I began presenting on SQL Server two years ago. At the time I was a Senior Database Administrator. My workdays were spent getting ahead of the next big performance problem in an environment where software changes rolled into production like gangbusters. I was under a lot of pressure to be super-technical, stay on top of the latest software changes, and anticipate problems at every turn. It was tempting to spend all my technical efforts on my job. Instead, I decided to interact more with the outside world.
Looking back, becoming a speaker is the single most important career decision I ever made.
There’s No Obvious ROI on Technical Speaking
Deciding to get up and present on technical topics wasn’t easy. I knew that investment costs came out of my personal life. It was clear that I would spend a lot of free time working on presentations and building my speaking skills.
Risk was obvious, too. Presenters get asked all sorts of random questions from the audience. I knew that I could prepare like crazy and there would still be things outside of my control. Before you start speaking, the risk of embarrassment seems HUGE.
And what do you get in return? When you begin speaking, engagements are unpaid. You’re speaking at night or on the weekend, and “Thank Yous” are your payment in the short term. These are great, but you might wonder if they’re worth all the investment and the risk.
What You Get from Becoming a Technical Presenter
When you get into the habit of giving talks on a technical topic, it changes you. You become a presenter.
Presenting isn’t just a set of skills. It’s like playing a sport— you learn the techniques, but you use them in the process of becoming an athlete. Presenting develops a specific side to your personality and skills. As you continue presenting you customize your techniques and find a style of delivering and interpreting information that’s genuinely your own.
This personal transformation is your return on investment. It may not sound like much, but it’s a very big deal.
Speaking with Confidence and Clarity
Most technical speakers don’t begin with great confidence OR great clarity. Most of us begin speaking just as best we can— we’re trying to share how to do something. As you gain experience speaking you learn to handle the unexpected: odd questions, equipment failures, power outages. You start to feel at home working with people and you identify ways to explain concepts better. Most people who keep going learn to be better communicators.
Soon, standing up and guiding a room full of people through a set of concepts is no big deal. Do it enough, and you begin to enjoy a challenge.
Picture yourself being this confident presenter who can handle any curveball. Now picture that confident presenter speaking for you in your next performance review. Imagine them in an interview for a new job. Imagine them helping train their team to do something new and exciting. That “speaking athlete” finds it easy to use their presentation skills to advance their career and lead their team.
That person isn’t more talented than you. They aren’t smarter or better. They just worked hard to become a great speaker.
Three Simple Steps to Becoming a Technical Presenter
- Start speaking
- Keep going
- Listen to feedback
This list requires hard work, no doubt about it. You’ll need to design a talk, write it, submit it, and then actually give it. This is a very big deal for many people and seems huge. It’s OK— remember that topics which seem obvious to you are likely completely new to many people. Teach what you know.
I’ve placed “listening to feedback” as number three for a reason. Feedback is incredibly valuable and helpful, but don’t kill yourself with criticism after your first speaking adventure. Understand that you’re doing something new and appreciate that you’re actually doing it! Just by itself, that’s great! Once you find your sea legs, actively ask for feedback on where you can make yourself stronger, and listen carefully.
Where to Get Started
The SQL Server community is full of friendly and supportive audiences. These folks love to share and exchange information, and they’d love to have you join the ranks of speakers. They also want to help you succeed!
Your best bet is to find a SQL PASS User Group in your area. Frequently, user group leaders have options for new speakers: you might be able to do a shorter session for your first try, if you want. Talk to the chapter leaders and ask what works for them.
Sometimes people start giving presentations at their workplace to smaller groups. Some people start submitting sessions to free SQLSaturday conferences.
Whatever your path, the hardest part is deciding to get started. It’s time to get out there.