Updated 3rd May 2020 with the link to the session recordings from the London VMUG.
After years of claiming no one would be interested in hearing me speak, and that I had nothing to talk about, I finally delivered my first VMUG presentation this week. It also happened to be the first virtual London VMUG due to the Corona Virus lock down currently in force here in the UK. To help encourage others in the community who are unsure about putting their hand up to present, I thought I would share my experience. It’s turned into a bit of a long post, so grab yourself a drink and settle in for what I hope is an insightful read.
When I signed up to speak at the event I had chosen to fill the community slot and present on a non technical topic, in my case it would be personal development related. I had a vague idea of what I wanted to talk about, and that was something that had affected me personally over the last year and a bit. I’d been on a bit of an adventure and come to a realisation that soft skills, or personal skills as I prefer to call them weren’t just something my manager nagged me about, they actually had a huge role to play in my daily work life. My session has now been shared online by the London VMUG team. I’m not going to say anything else about the content of the session in this post, as I want to leave people with the opportunity to experience it in the same way as those who attended the VMUG did.
I actually started to prepare for my session quite early, I was a bit paranoid about what people’s impression would be of me presenting and the slides I used. So I didn’t want to leave it until just before the event and end up throwing something together when I was running out of time. Having drafted my slide deck a couple of weeks before the VMUG I started to do some dry runs, and quickly realised I was trying to cram too much into my session and was massively over the time allowance. So, I had to try and hack a number of slides out of the deck without losing the core theme of my presentation. This is something I suspect lots of people have to do, and you probably get better at it the more you craft slide decks for sessions of varying lengths. I guess its probably also better to have too much and have to trim it down than to try and come up with new content at a late stage to fill a gap.
As the day of the event arrived I had got to the point where I was happy with my slide deck. Apart from the title which didn’t quite seem to fit. The title ended up appearing very late in the day, I just stumbled across a phrase in my head which seem to fit as the story line of my session. When I originally created the deck I had written my full narration down on the notes of each slide, so I had my story in its entirety to review during my dry runs. Before the event, I removed this and simply left some notes on each slide. The idea being it would remind me of my key talking points should I find myself in need of a prompt. I also didn’t want to be tempted to just read my notes constantly and not actually deliver my talk with feeling. Just reading from notes can turn me into a bit of a robot, I forget to inject any personality into what I’m saying and it comes out all monotone and boring.
Leading up to my session I didn’t feel too nervous, until it got to about an hour before I was due to start when I had a bit of a panic and couldn’t remember how I had planned to open my session. Cue a hurried review of my slides and notes and some strong words to tell myself to relax. I would be fine, no one other than me knew what I planned to say so they wouldn’t actually know if I did deviate from my original script I told myself. It kind of worked.
As I start my session I’m still feeling some nerves, I’m not sure how people are going to react. I haven’t told anyone the title of my session, no one other than me knows the contents of my slide deck. My session is very focused on my personal story, and I’ve gone for a very different style with my slides. I’m nervous about whether my approach will work with the audience, will people be able to make a connection with the story I’m sharing or will it just be something only I have experienced and obviously the big question of will anyone actually still be listening at the end of the session.
By the time I approach the third or fourth slide in my deck though I’ve tuned out anything else that is happening around me. I’m intensely focusing on my slides and telling my story. At the same time I’ve subconsciously picked up my Tangle fidget device (for anyone wondering this is what a Tangle is) from my desk and I’m twisting it like mad I realise. What I’m actually doing is distracting myself from my nerves and also preventing myself from using my arms to gesticulate wildly which is something I had found myself doing during dry runs. I just don’t remember picking the tangle up.
Before I know it I’ve reached the end of my final slide, and can see the little timer in the top corner of PowerPoint telling me I had been speaking for nearly 50 minutes, slightly over my allowance. It feels like its been 5 minutes. I can’t believe I have been talking for that long and not noticed. There hasn’t been a single sound that I have heard from anyone else on the call. Unless I had just zoned it all out and not picked up on it.
I’d been using two screens during the session, with my main monitor running the screen share with the slides in full screen, while my laptop had the presenter view option and providing the audio/video feed. Because I had been focused on the laptop screen I hadn’t paid any attention to the zoom chat or participants windows which I had kept closed during the session so it didn’t distract me. At the end of the session when one of the leaders mentions the feedback in the chat window I notice the icon is flashing orange and showing a ridiculously high number of unread messages.
Some Amazing Feedback
It’s at this point that I learn not only did people listen to my session, they liked it and I mean they really liked it. The next ten minutes flies by with discussion amongst the group on some of the topics I’d covered and my personal experiences as well as the experiences of others in the group. The organisers actually had to cut us off to allow the next presentation to begin. So much for my paranoia as to whether anyone would still be listening or interested in what I had to say. I really could have spent another hour or more talking about what I have learnt and the different things I have tried, there was so much I cut out of my initial draft of slides which I wish I could have shared. I did consider a series of blog posts to share them, I just don’t think that kind of thing would come alive in a blog post though and I don’t like the thought of doing a video series. Maybe there is a follow up presentation to be created in there somewhere.
While the next session begins I start to read through the comments in the chat window and on twitter where people have been sharing their thoughts, they are incredible and overwhelming. I mean Duncan Epping has just told me to submit my session for VMworld in front of 70 odd other people who are agreeing with him. Now I’m reading what they have been saying while I was talking and putting out publicly to people who aren’t even in the VMUG community. By now I’m on such a high I can’t stop grinning. There is so much adrenaline flowing through my veins I struggle to sit still and focus on the document I am trying to complete for a customer. I actually have to get up and walk away from my laptop to try and calm down before I can go back to my work and put anything sensible into the document.
The next day I’m still buzzing and my Twitter notifications are still going crazy. In my DMs I discover a nudge from my friend Christopher Lewis (@thecloudxpert) reminding me to submit my session for VMworld. He knows me too well…. he knows if I don’t say yes immediately to something there is a good chance I will talk myself out of it. He’s giving me the friendly nudge I need to not shrink back into my comfort zone. I take the plunge and submit the application. Another thing to add to the list of activities I would never ever have thought I would be doing 18 months ago.
By co-incidence I have a 1-1 with my manager that afternoon, so I do a quick run through of my session for him as we discuss how it went and look at ways to share it with a wider audience internally. More positive feedback and praise for what I have achieved from my manager, who has been fully onboard for the bumpy ride during my journey, means I really do end the week on a high.
Before the day is over another friend Dean Lewis (@saintdle), who has taken on the role of my personal promotion manager by this point has helped to set up leads with three other people within and outside of VMware for future VMUG sessions in other locations. So keep an eye on Twitter for updates in the near future.
The Experience and Paying it Forward
The whole process of picking my topic, crafting my deck and delivering it, even if it did end up being via zoom rather than in person was a great experience. I can understand why people say you get the bug for presenting and want to do more now that I’ve completed my first session. Beforehand it was something I had never been than interested in, I obviously didn’t know what I was missing out on.
It’s taken me four years of working at VMware to give my first session, and now I want to help the next person who might be having the same doubts as I did to get up on stage or the virtual stage for the remote sessions. I got to this point with the help of so many other people, its time for me to pay it forward.
My advice to others in the community, particularly those who don’t work for VMware, is take advantage of the opportunity London VMUG and other communities offer you. Don’t be afraid to say yes I’ll present. We need to hear from more people who are customers of VMware. The community needs to hear about more than just the latest and greatest technology from those of us fortunate enough to work for VMware. We need to hear your experiences, your challenges and your successes whether you think they are big or small. You don’t even have to disclose who you work for if that’s a sticking point.
The VMUG team and the community will help guide you through the process and I can guarantee you will get a respectful, engaged and friendly audience who will listen to whatever you have to say. I had no previous experience of speaking in public before my session. The only presentations I had delivered were technical sessions as part of my job to small audiences such as Knowledge Transfer at the end of a project.
If you want to take part and like me you struggle with identifying a topic reach out to the community and the VMUG leaders. We can help provide you with subject ideas, and even in some cases example slide decks which are ready to be delivered (something I only recently discovered existed).
If anyone wants help to prepare for a session or wants to talk more about my journey send me a message on twitter (@skillk01). Even if its just to ask for a follow back to allow DMs to be exchanged to talk offline.
Finally don’t forget to follow the link and submit your idea for a session. You just need to provide a brief overview of what you want to talk about, you don’t have to have a deck all prepared.
Take that first step, you won’t regret it I promise.