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How to Become a Developer Advocate: Part 1, Public Speaking

This is the first installment in a series of blog posts on how to build the skills needed to become a developer advocate (or similar technical roles). This post focuses on public speaking.

As we enter a new new year, many software developers and infrastructure professionals may be considering new career paths. For example, moving into developer advocacy or technical pre-sales can be a great way to use your technical skills to more proactively help people solve their challenges. This can be a great career move for people who are highly technical, but also seek to help the next generation of practitioners to be successful.

But as someone who started their career on the help desk, then moved to implementation, systems architecture, systems engineering, technical marketing and now developer relations, I have learned that becoming a strong technical speaker and advocate also requires a number of soft skills, including public speaking, messaging, and relationship management.

This blog post, the first in a series, will share four steps toward developing skills for public speaking on technical topics, in both virtual and physical settings. I have found that presentation skills became an important skill set starting with my job as a solutions architect and have become even more important as I progressed in my career.

»Step 1: Practice at Home

To get comfortable with presenting, start by finding a quiet space at home with a mirror. Choose a topic you are passionate about and well-versed in. This could be something you built recently, your favorite cookie recipe, your favorite movie … anything. Write down what you want to say about the topic and read it aloud while standing. Do this at least three to four times. When you feel comfortable, present your text to the mirror from memory, without reading. Another approach is to practice reading a passage of a favorite book to kids or family members, and then tell the story from memory when you’re comfortable.

To build on this, record your presentation on video and then watch the results. Note how you move as you present. Do you use too many filler words, such as “uh,” “um”. “like” etc.? Write down all the things you notice in the video that you would like to change to make your presentation better. Pick one of the things you want to change and redo the presentation until you feel comfortable and like the results, then move on to the next item on your list.

Pro tip: Sometimes presenting to a blank camera eye can be intimidating. To help make it easier, place a picture of a person you like near the camera lens and deliver the talk to the picture. You can make this a fun exercise too. Today, for example, I am presenting to The Rock.

»Step 2: Practice in Front of People

Speaking in front of a live audience can be difficult for introverts (I know, I am one), but it’s great to have some diversity of experience, so I will outline a few of the approaches I’ve tried over the years:

»Karaoke, Open Mic, or Poetry Readings

Public speaking is a performance art. As such, karaoke and other methods of practicing live performances work really well to develop stage presence and your own unique performance style. Karaoke has a low barrier to entry, the good places do not care how good or bad you are as a singer, but instead focus on the energy you bring. Pick a song or two you love to sing in the shower or the car. Practice at home, then drop into a local karaoke lounge 2-4 times a month and let it rip. Practice looking at different people in the audience, standing strong, and having fun. Consider your movements on stage and how they might translate to a business talk. Even if you never plan to present your technical content live for work, practicing on stage will help uplevel your presentation skills.

»User Groups, School Career, or STEM Days

Once you gain some basic stage presence, go out and share your knowledge with a friendly audience. Schools are always looking for volunteers to talk about technology to kids. Technology user groups are always on the lookout for presenters and the people there will likely be rooting for you by default. I’ve also had several friends try Toastmasters and rave about how great it was.

»Virtual Events Catering to First-Time Speakers

Online events, especially those that explicitly welcome novice speakers, are another great way to practice your presentation skills. Our own digital community conference series, HashiTalks, is a great way to share your knowledge in a virtual user group like environment, and we work hard to empower new speakers.

»Podcasting

Podcasting, and more specifically, editing your own podcast, is a great way to improve your public speaking skills. Editing my own podcast made me hyper aware of my tendency to overuse filler words and to fill uncomfortable silences with noise. Of course, unless you have a clear idea of what you want to do and who your audience is, it can take a bit of work to conceive of, create, and publish a successful podcast, but even being a guest on an existing podcast can help hone your presentation of topics you care about.

»Step 3: Find a Mentor

Mentors are great when you want to work toward a set of goals and you can collaborate with someone who has already successfully reached those goals. Finding a mentor can be tricky, but when you go to various user groups, conferences, or your favorite content-sharing platforms, be alert for people who are in your space and doing awesome things. Reach out to the people that are doing things you like and tell them what you think, then ask them to be your mentor. Don’t be discouraged if some people say no, being a good mentor can be a big time investment. Keep sharing and looking and you will find a good match. There are also online mentorship programs, but in my experience they haven’t always done a good job matching goals and personalities. I have found that creating an authentic connection with someone you already respect to be much more effective.

»Step 4: Continue Practicing and Asking for Feedback

When it comes to public speaking, practice and experience are essential to building the confidence and stage presence you need to become an effective presenter. Just remember, if you are an introvert, be sure to schedule time to recharge after this kind of work.

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