Christian Heilmann

From geeks to presenters – a talk/training at Spotify Sweden

Friday, November 2nd, 2012 at 3:43 pm

Today I went to the Spotify office in Stockholm to test-run a training I’ll give at the MozCamp in Singapore next month. The topic was turning geeks into presenters, how to foster a culture of speaking and presenting in a company and tricks how to become a better speaker.

Slides and screencast

The slides are online and there is a raw screencast (includes some swearing) available on YouTube.


From geeks to presenters

This is a quick introductory talk on how to foster a culture of presenting and speaking and a few tips on how to become a better speaker yourself.

Why present?

The first question to ask yourself is why you’d want to start presenting. There has to be a reason for it.

Geek barriers

It is not easy for geeks to start becoming a presenter. In a lot of cases our nature doesn’t lend itself to being an outgoing person that other people understand. There is a reason why we chose IT as a profession and not something where we primarily deal with people.Furthermore years of bad experiences with company presentations and boring lectures have us conditioned to dislike them. The other issue is that speaking and presenting is considered a task people do who do not code any longer. You know, those managers and the suits and the like. It seems we are more excited about people who write amazing code that never gets released than people sharing what they want to do and get input before we create it. And complaining that people don’t care about our issues without reaching out to tell them about it doesn’t sound too logical either.

Presenting is translating, not selling

The best presenters I know don’t sell with their presentations.They explain, share their excitement and point people in the right direction to find things out for themselves.

People listen if you talk to them!

Giving a presentation internally is a great way to get people up to speed with what is happening. We can have all the documentation and emails in the world – if we don’t know that people read them we can not assume people know what we are on about. Scheduling an internal presentation means people hear at least once about it. External presentations are of course even better, not only make they learn people about what you and your company does, they also give you internal leverage. You are known on the outside for knowing your stuff and the company can benefit from you being associated with it.

Starting a speaking culture

Many companies already do have a culture of presenting but in many this privilege is given to only a few people. Those are coached to be perfect pitch presenters and drive an even larger gap between the people who do things in the company and those who talk about it. Of course we need good professional presenters (and every manager should have some training) but the real success comes by sharing the fame and the responsibilities with everyone in the company.

A few tools

Just in terms to break down barriers and to get people out of the woodwork and start speaking there are a few things companies can do that proved effective in the past.

Powerpoint Karaoke

Powerpoint Karaoke is a great way to get the fear out of presenting. Here is how it works:
  • Download random powerpoints of the interweb
  • Pick a random person
  • The person should present the deck for 5 minutes
Seemingly just a silly thing, powerpoint karaoke can have a lot of positive effects.
  • It teaches you to not be a slave to your deck
  • It breaks down the initial barrier – everybody can look the fool for five minutes
  • You get to know what to avoid in your own slides
  • You start to learn speaking, not just re-iterating (you are not in your subject matter)

Lightning talks

Lightning talks are a great opportunity to discuss issues and solutions and get people to do their first talks.
  • 15 minutes each week
  • 5 minutes: a problem we encountered
  • 5 minutes: a solution we found and applied
  • 5 minutes: discussion if this is a good solution and should become a best practice
I’ve found lightning talks in the past a very good solution for people to get their first speaking experience. They are not scary and they give you a chance to say what you want to say. The reasons are:
  • The speaker knows his stuff
  • The speaker talks about a positive experience – fixing something
  • A Fixed time and duration means predictability which is less scary
  • Everybody gets to have a go

Content repos beat a slide repository

Instead of archiving slide decks and sending them around the company to present over and over again create a content repository much like a pattern library. This allows people to get information they need and assemble their talks from it rather than repeating someone else’s talk flow and fail at that.

Preliminaries – what to do yourself

There are a few things you can do before you start even thinking about speaking. These may sound weird, but they will save you a lot of time in the future and make you a much more focused and better presenter.

Forget about the slide deck

The first thing to consider is forgetting about your slide deck. Your slides are the backdrop to your talk, if you read them out you are redundant. Furthermore everything you can think of can go wrong about your presentation – be safe, don’t rely on them.

Find excitement

In order to really give good presentations, you need to be excited about what you present. If that naturally happens, good. Move on. If not, find an angle that makes the subject matter exciting for you and then tell a story around that angle.

Share pain and excitement

One big obstacle for a lot of new speakers is to move from human to expert that needs to inspire. This step is much less hard to take when you stay human and think of human ways to interact with the audience. Share that you are excited and/or afraid of being on stage and talking about this. Be human, be honest. Good stories on how you reached conclusions, how you bettered your ways and how a failure got turned into a success are a great way to give an inspiring talk. Use them.

Learn to endure and adore yourself

One big step to becoming a good speaker is to get used to yourself, to the sound of your voice and the person you appear to be. How other people see us is very different to how we see ourselves and this very much starts with the voice. Our heads vibrate when we speak which means we hear ourselves muchdeeper than we really sound.

Speak loud, clear and proud

Being understandable on stage is incredibly important. A lot of this is about breathing technique and timing yourself the right way. This takes practice and gets better the more you do it. A great little but also very goofy trick is to put a cork in your mouth and speak at the same time. Try to become as understandable as possible – that way you learn how to breathe correctly.

Record and playback

Watching videos of yourself is awkward but a very important partto becoming a speaker. This is how you come across, and this is the person you are – get used to it. You are your worst critic and that is good. Also have good friends watch you and tell you what can be improved.


Body language is a massive part of presenting or communication over all. There are many studies on the subject with at times scary findings. People do judge you by how you project, not by who you are. This takes time and effort and not many people are happy to go that far. Therefore you need to be aware of what body language works and what doesn’t. What you give the audience is how they react. You need to lead not only with your words but also with your body.

Practice your stage voice and manners

If you have kids – lucky you. If you don’t, get access to some. Then take a good children’s book and read to them. Loud and with lots of gestures and different voices for the different characters. The kid will love it and you break out of your shell and get more confident in projecting and speaking clear and loud.

An incredibly simple solution

Amy Cuddy’s “Your body language shapes who you are” is not only an amazing talk, but gives you a very simple solution to your projection issues. It turns out that you can make yourself more confident and outgoing by just using the same body language as confident and powerful people do. Sounds too simple, but our body chemistry shows proof.Amy Cuddy: Your body language shapes who you are

Learn from others

The first step to being a good speaker is to get inspired and learn by watching other people do it. A lot of conference videos are available on the web, so check them out there. TED is a great resource for seeing amazing talks – but be aware that this is the master class, don’t feel bad about these talks. A lot of rehearsal and work went into them and they only look very easy to deliver.

Go to (un)conferences and share afterwards

Going to conferences is a very good step, even better are unconferences as it means you have to speak, too. Whenever the company allows people to go to conferences it should be on the condition to give a talk (or at least send an email report) about the event afterwards. That way there is no jealousy amongst people and you can set up an archive of what conferences are worth while and which aren’t.

Do not copy!

The danger there though is to copy verbatim what other people are doing. This will not make you or the audience happy as it is a lie to yourself and them. You can find things that you like and start using them but it needs to be natural – don’t force it.

Would you like to know more?

There are a few online resources you can check out.

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