Taking presentation skills from good to great

Close your eyes. Imagine yourself running. Running over the most iconic bridge on the planet, the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Your legs ache, head hurts and muscles throb uncontrollably. But what keeps you moving is a promise you made to your 3 year old daughter to see her at the finish line…..

This is how my weekend story went, the one I presented over and over again on a day last week, ironing out kink after kink.

See, my attempts to avoid Sharon Pakir’s presentation course that we regularly hold for DiUS staff had finally failed. I found myself in a room, with my fellow victims (colleagues) in a one day intensive presentation course, that aimed to sharpen our tongues and make us the best presenters we could possibly be.

Sharon Pakir

Sharon here looking so much friendlier than when she is critiquing our presentations! Photo credit: www.sharonpakir.com

Presenting at DiUS

At DiUS, we recognise the importance of developing our soft skills like presenting and communicating. To be successful, Software Engineers need to be able to articulate their thoughts using spoken words as well as using their hands on keyboards. They need to be able to gather and refine requirements and build software that precisely fits the needs of their clients. This is even more true in Agile environments where documentation is deliberately light making the ability to speak clearly and concisely in public vital to keeping projects on track. Stand-ups, retrospectives and sprint planning sessions are just a number of examples of Agile ceremonies where speaking is the primary form of communication. There are also many other situations where polished presentation skills are highly useful, like presenting internally at DiUS Brown Bags, DMTs (DiUS Monthly Talks), as well as delivering talks to our clients and meetups, and of course, speaking at the many conferences we are associated with like YOW!, Agile Australia, LASTConf and Ruby Conf. Improving our team’s presentation skills is not just about supporting better delivery practices, it’s also about supporting sharing and learning within the wider IT community.

I know what you did last weekend…

The day started with everyone using their past weekend’s events as the basis of a presentation that would be repeated in front of the class, the entire morning. There were 10 of us in the class, with a wide diversity of roles ranging from Account Management to UX to Software Engineers to Delivery Management (myself). We had to exit the room, re-enter, go to the front of the class, introduce ourselves and start the presentation. Each time we presented our story, Sharon, with the aid of the class, would critique our presentation. “Too much swaying”, “Too much hand movement”, “Not enough pausing”, “Anchor yourself”, “Try again” she would say. To instill confidence in us, she would tell us to imagine that we were fire breathing dragons and that we owned the stage!

Taking off

For me, I’m basically a helicopter when speaking with my arms twirling around like rotors attempting to take off and Sharon quickly picked up on this. Doing this distracted the audience from what I was saying, thereby reducing the potency of my story. I spent the rest of the morning gluing my hands to the side of my legs to cease any form of hand waving acrobatics. Even though highly confronting, the privilege of having an extremely qualified speaker like Sharon critique my presentations was incredibly insightful. I can’t recall the last time that I had such valuable feedback on my presentation skills (or lack of).

Lunch was a much needed break as everybody felt like Bill Murray from GroundHog Day, having to repeat their story over and over again.

Team having lunch

Lunch time! That’s me in the red on the far left, attempting to recharge my batteries!

Preparing a presentation

The afternoon session was focussed on preparing presentations. Sharon gave us templates we could use to structure a presentation. She reminded us that presentations are about storytelling and identifying what genre our story fell into would help us improve its delivery. I’ve often felt that this simple and salient fact is diluted amongst the drudgery of facts and numbers found in a lot of presentations that we do today.

We went through an existing presentation from one of my fellow attendees Caoilte Dunne. He kindly volunteered his presentation on Agile Coaching (http://www.slideshare.net/DiUSComputing/last-conference-2014-agile-coaching-the-team-as-a-system) that he recently delivered at LAST conference this year. To his credit, his presentation was very well put together and we did not find any glaring flaws with it. In fact, Sharon praised it as being extremely good.

Wrapping up

Overall, I found it to be one of the most rewarding and challenging days I have ever had at DiUS. For me, the day really reiterated that presentations are about storytelling and creating a hook so the audience is captivated.

Even though I was emotionally exhausted and drained, I felt paradoxically, reinvigorated and excited to get up on stage again to do another presentation.

Now where was I. Close your eyes. Imagine yourself running. Running over the most iconic bridge…

I survived sharon pakir tshirt

Everyone should receive one of these T-Shirts upon completing her course.


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