Getting Started as a Speaker

Allison Pollard // July 15, 2019

Speaking on agile is the embodiment of the opening line of the Agile Manifesto: “We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.” Here are five tips for a successful agile presentation based on my experience:

1.     Define learning objectives upfront

It’s beneficial to think about what someone will be able to do as a result of attending your session. Who is your target audience, and what problems do they currently face? What do you want to share with them? A list of things attendees will “learn” can feel vague whereas a few bullet points using knowledge verbs make it clear what people will take away from a session. I keep a one-pager outlining knowledge verbs for me to reference when I’m writing new presentations.

I also like asking attendees at the end of a session what they are taking away from the experience—doing so provides a quick check for me against the learning objectives and provides feedback for future presentations.

2.     Plan for audience engagement

Neuroscience shows people recall more information when they are actively writing, talking, or moving around than when they are only listening. 

Looking at the learning objectives you defined in tip #1, there are three questions to consider when thinking about activities:

1.    What experiences might you want people to connect with emotionally? In Participation is Not a Choice, Jason Knight and I wanted people to experience uncertainty before we shared stories and facilitated empathy mapping, so we started with an improv game. Tasty Cupcakes is a great resource for games that reinforce agile concepts.

2.    What skills might you want attendees to practice? In my presentations around professional coaching and soft skills, attendees role play scenarios to practice asking powerful questions, starting crucial conversations, or listening.

3.    Filling in worksheets, talking to a partner, or brainstorming is a great way for content to stick with attendees. Liberating structures and Training from the Back of the Room also provide great ideas on how to engage people with content.

For any activity, you’ll want to plan time to introduce it, for attendees to do it, and then to debrief it. Create an outline of the session flow with timings—you may notice right away that activities quickly fill an hour-long presentation! Organizers want to know how you will spend time in your session and providing them with an outline can give them more confidence to accept your proposal.


This exercise I facilitated at Path to Agility got people moving around the room and thinking outside the box.

3.     Start and end on a high note

I love kicking off a presentation—it’s one of my favorite moments. Open the session with warmth and excitement about being there. I’ve found an energetic, “how are y’all?” goes a long way.

Depending on your topic, you might start the session with a short activity for attendees to connect with the subject and each other before you talk about your bio. It also gives you a chance to breathe as a speaker, which can allow your nerves to settle if needed and energizes the room. In the activity debrief, I touch on why I picked the topic and then share my background.

It’s equally important to consider how attendees will feel at the end of the session. Years ago, I attended a talk about an agile transformation at a large company. The speakers were honest about the hard parts of educating and coaching large numbers of teams, as well as managers and stakeholders. While informative, I felt like the talk missed the high points of agile and left me feeling a little depressed. People feeling excited, uplifted, or inspired at the end of your presentation are more likely to use what they’ve learned.


4.     Be human

Being human starts with how you introduce yourself, which you’ll want to do towards the beginning of your presentation. Before my first conference talk, I got great advice from two people:

·     My mentor suggested I not refer to myself as a senior consultant because it would not mean anything to the audience.

·     My co-presenter proposed we each include a fun fact about ourselves to create a light, friendly tone.

That advice has served me well over the years. My bio might speak to my credibility but won’t help me connect with people quickly—and it makes me feel pressure to be the expert. I feel more at ease when I’ve shared something more personal than my credentials. Over the years, audiences have learned that I used to be a swing dancer, have built trebuchets, am a foodie, and am a total geek when it comes to my glasses. 

In tip #2, you planned an interactive outline that blends together activities and knowledge. During the session, you’ll also want to tell stories of how you’ve applied the models or practices you’re sharing. Share successes you’ve had, where you’ve struggled, and what you are still learning. Trust is built from both the positive results we’ve achieved and our willingness to admit mistakes.


It's always great to help create those light-bulb moments, like this one during my talk with Qarina Mannaf at the Agile Shift Conference.

5.     Present like no one gets to be wrong

Imagine: no one in your session is wrong. Not you, not your audience, not the people in the stories you tell. I like to apply the Prime Directive in my sessions:

"Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand."

--Norm Kerth, Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Review

 At some point in your presentation, you might realize that you said something incorrectly or flubbed in facilitating an activity—it happens. And it’s totally ok to say, “that felt off, let me try that again.” When a question flops,  I’ve learned to rephrase them. 

There are times when I ask the audience a question and get an answer I did not expect. Listening with a “Yes, and” attitude allows me to hear what might be true in their response and build on it. Asking about people’s experiences rather than “black and white” concepts also helps. Once an audience member said Scrum Masters should prioritize the product backlog when that’s truly the job of a Product Owner. Pointing out the mistake to the person in the moment with the whole audience watching would not have been kind. Instead I replied, “yes, the Scrum Master makes sure we have an ordered backlog from the Product Owner.” A quick correction in the moment.

By speaking at an agile user group or an agile conference, you are contributing to a learning-focused event and have a great opportunity to set the tone and energy from the front of the room. These five tips will help you prepare and deliver an engaging session for you and your attendees to learn from one another.

Head to my blog,, to find my speaking schedule and check out the Improving Youtube channel to find out why I think presenting is so important.

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