Whether you’re in tech or not, public speaking and presentation skills can be difficult to develop. Luckily, Liberty IT’s Gillian McCann is here to share her personal advice from speaking at a massive tech conference last year.
At AWS Re:Invent 2017, I co-presented a session with an Amazon Lex solution architect and my colleague Gillian Armstrong on how we had built a natural-language digital assistant chatbot for Liberty Mutual employees.
The aim of the chatbot is to improve the employee experience across a range of central functions such as HR, IT helpdesk and office productivity use cases. We highlighted how conversational AI could be applied to create a more intelligent workplace and how good engineering practices still need to be applied in that space.
For those that are unaware, AWS Re:Invent is the annual cloud conference of Amazon Web Services and it’s a massive event. I first visited the event in 2016 and came away with two big impressions: first, just how big this was (more than 40,000 attendees last year) and, more importantly, that Liberty Mutual engineers had the expertise and knowledge to present.
It was always a stretch objective and a personal goal for me to speak at AWS Re:Invent and, working with our director of technology, David Anderson, we decided at the start of last year to evangelise more with the local community and wider industry about our work in the public cloud.
I am a passionate advocate of how AWS can change the development experience for our engineers and was more than happy to start on that evangelism path.
Practice makes perfect
While I have spoken at many internal events, both large and small, last year was the first time I spoke at an external event, and the old adage of ‘practice makes perfect’ is true.
Starting with smaller places and venues to do presentations also helped and I think the informal setting of meet-ups is a great place to start if you want to hone your presentation skills.
During the first half of 2017, I presented at several meet-ups and regional conferences, and, in the summer, put forward a proposal to present at Serverlessconf NYC. This was a lesson for me: don’t be afraid to take a punt and try out speaking globally. It was very exciting to be accepted and talk about Conversation as Code in New York.
Viva Las Vegas!
Las Vegas is far away from where I live in Northern Ireland, so the epic journey took a long time and multiple flights. Travel from home to hotel was more than 24 hours so, unfortunately, the overriding first feeling this year was that of tiredness, but the hustle and bustle of the event soon cleared that away.
As a speaker, you get to peek behind the curtain, and what you immediately see is what you would expect from Amazon – it’s a very well-oiled machine. With an army of technical editors reviewing your final drafts of slides, private consultations with a speaking coach, to the technical prep sessions and practice rooms, they ensure that you deliver on the day of the talk.
On game day, going into a room that could hold a thousand people and walking up to the stage was nerve-racking but once I got over that initial nervousness, I had a great time.
I was talking on stage about something I love and had really enjoyed building and, once I started, it was hard to stop. It was funny, as they cut the mics at the end of the allotted time, but we continued to take questions from a smaller group for another 15 minutes.
- Know your audience and target the talk to that group. Developers generally expect a deeper level of technical detail than product owners or business stakeholders, for example.
- Work on the structure and style of the talk. We decided early on that we wanted to keep it informal and conversational in tone. It was about chatbots after all!
- Be prepared for questions but also have confidence in your own knowledge – you are on the stage for a reason.
- If you are co-presenting, make sure that you practise the handovers and have clarity as to how the different sections of the talk relate to each other.
- Have a friend in the audience. I got a few thumbs up and grins from several Liberty Mutual engineers who were in the audience. This provides the obvious morale boost and, more importantly, they do provide constructive feedback at the end.
- Don’t underestimate the time needed to prepare material and practise.
Was it worth it?
On reflection, there were many months of work, travel and jetlag just to get on that stage for an hour, so, was it worth it?
Most definitely, yes. I fulfilled one of my own personal ambitions to speak at Re:Invent and I also saw the excitement and interest it generated back in the office. I saw the sense of pride in what we could achieve and, ultimately, it validated what I always believed: Liberty IT has world-class engineers who can stand on any stage – we just need to go out and do it.
I also enjoyed the time we got to spend with the Amazon Lex team discussing ideas, NLP, chatbot design and, of course, the obligatory celebratory dinner after the session.
Just do it!
If you get the opportunity to speak but are a bit nervous, I highly recommend you take the plunge but look for opportunities as well. Ask about or suggest speaking at events that interest you, ask for support or mentorship within your company, have someone who can provide that honest feedback but, mostly importantly, enjoy yourself.
There is a buzz and excitement that comes with telling people about what you know or what you have built.
I’m taking a break from speaking for while to focus on Workgrid Software, a new Liberty Mutual company, but I hope to hit the conference circuit hard in the latter half of the year.
Gillian McCann is head of cloud engineering and AI at Workgrid Software.