How to create a presentation in 30 easy steps

As I mentioned previously, this week I presented my first public SQL Server training session. I’m truly grateful for this opportunity because after all the work I put into preparing the session I believe I ended up with something that has value for just about anyone who writes T-SQL.

But for now, let’s have a few words about the words “all the work”.

If you’ve never created a technical presentation then let me help you understand what you are missing. Imagine writing a term paper like you did in college, except that the content is all in PowerPoint and SQL scripts. And your head. Mostly in your head, because you have to verbally speak way beyond what’s written down in slides and scripts. And it has to be an hour’s worth of material. And this will all be done in front of a roomful of strangers. Strangers who get to ask you random questions at random times.

Now that I’ve written all of that down, I can’t believe I ever complained about term papers.

I know this makes the experience look as intimidating as the Rancor from “Return of the Jedi,” but despite all this presenting is actually a FANTASTIC EXPERIENCE for many reasons. I’ll name three:

1. You are going to develop new skills. Not just public speaking and visual design skills, but you’ll probably also learn a few new SQL skills too.

2. You are going to make new friends. Not “friends” like those random strangers that ping you in those weird online games like “Facebook” and “LinkedIn.” I mean this process, if you do it correctly, will help to connect you with some really bright and helpful people.

3. You are going to be giving back to the community that helped teach you. Think of all of the sessions you attended or watched online, consuming technical content. Now you get to do something incredible with that knowledge by paying it forward to others. SPOILER ALERT: this presentation thing is NOT all about you.

So, how do you get started on this road to speaking? I’m glad you asked, because I’ve prepared a shorthand version of how this all goes. This is largely based on my experience, but it could certainly work for anyone else. And you may chuckle at the fact that it’s 30 steps, but as you’ll see every one of them has a purpose. Skip them at your own peril.

Step 1: Decide you want to present. This is crucially the most important step, although in reality this often means “have someone decide you should speak.” Either by necessity or some sort of warped personal challenge (read: dare), many speakers get their start because someone else nudged them. Which makes sense since 90% of us IT types are introverts, and the thought alone of public speaking makes most of us reach for a paper bag.

Step 2: Decide the subject. While this may also have been decided for you (i.e. “Since you know so much about (X) could you please put together a presentation?”), you will most likely start looking for a subject for which you feel comfort declaring yourself an expert. That’s fine, but don’t get stuck on thinking you have to be an “expert.” Even better, try to find something with which you are modestly familiar with but also very curious, and start collecting content. Start by looking at what you have worked at most over the last 12 months or even the last 12 minutes, but decide on some subject you know and are willing to learn more and that you think might be something others want or should want to know.

Step 3: Begin work on the content. This is where you’ve embraced the commitment and have begun to jot notes down of particular points you would like to make about the subject you will be discussing in your soon-to-be session. This is where you feel smart for filling up a single notebook page.

Step 4: Discover imposter syndrome. After you’ve taken your notes, you decide to go out into the vast interwebs and see what other folks have said about your subject. Doing this makes you realize 1) there is a LOT of material out there already on the subject of your presentation and 2) everyone who wrote it seems smarter than you. You’re overcome by feelings of inadequacy. DO NOT STOP HERE! The good news: You are already several steps ahead of most “smart” people. The bad news: this feeling will come back several times during this process, so learn to get comfortable with it. It’s just a feeling, and you’re still smart.

Step 5: Find a mentor. This is something you should have done four steps ago. For real. If you really want to put a presentation together DON’T DO IT ALONE. Ask a knowledgeable friend to help. Or ask an experienced presenter that you have met. Or go to and get some help from a real pro. If you can find a mentor to guide you and give you trustworthy feedback then you’re guaranteed to reduce your misery factor by, uh, a large number of units of misery.

Step 6: Create a title and an abstract. Your mentor will help with this. It will feel odd but having a title and sessions description (a.k.a. “the abstract”) will help guide the content of your presentation. A great place to start is with Adam Machanic’s “Capturing Attention: Writing Great Session Descriptions.”

Step 7: Contact your local SQL Server Users Group. They are probably very eager to have any new speakers they can find. IMPORTANT: Agree on a date! That way the clock starts ticking, driving you further with a sense of urgency. This is when it gets real!

Step 8: Create the first draft of your presentation. You’ve got content, so now you have to assemble it in a way you can show it to others. Welcome to your black hole of time. Don’t get to caught up in being perfect, but try to understand how tools like PowerPoint work so that you don’t just put everything on three pages.

Step 9: Share what you have with your mentor. Let them review your slides and/or demo scripts. Explain your intentions and reasoning for the the order and points you are making. And listen to their feedback, no matter how painful it may be. It will help you improve.

Step 10: Redo the presentation. Take the feedback that you were given and mercilessly apply it to your masterpiece. Because it’s not a masterpiece, not yet at least. Trust your mentor. Don’t be like Anakin, because your mentor has the high ground for your first draft.

Step 11: Watch Buck Woody’s Presenting Like Jagger. There is so much helpful information about presenting in that hour that you really should take notes. Upon completion you will realize two things: 1) your content isn’t the “King”, and 2) you’re not as good at humor as Buck.

Step 12: Redo the presentation. Take all those stupid jokes out. People won’t be attending to see you make giggles. They want to learn something. Your focus needs to be on Helping Others Learn New Things. Everything in your presentation has to guide people to learning whatever it is you want them to know. That’s your “King.”

Step 13: Watch Andy Yun’s Everybody Has a Story To Tell Whereas Buck’s session was about concepts, Andy helps you hammer out the details. And there are A LOT of details. After watching the a replay of the webinar you will realize two things: 1) your content isn’t organized like a story and 2) you should have watched this WAY earlier in the process. Like the moment after you decided to speak. You can’t turn back time, but you can fix your presentation again.

Step 14: Redo the presentation. Change the font style, size, and color. That’s the easy part. Now try to figure out the narrative, the story of your presentation. Don’t be discouraged! Having a story to your presentation will keep people interested in learning. That’s what you want!

Step 15: Present for your pet. Just like playing the xylophone, you have to practice to be any good. You might as well start presenting to the least judgmental audience you can find. Bonus: you don’t have to worry about any awkward Q&A. IMPORTANT: Time the session!

Step 16: Redo your presentation. It’s too long, which means you’ll probably need to say goodbye to some of your favorite parts. Time to discover the joy of editing. When you are editing just think of the target audience: what do they NEED to know about. It’s OK, there is still time to fix this. You are more than half way there!

Step 17: Read Grant Fritchey’s post about Presentation Tools. You will need tools, especially since your laptop probably doesn’t have all of the possible interfaces for hooking up to a display port. You do know your audience won’t be huddling around your laptop, right?

Step 18: Spend a little money on tools. At most of your major online electronics retailers, for less than $20 each you can get a 3-in-1 display adapter and a presentation remote, a.k.a “clicker”. If you’re only using slides then you’ll definitely want the clicker. You may want to get a USB hub too depending on your laptop…you do have a laptop to run all this, right?

Step 19: Present for your mentor. Schedule a time in-person or online and get ready to give the session before a human. Expect things to be wrong and go wrong. That’s OK, this is just dress rehearsal. IMPORTANT: Ask how your voice sounds!

Step 20: Redo your presentation. You still have too much content. You have to cut more down, but your mentor can help guide you. Unlike when you presented to your pet, be prepared to get even more feedback. Remember – you want the bad news now and not when you are in front of a group of strangers.

Step 21: Present for one or two coworkers. You’ve already given your session twice so it’s time to get a little more real. Find a small group of folks you trust and ask if they can block off an hour to watch your session and give you feedback. This will definitely be in person. IMPORTANT: Ask about your body language!

Step 22: Redo the presentation. They don’t understand some of the concepts you mentioned, so they’ve asked you to add some graphics to SHOW what you are talking about. You thought you could get away with just bullet points, but no. Also, you didn’t stand up straight and your hand gestures were distracting. Again, don’t be discouraged because the good news is you found this out BEFORE the big presentation. You can totally fix this! If you want more tips on the physical part of public speaking check out Alexander Arvidsson.’s Talk Tech To Me.

Step 23: Find a second mentor.  No, I’m not joking because there is no rule saying you only get one. Luke Skywalker had Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, right? So should you. Find someone else who knows more than a little about the content you are presenting and ask them if they have the time to review your content. They may be too busy and decline, in which case just politely thank them and then ask someone else. Once you have a second mentor you may find they may even offer to schedule an hour for you to present to them. Whatever the case, you can use all the help you can get.

Step 24: Redo the presentation. The second mentor noticed you were saying things on your slides that were inaccurate. The feedback they provide is a mind-blowing set of even more information on the subject that you didn’t previously know, and now you have to find a way to work some of this awesome new knowledge into your slides.

Step 25: Present for a few more co-workers. Try to find people who would be in the target audience and schedule an hour with them. This is basically your last trial run, so make this group your staging environment. This is your last chance to get helpful feedback, so make it count.

Step 26: Redo the presentation. These co-workers gave you feedback that your demo scripts are confusing. Simplify them. Add comments. Create logical space between sets of T-SQL commands so your audience won’t see more than what you want to show them. Make sure everything in your slides and demo scripts allows you to control the flow of information.

Step 27: Get ready for the presentation. Plan out your entire day the best you can. What to wear, what to eat, when to eat, and an inventory of what are you taking with you (like those new gadgets you just purchased.) Have a checklist for all of the things to do before the session like applying windows updates and turning off your phone. Heck, have several checklists. Be like a scout – be prepared!

Step 28: Arrive for the presentation. Fire up your laptop and test everything at least 30 minutes before the scheduled start of your presentation. There are nice people in your user group with presentation experience who will be more than happy to help you in case you are struggling with power cords or display settings.

Step 29: Relax. For real. Everything is tested and now you have got a few minutes before this thing starts and everyone is probably paying attention to slices of pizza and not you . Sit down and reflect and WOULD YOU JUST LOOK AT EVERYTHING YOU HAVE DONE? You have put so many hours and so much work into this, and now you’re going to finally help people learn new things!

Step 30: PRESENT YOUR SESSION! This audience came here to watch YOUR presentation, so even if they seem quiet remember they want you to succeed. So stand up straight for them. Smile. Speak clearly, confidently, and calmly. And most of all, remember to breathe. You’re gonna be fine! And when it’s over, I kid you not you’re probably going to feel like you can’t wait to speak again.

4 thoughts on “How to create a presentation in 30 easy steps

  1. I’m encouraging people to record the presentation on step 26. You can then share it with others who weren’t able to make the live event in person.

    1. That’s an outstanding idea! Whether audio or video, I’m sure every speaker would be surprised at how different they look and sound than how they perceive themselves.

  2. I like the point about getting presentation tools. You never know what type of connection you will have access to at the location, unless you are presenting in your own location. Also appreciate the links to others in the community who have advice on the subject. Kudos to the Ozar team for pointing me here.

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