Category Archives: speaking

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Placeholder: The Examined Life: Technology and Experimentation

This is a placeholder for the Technology and Humans talk I’m giving today on “The Examined Life.” I want to explore how people are using technology to practice relentless improvement, and I’ll tell a couple of stories of how I’m improving my skills, sharing what I’m figuring out, and learning from others through my blog and other tools.

Resources:

From overall description of conference:

    Technology pervades our developed world and mediates our perception of it. We are alive in a period of profound technological transformation, from a world of limited discrete technology appliances to one where technology is both pervasive and embedded in us and our environment. This transformation can be exciting, fun, and inspiring. Or it can be stressful, frustrating, and isolating. For all of us, it is forcing and evolution in our thinking, skills, learning methods, and perception. This conference explores perspectives on this transformation and how our adaptation will change the opportunities for IBM and the world. Get broad perspectives on the human impact of technology, now and in the future.

"But what can I talk about?" Toastmaster tactics for tackling topics

This is a talk I’m giving to the IBM Toronto Lab Toastmasters today. I should trim a few hundred words from it to get it to more comfortably fit in 5-7 minutes, but it’s got the key points.

Today, we’re going to transform the way you benefit from Toastmasters. Right now, ten people in this club have a speech scheduled. After this talk, I want each of you to sign up to give three speeches, all committed to in advance. Not only that, I want you to get into the habit of always working on a talk – and it’s going to take you less time and give you more results than before.

"You’re crazy, Sacha. What can I talk about? When am I going to find the time to work on it? It’s not like I do interesting things, anyway."

I know. I’d be thinking that, too. But you’re in Toastmasters, and it’s not just so that you can spend lunch time listening to other people talk. I’m going to share three lessons I learned the hard way. If these three lessons help you get over the hump and get on with speaking, fantastic! Mission accomplished. If they don’t, get in touch with me and we’ll figure out what will.

So here’s what I’ve learned about coming up with topics to talk about.

1. IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE BRILLIANT.

We have really high standards for ourselves. We want to be as insightful as New York Times columnists, as funny as standup comedians, and as persuasive as managers during performance reviews.

Me, I have days when I don’t want to give a presentation because I’m sure that I’m going to suck.

Newsflash: It doesn’t have to be brilliant. You don’t have to be brilliant. In fact, if you’re giving a Toastmasters presentation like this, even if you bore people, they’re only bored for seven minutes. You’re not going to ruin anyone’s lunch, much less their life.

What about longer talks? As long as you’re telling the truth in your title and abstract, then the organizer of the talk can decide if it’s a great fit, and people can choose whether to show up or not – or whether to check their e-mail.

There are plenty of things you can share: everything from the structural determination of organic compounds to how to buy a car from the US. Pick one thing you’ve learned or experienced and put together a talk about it.

But there’s a harder reality to this. The truth is that you don’t get to be interesting until you go through the boring parts. Being interesting is hard work. You have to figure out what you want to say and how you want to say it, and you can only do that by trying.

So after this talk, you’re going to SIGN UP FOR YOUR NEXT TALK. When you finish that, you’re going to sign up for your next talk, and the next, and the next. Always be working on your next talk.

Which brings us to secret #2.

2. IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE NEW.

You’re not going to figure everything out on the first try. Have you ever heard stand-up comedians during their off hours? One of my friends was doing stand-up comedy. You could tell because whenever we met someone new, he’d tell the same joke. He’d change the timing. He’d change the words. He kept practising until he nailed each joke.

I looked up all the talks people gave in this Toastmasters club this year. There’s one repeat. Everything else is all new, all the time.

Remember: It doesn’t have to be new. REDUCE your effort by REUSING your talks and RECYCLING your ideas.

Don’t be a one-trick pony, though. Make things better. How can you do that?

Do you have copies of your past speeches? What about your notes? Your conversations? Your ideas? If you don’t keep at least some of that, you’re throwing so much away.

Everything I work on goes into one big text file. I write as much as I can. Everyday, I take notes so that I can remember, because forgetting is such a waste of time.

I might write or present about a topic four or five times so that I can understand it better. It’s part of the learning process.

I learn something about a topic every time I present it. It’s part of the process.

Your topic doesn’t have to be new. Go back and look at your old stuff. Start saving your work from now on: your talks, your notes, your ideas. Writing down notes is incredibly powerful. Over time, you’ll build this amazing library that you can refer to any time you need. In fact, if you share it with people – and it’s incredible when you do – you can get crazy return on investment. I have presentations from three years ago that people are still looking at, still learning from, because they can find those presentations through search engines.

Last secret. This is a big one.

3. IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE WHAT YOU ALREADY KNOW.

I have a confession to make. I propose topics I don’t know about, so that I can force myself to learn.

It’s an amazing excuse to get going. When you’ve committed yourself to teaching people, you learn more deeply. And you’ve got a deadline, too.

Don’t limit yourself to things you know. Pick something you want to learn, and promise a talk on it. Then learn it, share what you’ve learned, and save people time.

You might be thinking: "But what can I share if I’m just a beginner?" This is actually the perfect time to share. By the time you’re an expert, you’ve forgotten all the things people need to learn. Share as you go. You don’t have to be brilliant, and you might need to try it a few times before you figure things out, but there’s no better way to learn.

If you can convince people to try something out, or help them avoid your mistakes, or save people an hour or two of figuring things out on their own, then that’s already worth it.

So, how does this line up with what you are going to do after lunch? Well, you’re going to sign up to give three speeches.

Your first speech doesn’t have to be brilliant. Look up your next goal from your workbook, pick something you’ve learned at work or at home, and commit to sharing it.

Your second speech doesn’t have to be new. Pick something you’ve already shared, and make it better.

Your third speech doesn’t have to be what you already know. Pick something you want to learn, and commit to sharing it. If you’re doing one speech a month – that’s plenty of time to prepare – you have at least two full months to try an experiment. It can be a technical overview, or something as practical as a speech about "How to wake up at 6 AM everyday for one month." Just do it.

Then make life easier for yourself! REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE. Make your own library of past speeches and ideas for future ones. Keep an eye out for interesting things to share. You’ll find yourself with plenty of material in no time.

Who’s ready to sign up? Who needs some more coaching? We’ll figure out something that works. Take that card, use it as a reminder, and get in touch with me if there’s any way I can help. There’s so much you can talk about, but you’ve got to take that step.

Speaking: In case of emergency, break glass

http://icanhascheezburger.files.wordpress.com/2007/08/128296997102501250ifailztosee.jpg

IBM Fellow John Cohn shares a tale of two talks: one that sucked, and another that rocked. He says:

I don’t know.. all that I know is that really empty feeling of being half way through a talk .. all eyes on you.. and you just know that you’re sucking big time.. You can’t gracefully just stop.. though
perhaps that would be better than continuing.. maybe the best thing to
do in a circumstance like that is to reach for the fire alarm and jump
out a window.

It’s reassuring to know that even seasoned tech celebrities (he’s got an awesome TV show, even!) have panic moments like that. =)

I know that feeling. I’ve run into that a couple of times, and it’s never any fun. One time, I was just a few minutes into a talk for high school students when I realized that the presentation I prepared was likely to bore me, not to mention the tough crowd. So I threw out my slides, turned off the projector, gave people a quick idea of what I knew about, and had a great conversation instead.

When in doubt, listen and improvise. (Which I’m sure John Cohn has done more times and more effectively than I ever have!)

If you find yourself unavoidably sucking at a presentation, don’t be so hard on yourself afterwards. You propose a topic, the organizer accepts it, and people usually have a choice of whether or not to attend – and certainly, whether or not to pay attention. If one of these points fail – maybe you or the organizers misread the audience, maybe people just aren’t having a good day – that doesn’t make you any less awesome. Keep trying.

Thoughts on speaking

I always ask why I let myself get suckered into preparing a presentation. I struggle with ideas, wrestling with them until I can make sense. I stutter and sweat in the spotlight. Why bother?

But I can’t deny that I enjoy presenting more than other people might. No, not the act of presenting. That’s the tuition I pay. I enjoy that struggle, the tangled thoughts turning into stories. Sometimes I propose talks on topics I don’t know much about because I’m interested in what we’ll find out along the way.

I don’t have any standard speeches. Everything has to be on the boundary, even the old talks people like and ask me to revise. I need to learn something new each time I speak. Sometimes it’s the delight of being wrong and of arriving at an better understanding.

A talk isn’t a talk unless I can make it a conversation. If it’s just going to be a speech, no questions, no answers, I may as well leave it as a blog post or a video. I want to learn from people. I feel like my talks with no discussions trail off in mid-air, interrupted by silence. Sometimes I need to prepare these kinds of questions myself – standalone presentations viewed by strangers, talks in constrained formats for fun and creativity. I want people to ask questions anyway.

Presentations are scary, but they’re a fun way to learn. So maybe I’ll give up on my one-talk-a-month constraint, which I sometimes didn’t follow because of work or interesting opportunities. I don’t want to travel for talks, because that takes too large a chunk of personal time (even the work trips do). I’m comfortable with virtual presentations, and people have told me that my energy and passion come through. If the cost for a presentation-worth of learning is an evening or two of focus, it’s a decent trade – especially if I can get lots of reuse and ongoing insights from it.

Pre-conference networking tips for the Instructional Technology Strategies Conference

This is for http://itsc.oetc.org . Thanks to Darren Hudgins for the nudge to make this!

On presenting, anxiety, and moving forward

I have four presentations on my calendar, spread over the next two months. They’re all on topics I’ve written about: two talks on networking, one talk on presentation tips, and one talk on Emacs. I should prepare the presentations over the next two weeks.

I catch myself procrastinating. And if I’m going to procrastinate by tidying or writing, I might as well turn my reflections to why I’m procrastinating, so I can figure it out and fix it.

The advantage of having a blog is that I can review what I felt and thought before. For example, in one of my earliest blog posts about public speaking, I wrote that I wanted to become a professional speaker. This was why:

I love sharing ideas with people. I love bringing my enthusiasm and my passion to a hall and infecting as many people as I can. I love learning about presentation techniques and fascinating ideas. I love getting people to think. Besides, speaking is a great way to get to meet other fascinating people. I’ve made friends and learned about opportunities at post-conference dinners.

Reading that, I feel something dormant stirring. There’s something about sharing my passion and being inspired by other people.

There are more posts in my archive. I wrote about reaching people in the back row. I wrote about dealing with stage fright by turning presentations into conversations. I wrote about keeping things fresh and shared the feedback I’d gotten from presentations.

I can also see myself changing. In October 2009, after an occasion that really showed me the contrast between face-to-face presentations and the reach of online ones, I started thinking about how and when to decline invitations to speak. In March 2010, preparing for another presentation, I found myself reflecting on what I was missing from face-to-face presentations.

Maybe I can find a new equilibrium. I think it’s a combination of factors, and I’m going to think about them for a bit because it’s useful to understand a challenge before you use its force against it, turn it flat on its back, and tickle it into submission.


Higher costs lead to higher standards. With the shift of many presentations to virtual channels, the rise of blogs, Slideshare, and recorded presentations as alternative ways of sharing information, tighter travel restrictions at work, and a flourishing life at home, I’m much less inclined to travel to conferences myself. The relative opportunity cost has increased. I project my higher standards onto other participants, and become more anxious about delivering enough value to justify the time and expense.

As I get better at writing and occasionally illustrating my thoughts, I become more impatient with presentations. Presentations take more time to prepare and more time to deliver. They are not as searchable or as linkable as text. Their main benefits are that they are more engaging than plain text or static illustrations, and they can reach a different audience – people who prefer listening to reading, for example.

Unlike blog posts or stand-alone slide decks, presentations have deadlines, expectations, and potentially mixed reception. I can postpone writing about something, but I can’t back out of a commitment to speak. I promise something with the abstract and I’m not sure if I can deliver. If I write a blog post that offers little value to people, they can simply move on. If I give a presentation that people are too polite to walk out of, I not only take an hour of their life but make them miss the opportunity to hear a better speaker.

Then there are changing comparisons. In a world filled with TED and Ignite and all sorts of great talks available through Youtube, beautiful slides on Slideshare, and whatnot, it’s hard to put together something without feeling like a nattering newbie.


And now that I’ve got that all written down, I can see that it doesn’t make sense. The thing that trumps all of that hasn’t changed: I’m moved to speak and connect with other people because I want to help them make a change in their life and because I’m curious about what I can learn from them too.

I tell myself sometimes that I come up with presentations because other people ask me to, or because I want to learn about something myself. But even the things I already know–have struggled with, have come to understand, still continue to explore– those are already worth sharing.

I’ll experiment with a few changes. I’m going to try speaking with minimal or no slides, which will force me to be more vivid and memorable in speech. I may choose some topics to focus on, and see if invitations and speaking opportunities can align with those. I might illustrate if inspiration strikes, but not by default.

For my upcoming presentations, I just need to dig deeper and find the core message I have to share. With that, all the rest of the words and images will flow.


Writing about all of that seems to be working. I could hardly get to sleep last night thanks to all the presentation ideas running through my head…