember you as a speaker, make your slides stand out from the rest – proper fonts, colors, pictures, etc. Great slides may be a presenter’s lead to a great opportunity.

    Even a technical audience can see the difference between common and outstanding. I keep 2 sets of slides – one for presentation and one as a handout. It’s hard work but at the end of the day, the presentation is about the audience and not me. I use Presentation Zen, slide:ology and Resonate as my references when preparing my slide decks and presentations.

  7. […] My Favourite Suggestions for New Speakers – Erin Stellato (Blog|Twitter) […]

  8. Presenting Tips | James Serra's Blog
    October 5, 2012 | 2:13 pm

    […] My Favorite Suggestions for New Speakers Share:LinkedInTwitterFacebookEmailPrintMoreDiggRedditStumbleUponTumblrPinterest […]

  9. […] the comments/links). She wrote a fantastic post on her favorite recommendations for new speakers here. And, I thought I'd add a couple of quick recommendations as […]

  10. […] My Favorite Suggestions for New Speakers […]

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