October 22, 2009

Bulk view

Thinking about conferences

I might feel anxious about starting a conversation with a stranger, but I love inspiring a room through public speaking. As a result, I’ve spoken at numerous conferences, and I’m often invited to speak at more.

Lately, I’ve been trying to figure out when and how to say no. I’ve been very good at saying yes in the past, and I’ve come across all sorts of great opportunities and met all sorts of great people that way. But presentations take time. I get three weeks of vacation each year. Visiting the Philippines or enjoying a staycation with W- and J- takes a two-week chunk. I sprinkle the days from the remaining week throughout my year to give myself short mental breaks or to take care of things I can’t easily reschedule. Conferences are great, but they take time too.

Planning a presentation is hard work. I almost always customize or re-create presentations extensively. I typically spend more than four hours preparing a presentation, much of it in the impossible-to-outsource task of organizing my thoughts and clarifying the key message. Some presentations take over my mind for a few days, using even my dream-time to sort out the content and the flow.

Then there’s the time it takes to actually give the presentation. There’s travel and the arrangements that need to be made. There’s delivering the presentation. If I want to make the most of a conference experience, I’d probably want to attend the other sessions and go to the evening events. Too many events close together, and the edges unravel. I misplace little things, I feel rushed, I stress out. I get myself through it with introvert breaks, but it’s still tough. And then there’s the time I need to catch up with work and life.

I’ve not been very good at saying no. The last time I tried to say no, I wasn’t very clear about it. I had offered to help find someone else—so I was still on the hook. That experience taught me a number of valuable lessons:

  • It’s easier to change a no to a yes than to change a yes into a no. Say no if there’s the least bit of doubt.
  • I can still create and deliver inspiring talk even if I’m annoyed with myself and the situation.
  • There are some opportunities that aren’t worth it for me to take.

The numbers are pretty crazy, too. Yes, I can speak to ninety, a hundred, two hundred people in a room—but I can share the same presentation online and reach more than 10,000 viewers. I want to reach much more people than those who pay the conference registration fee. With online presentations and blog posts, I can make things whenever I want to, without giving myself deadlines to worry about. My online work is a lot more searchable than most conferences’ archives. My estimated ROI is an order of magnitude larger, even discounting the value created in purely online presentations.

The key thing I like about conferences is the serendipity of learning from other people, of meeting interesting co-panelists and speakers and participants, of bumping into people over Twitter and in hallways. The Net is giving me more and more ways to do that on my own. It may be slower, but it still works.

So I’m beginning to understand why many speakers charge fees, and why authors have form letters that express their regrets. They’re making conscious decisions about how to spend their time and energy, and what to trade those for. I haven’t completely figured out how to handle speaking fees that with IBM. I love what I’m doing, so I’m not about to go off and become an independent speaker/consultant/writer/geek. (At least not yet!)

Some conferences I may still accept: the ones that are directly related to my work, perhaps, and from which I and my manager can see a clear benefit. Then they’re counted as work time, and there’s no confusion about whether something is IBM or not IBM. I’d be happy to let people explore other opportunities.

Over time, I may learn how to say no gracefully—and that will free me up to say yes to opportunities to deepen my understanding.

Thinking out loud about my presentation

In two weeks, I’m going to talk about Remote Presentations That Rock at the Technical Leadership Exchange, a virtual conference inside IBM.

The TLE is a prestigious conference. I got to attend the TLE in my very first year, sneaking in as a speaker about a timely topic: I.B.Millennials. (Tip: Speaking is the best way to get into conferences that you wouldn’t be approved or even invited to attend.) About 4,000 technical leaders and one newbie (me) descended on Orlando, Florida, for lots of inspiration and learning. In line with the travel restrictions of 2009, the conference shifted to a virtual format and opened up attendance to anyone who wanted to make it to the calls.

The TLE being the TLE, one of the conference organizers asked me to add some tips specific to technical leaders. After all, we’re expecting the cream of the crop.

So here’s my first challenge. When I think about my upcoming talk, I don’t see the audience as limited to “technical leaders”. I want to talk to future leaders as well as present ones. I want non-technical people to embrace these tips and techniques, just as technical people might pick up these tips and start using them. About the only differentiation I currently make is that I’m definitely thinking of people who have had some experience presenting remotely, and who are passionate about doing it better. I have to think about how to work the technical leadership angle in without alienating people who don’t yet think of themselves as technical leaders.

What does it mean to be a technical leader, and how is that related to presentations? Hmm, may be time to think out loud…

  • We know leaders need good communication skills, and presentation skills are important. Leaders need to be able to explain, motivate, and influence. Presentations help people scale up their influence.
  • Bad presentations waste time and opportunities. We lose credibility, too.
  • Why do people give ineffective presentations? Not knowing better, not caring, or not making time to do better.
  • Not everyone knows what’s possible in terms of good presentations. We don’t have a lot of great role models.
  • Sometimes people give presentations they don’t particularly care about, or they don’t think what they’re presenting is (or can be) interesting.
  • Most people don’t make time for good presentations, or don’t invest the time to make it easy to make good presentations. They don’t deliberately make bad presentations, but they don’t make time to make good ones. (This is where mismatched slides, lots of text, and bad layout come in.) Technical leaders are already incredibly busy doing other things.
  • We need to be better at remote presentations and other virtual communication skills if we want to build a truly globally-integrated enterprise that can tap talent all over the world. That’s my meta-game. But what’s in it for individuals?
  • How can these tips help technical leaders?
    1. Make it real: doesn’t take extra time, but adds impact.
    2. Interact: helps you build your credibility and stay on track. You also personally get more value from your presentation opportunities.
    3. Make space for learning: means presentations take more time to plan, but less time to prepare.
    4. Practice, practice, practice: more work, but it also shows you that you can do this work outside presentations. It helps you build your reputation as a technical leader, too.
    5. Keep it simple: More time in planning, but helps you prepare a more effective presentation in less time. Also makes your presentation more resilient to technical problems.
    6. Start strong and end strong: Little extra effort, more effective presentations.
    7. Continue the conversation: Helps you build your reputation as a technical leader.
  • Okay. So I want to establish that technical leaders may make many tactical and strategic presentations. We’re focusing on tactical because people make so many of them and have less time to prepare them. Strategic presentations are obviously important, so people already work on making those good.
  • I also want to establish that there are challenges related to all presentations and challenges that are unique to remote presentations, and we’re going to focus just on challenges and tips that are specific to remote presentations. If they want to learn more, they can check out the Effective Presentations community.
  • Some tips are quick (Make it real, interact, start strong and end strong, continue the conversation), and some take more time but pay off a lot.
  • I thought about reordering the tips. They tell a story through the individual transitions, but the overall flow isn’t obvious. If I go with a more obvious organization (quick wins vs investments), the individual transitions aren’t as strong.
  • So what I have right now is:
  • Ask people to place themselves on a gradient when it comes to technical and strategic presentations
  • Talk about remote presentations vs all presentations
  • Ask people to think of the worst remote presentations they’ve been in, and why
  • Organize those challenges into remote vs common challenges
  • Focusing on remote challenges, ask people which is their top personal challenge

I changed the slides in the beginning, setting the stage and adding a lot more interaction. Thinking through a presentation is hard work, but fun!