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Learning to Present with the Pros

At the beginning of November, veteran FileMaker developer Jonn Howell of DataExperience asked me to speak at his new “FileMaker Presentation Skills” Meetup group. He’s bringing together people who want to improve their speaking skills in order to become more effective at pitching their work to clients, presenting at user groups, and speaking at technical conferences like Claris Engage (previously known as FileMaker DevCon).

The group was meeting for the first time and I felt excited to be part of it. The other guest speaker for the evening, Angel City Data’s David Knight, started things off. He gave a beautifully crafted talk on the basics of composing and delivering a presentation. As one would expect from Dave, it was brilliant: both he and his slides modeled exactly what he was recommending.

His presentation sparked new ideas for me, confirmed others, and reminded me that I’ve never made a formal study of public speaking. Instead, I’ve figured it out on my own, relying on my creative toolkit as a writer, actor, storyteller, and composer. Over time, I’ve developed an idiosyncratic way of doing things that works just fine, but I found myself thinking that maybe it’s time for me to engage with public speaking as a formal discipline with the same care and attention that Dave and Jonn have given it.

In short, I realized that I didn’t just want to be a guest speaker at this group: I wanted to join it. I also wanted more people to hear about it, so I thought I’d get the word out by interviewing Jonn about his speaking experience and goals for the group and then publish that conversation here.

What you need to know:

When: the first Wednesday of every month at 5 pm Pacific Time

Where: we get together via Meetup (if you’re near Sacramento, you can come in person)

How to join: Join the group on the Meetup website or email Jonn Howell at jonn@dataexperience.com

He’s a deep and thoughtful soul, and I enjoyed the time I spent transcribing his words and reflecting on what he had to say. I hope that reading this short version of our chat is a pleasure and inspiration for you too.

Mark: Hi Jonn, thanks for getting together with me to talk about your new group. Let’s start with who it’s for, and whether there are any requirements.

Jonn: It’s for senior developers and newbies alike. It can be any kind of software presentation skills. It’s geared toward people who are more technically oriented and maybe not so comfortable with public speaking.

Over time, I want to see it grow and get new people ready to speak at DevCon. Maybe it can become a new sort of session at DevCon itself or something that people see as a place to prepare. I definitely want it to start new friendships in the community and help us connect to each other more. If it gets too big, I’m happy to support other people creating more groups like it.

Mark: I like that! What was your inspiration for the group in the first place?

Jonn: I have been developing since 1992, about 27 years now. At one point, I started a training course in my home called FileMaker Bootcamp. It was totally grassroots: we cooked meals together, and there were even people sleeping under the tables. Eventually, it outgrew my house and moved to Pepperdine University, where it continued for seven years. The goal was to cover the meat and potatoes of being a database developer, but also to address skills like presenting and public speaking. So the roots for this new Meetup group go way back.

Mark: I remember hearing about your Bootcamp back when I was working with Jeff Benjamin at FileMaker. I almost went to the last one you did, but I got too busy at work and let it slide, and then I found out that was it, I missed the boat. I bet I wasn’t the only one who dragged their feet and then missed out. That makes me wonder how you made it work financially.

Jonn: Our approach was not-for-profit. We’d charge enough to pay for food and rent the hall, but that was it, and marketing the event got to be too much work. We finally stopped around the time that Pause On Error started up.

But people still call me and say, “I really miss FileMaker Bootcamp.” It was a great way for people to bond: we cooked together and went hiking together, and even went glider flying in the hills above Santa Barbara. I’ve missed it too, but I couldn’t put it together the way I did before. The big focus these days is on certification training, it dominates everything, and it’s hard to get people to commit to an extended experience like Bootcamp. I couldn’t figure out how to market it anymore, so I decided to let it go.

Mark: How did that lead to the new group?

Jonn: Things have changed a lot in terms of how you can get people together. Now we’ve got Meetup, so I thought, why don’t I launch one of those? It can be the modern expression of FileMaker Bootcamp, and we can use social media to promote it.

You know, I love speaking at conferences. This year my session at DevCon was great. After 20 years of speaking, I’m finally catching my groove. But for a long time, I was working in the dark, asking myself, “What am I doing wrong? What am I doing right? What’s my style?” Basically, I was working in a vacuum.

I realized that if I start a group, it’s not just for other people, it’s for me to grow too. And I’m not the only one. There are so many ways that all of us can improve, even the most popular speakers at DevCon. I’ve got the background to teach this stuff and help guide people through the process.

Mark: You do. And it’s true, it can be really intimidating to speak at DevCon. I’m not sure everyone who gets chosen ends up finding all the support they need.

Jonn: Right! So I thought, ‘Why don’t I set it up?’ I’m a good teacher, but I’m also going to be a student myself.  I can create an environment where we each get our rhythm and find out our blind spots in how we come across. I can invite guests to share how they do things, like you and Dave Knight last week, and it’s great that you’ve decided to stick around. Organizing this gives me a chance to learn and grow myself while giving back to the community.

Mark: The way you come at all this is so good-hearted and generous and trusting that approaching the world in that way will be good for you, too, and will actually bring you opportunities. I admire that a lot.

Jonn: I’m hoping that’s how I approach life. You give, and you be generous. Sure, you take what you need, but you don’t be greedy. You let go of being controlling or fear-driven, and drop that mindset of “what can I get out of it?”. If you get out there and participate in life in an open way, then life is going to support you. And it’s going to be good for everybody else too.

This year I was invited to the dot.FM group in Germany through a connection with a Swedish developer friend. Egbert, he’s the organizer, sent me a formal invitation, and I didn’t know much about it, so I wrote back to him saying I’d love to come. He responded by asking me, “What are you going to talk about?” I was like, “What do you mean, what am I going to talk about? I’m just glad to be invited.” And he said, “You can’t come just to take, Jonn. I expect you to come to give.”

I thought, “Wow, what an awesome attitude! He expects everyone who shows up to contribute.” Of course, that puts pressure on all of us, but that pressure is how we learn and grow: by showing up and giving back to the community — you know? — and getting outside of yourself and away from all that solo time we spend as developers.

After that conference, all of a sudden I had these new friends. They were like, “You flew all the way from America, and you told us some cool stuff, and now we want to know you.” It changed my whole view of Europe and what’s possible in the world. And I thought, “Let me bring that to this presentation skills group.”

Earlier, you asked about the requirements for the group. Let me say this: the real requirements for this group are that you have a sincere desire to participate, to learn and grow and that you show up to give.

Thank you for doing this, Mark! I hope that people see it and decide to give the group a try.

Mark: I’m happy to help get the word out. I really appreciate what you’re doing here, and I look forward to learning with you and everybody else.

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