Thursday, October 27, 2011

Tips for Becoming a Confident Presenter

I’m not quite sure how it happened, but somewhere along the way I became a public speaker. I never took a speech class or participated in debate in school. I never attended Toastmasters or any other organization that helps you become comfortable speaking in front of an audience. Nonetheless, I’ve delivered nearly 600 presentations in the past twenty years and enjoyed just about all of them. These were all training classes and shorter presentations (conferences, professional meetings, webinars, etc.) on software development and management. Somehow, I have become comfortable presenting to audiences ranging from just a few people up to more than a thousand.

Most consultants will be called upon to give a presentation or teach a class from time to time. Speaking in public is one of the most terrifying experiences for most people. That’s understandable. Everyone is staring right at you, awaiting your words of wisdom. You feel exposed and vulnerable. It’s one thing to say something that sounds foolish in a private conversation; it’s quite a different matter to say it to dozens or hundreds or thousands. The potential for embarrassment is enormous. However, so is the potential for sharing important information that can influence many people in a positive way.

Just in case you, like so many other people, are scared by the idea of giving a presentation, in this post I share Karl’s Safety Tips for Confident Public Speaking. I think you’ll find that keeping these ideas in mind as you prepare for a talk will give you a lot more confidence. Maybe you’ll even have fun the next time you’re on stage.

Presentation Tip #1: No one knows what you’re going to say, so don’t worry if the words that come out of your mouth don’t exactly match the way you scripted, planned, or practiced the talk. Just keep going. This is very different from giving, say, a piano recital of a well-known musical composition, where someone in the audience is certain to detect a C that should have been a B.

Presentation Tip #2: You’re in control. You’re the one with the podium, the microphone, the projector, and the laser pointer. You’re the one who can ask the audience if they have any questions. You can terminate the discussion and move on whenever you like. It’s your show.

Presentation Tip #3: Even if you aren’t the world’s expert on the topic you’re presenting, you almost certainly know more about it than anyone else in the room. Otherwise, one of them would be speaking and you’d be listening. Keep this truth in mind to give you confidence in your material.

Presentation Tip #4: You rarely face a hostile audience. Most of the time, people are there because they want to hear what you have to say. This isn’t necessarily true if you’re dealing with a controversial issue or if you’re speaking at a political or government meeting of some kind. But if you’re delivering a factual presentation to a group of people who are attending of their own volition, they usually start out with an open and receptive attitude toward the speaker. After that, it’s up to you to hold their interest.

Presentation Tip #5: If you’re using slides, as in a PowerPoint presentation, never say “and on the next slide….” Maybe you don’t remember exactly what’s on the next slide, or perhaps you changed the sequence from the last time you gave the presentation. If you’re surprised by the slide that pops up, you would have to backtrack a bit after the lead-in you presented. Instead, just display the next slide in the sequence and talk about whatever is on it. In other words, it’s okay to fake it a little bit.

Presentation Tip #6: It’s fine to say “I don’t know” in response to a question if you aren’t sure how best to respond. That’s better than standing there silently because you can’t think of the right answer. It’s also better than making up some answer on the fly that might turn out to be wildly erroneous. Even better than a simple “I don’t know” is “I don’t know, but I’ll find out,” or “I’m not sure off the top of my head, so let me think about your question and get back to you with a more considered response.”

Presentation Tip #7: Keep an eye on the clock. If you see that you might run out of time before you cover everything you wanted to say, that’s your problem, not the audience’s problem. You might have to skip some material. That’s much better than holding captive a fidgeting audience who would like to move on with their lives or get to the next presentation at the conference. It’s usually okay to run a couple of minutes over your allotted time, but that’s it. With practice, you’ll get better at selectively deleting or condensing your planned material to bring the talk to a smooth close without having to Rolodex through twenty slides in the last five minutes—nobody likes that.

Presentation Tip #8: Be sure to talk about what you said you were going to talk about. I firmly believe in “truth in advertising,” so I try to write descriptions of my presentations that are accurate as well as inviting. The audience members have a right to know what to expect, and the speaker has a responsibility to deliver. I’ve attended more than one presentation where the content delivered didn’t fulfill the expectation set by the title and description. Let’s say the title of the talk is “Conjugating Verbs in Swahili,” but the material presented misses the mark. At the end of the talk, the speaker invites questions, and one attendee asks, “Were you going to say anything about conjugating verbs in Swahili?” The speaker is dumbfounded. She doesn’t know how to respond. She thinks that’s what she just spent an hour talking about, but she really didn’t. That’s an embarrassing position for any speaker to be in. I’ve seen it happen.

I find that these eight tips help keep me confident, comfortable, and poised when I’m speaking in public. I’ll bet they’ll help you, too.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Hanging Out the Shingle

I know a number of knowledgeable and talented people who declared themselves to be consultants but never got enough work to make a living at it. The message I got from these experiences was that it doesn’t matter how good you are if nobody knows you’re there. One man’s experience particularly sticks in my mind. I’ll call him Kevin.

Kevin is very bright and had considerable experience in the broad domain of software process improvement, so one day he left corporate America to become a consultant. However, Kevin made some mistakes getting started. He didn’t take the necessary actions to let prospective clients know that he was available and could be helpful to them. Kevin never created an official company name and never developed a website to market his services. He didn’t publish articles in software magazines or on websites. This is one way to get your name out there. Blogging is another useful technique, as is being an active contributor to blogs and discussion forums, such as those on LinkedIn. If people realize that you have good ideas and useful information to share, they might want to learn more about you and perhaps hire you.

Kevin did give a number of presentations at software conferences. Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to realize that the types of short presentations and even full-day tutorials that one typically delivers at conferences do not necessarily have a good market in the commercial world. Even if you do get hired to come into a company to give a short talk, it won’t pay much, and there’s only a small chance that it will lead to longer-term engagements. Kevin also positioned himself in too narrow of a specialty, just a couple of subdomains of software process improvement. In my experience, few corporations bring in consultants to help with those particular areas, important though they are. The net result of all this was that Kevin never gained much traction as an independent consultant. Eventually, he had to go back into the corporate world to have a reliable income.

You can learn a lot from Kevin’s experiences as you chart your own path for independent consulting in the software world. Somehow, I was very fortunate. I always had all of the work I wanted to do when I was an active consultant. Maybe I just hit the sweet spot in terms of developing training materials, other resources, and expertise in areas that were in demand, such as requirements engineering and software quality. But I think I did take some of the right actions, too.
  • I thought long and hard about what to name my company. I didn’t want to call it just something like the Wiegers Consulting Group or Wiegers & Associates. You’d be amazed how many such-named companies have but a single employee—no group, no associates. After considerable contemplation, I realized that my goal was to have an impact on the processes that software organizations use to build their products, and for those processes to have an impact on the organization’s business success. Hence the name: Process Impact.

  • I created a website immediately, ProcessImpact.com. I confess that this site is rather dated and simple, but it has a lot of useful content, and I’ve always favored substance over fluff, function over form. I now have three additional websites: ProjectInitiation.com, KarlWiegers.com, and PearlsFromSand.com.

  • Building a website is a good starting point, but then you need to attract people to the site. Over the years, I posted increasing quantities of material, including articles I had written, document templates and other useful work aids, and so forth. This kind of “bait” clearly draws visitors. The most popular item on ProcessImpact.com, my software requirements specification template, is still downloaded nearly 20,000 times per month. This astonishes me.

  • I wrote many articles for numerous software magazines on a variety of topics: requirements, project management, people management, quality, metrics, process improvement, and so forth. I published up to ten articles per year early in my career. Publishing generates good visibility and establishes the author’s credentials in multiple areas of expertise.

  • I spoke at as many as six or eight conferences per year, often giving multiple presentations at each conference. This is a way to reach hundreds of people a year with your message. You know your career is progressing when conference producers invite you to submit papers, to sit on panels, and ultimately to give keynote presentations. As you gain visibility, you can get paid increasing amounts to give your presentations. And the conference fee is virtually always waived for speakers.

  • I gave quite a few presentations at meetings of professional organizations throughout the country. If you can find such organizations close to home, that raises your profile in your own community and presents the opportunity for generating local work.

  • I began writing books. As of now, I have published six books on software development and management, in addition to a nontechnical memoir of life lessons titled Pearls from Sand: How Small Encounters Lead to Powerful Lessons (PearlsFromSand.com). Having your name on a book gives you both visibility and credibility. This is not to say that I am the world’s expert on any particular topic. You only have to know a little more than the next guy to be helpful, though.
Doubtless it was the combination of these activities that helped generate awareness of my presence and capabilities in the software industry. As a result, I made a decent living as a consultant and trainer, and I never had to think about going back to work in a larger company.

Do you agree with my premise that it doesn’t matter how good you are if no one knows you’re there? If so, think about various ways you can let the world (or at least the part of the world that might give you money for your services) learn of your existence and talents. It might pay off.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

Friday, October 14, 2011

Welcome to the Consulting Tips and Tricks Blog

I’ve been self-employed as a software development and management consultant since early 1998. I’m launching this blog to share some of the bits of wisdom I’ve learned since then, and to encourage others to share their own experiences and insights as well. These thoughts are in no particular order. They simply reflect some of the tips, practices, and tricks I’ve found to be useful over the years.

There are many types of consultants and consulting engagements. Although I’ve always called myself a consultant, in reality most of the work I’ve done has been training, so some of my tips are in the realm of making presentations. I’ve always worked through my own one-person company, Process Impact. (BTW, I’ve found that even in a one-person company, management is unreasonable and uninformed, and the staff are all lazy with bad attitudes.) Some consultants get work through agencies, or they are employed full-time by a company that contracts their consulting services out to clients. Because this blog is based on my own experiences while being self-employed, some of my suggestions may not apply to consultants who are employed by real companies. Nor am I addressing staff-augmentation contracting relationships in which companies hire individuals, who are often called “consultants,” to perform technical work. Feel free to contribute your own suggestions for these other kinds of consulting domains.

I should point out that nothing I suggest or describe should be construed as constituting legal advice. Also, you might find that things I've found to be valuable are an insanely bad fit for your situation, so it would be silly to take my advice. As with all such writings, your mileage may vary.

By way of background, let me tell you how I got started in consulting. I started as a research chemist at Kodak, moved into software development in 1984, and later managed a small software group. I began learning as much as I could about software process improvement through books, magazines, and conferences. Soon I found myself in demand to help other groups within Kodak with certain aspects of process improvement. Ultimately I took full-time positions leading process improvement efforts in Kodak's digital imaging technology areas and finally in their web development group, the people who bring you kodak.com.

In the early 1990s, I began giving presentations at conferences outside Kodak and writing magazine articles about various aspects of improving software development and management capabilities. In 1994 I received my first invitation to speak at another company about some of the software engineering work I’d been writing about. More such opportunities arose, thanks to my increasing visibility as a conference speaker and author. Soon I found myself providing consulting and training services for other companies on my vacation time, while I still worked full-time at Kodak. This was all done with Kodak's knowledge and approval. It was a safe way to begin my segue into a consulting career.

My first book, Creating a Software Engineering Culture, was published in 1996 while I was still at Kodak. Shortly thereafter, a well-known software consultant and author asked when I was going to leave Kodak and hang out a shingle as an independent consultant. Frankly, this seemed pretty risky to me, considering that I like to eat every day. But I decided to give it a shot. I formally launched Process Impact in December 1997, and a few months later I left Kodak to see how things might go on my own.

I learned several things right away. First, I was fortunate to get much more work than I thought it might. That was a relief, because many new consultants struggle to find sufficient employment. Second, I found that I really enjoy the flexibility of being self-employed. While at Kodak, I learned that I do not need to be managed and I do not like to be a manager, so self-employment has suited me well. Third, I learned that there's an awful lot to learn about being a self-employed consultant. I wish I had had a mentor to rely on for assistance. Perhaps this blog can serve as a useful resource for you if you're pursuing a similar career path.

If you have your own consulting tips to share, please add comments to the posts, or email me so we can talk about having you contribute a guest post.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)