Public Speaking Tips

I figured this would be a series of 5 posts max and it ended up being two weeks of daily posts. 🙂

Here is the list of posts:

  1. Do some public speaking!
  2. Rehearse!
  3. Pick a subject you are interested in!
  4. Have a disaster recovery plan!
  5. Deliver what you say you will!
  6. How to handle questions (crowd control)
  7. Live demonstrations
  8. You can’t please all the people all the time!
  9. Feedback helps you improve!
  10. Watch other speakers!
  11. International presentations
  12. Why Bother?
  13. Understand your motivation for speaking
  14. What do I present? (the pursuit of cool)

The reaction to this stuff has been really interesting. I’m glad people enjoyed it. For easy reference, I will add a link to this post on the toolbar at the side of the blog.

This post concludes the series, but if I think of anything else, I will certainly post it and add it to this list. If anyone has suggestions for posts on related subjects I may not have considered, I would gladly voice my opinion on them and add them to the list also.



Public Speaking Tip 14 : What do I present? (the pursuit of cool)

Deciding what to speak about is one of the most difficult things to do. I still struggle with it now, but this last year has been a turning point for me. I’ve already said you should present about something you are interested in, but what?

It is very easy to fall into the trap of “the pursuit of cool”. You quite fancy doing a presentation on subject X, but think it’s not new or cool enough. The pursuit of cool also makes you question how your choice will be perceived by others, because you are trying to impress specific people or groups of people. If you feel yourself falling into the trap of the pursuit of cool, just remember the following:

  • The vast majority of the time DBAs and developers are doing rather mundane work. As a result, they are looking for ways to be more time efficient while doing those mundane tasks. I remember a few years back sitting in a room at OpenWorld with about 600 other people. What subject had we all gone to listen to? It wasn’t RAC or Exadata. It wasn’t even Data Guard. It was Data Pump! That’s right. Import and export pulled a crowd of that size!
  • A lot of people out there still use Oracle 11g like it’s Oracle 7 or 8i. It never ceases to surprise me how you can mention a feature that was introduced in Oracle 8i and people ask if it is a new feature in 11g. As long as the material is new and relevant to the audience, it doesn’t matter what version it is from.
  • For many people, it will be their first time at a conference and the first time they have seen a presentation on that subject. I spoke to Debra Lilley a couple of years ago and she said 40% of the attendees at the UKOUG conference each year are first-timers. So that’s nearly half the audience who will find your material new.
  • Each year a bunch of people retire or move up the management food chain and a bunch of new DBAs and developers join the ranks. Fresh meat for the grinder. 🙂 They’ve got to go through the process of learning all that stuff you take for granted. It sometimes feels like “groundhog day”, but that’s how our industry works.
  • Just because someone has got 20 years of experience, it doesn’t mean they have experience of feature X. If someone asked me to do some work on Oracle Spatial, I would probably rock up to a few “Oracle Spatial for Dummies” sessions to get me going. 🙂
  • Depending on the type of event, there may be non-technical folks in the audience who are just looking for an overview of the subject. This is very true of marketing events, like OpenWorld.
  • Just because a subject has been done in previous years, doesn’t mean you should avoid it. Sometimes a fresh perspective is helpful. I’ve resisted doing talks on Analytic Functions for years because they’ve been around since Oracle 8i and I’ve seen some great talks on them by others, including Alex Nuiten. This year I thought to hell with it and started doing a session on them and it has worked out really well. It’s the same subject, but my take on it is a little different…

The delays to the release of Oracle 12c actually did me a favour this year. If it had been released earlier, I would probably have spent the year battling it out with others to fill the slots for “What’s new in Oracle 12c for X?” type sessions. Because I couldn’t do that, I took inspiration from the presentations I had been doing at work and took a step back. Nearly all of my presentations this year have had a “retro” feel for me, but they have been received really well. Why? Because the information was either new to the audience in question, framed it in a manner they had never seen before, or it reminded them of things they had known, but forgotten. 🙂

If in doubt, remember this mantra,

Presenting is not about you, it’s about the audience! Don’t get caught up in the pursuit of cool!

Check out the rest of the series here.



Update: I’d just like people to remember this is my personal take on things. It is not some political statement about conferences. 🙂

Public Speaking Tip 13 : Understand your motivation for speaking

In yesterday’s post I talked about what I believe is the most important reason for public speaking, but different people have different motivation and I think it’s good for you to understand what you want to get out of the experience, as it might affect how you approach the journey.

Profile (fame)

Speaking at conferences will certainly increase your visibility in the conference-going community, but I think you’ve got to be realistic about what that means. Let’s say you go to UKOUG and present to 50 people, the rest of the 1000 people at the conference don’t have a clue who you are. The internet will not suddenly be set alight with news of your presentation, unless it is really amazing or really bad. The conference going community is a small fraction of the people out there that use Oracle. If your main motivation is fame, at best you will make yourself a big fish in a very small pond.

When Alex Gorbachev spoke about Pythian‘s attitude to their staff speaking at conferences, the emphasis was very much on keeping the staff happy, more than the leads it generates for the company. Having spoken to people over the years, I think the relationship between conference speaking and work opportunities is drastically over-hyped.

Of course, if building “your brand” is something you aspire too, conferences are one aspect of that, but don’t expect to do one presentation and have the world throwing opportunities your way.

Work opportunities

I’ve already started that conversation in the previous section, but let’s continue… So I’ve said I don’t think speaking at conferences is directly going to help you, but indirectly is a different matter. Adding information about conference presentations on your resume sends a message to employers. Regardless of how good or bad you were, it says to me this person is willing to stand up in front of a crowd of people and try to knowledge spread. It indicates a level of enthusiasm beyond just wanting a pay cheque. That would interest me as an employer.

Once again, I think you have to be careful about what you expect from this. I don’t think I’ve ever been employed because I am “Tim Hall”. Most places don’t have a clue I am the guy that does “that website” until after I’ve started working for them. I guess some people play on their profile a lot more, but for me I quite like keeping work and community separate from each other.

You don’t understand something until you can teach it

Interestingly, in the UK we also have the saying, “Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach” 🙂

Seriously though, we work in a copy & paste industry these days. The vast majority of people don’t have the time, energy or motivation to study beyond getting the job done. Being selected to present at a conference is an extremely good motivator for hitting the books. I know some people actively pick subjects they are not overly familiar with as a learning experience. I’m not brave enough for that. The closest I’ve come is this year’s newbie guide to WebLogic stuff. 🙂

In addition to what you learn during the process of writing and rehearsing your talks, you also learn a lot when people ask you questions. You are effectively combining their experience with your own.


Birds of a feather flock together. You will spend more time at conferences with attendees and the other speakers, giving you the inside track on loads of great information you will not be able to get directly from the manuals. Networking is a great motivator for me.

I guess if you are of that mindset, you can turn this network to your advantage when job-hunting, but as I’ve said, that’s not really my thing…

Giving something back

If you’ve benefited from the community over the years, maybe you should consider giving something back. Presenting is one of the ways you can do that. The folks you see speaking at conferences now will not be around forever…

Remember, your motivation does not have to be the same as mine. The fact that yours is different to mine does not make me right and you wrong. Decide what it is you want to get out of the experience and focus on how best to achieve that. If you are like me and just in it for the ride, just keep saying yes to opportunities and see where it takes you… 🙂

Check out the rest of the series here.



Public Speaking Tip 12 : Why Bother?

In some ways, this should have been the first post in the series, since there are probably a number of people out there who don’t care about speaking at conferences. In my opinion everyone should try their hand at public speaking, because it gives you numerous transferable skills.

I guess a number of people in the Oracle community who know me will laugh at this following statement, but I am naturally a shy person and although I like to talk to people on a one-to-one basis, speaking in groups is not natural for me. I always hated having to read things out loud in class. If I was asked to introduce myself in a meeting, I would get that “butterflies in the stomach” feeling and have a bit of a panic. There are two ways you can react to this. You can avoid putting yourself in those situations, or you can confront your fear and go for it. I chose the latter.

This isn’t just about being able to speak at conferences. It has a knock-on effect on your life generally. There are a few situations that spring to mind that could dramatically alter the course of your life.

  • Job interviews : Having a job interview is pretty scary for most people. If you’ve stood in front of a few hundred people at a conference, sitting in front of a hand full of people in a job interview is a breeze.
  • Meetings : How often have you wanted to say something in a meeting to influence a decision, but you’ve kept quiet because you are nervous of drawing attention to yourself? If you’ve put yourself on the line in front of a room full of strangers, commenting in a meeting is nothing in comparision.
  • Relationships : Confidence is an attractive quality in others. Lack of confidence is percieved as a weakness. Anything that increases your confidence will improve your interactions with other people. Unless you are a hermit, everything in life ultimately comes down to your relationships with those around you.

You don’t have to be a naturally confident person to be a good public speaker. Amy Cuddy has a great TED talk called “Your body language may shape who you are“. You might also see it listed as “power posing”. During the talk she talks about, “fake it until you make it”, and more importantly, “fake it until you become it”. Some of the science behind this has been called into question, but I’ve certainly seen evidence of the benefits in myself over my years of presenting. I am definitely not the person I was…

As I said at the start of this post, I think everyone should try public speaking. I’m not saying you have to make it your life’s mission, but you owe it to yourself to at least try it out and see how it affects you.

Check out the rest of the series here.



Public Speaking Tip 11 : International presentations

As a native English speaker, life is pretty easy for me when presenting around the world. Oracle is an American company, so people are used to having to deal with English speaking presenters. Either the audience speak English already, or the events and audience expect to use a translation service. Even so, I often joke that when I’m presenting in other countries I’m still having to translate what I say on the fly, because my everyday language is not really suitable for an international audience. 🙂 In this post I’ll look at some of the things you need to look out for when speaking in other countries. Some will be equally relevant to other English speaking nations.

Volume of information and speed of presentation

When presenting to an audience in their second (or third) language, you have to present less content and present that content more slowly. There is no point launching into things full steam ahead if some of the content is going to get lost. The volume of content and the speed is really dependent on the audience. If you speak to people before the session starts you will get a feel for how fast is too fast. Also, do some homework before you go. Speak to other presenters who have presented at that event before. Ask the organisers of the event for some advice.

Visual feedback from the audience

I recently did a post where I mentioned the visual feedback you get from the audience and how you can misinterpret it. This is especially true when you present in different countries. Different countries have different body language. The first time you speak to a Bulgarian and they shake their head for “yes” and nod for “no” it will mess with your mind. 🙂

Cultural differences can be a big deal too. In some countries they wouldn’t dream of contradicting a presenter (or teacher), even if they knew them to be wrong.

In addition, presenting to people in their second language can affect their body language. When concentrating, some people get a really serious expression on their face. Some look positively angry. Others take on a really vacant look. If people are concentrating on learning some new information and on top of that they are having to deal with a language barrier, you can’t expect “normal” body language from them.


Many people can understand English well, but struggle, or are embarrassed, to speak it. Don’t be surprised if your Q&A at the end of your session gets no questions. Often, people will then walk up to you and say things like, “I’m sorry, my English is really bad, but I have a question…” Invariably their English is fine and certainly better than me trying to speak their language. 🙂

Don’t put the audience on the spot and wait, or demand, answers to your questions. It’s just going to freak people out.


You know those words or phrases you use in your country, city or group of friends? The rest of the world doesn’t know them! Try to avoid them as much as possible, unless you are going to explain them. I remember sitting in a bar with a group of people at OpenWorld and Doug Burns said to me, “Do you think anyone here except for me knows what that word means?” 🙂 It can be really hard to get out of the habit of using them, but you have to try.


For some people, like me, swearing is a normal part of the language. I have to constantly (try to) censor myself in everyday life. I’ve got much better since my nephews came along and I’ve always been well behaved at conferences. 🙂 Short answer. Don’t swear in your talks.

Being self-deprecating

You’ve got to be really careful with this. In regular life I’m quite self-deprecating, but when I’m presenting I try to avoid it. I remember discussing this with Mark Rittman at my first OpenWorld, who is also self-deprecating. This is the kind of situation we were talking about.

  • You: “So that’s what you should do, but don’t trust me, what do I know? Ha ha ha”
  • Attendee: “But I thought you were meant to be the expert?”

It’s probably better to assume that everything you say will be taken literally, unless you really spell it out to people.

Live translation

Wow. This really freaked me out the first time I used it. When half of the audience are getting the information via a headset you end up getting a delayed response to everything you say. Sometimes they laugh when you don’t expect it, which makes you wonder what the translator has said. If you get a chance, spend some time with the translator and run through your slides with them. The more they know about what is coming, the better job they will do.

You may well have to listen to questions through a translation service also. That doesn’t feel at all normal the first time you do it!

I’ve found presenting internationally to be one of the most rewarding things over the years. People are so pleased you’ve made the effort to come to see them. It’s a really good experience and I would recommend it to everyone. In my case, I certainly feel a lot more like a citizen of the world because of it, which sounds a bit pretentious, but it’s true. The more places I go, the more I think about this quote.

“There’s a billion places like home. But only one of ’em’s where you live.”
Granny Weatherwax (Witches Abroad, Terry Pratchett)

Check out the rest of the series here.



Public Speaking Tip 10 : Watch other speakers!

A really good way of improving your presentation skills is to watch other speakers. I will often go to sessions by people who I know to be good speakers, just to watch their technique. It’s actually easier if it is a session you’ve seen before, or on a subject you don’t have much interest in, so you can focus on the presentation skills, not the content. 🙂 There are a few speakers I try to get to see at every conference, having seen the same presentation several times for this very reason.

This is not about being a fanboy (it is really 🙂 ), or trying to emulate that person. It’s about trying to identify aspects of their presentation style that could work for you. Ultimately, you are trying to develop your own style, but that doesn’t mean you have to ignore what is going on around you. The same way you will look to others for advice, you should watch their presentations to see which aspects of their style could be of benefit to you. Things like stage presence and crowd control come naturally to some people, but they can be learned. Check out how other people do live demonstrations to see how they cope with transitions between the slides and the demos.

There is always something to learn from watching other speakers, even if it is what not to do. 🙂

Check out the rest of the series here.



Public Speaking Tip 9 : Feedback helps you improve!

In yesterday’s post I was kind-of dismissive of feedback, in so far as not letting it ruin your performance on the day. Once the sessions is over, that is the time to reflect on your performance and start looking for feedback. Feedback and advice from others is the best way to decide what you need to work on to improve.

Many conferences ask their attendees to fill in speaker evaluations and make the results available to speakers. The actual marks don’t always tell you too much, but the written comments can be very interesting. They tend to focus on extremes, people who either love or hate you. Even so, it’s worth checking this stuff out to see if there is something obvious you need to work on.

The questions you are asked in your session can tell you a lot about how your session went. Often, they will highlight areas you need to revise in the presentation itself, so you can pre-empt those questions next time.

If your sessions have been recorded, watch the recordings and be your own critic. I hate seeing myself on video, but it is a very good way to spot issues!

By far, the most useful feedback for me over the years has been the feedback and advice from other speakers. I mentioned in a previous post, I started asking for advice before I even stepped up on stage. During my first full-blown conference presentations, for AUSOUG in Australia, I got great feedback and advice from Chris Muir and Connor McDonald, which really helped me development my style. Since then I’ve been keen to pick up as much advice from others as possible. I still feel very much like a newbie at all this, so getting to speak to people who have been in the game for years is very valuable. Listening to their “war stories” is a great way to stop you falling into the same traps they did.

Feedback and advice is the quickest way for you to grow as a presenter. Don’t take it personally. Learn by your mistakes and the mistakes of others and aim to continually improve.

Check out the rest of the series here.



Public Speaking Tip 8 : You can’t please all the people all the time!

Provided your title and abstract accurately describe what you are presenting (see deliver what you say you will), you’ve got to trust the audience have made the right choice to come to your talk. Frits Hoogland made this comment on that previous post.

“It works the other way around too… Got a comment on a deep dive presentation saying ‘stuff way over my head’…”

This was my response to Frits.

“You did what you said you would. They picked the wrong session. Not your fault!”

If you describe a session as a “deep dive” and a newbie comes to it, they can’t complain about it being to complicated. If you describe a session as an introduction, experts can’t complain that it didn’t go into enough depth.

When you first start presenting, the visual feedback (body language) of the audience can have a dramatic impact on your confidence. Invariably, you will notice those people that look bored or disgruntled and you will focus on them. You will notice that guy sleeping in the front row and see it as evidence that you are the most boring person alive. It takes a while before you have enough confidence to see the audience response for what it is.

I’m not saying you should ignore this negative feedback, but you have to try and put that feedback into context. If you expect to have everyone leave the room saying you were awesome, you are going to be very disappointed, but don’t let one or two people bring you down, when the majority of the room was filled with happy people.

There are definitely cultural differences that affect the interaction with the audience. The more international presentations you do, the more you will notice this. I’ve got a specific post on this coming, so I won’t say too much about this now. 🙂

Another thing to remember is, you are not necessarily reading the visual feedback correctly. I’ve done sessions that I thought were going badly that got excellent evaluations. The trick is, once you get on the stage and start, do the best you can and deal with the feedback once it’s over. Don’t let what is going on in the room affect you mid-flow. There will be plenty of time after the session for analysis. 🙂 Use the visual, verbal and written feedback, like speaker evaluations and comments on social media, as part of your learning experience.

I’ll conclude with this great quote Connor McDonald left on one of my previous posts.

“No matter how you do (spectacularly well or spectacular fail), the thing that will amaze you at the end of it will be ….. ‘Hey, I’m still alive'”

Check out the rest of the series here.



Public Speaking Tip 7 : Live demonstrations

Live demonstrations are something I’ve done from day 1. It wasn’t so much a decision I made, it just seemed the right thing to do. Does that mean that you should use live demos too? As Tom Kyte always tells us, the answer is “it depends”. 🙂 If I am honest, my desire to demo things comes from my own insecurities. If I don’t show it, I feel like I’m a liar. Is that the right motivation for doing a demo? Hell no! Here are a few thoughts about live demonstrations.

You can demo too much!

It takes some time to see where demos are adding benefit and where they are just bloat. You will also redevelop your style of demoing over time. When I first did my Clonedb talk I demoed everything. I did all the setup, ran a backup and did the actual clone. That’s fine, but do people really want to see me (mis)type a bunch of commands and edit config files live on stage? I think it’s safe to say they are capable of following a recipe in my article if they want to. What really has some impact is when they see you clone a database in 2 minutes, regardless of size. You look out into the audience and see the proverbial light bulb come on. Demos are nice, but don’t overdo it. Identify the things that will have maximum impact, for minimum time waste. (Note to self: Listen to your own advice once in a while! You need to work on this!!)

Live demos go wrong!

I would not recommend doing live demos when you first start. Why? Because they go wrong. You accidentally screw things up, the demo doesn’t work as you expected or your laptop dies and you can’t run your demos on someone else’s laptop. When demos work well they are great. When they fail they can totally ruin a presentation. As I mentioned in a previous post, you need a disaster recovery plan. I would suggest in many cases, if the demo does not work instantly, laugh it off and move on. Trying to fix or rerun it often ends up being a complete time waster.

Of course, you should try to make demos as robust and re-runnable as possible!

Are video demos a better option?

In many ways I think video demos are superior to live demos. For a start, they work properly every time. 🙂 More importantly, there are some things it’s really difficult to demo on a laptop. You will see a number of presenters rocking up with super-duper laptops, so they can run RAC and Cloud Control in their demo. That is a serious investment in kit for the handful of times you need it. It’s far better to run the demo on some real kit at home or at work, record it and play that to the audience. It also allows you to do things like zoom in to specific parts of the screen or add notes for additional clarity.

But I can run my demo on AWS or from my office can’t I? Only if you have a suitable internet connection. Not all venues provide this and not all venues have great mobile reception. I would not rely on this!

What size/quality of screen are you using?

You don’t know what sort of screens you are going to get until you get there. I’ve worked with everything from giant auditorium screens to projectors not much bigger than a large TV. Most will show slides OK, but many will look terrible if you try to show code or IDEs, unless you can zoom in. I would go as far as to say, demoing an IDE (SQL Developer, JDeveloper etc.) without a zoom function is a fail.

Some projectors really can’t handle switching between slides and other apps. Some of my demos involve me switching between Powerpoint, a text editor and a terminal session. When there is a 10 second lag each time you make that switch it is a real ball-ache. You really need to consider how you are going to handle this type of situation. Maybe that will involved switching to your backup plan…

Do people like demos?

Some do. Some don’t. In my speaker evaluations I’ve had responses from both camps for the same presentation. Literally one comment saying, I loved the fact he demoed everything and another saying it was demo overload. You can’t please all the people all the time. I’ll talk about that in another tip. 🙂


I could carry on talking about this subject, but the post is getting rather large already. 🙂 So do you demo or not? Do what feels right to you, but keep in mind that it must not break the flow of your presentation. Remember, maximum impact for minimum time waste.

Check out the rest of the series here.



Public Speaking Tip 6 : How to handle questions (crowd control)

Handling questions was certainly one of the things I most feared when I started speaking at conferences. If there is one thing you take away from this post, it should be this.

“Never bullshit!”

Here’s a comment Jonathan Lewis left on my first post in this series.

“I think a very important thing to believe before anything else is that it’s perfectly acceptable to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” if someone asks a question you can’t answer immediately.”

It sounds so simple, but it takes a surprising degree of confidence to say this when you are in front of an audience.

Here are some general thoughts on handling questions and basic crowd control.

  • If you are nervous and think questions will throw you off your stride, ask at the start if people can keep their questions until the end.
  • Sometimes you explain a topic in layers, adding information piece-by-piece. If someone in the audience wants to ask a question part way through that process, suggest they wait until you’ve finished that section, in case the upcoming material already answers their question.
  • Always repeat the question back to the audience (I’m crap at remembering to do this). This serves a number of purposes. It’s a good check that you have understood the question. It allows the rest of the audience to hear the question, before you answer it. It gives you time to think. 🙂
  • Educated guesses can be OK, provided they are presented as such. For example, you might say something like, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I know that X and Y, which would make me think the answer is probably Z, but it’s a guess and I would have to test that to be sure.” Of course, it depends on the specific question and the “supporting evidence” for your guess.
  • If someone asks a completely off-topic question, ask them to come and speak to you at the end of the session. I say something like, “That’s a bit beyond the scope of this session. Come and see me at the end and we can talk about it.”
  • If you are struggling to understand a question, say so and ask them to come and speak to you at the end of the session. Don’t waste everyone’s time trying to fathom it out.
  • If a question requires an answer that will take a significant amount of time to put across, say so and ask them to speak to you at the end of the session.
  • Use the questions you are asked to help refine your presentation, so they don’t need to be asked next time.

The reaction to the question and answer slot at the end of a session seems to split the audience into three distinct sections.

  1. The people who hate Q&A. You can see them itching to leave. Some just get up and walk out, which is fine.
  2. The people who love Q&A. They would happily keep you talking for the rest of the day. I’ve actually done sessions where I’ve spent longer answering questions after the session was over, than the session itself. I love speaking to people about this stuff, so I’m happy to do this.
  3. The people who don’t care. They’ll just carry on reading their email until the Q&A is over. 🙂

With that in mind, you have to exercise a little crowd control. I would suggest you draw the session to a close, which allows people to leave, but suggest if anyone wants to stay for a Q&A, that’s fine. When you are in other people’s sessions, check out how they manage questions. You will often pick up new ideas this way.

Check out the rest of the series here.