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Public speaking for technical pros: How to deliver a great in-person or virtual presentation

Heidi Waterhouse, developer advocate for LaunchDarkly and a skillful public speaker, shares tips for developers, IT pros and other technical professionals who want to grow their presenting and public speaking skills.

Public speaking can be a challenge especially for technical people who love to get lost in the details…like yours truly. In an episode of Dynamic Developer, I spoke with Heidi Waterhouse, who knows how to give a great presentation whether it’s via video conference, in-person to your team, or at a keynote in front of thousands. She’s a developer advocate for LaunchDarkly as well as a writer and skilled public speaker. And Heidi shared her advice for developers, IT pros and other technical professionals who want to grow their presenting and public speaking skills. The following is an edited transcript of our interview.

Bill Detwiler: Heidi, thanks for joining us.

Heidi Waterhouse: Hey, it’s great to be here, virtually.

Bill Detwiler: That’s right. We’re all virtual these days and that’s what we’re really here to talk about. Is how under this kind of new normal with remote work, with teleconferencing, how do we design presentations? As someone who talks to a lot of people, delivers presentations, how do you do that in this kind of new normal?

But before we get there, I thought it would be a really cool place to start to talk a little bit about your role as a developer advocate. It’s something that a lot of software tool development companies have but maybe people listening don’t really understand what that role kind of entails or they think everyone comes into the role with the same kind of background. Because I think that’s so critical to sort of your role as communicator and working with a communicator, I think that’s really cool. How did you get started as a developer advocate? What brought you into this role?

Heidi Waterhouse: The vast majority of developer advocates, if you ask us how we started doing this, the answer is we fell into it sideways. And the same is true for me. I spent 20 years as an extremely technical technical writer. Using my English degree to do the stuff about a crypto, not crypto mining, cryptology and security and large scale networks and stuff like that. And so I had all of this really deep understanding, but a few years into my career I realized that one of the things I really wanted to be doing was scaling myself better and making a better use of my time rather than just writing these one off books that only a small percentage of people were ever going to see. And a smaller percentage were going to read. I wanted to be doing something that had more impact. And so I started doing public speaking at conferences and I talked about how to do technical writing.

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I have some talks out there about if you’re a developer who’s being forced to do technical writing, what do you do? And as I kept doing this, I applied for a job at LaunchDarkly as a writer and they looked at my conference experience and they’re like, “You don’t want to be a writer, you want to be a developer advocate.” I said, “What’s a developer advocate?” And they’re like, “Well, it’s the person who talks to developers for us and talks for developers to us.” A developer advocate is a human API. I am the application programming interface for developers on two sides of this artificial wall of what is a company, to get information to each other. When I go talk to people, even if I’m not going, when I talk to people, I bring back information for my product team, for my development team and say, “Hey, how are we feeling about doing a flutter thing? I’m getting a real uptick in questions about flutter as an SDK.”

And they’ll add it to the list. And then I have also the responsibility to go out and say, “Hey, we have these 19 SDKs. Would you like to hear about them?” And that gives us a chance to have a conversation. But I’m also on the broad scale, representing LaunchDarkly because whatever company you’re with, you become the public face in a different way than the founders or the CEOs. You’re the person that gets the random DMs in the middle of the day saying, “Hey, this isn’t really a support question, but I was wondering if,” and then you’re going to get that kind of question. And it is my job to be present for those questions, which is super interesting and has been a really engaging part of my work.

I’ve been a full time remote worker for north of 10 years. Every once in a while I try going back to the office again and I don’t like it. It’s really hard to do deep work for me in an office because there are keywords floating around all the time and then I pay attention to the keyword and then by, my train of thought is lost.

SEE: The new normal: What work will look like post-pandemic (TechRepublic Premium)

Public speaking tip 1: Start small

Bill Detwiler: How does someone who’s technical like yourself, and I can identify with that, I didn’t start with a background in journalism and tech media. Although I’ve been doing it for 20 years. Like yourself, I had a technical background. And I think there’s a, how do you make that transition from someone who does sort of really technical writing or comes from a technical background, whether, I was an engineering mathematics and computer science person in college and an IT background, a developer background or you’re a coder. How does someone with that technical kind of background prepare for doing these kinds of events, live presentations, whether it’s on a grand scale, at a conference, whether it’s standing up and doing a keynote presentation or whether it’s just within your own company? Just standing up in front of a group at a standup or at a product demo. How do you do that in a way that is effective and helps communicate the message, and [is] engaging with the audience?

The audience is pulling for you. And so when you remember that the audience is mostly on your side, I think it helps a lot with the stage fright. Heidi Waterhouse, developer advocate at LaunchDarkly

Heidi Waterhouse: Those are great questions. I think the first thing I’d say is start small. Please don’t try and start with a conference talk or even if you haven’t done it all a meetup talk. There’s an escalation level, but I think we don’t talk enough about. There’s standing up at stand up, there’s doing an all hands demo, then there’s doing a small meetup, there is doing a small conference, multi-speaker small talk at a multi-track conference. There’s doing a talk and a single track conference. There’s this whole escalation and a lot of the levels above meetup are not a different skillset, but a skillset that you would need to focus on and work on. You have to learn to do a CFP, you have to learn to put together a slide deck. You have to learn to, there’s a whole bunch of stuff around that.

And so that’s sort of a separate question, but I think to start out, the things that you need to understand are that everybody in the audience is on your side. A lot of people give this really old speaking advice about imagine your audience naked and then you don’t respect them anymore. And I think that’s terrible on several levels. Please don’t imagine anybody naked. What I want you to do is imagine that they are sitting in this meeting because they want to hear from you. They want you to succeed and if you have a problem, they are empathizing with the problem. We’ve all seen that thing where a presenter’s computer goes dark and they’re like, okay. The audience is pulling for you. And so when you remember that the audience is mostly on your side, I think it helps a lot with the stage fright.

And the other thing that I think is super important that I’ve had sort of vaguely throughout my life an understanding of, but was really solidified when I read Badass: Making Users Awesome by Kathy Sierra. Nobody is here to use software, we’re here to communicate with each other. We’re here to get a job done. Software is sort of the necessary middleware between humans and the way that we get people to engage with what we’re saying is not tell them how to use the software, but tell them how to get what they need done, done. It’s going to be a much more compelling story. If I came in and told you about a bunch of webcam settings and DSLR and all sorts of technical things, it would be very satisfying in an I’m learning something way, but it wouldn’t necessarily teach you about what you’re trying to do. Go ahead.

Bill Detwiler: I was going to say, how difficult is that transition for highly-technical people to make?

Heidi Waterhouse: It depends.

Heidi Waterhouse speaking at LeadDev 2019

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Heidi Waterhouse speaking at LeadDev 2019

Public speaking tip 2: Don’t get lost in the details

Bill Detwiler: They love to talk about features and wow, we put all this work into making this button work this way. And there’s hours of work behind the scenes, but the person that you’re talking to really just wants to know, hey, if I click this, it does this and that’s really what I wanted. Whoa, yay. Great.

Heidi Waterhouse: Yeah. There’s an apocryphal Einstein quote that says, “If you can’t explain it to an eight year old, you don’t understand it.” And I think that’s sort of a good North Star is to say, “Mommy, what do you do at work?” It’s a really a different question. I think the way that a lot of developers can access this and don’t think to do it is they need to talk to their product design team because the product design team has a finger on the pulse of who is the user and what are they trying to do. And that gets filtered through, okay, now I’ve written a story, now it’s an epic, now we’ve broken it down into technical details, but you need to go back to the source and say, “What is the user trying to do?”

We’re doing an integration right now. And I had a really interesting discussion with my developers because they’re like, well, of course people will start in our software and then do this other thing to integrate. I’m like, no, no, no, no, no. The software that we’re integrating with owns the world. Everybody starts their day in that software and our integration has to be seamless and invisible to the vast majority of people who use it. That’s what would make it useful. Nobody wants to go use our software. I totally want it to power the world underneath. I want the integrators to know about it. But from a story perspective, I need you to understand that we are working in somebody else’s sandbox.

Public speaking mistakes to avoid

Bill Detwiler: What mistakes do you see people make when they prepare for giving a presentation? You talked about starting small and you talked about, so we’ve talked about being able to convey the message without sort of going into too much technical detail, solving people’s real problems. What other mistakes do you see people make when they’re preparing for a presentation?

Heidi Waterhouse: On a technical level, you need fewer words on your slides. The human brain literally cannot listen and read at the same time. We just, I know you think you can, I know you were doing it in the back of whatever boring class you were in, you were reading a book and sort of listening to the teacher. That’s very rapid switching and not actually multitasking. Those are the same brain center. If you put words on your side, people are going to read the words and stop listening to what you’re saying. The way I solve this, and I think this is especially useful for web presentations is, none of my fonts are less than 36-point. You can only fit so many words on a slide if you have this artificial constraint. And so that means that you don’t get those slides that are just bullet points that the presenter reads because those are really terrible to sit through.

You could have bullet points that are one or two words so that as a presenter you remember what you were going to say. But don’t write it all out. The way that slides are showing up in video conferences means that we need to change how we design slides. Most of our slide templates, the stock templates that you get from either your designer or your software, are designed for presentation in a room of 12 people. That’s sort of what they’re optimized for. They’re optimized for a meeting. But when you get that next to somebody’s talking head in a window that’s been squinched over so that people can still see their notifications, you’re talking a very small slide footprint, so your fonts have to be a big, your pictures have to be clear and if you’re doing attribution on your slides, which I think is really important, all of my slides have my Twitter handle on them so that people can quote me accurately and take screen caps. If you’re doing attribution, it needs to be bigger than it would if you were doing it for a conference screen. That’s [the] number one mistake.

The number two mistake is you don’t practice. And believe me, I know how horrible it is to watch yourself talk. I hate it. I hate it every time. I’ve been doing this for seven years and every time I record myself giving a talk or watch a conference recording of myself giving a talk, I’m just like, I can’t believe I did that. I sound like such a dip. However, just like every other iteration, this is your test and if you don’t test, then you don’t know that you’re actually delivering what you think you’re delivering and you can’t iterate. You have to practice. And I’m sorry, I’m sorry it sucks. When I’m starting off new speakers, I say, “Go home, have a few drinks. If you’re in California, maybe have something a little greener, whatever it takes to get yourself relaxed so that you can watch this. And then just watch it through once and you’ll note things.”

And you don’t have to sit there taking notes about everything you did wrong. In fact, I think that’s kind of destructive, but you do need to run this test on how your presentation is coming across. I really wish people would do that pretest before they release to public. Who does testing after release? All of us. But the thing that I wish is that if you know you have a big presentation coming up, you would set up your webcam, you can record your own Zoom meeting, go through it. It will be super awkward, but it will make the next one better. I refer to this stage as getting the suck out. Every talk has a finite amount of suck and I’m either going to suck on stage or I’m going to suck in test and I know which one I’d rather.

Heidi Waterhouse, developer advocate with LaunchDarkly at LeadDev

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Heidi Waterhouse, developer advocate with LaunchDarkly at LeadDev

Photo credit: Danielle Chloe Potts

How to prepare for and deliver virtual presentations

Bill Detwiler: You mentioned something right there that I think is really important, especially now, but with the growth in remote work is still important, which is preparing for your venue. Whether you’re doing something virtually, whether you’re doing something in a small meeting room or whether you’re doing something on a keynote stage in front of a 1,000 people. Now since those last two, no one’s really doing now, let’s talk about virtual. You talked about a few bullet, a few important points, which is changing the slide layout. What else do people really need to do to prepare for virtual presentations?

Heidi Waterhouse: All right, so you need to think about your slides as being a very small part of the screen. You need better lighting. This is the number one problem that I see people have and you and I both look okay because this is what we do.

Bill Detwiler: Well and in all fairness, I did bring home nice studio lights so at least one or two nice studio lights. And so I’ll caveat there. Not everybody has that, but you don’t really have to, do you?

Heidi Waterhouse: You don’t. I actually, I invested a little bit in a green screen and it came with some nice diffuser lights, which is basically an LED with a transparent, not transparent and translucent white umbrella in front of it. And that’s what’s off to the side. But also I just have a desk lamp pointed up at my ceiling, which is white, so it bounces white light down. And those are things that I had around that I put together ad hoc. I’m really amused. There’s a bunch of, there’s this phenomenon and it’s not just developers but it shows up so clearly in developers where the way to solve a problem is a new exciting tool. A bunch of my developer advocate friends have gone to, what if I get a high end DSLR with a fixed camera or fixed length lens and I use the dummy battery and run the HDMI into my mixer. And I’m like, my friends, this is the thing that you were doing when you were like, I’m going to start blogging as soon as I get my static site generator fixed.

That’s not the point. Please just write the blog post, please just do the webcam. I recommend people actually don’t invest a ton in cameras because the higher quality your camera is, the more unforgiving it is. If you get a 4K camera, you will realize that everybody on TV is wearing makeup and not just makeup but flawlessly applied makeup. It’s a whole different makeup game than when we had earlier video cameras. And so don’t get too caught up in the stuff. Make sure you have good lighting. Think about who you’re going to talk to, do your best on the audio. But I actually I’m using a an external mic right now, but it was a $100 and you can’t order them right now because everybody’s working from home. You can’t order anything right now in this, the sixth week of lockdown, but your webcam is going to work fine. Your webcam probably has a mic on it that’s slightly better than using your computer’s mic. Go with that.

The other preparation that I think people really need to be aware of is bandwidth. This is a consistent problem you can’t see, but there is a janky ethernet cable running across the back of my office because I ran ethernet and then I moved my office. You need a hard wire if you can do it at all because that’s going to give you priority. But if you have kids, they’re home from school. They’re taking classes, they’re also on the bandwidth. Make them stay on wifi. You get the wire. Anybody who’s making money gets top billing for whatever internet you have. Pay for as much internet as you can get.

And before I came downstairs I’m like, hey, I have an interview, be light on the bandwidth. If you can not be visible on the Zoom, don’t send the video. But the bandwidth wars, this happens to me every summer when they come home. And I’m like, where did all of my fast go? But I think it’s fair if you have the expertise and the problems to set up lockouts that say, anybody earning money gets 50% of the bandwidth and everybody else has to split the other 50%.

Heidi Waterhouse with LaunchDarkly

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Heidi Waterhouse with LaunchDarkly

How to get started with public speaking and succeed

Bill Detwiler: What advice would you give to either developers or other technical people who maybe want to do more public speaking? Especially now, in terms of, as we look at the future economic kind of uncertainty, a lot of people may be reassessing their careers. Or just looking to sort of up skill and say, “I think this would be a really great way to promote myself, my work.” Sort of get out in front of people. What would you say, I know you come from, don’t come from a developer background, but with that highly kind of technical background, I don’t know if anyone really starts out in public speaking and we’ve talked about advice, but what advice would you give to maybe developers who want to look at that or other technical IT folks who want to kind of take that leap?

Heidi Waterhouse: I think first I’d say, research the field. Look at some stuff that you know is going to be really excellent. The Ted Talks are beautifully produced and extremely well put on and rehearsed to within an inch of their lives. If you watch a Ted Talk, whoever’s doing that has given that talk a 100 times in practice, which sounds unbelievable. But yeah, no, I totally believe that. Watch the good stuff and also watch stuff at the level that you might be able to approach. Watch some Twitch streams. There’s a ton of live coding Twitch streams out now and you can start to detect what your style might be. You’re going to say, “Oh, okay. This person talks through their problem and also keeps identifying what they’re trying to solve.” Or, “This person’s really good at debugging and I want to be like that.”

You’re going to look at sort of the two ends of formality and see which end you tend toward. I’m because I’m trained as a speaker, I can’t imagine giving a talk sitting down. I can’t imagine doing a webinar sitting down because it changes your energy. And I find it really difficult to do all of these talks to just a web camera because I’m used to having an audience that will react to me. I put a stuffed animal on top of my web camera so I can make eye contact with it because that makes it easier for me. But if you’re a developer just starting out, I want you to know you don’t have to be perfect. If you look at some of your favorite YouTube channels, pretty much every developer I know has some YouTube channel that they follow. When they’re starting out, their camera work is shaky and their scripting is off and you’re sort of like, oh that’s not the guy I’m used to.

But if you go back to the very early roles of Smarter Every Day, it’s not bad, but it’s definitely not like the production values that get you a shot where you get to fly in a jet. And so just like everything else in our development lifecycle, we’re going to keep iterating so don’t be scared to start off with what you have. Don’t be scared. What’s the failure case of putting out a little here’s how I describe a private public encryption. There are a lot of explanations. I really like the one with the paint colors. There’s a really good one about public private key encryption that involves mixing paint. But however you describe that, it could be five minutes. Put it out, see what people think, watch it yourself. See if you agree with what they’re saying.

You’re not going to get a lot of viewers at first. That’s an advantage because sometimes it’s good to start with just doing this for myself or a couple of my friends or whichever coworker I can coerce into pretending they watched it. Whatever. But I think we don’t want to say to developers, to technical people, “You have to be as good as Heidi, who gets paid to professionally deliver keynotes.” That is literally my job is getting up on stage and doing the thing so that you’re all inspired about disasters, was my last keynote. Instead, what we’re paying you for is to understand interesting things and if you could explain it to the next person, then you’ve really added to your value as a developer because we’ve all worked with that developer who’s brilliant and can’t tell you what they’re doing. And I don’t want to work with that person as much as I want to work with the person who’s three quarters brilliant and can actually describe what’s going on.

Bill Detwiler: Well Heidi, I think that’s great advice. And I think that’s a perfect place to stop. Where can folks go more to learn about what you’re doing, the work there at LaunchDarkly and maybe see some of your work and learn from it?

Heidi Waterhouse: I have a website at that has all of my recordings up on it., we have a free trial for 30 days. What we’re doing is feature management as a service or I like to say feature flags as a service. Don’t roll it yourself, let us do it for you because we’re going to do it better. I have actually a whole talk called Free as in Puppies, about build versus buy. Sure, it’s free. You can build it yourself like a free puppy. But yeah, you can go there. We’d welcome you for a trial and I think it’s really exciting to get to be here and talk about this.

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