Monday, April 13, 2009

Dear Speaker: 10 Thoughts Beyond 'Make Eye-Contact'

The Motivation

Recently, I read a post by James Duncan Davidson called Dear Speakers. He tweeted criticisms about speakers (no names used) and later blogged his thoughts. The tweets were not mean-spirited but also not inside jokes among friends.

I believe that James is offering earnest advice, but the post really irritates me. Here's why:

  • Critiquing a speaker during a presentation, even without using names, is both gutless and rude. I wonder if James offered any advice, in person, to the speakers afterwards. New technology doesn't excuse us from acting like civilized adults. True, I'm the guy that does this (yes, juvenile). But I asked first and looked people straight in the eye.
  • James provides some random, tactical details as advice. They are fine tips but they strike me as being mere trees in the forest. I have wanted to write about the forest for some time now, so here I am.
  • However, the post really irks me because I attended a technical talk by JDD on the No Fluff Just Stuff tour, circa 2002. I won't comment on it here, but: if we had the technology back then, how would JDD feel if I tweeted, even without mentioning his name?
What are my qualifications to talk on this?

Frankly, I'm no more qualified to talk about this than anyone else.

FWIW, I have emceed a couple of weddings, and have given some technical talks, all with widely mixed results. In my team's war room, I'm not at all shy about launching into an impromptu lecture on whatever I find interesting. I have taken the venerable Dale Carnegie course on public speaking (highly recommended). All of this may or may not impress you.

[Editor's note: I have since spoken at the Gateway Software Symposium 2010 and the Lambda Lounge. This still may or may not impress you.]

I fully concede I have broken many of the following rules. Sometimes, it has haunted me for weeks afterwards.

So I'm a modest presenter. However, I have seen dozens of talks: tech talks, conference sessions, keynote addresses, etc. I've attended my local JUG and NFJS for years, and am lucky to see terrific speakers on a regular basis via my employer.

It is very hard to describe what works, but I know when I see it. The best analogy is music: I can't tell you why I admire certain guitar players. There is no formula, and it is highly subjective, yet there seem to be common elements across my favourites.

Writing about this is like describing a dream: it's impossible to articulate the elements of my favourite guitar players, or my favourite speakers. But spurred to action by James' post, here are 10 things to consider.

1. Take a class

Before you can give a tech presentation, you should be able to give a presentation. JDD's post, and the comments, concentrate on things like pacing, pause words ("um", "so"), eye contact, etc. A lot of advice is written as "just keep these 1000 things in mind the next time you are feeling the adrenalin rush of the flight-or-fight syndrome while in front of a crowd".

Gee, thanks. Here's some real advice: if you want to learn to be a better speaker, with a chance to receive genuinely constructive criticism, take a class. There are classes at your local college. There are higher end classes like Dale Carnegie and Toastmasters. Or take an improv class.

It doesn't matter: just pick one and get out there.

(I have no affliation with Dale Carnegie, but a quick plug. When I was 13, I was so shy that I had to steel my resolve to call a store and ask about their hours of operation. I took Dale C at age 22 and have never looked back. No one describes me as shy now.)

2. Know your audience

I learned this one the hard way. Above, I mentioned several types of talks: tech talks, keynotes, etc. Be sure to think about your gig, and match your preparation to it.

For example, at a brown bag tech lunch, you have about 3 minutes to show some code. These people are voyeurs, and code is their porn. If you show up with 10 slides about cargo cults and the history of computing, they aren't going to be happy. Similarly, if you are up for a keynote, and don't have some kind of polish, things are going to be rough as well.

Also, you need to understand the technical level of your audience. This should be fairly obvious, as I'm sure you suffered through mismatches as an attendee.

3. Know your audience, seriously

I'm repeating this one because of the hidden audiences.

At NFJS, Scott Davis recently joked about those long, gorgeous Flash intros on artsy/marketing websites. He said, "who are those for? Everyone clicks Skip Intro".

My first thought was: they are for other people who write Flash intros. It is an arms race among a small elite to impress each other. This is an example of a hidden audience.

As an example, a fancy Keynote presentation can be very slick and alluring, but if you have 3D dancing slide transitions that emit pyro-lasers onto the ceiling, are you trying to impress the audience, or are you trying to impress other speakers? or other Keynote users? or your own ego?

That is to say, who is your real audience?

Always, always, always keep the real audience as priority #1. Be slick, be funny, be wacky, but only insofar as it advances your message.

4. Steal

If you don't play guitar, you might think that each solo, each lick, is its own creative snowflake, a sonic fingerprint that is unique in the universe.

This is just one of many lies you've been led to believe.

Guitarists copy, steal, and nick from each other all the time, and always have. The reason you may not be able to tell is that the good ones are clever about it: they take the essence of an idea, and make it their own.

With respect to speaking, I'm not talking about stealing content. I'm talking about style. Once you've identified your style (see below) think about who you like as a speaker, and why. Then, pattern your talk using similar elements.

A great example for keynote addresses is referencing a topic far removed from the ostensible subject, and then tying it in. A fantastic example is Dave Thomas' talks and writings on cargo cults.

5. Be true to yourself

This item is in a delicious tension with the previous one.

Some speakers are animated and theatric. Some are dry and yet genuinely funny. Some are no-nonsense and try to maximize the amount of content provided to you. This is all fine and well.

No one should label or box themselves in, but it is wise to think about the speaker you want to be. If you have a naturally dry sense of humor, then it may be futile to try and speak as a different character. Public speaking is inherently outside our comfort zone, so there is no need to double that by pretending to be someone you're not.

That said, it can be electrifying to go on stage. Many entertainers have alter egos that appear out of nowhere when the lights go up. If that happens, great, but it isn't necessary.

The upshot: take risks but follow your intuition.

6. Have a message

Everyone knows the old saw, "tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em, then tell 'em, then tell 'em what you told 'em". That's good stuff.

The key point: have something to tell them.

I'm old-fashioned but I was taught that an essay should have a thesis statement. A movie should have a story. A novel should have a narrative, and so on.

In the same way, I think that a talk should have an essential message that can be condensed into a short outline or a simple phrase. If someone asks "what was your talk about?", you should be able to answer, coherently, in 30 seconds.

This may seem obvious for an expansive keynote address, but I think it applies even to the humble brown-bag tech lunch. My goal for such a lunch is to present a topic to the audience so that they can decide if they want to pursue it further. Consequently, the message is invariably along the lines of "This tool offers A, B, and C, but suffers from X. If you value X, then you may want to wait but if, like me, you value A above the others, then check this out".

The good news is that thinking about this up front will focus your preparation. As well, a creative challenge is to express your message without actually saying it, but this can be tricky (see the last item).

7. Prepare

This one is cheap and easy, but I am compelled to write it.

Prepare your talk. Practice, rehearse, check your time. Remember that time can evaporate on stage, especially if there are questions.

More than this, though, take every opportunity to prepare the equipment. If possible, go to the venue days beforehand. On the day of the talk, get there very early, and remember to test your equipment! Just showing up isn't enough!

I once had a golden opportunity to rehearse with some equipment, on the day before an event, and passed up the chance. It was a major error. The mic was hard to use and I didn't find out until "go time", despite having ample opportunity to prepare. Shameful.

8. Respect questioners, but keep it moving

Assume that a questioner is at the right technical level and earnestly trying to advance the cause of the talk on behalf of you and the audience.

If they are, no problem: be polite and answer the question.

However, it might not be true, or may become apparent after a couple of questions. E.g.
  • The person might not be at the right level technical level for the group (e.g. if someone asks 'does CSS support aspect-oriented monads?' or 'what is a database?').
  • The person might have their own hidden audience and start to grand-stand to impress others or themselves.
  • Everyone is a comic. Often, this sets a warm atmosphere, but one can go out of control after scoring some laughs.
(The unvarnished truth is that I'm guilty of all of these, as an audience member. Hopefully not too often!)

I defer to your intuition on how to be graceful, but it is important in these instances to acknowledge the person, be respectful, and then move on. The goal is to convey your message to the group.

Squash the impasse with the venerable "let's go offline". If you really follow-up later in an earnest manner, it is better for everyone.

9. Learn from criticism

I'm paraphrasing the master, Dale Carnegie, on this one, as he said it best.

There are two ways to handle criticism: if it's accurate, learn and adapt from it; if it isn't accurate, be a duck and let that water just roll off your back.

The trick is to identify accuracy. This is difficult but clearly it requires objective reflection. And a keen sense for the difference between fact and opinion.

I think there is an asymptotic effect here: if you give a sufficient number of talks (see item #1!), and adapt, earnestly and honestly, to enough criticism, the curve will invariably tend towards you being an excellent speaker.

10. Break the damn rules

Just like in music, the most creative and wonderful things come when we break the rules. (Note that here I mean tactical rules like "use slides", and not themes, e.g. "respect your audience".)

However, it isn't just a matter of ignoring the rules like a bull in a china shop. To truly break the rules, one should first understand them.

In this way, one becomes a master. Note that the road is not easy: for every brilliant, rule-breaking, game-changing creation, there are countless disasters laying in the ditch. Talk is cheap: you must be prepared for failure if you try something crazy.

Again, it comes back to intuition: if you feel you're ready and can accept the consequences, go for it.

Rule-breaker? A Masterful (and high risk) Example

I'm bummed that someone, in the comments on JDD's post, already pointed out the video below. A friend and I saw Clifford Stoll at SD West circa 2000. It was the single best talk I have ever seen, and represents my own Platonic ideal as a speaker. I've searched for it but no luck. (I tried to capture its spirit in Beethoven didn't use Powerpoint).

Talking about it is like trying to describe a dream. Or for someone to describe seeing Stevie Ray Vaughn play live.

The version below is similar in nature. It doesn't (can't!) compare to the dream I saw, but it is great stuff.

I include it also for the duality: on one hand, this breaks all of the little tactical rules ('make eye-contact'); on the other hand, it preserves -- even illustrates -- the core principles behind a great presentation.

Though again, you better be careful about running around your conference room like a mad scientist, I conclude with these questions:
  • Did he think about his thesis?
  • Did he know his audience? (a slide-rule!?)
  • Do you think he was earnest in conveying his message?
(Hint: yes).


Tim Vernum said...

Presentation-fu seems to be the topic of the month in the blogosphere.

Josh Berkus is part way through a "Tech Talk Tips" series.

Hamlet D'Arcy said...

+1 for Dale Carnegie and Improv classes. Recommend both.

Michael Easter said...

ps. I want to amplify the point that eye contact, positioning, and all those details are quite important. My point is that the best way to deal with this is to take a class: you'll talk about those kinds of details for hours/weeks.

pps. I also want to reiterate that Cliff's video at the end is an example of a master breaking (or illustrating?) the rules. It is extremely edgy and not really a model for the average technical session.

Michael Easter said...

Thanks for the notes Tim and Hamlet.

Here is another link that I recently discovered, Speaker Confessions.

This looks like really good stuff.

davearonson said...

+1 for Toastmasters: effective, but also cheap and fun. Just be aware that the clubs vary a lot. Visit several and see which ones suit your needs, style, and schedule.

Anonymous said...

An interesting critique, to be sure. To address some of your points, it's impossible to do what I do at conferences and speak to every speaker about their talk and offer critiques and advice. I'd love to, but it's simply not logistically possible. I do, however, speak to a large number of people about presentations (both theirs and others), what they can do, and have offered tons of specific advice over the years. Some conference organizers have taken these thoughts and built out advice sheets to speakers that are aimed at helping speakers before they go on stage. Most importantly, my advice in both general and specific terms has not been limited to just a few tweets.

The statements that I made are indeed trees, not forest. I tried to position them as such and did not claim that they were more than that. They are just a grab bag of thoughts. However, I have been given a large amount of feedback and I've been told face to face by a large number of people that they were helpful nuggets. It's a large enough number that I'm entirely comfortable with my actions. Do I wish I had the time to do more? Certainly. But, what I did post did spark a lot of discussion and commentary, including this one, and I'm happy that happened. Dialog on this topic is valuable.

I totally agree with the further points of advice you give for speakers and I think they are all things that speakers should look at.

I have to point out that it's a bit inconsistent that you decided to post this in April, but didn't take the time to talk to me about this, or let me know your critique of me. Instead, I found out about this months after the fact. I do find this to be a valuable critique of my actions and, while I don't agree with all of your criticism, I can see where it's coming from and there are things I've taken away from it that I will endeavor to do personally to do better in the future.

Finally, to your specific question about how I'd feel about you having tweeted about my presentation, well, it's hard to say. I'm sure I wouldn't have had any worse a reaction than what I had to this post calling me gutless and rude. /shrug/

Feel free to email me if you'd care to discuss further.

Michael Easter said...

Thanks for the note, James. I'm glad to hear that you have an ongoing dialogue with speakers. I realize now that the tweets were within a much larger context.

re: gutless and rude. I called the action of 'critiquing a speaker during a presentation' gutless and rude. I stand by that. You may say that is semantic B.S. and that the subtext was a shot at you. Yes, it was. To be fair, I also said 'not mean-spirited' and 'earnest'. We all make mistakes and I think you made a mistake: not by criticizing, but for the real-time nature of it.

As for not letting you know of my post, I concede that it is inconsistent, and for that I sincerely apologize. I debated on posting to your blog but I don't remember why I chose not to do so. Mea culpa.

Michael Easter