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The Definitive Guide to Winning at Presentations

Calum Halcrow ·

Culture, Team Dynamics

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As a member of a software team, from time to time you’ll need to give a presentation. Whether demonstrating the application you’re building, sharing internal learning or showing the results of research, it’s useful to know how to present information in a way that your audience will find easy to follow and understand.

We’ll take a look at the things you should do to prepare your presentation beforehand, and how to run it so that it goes smoothly.

Gathering Prerequisite Information

Before you prepare the material you wish to present, it’s best to gather the following information:

Venue. Are you presenting in person or via a video call? Is it part of a regularly scheduled event (e.g. a Sprint Review) or a one-off gathering? If you are presenting in person, is it a venue you are familiar with (e.g. your office) or will it be new to you? If new to you, you’ll have to ensure you’ll have the time to travel there and get into the space before the start time.

Expectations. If you were invited to give this presentation by someone else, what do they expect? Have they given you a title for the presentation? Did someone put this on your calendar? If so, what’s the title (and description) of the event? You might find that once you have this your assumptions about the expected content are incorrect. If in doubt talk to the organizer and verify what their expectations are.

Audience. Who is going to attend? Are you presenting to your immediate team? All developers in an organization? A community event for professionals of a certain discipline? Executives? Clients of your company? Make sure you get a sense of who your audience is going to be before you prepare your material.

Time. How much time will you have? Do you only have a slice of a 30-minute meeting in which others will present too? An hour all to yourself? You’ll need to structure your presentation so that you use the time you have wisely (and leave room for questions if appropriate).

Equipment. If it’s an in-person event, what do you need to bring (or not bring)? Do you need your laptop, or can you get away with sharing a slide deck to a computer that is hooked up to the projection gear? If you need your laptop (e.g. for live coding), will you need a certain type of adapter? If it’s via video call, is your camera, audio, internet connection, lighting, and background all suitable to facilitate a smooth delivery?

Preparing Your Material

With your prerequisite information gathered, you can get to preparing material. Consider these things:

Format. Will you use slides to convey information? Only slides? Will you do any live coding or live use of a software product? Think about how you’ll move from one mode of presentation to another, and what preparation you need to do for each mode. If you’re doing live coding, do you need a codebase in a certain initial state? If you’re demonstrating a software application, do you need a particular initial context (e.g. a test user account created, verified, and having bought a product)?

Back-up Plans. What could go wrong? What will you do if something goes wrong? List out a few things that might go wrong during your presentation and figure out what you’d do about them if they happened. If you’re presenting via video call your internet might have problems that day, so be sure to have a backup internet source. If you’re presenting as part of a group when your turn comes you might have less time than you were expecting - be sure to know how you’d shorten your presentation if that’s the case.

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The Run-Up

Once you have your material ready, there are some things you can do to make sure your execution goes without a hitch.

Rehearse. Grab a friend and rehearse the presentation with them. Ask for feedback and suggestions. If you can’t find anything who’s free to do this with you, try recording yourself. Replaying the recording will likely give you ideas on how to improve. It might also give you a handy backup if things go wrong on the day!

Audience Buddy. A nice trick to set up (especially if the stakes are high) is what I call the audience buddy. It’s important not to let yourself be disturbed during the actual event (more on that later) but it can sometimes be crucial to get live feedback on how you’re doing. Nominate a friend to be present in the audience and agree on a way for them to send you feedback whilst you are carrying out the presentation. A chat system works well. If your friend feels like something is off (e.g. the audience isn’t connecting with the content, your mic is crackling, you’re going too fast or too slow) they can let you know via the feedback loop. Note that it’s best to use a system that isn’t going to throw other types of messages at you. If your company is using say Slack for all kinds of communication then Slack probably isn’t the right tool here.

Schedule. Make sure you double-check the time of the event and that you map out your activity beforehand. You’ll want to be well-rested, fresh, fed, and relaxed before you start. For example, if the event is first thing in the morning, make sure you get a decent night’s sleep beforehand and that you get up with plenty of time to shower and have breakfast.

The Event Itself

You’ve done your research, prepared your material, and are raring to go thanks to run-up preparations. Let’s consider how the event itself should play out.

First, make sure you show up early and be ready to start exactly on time.

Remember that once you start you are in charge. It’s perfectly reasonable (expected even) to act authoritatively. Err on the side of being serious and don’t worry about waiting for latecomers.

If you’re recording be sure to let the audience know that this is the case.

Shut off all forms of communication that might distract you. Email clients, chat systems, your phone, social media accounts, etc. You want to be as focused as possible. Don’t shut off the audience buddy feedback loop though.

Stick to your agenda. Be aware of yourself going off on tangents or going down rabbit holes. Be wary of niggly questions which bring you away from your main point.

If you get pinged by your buddy, finish your sentence, pause to read the message, then act accordingly. Don’t lose your cool or your flow (e.g. don’t say something like “oh no I’m getting told that something’s not right - let me check that”). Just adjust your flow and act like everything is under control (which it is).

When you reach the end, wrap up nicely. Say something like “that concludes my presentation. Thank you for your time. If you have further questions or would like to know more about this topic, you can contact me at…”.

If you follow this advice you’ll be sure to give a presentation that is meaningful and memorable to the audience receiving it.

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