Tips for Presenting at Tech Field Day

Tech Field Day delegates are a rough bunch when it comes to presenters.  There is a reputation that precedes us when we walk into a briefing center.  I’m surprised they haven’t started confiscating our empty water bottles when we walk in so as to not provide us ammunition to express displeasure.  In fact, our displeasure with the same old presentation comes from the fact that it’s been seen a thousand times.  We want something that appeals to us as delegates for a technical event.  I wanted to put together some ideas for those who might be considering standing up in front of a Tech Field Day.

1. “Analyst” is a four letter word.  The almost-universal Tech Field Day revulsion to the name “Gartner” is probably the most legendary part of presenting.  If the “G” word gets mentioned, groans and hisses are lobbed toward the front of the room, and in some cases they may be followed by bottles, shoes, and chairs.  Other analyst quotes are also likely to generate some noise amongst the masses.  We get tired of hearing about this kind of fluff every day.  My ire with anaylysts is the fact they charge exorbitant amounts of money to tell you common sense things.  I can see the utility of providing head-to-head information on some products, but to be honest I don’t think Gartner has any better idea about private cloud strategy than I do.  Keep the analyst quotes out of your presentation.  Instead, focus on what your product does and why you love it so much.  Think about this scenario.  Your neighbor walks up and complements you on the new picket fence you’ve installed in your yard.  Are you going to thank them and talk about how it was back-breaking work and discuss the reason you used pressure treated pine over oak?  Or are you going to provide your neighbor with a report from the homeowners association detailing how your fence is high in “appeal” and moderate in “privacy” in the HOA “Super Triangle”?  Make your excitement about your product sound organic and we’ll believe it.  Watch the TFD 5 video from Jaspreet Singh of Druva and you’ll realize he loves his product and believes in it.  He doesn’t need to give you analyst quotes about it.

2.  Pencils have a point.  You should too.  Ever notice that most television shows have a pre-credit sequence today? A little vignette designed to grab your attention and pull you in to make you watch the ensuing 42 minutes of program and 18 minutes of commercials.  Know what they call this little segment in the industry?  The Hook.  It’s designed to draw you in and keep you focused on the show.  Likewise, if you want to keep the attention of a group of tech nerds in a room surrounded with distractions, you need a hook.  In most cases, the hook can be as simple as telling us up front what you’re striving for.  You need to get our attention.  Then you need to keep it.  When I give presentations, I try to do something in the first few minutes during my intro that makes my audience want to listen to me.  To me, the worst thing in the world is a pair of eyes wandering all over the place or focused intently on a computer screen.  At that point, I’ve lost you as a presenter.  TFD delegates like small slide decks for a the same reason they like to have the fat trimmed away on a good steak.  When all the fat is gone, the only thing left is the meat.  On your slide deck, when the fat of pointless exposition is gone, on the meat of the point or purpose is left.  Pick a point or a theme to your whole presentation and try to link back to it for each slide.  I put together a presentation one time for proper networking standards that referenced building a house.  Each slide had house imagery on it and I tried to come back to the that message before moving to the next slide. I reinforced my point in a way that hopefully resonated with my audience.  I’ve already said that should I be invited back for another Field Day, I’m going to make a sign labeled The Point and put it on the desk in front of me.  When I think a presenter is getting lost and is missing the point of the message, I’m going to make them stop and walk over to touch the sign.  That way, they are physically and mentally “Getting to the Point”.

3.  Keep the audience engaged. This kind of dovetails with number 2 above, but you need to find something to keep the attention of your audience.  Most people do this with a demo at Tech Field Day.  But two presenters went above and beyond for me.  Drobo asked a delegate to come up and pull a drive out of one of their demo units while we watched the screens to prove the unit would do what it said it would.  Could the presenter have done this?  Sure.  However, by picking on one of us, he got our attention.  Sure, we heckled Sean and had a good time with it.  We were also focused on what was happening in front of us.  The next day, the Netex “TCP as Beer” example was another way to get everyone in the room engaged.  By passing beer down the table to simulate TCP packets, we not only each had to handle the beer, but keep our buddies engaged as well.  I’m not suggesting that you stoop to the level of making us all do jumping jacks but don’t rely on only your slide deck.  Do keep in mind that many people watch the presentations being streamed over live video, so if you can find something to keep the home audience engaged as well, you’ll have gone a long way to winning the battle for the attention of Tech Field Day.

4.  We have a pulse.  Be sure to check it.  The funny thing about putting a group of technical people into a room during a presentation with communication devices is that we communicate.  We use Twitter to express our opinions about things.  By using appropriate hashtagging, we can let our audience know about things we like or dislike in real time.  During TFD 5, I experimented with an IRC channel for a different picture of things.  I got almost exactly what I expected – a Mystery Science Theater 3000 style of commentary.  For those in the chat room, we were able to express opinions without being restricted to 120-ish characters.  For the delegates in the room, we could express feelings without the need to interrupt the presenters.  Even some our more joking Twitter posts paid off eventually.  Sean Clark remarked that bacon was good.  Jeff Fry was a huge fan of chocolate-covered espresso beans.  When we got to the Thursday presentation by Xangati, we found bacon and chocolate waiting for us.  Even during the presentation, Xangati had a couple of people in the room keeping an eye on Twitter and answering our feedback in real time.  It was kind of surreal to have a second conversation going on in cyberspace even as we were talking in the room, much like the director’s commentary on a DVD.  If you as a presenter really want to get what we’re thinking, you should set up two projectors in the room.  One is for the use of your slide deck and for the delegates to see.  The other is projecting a Twitter feed or TweetDeck search for #TechFieldDay so you can see our feedback as we give it.  That way, you can see what’s working for you as a presenter, or in the worst case scenario, you can see when you’re losing us and need to get back on track.  I’m not saying that kind of presentation would be easy.  But for those with lots of slides, or those going for a more conversational approach, it can give you an idea of what we’re talking about without asking us.

5. If you’re going to skydive without a parachute, you better know how to fly.  At Net Field Day, Force 10 mezmerized the delegates by giving a presentation with just a dry erase marker.  No slides, no projector, no Powerpoint.  Just a whiteboard and a well of technical knowledge a mile deep.  If you’re going to give a presentation with just a whiteboard, you better be ready to keep your audience focused.  You also don’t have much room for error or pacing issues when you have nothing to keep you on track.  I’ve seen slide-less presentations and classes done before.  Narbik Kocharians is almost mythical with his ability to teach a 5-day CCIE prep class with zero Powerpoint.  Wanna know his secret?  He knows his stuff.  He studies everything over and over again.  He can answer questions off the top of his head.  He does his homework.  Think of a presentation just like carving a statue out of marble.  The basic outline is easy to come up with.  But the fine work of making a hand or a face can take days to complete.  The same is true of a presentation.  Throwing together 50 slides about a topic is easy (more or less).  But shaving those down to 25 takes twice as long.  And shaving that down further to 12 slides takes four times as long.  Why?  Because you have to know what you’re talking about the less you rely on visual aids.  You have to have the discipline to focus on the topic at hand and not get dragged off into tangents.  You have to be able to be a lightning rod for the attention of the audience so they don’t drift into solitaire.  I’ll admit, it would be very difficult for me to go totally slide free about something, even my recent IPv6 presentation that I knew backwards and forwards.  Because you don’t have the slides to guide the conversation and direct the focus of your audience, you run the risk of going off script quickly.  And you want your whiteboard presentation to sound more like a live episode of ER and less like Whose Line Is It Anyway.  Don’t just give a slideless presentation just to try and impress the delegates.  Impress us with your knowledge and product first, and your presentation method second.

I hope these tips will be useful not only to presenters for Tech Field Day, but for technical presenters in general.  We aren’t the usual group of marketing drones or unwashed masses.  We do our homework and we bring lots of questions to the table.  We aren’t impressed by slide transitions or rankings.  We want to see the gears and knobs and switches.  We want to see it work or see it break in real time.  Keeping all that in mind will put you ahead of the game when you step on the floor for your turn with the Tech Field Day delegates.  It should also help you avoid any flying water bottles.

11 thoughts on “Tips for Presenting at Tech Field Day

  1. Ok, I *love* this article. I’m curious who from Force 10 talked to you… Peter Wohlers is probably going to be presenting at BayLISA next month for them, and I find him and Doug Gourlay from Arista both to be engaging and brilliant speakers (even though Doug’s department starts with M and usually ends with “ow my brain”).

    • I think Doug is a patent holder though. He appears to have a VERY good grasp on the 1’s and 0’s as opposed to just parroting the usual terms like “scalability”, “interoperable”, and “industry leading” like so many of the marketing drones.

  2. Ha Ha! This article made me LOL numerous times. In general, less marketing and more tech goes a long way towards making a presentation bearable from my perspective. I also appreciate when companies know their limitations and/or target market. Druva comes to mind. They know what they are good and are comfortable staying in their space.

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  4. Great post. Consider turning this into a static page some day so it’s easy to send people to. Although I think you’re missing a tip.

    6. Know the Safe Word and Distribute in Advance!
    So let’s just assume for a second that you’re presenting and your presentation has jumped the tracks (or the shark). People are dozing off and the backup and virtualization guys are waterboarding a poor IPv6 zealot in the back of the room until he admits NAT-ing IPv4 to IPv6 networks is a good idea to pursue. Yes, things have just gotten dangerous in your presentation. But if you’ve prepared a safe word things are still good. Your audience can just shout out the “safe word” whenever they feel the presentation has crossed the line. This is your cue to either wrap up the presentation, or pole the audience and shift gears into a more appropriate topic for the audience. Good safe words/phrases to agree to prior might be: Charles Babbage, Bacon, or Chocolate Covered Expresso Beans. Bad safe words/phrases might be: private cloud, Gartner or “Nobody Restores”. Safe words are great way to make sure everybody has fun a presentation. Even the IPv6 zealots!

  5. I don’t agree with everything you’ve written, but 95% of it is sensible advice…perhaps even “common sense” to anyone who has attended/delivered hundreds of presentations.

    I would add:

    7. Save money and the environment and just arrange online discussions using collab/preso software.
    As I watched the presentations I could not help but wonder why they (the folks who put the event together) bothered, to ship a bunch of people in from all over the world for a meeting that offered zip, zero, nada value-add over a traditional online briefing.

    Hours of watching and listening. No questions that could not have been asked via Twitter/chat. No answers that could not have been understood by a remote participant. Not a single shred of evidence that it was worthwhile to travel to the event just to sit there in person versus participating from a remote location.

    If the plan was to stream the content live online, then there was no need to have anyone attend in person. Surely a bunch of technical folks would understand and appreciate that. If the recent event is any indication, Tech Field Day should rethink its purpose, drop the in-person attendance, and live stream with broader audience participation.

    I’ve been in the “analyst” biz for the past decade. I quit attending 95% of events in-person because there was little-to-no value-add over a simple online discussion.

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