[Written two weeks after the previous posting.]
Time passes as progress is made. I’m most of the way through the certification process, partially delayed by a bunch of work-related travel in the middle. As it tends to happen, I’ve been de facto mentoring someone in an overseas office, helping him with presentation skills, and going through a few of the things I’ve learned so far. The process of mentoring has clarified a bunch of things I already knew but never got a chance to say, so here we go:
Tell your story. Presenting a technical overview to a customer roughly works out to telling a story, but one that is put together only at the last minute. The beginning and ending are mostly set, but you’re not going to know which chapters to throw in the middle until the customer tells you what actually interests them. It follows that you probably need about three book’s worth of chapters in order to assemble your story on the fly, q.v. previous point about having to have a very deep well of knowledge in order to speak breezily and competently about a topic.
Listen to the words of the question. It’s awfully tempting to hear a customer question, listen for a keyword, and queue up the next narrative in your head while they finish. After all, it’s nice to feel one step ahead of the game. However, while you’re just waiting for them to finish, you’re discarding a ton of information. How technical are they? Are they actually convinced by your last answer? Do they want to drill down on something else you talked about? Do they feel you’re wasting their time? All of these and more can be puzzled out by just listening to how and what questions they ask. I’m not going to give a dictionary, here… just give yourself a chance to react to what they were saying, not what you think they said.
Choose three proxies. This is something I was taught, as opposed to figuring it out. If you’re talking to a larger group of people, choose three people in the audience, preferably on the left, the center, and the right sides. While talking, rotate between looking directly at each of these people. It gives you a place to focus, and people will generally think you’re looking directly at them. More importantly, these three people become your proxies for the audience. If Mr. Center is yawning, the whole center is yawning. If Ms. Left is engaged, the whole left side is engaged, and so on. It allows you to get an active read off of the crowd, while limiting the input you need to take in during your talk.
This is a skill like any other. There’s no magic. There’s just work, and the desire to improve.