Category Archives: speaking

Speaking: In case of emergency, break glass

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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.

"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.

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.

Six steps to make sharing part of how you work

This entry is part 15 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

People often ask me how I find the time to write, blog, or give presentations, so I’ve put together these tips on how to turn sharing from something that takes up extra time to something that saves you time as you work.

Sharing is intimidating. You might think that you need to master blogs or wikis before you can make the most of Web 2.0 tools to help you share your knowledge and build your network. But even if you never post in public, you’ve got plenty of opportunities to make a bigger difference through sharing.

I’m not going to tell you to start a blog today. Here’s a six-step program to help you save time by making sharing part of the way you work, even if most of what you work with is confidential or lives in e-mail. Give it a try!

Step 1. Review your e-mail for information that you repeatedly send people. Do different people ask you the same questions? Are there links or files you find yourself always looking up and sending? Are there common problems you often solve? Save time by filing those messages in a “Reference” folder so that you can easily find them the next time someone asks that question or needs that file. Save even more time by rewriting your notes so that you can easily cut and paste them into new messages.

You can use your e-mail program to manage this information by saving the e-mails in a “Reference” folder that might be subdivided into more folders, or you can save the information in directories on your hard drive, encrypting it if necessary. The key change is to create a virtual filing cabinet and put useful information in it.

This virtual filing cabinet can save you a lot of time on your own work, too. I often find myself searching for my notes on how I solved a problem six months ago because I have to solve it again, and my notes save me a lot of time.

Step 2. When talking to people, listen for opportunities to take advantage of your reference information. Now that you’ve got an virtual filing cabinet of useful information, keep an ear open for ways you can use that information to help people more efficiently. When people ask you a question you’ve answered before, give them a quick answer and promise to e-mail them the rest of the details.

When you look for ways to reuse the information you already have, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to get a lot more benefit from the effort that you’ve already invested.

Step 3. Reach out. Now that you’ve saved time and helped more people by sharing the information in your virtual filing cabinet when they ask, you’ve got a better sense of which notes are very useful. Take a moment to review your files and think about who might benefit from learning from that information. Reach out to them, sending them a note about what you’ve learned and why it can save them time. It might lead to interesting conversations and good opportunities.

For example, let’s say you e-mailed one of your coworkers an answer to his problem. Think of other team members who might have run into the same problem, and send them a short note about it too. If you do this judiciously, people will feel grateful without feeling overwhelmed by e-mail.

Step 4. Prepare and take notes. Now you’re getting lots of return on the time you invested into organizing your existing information, and you’ve got an idea of what kinds of information help you and other people a lot. Proactively write down information that might be useful instead of waiting until someone asks you about it, because you might not remember all the relevant details by that time. In fact, take notes while you’re working instead of leaving it for the end. File those notes in your virtual filing cabinet as well, and share them with other people who might find this useful.

In addition to helping you save time in the future, writing about what you’re learning or doing can help you think more clearly, catch mistakes, and make better decisions.

Step 5. Look for ways to share your notes with more people. By now, you’ve probably developed a habit of looking for ways to take advantage of what you’re learning or doing: writing and filing your notes, retrieving your notes when people need them, and proactively reaching out. You can stop there and already save a lot of time–or you can learn about sharing your notes more widely, helping you build your network and increase your impact.

Proactively reaching out to people who might find your notes useful has probably helped you develop stronger working relationships with a small investment of time. However, this is limited by who you know, how much you know about what they’re working on, and the timing of the information. On the other hand, if you share some of your notes in public areas where people can search for or browse them, then you can help people you might not think of reaching out to, and they can find your information whenever they need it.

You don’t have to share all your information publicly. Review your virtual filing cabinet for information that can be shared with everyone or with a small group, and look for ways to share it with the appropriate access permissions. You can share different versions of documents, too.

For example, I share public information on my blog because blogs make it easy to publish quick notes, and search engines make it easy for people to find what they need even if I posted those notes several years ago. On the other hand, there are many notes that I post to internal access-controlled repositories. Sometimes, I’ll post a sanitized version publicly, and a more detailed version internally.

This is where you can get exponential return on your time investment. If people can find and benefit from your notes on their own, then you can reach many more people and create much more impact.

People may not find and use your information right away. Keep building that archive, though. You’ll be surprised by how useful people can find your work, and by the number of opportunities and relationships you build along the way.

Step 6. Review your organizational system and look for opportunities for relentless improvement.

You’ve collected useful information from your e-mails and conversations, organized that in your virtual filing cabinet, reached out to people, and shared some of your notes publicly. Congratulations! You’re probably getting your work done faster because you don’t waste time solving problems again. Your coworkers probably look to you for answers because you not only help them solve problems, you do so in a timely and detailed manner. And you might already have discovered how helpful your notes can be for others you wouldn’t have thought of contacting. What’s next?

Review your virtual filing cabinet. Can you organize it for faster access? Can you fill in missing topics? Can you identify and update obsolete information? Look for opportunities to improve your process, and you’ll save even more time and make a bigger impact.

Want to share your experiences? Need help? Please feel free to leave a comment!

 

Seven Tips for Short Talks

Regina Zaliznyak asked me to put together a presentation to help IBM’s Extreme Blue interns give better 4-minute pitches to project sponsors, managers, and other interested people. After thinking about the topic a bit, I realized that I wanted to figure out and share tips on how to make really short presentations.

Short presentations scare people. “One hour? No problem. Five minutes? Oh no! What should I put in? What should I leave out? What if I make a mistake?”

Seven Tips for Short Talks

1. Start at the end. Don’t start with slides, or even an outline. Ask yourself: what do I want people to do, feel, or remember? Work backwards from there. What do you need to show people so that they can take the next step? What do you need to share in order to get them to that point?

Let’s talk about Extreme Blue. What are your goals for the project pitch presentation? You want to convince a manager to use your project, maybe even invest in it. You might want to show people that you’d be a great hire. What are your goals?

Figure out your conclusion. Then put it up front. Don’t build suspense. Say what you want to say in the first thirty seconds, use the rest of your talk to support your point, and emphasize it at the end.

2. Simplify. Be ruthless. Get rid of whatever doesn’t support your point. Save the details for handouts, posters, backup slides, web pages, or Q&A. Four minutes is not enough time for a lecture, but plenty of time for a commercial. Your job is to make people curious so that they want to find out more.

Keep your message simple, too. Translate numbers and jargon into things people can understand. Too much text on the slides means that people will be reading instead of listening to you. Try a few words, images, or no slides at all. That way, people can focus on you.

3. Share a story if you can. One of the best ways to make things human-scale is to tell a story. Yes, your project might change the software industry and create billions of dollars in profit. But your presentation will be more powerful if you can show—really show—how you can make one person’s life better. You could talk about inefficiencies in the food distribution industry, or you could talk about how one apple goes from the farm to your plate. Use a story to make things real, then help people imagine how things could be even better.

4. Start from scratch.

We have interesting quirks, like the anchoring bias. Let’s say I wanted to sell you this <item>. If I told you it’s worth about $90, we’d probably end up at a higher price than if I told you I got it for about $30. That initial information shapes our decision.

So don’t start from a boring presentation. Start from scratch, and add things only if they fit. In fact, don’t start with slides at all. Figure out what you want to say and how you want to say it before you make the slides to support your points. That way, you’re not limited by the software.

Don’t be afraid of starting from scratch multiple times. Put your drafts away and start again. Try a fresh perspective. Change things up.

(Thanks to Cate Huston for sharing this tip!)

5. Schedule. Planning a short presentation is harder than planning a long one.

You have to decide: what goes in? what stays out?

Give yourself plenty of time to work on it. Don’t wait until a week before your presentation.

Always ask yourself: Why is this worth it? Who can benefit from this? How can I show them?

The good thing is that there are plenty of opportunities to learn and practice, if you look around.

6. Seek inspiration. Next time you watch an ad, think: How does it grab your attention and make you want to do something? Next time you watch a movie or a TV show, learn from how it tells a story. Next time you have a conversation, think about words and flow.

Practising isn’t just about running through your slides and your scripts. Try parts of your talk in your next conversation with your six-year-old niece. Talk to your friends. Sketch your slides during breaks. Dream about your talk, even.

Don’t reveal anything confidential, of course. Keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities to learn, and you’ll find plenty.

7. Stay flexible. Four minutes flies by. You’ll be nervous. You’ll be anxious. You’ll forget things. That’s okay. I’ve given dozens of presentations. I still get nervous. I still get anxious. I still forget some of the things I want to share.

Stay flexible. If your slides don’t show, if your animation flops, if your demo fails, don’t panic. You don’t even need to apologize. Certainly don’t apologize for your apology. Keep calm and carry on. If you focused on a simple message (perhaps in a memorable story), you can share that no matter what.

This is also where keeping your talk simple helps. If you have very little text or you have simple diagrams on your slides, you can talk for as long or as short as you want. On the other hand, if you have lots of text or complicated diagrams, people feel short-changed if you flip through them too quickly. Keep things simple and flexible.

And have fun!

Resources

Watch short presentations to get a sense of how much you can fit into one. Pay attention to what you like and don’t like. Bad presentations can be just as informative as good ones.

Here are some sites worth checking out:

  • Ignite Talks – 20 slides, auto-advancing after 15 seconds each = 5-minute presentation. And you thought your pitch was tough!
  • TED.com – good source of inspiration for talks
  • Presentation Zen and Slideology – slide and presentation design tips

Notes about business communication

Don Cameron is working on a book about business communication, and I’ll be talking to him on Friday to share what I’m learning. In his initial e-mail, he said that he wants to learn more about my educational and career background, and my business communication insights. I figured I’d write about it here so that we can save time, use the interview for follow-up questions and interesting thoughts, and demonstrate the value of sharing. We can also translate this into printable quotes, just like I used my blog to draft informally-written sections of my thesis before I translated them into academese. <laugh>

Business communication insights

Share while you learn. This is probably the key thing that differentiates the way I work. Many people think they need to be experts before they can blog or share what they know. I think that being a beginner is fantastic for sharing, because you don’t take things for granted. Writing and drawing and giving presentations helps you think through complex topics more effectively. Along the way, you create these resources you can save for yourself and share with other people. If you can make it easier for other people to learn, they can build on what you’ve shared with them to learn even more, and you can learn from what they can do.

It’s like the difference between climbing a rope and building a staircase. Rope-climbing is hard. Not everyone can do it, and it can be difficult to get yourself up. But if you build a staircase, not only can you go up more easily and more safely, but you help other people go up too.

Share while you work. Here’s another big difference. Many people think about knowledge-sharing as something you do after you work, and they wonder where I find the time to blog and do all sorts of other things. The trick is to make sharing part of the way you work. Why?

  • You can save time. Sometimes I post a quick update about what I’m working on, and someone I would’ve never thought to ask posts a tip that saves me hours of work.
  • You can remember more. Saving the reflection and sharing for after your work means you’ll have a better perspective, sure, but you’ll have forgotten many things or taken them for granted. If you take and share notes along the way, your post-project summary will be clearer and more precise.
  • You might not find the time after you’re done. When you finish a task, you’re usually thinking of the next one. This is why consultants have such a hard time writing down lessons learned from projects – it’s hard to focus on an optional task for a project that’s already finished when you have other priorities.

Scale up. I think about scale a lot – getting more value for the time and energy I put into something. That’s why I share things as widely as I can. Presentations and blog posts reach more people than e-mail, which is more reusable than phone calls. Taking an extra couple of minutes to share something in a wider medium can mean reaching many more people and creating much more impact. For example, I almost never give a presentation without posting the presentation online, either on the Intranet or on our company intranet. One time, I prepared a presentation on Web 2.0 and education for about 90 people. That presentation has been viewed more than 26,000 times online.

Archiving your work is a great way to scale up. If someone likes one of my presentations, they often check out my other presentations, and that helps me get even more value without more effort. I have blog posts going back to 2002, and people often come across my old posts by searching or browsing – again, more value without more effort. I might have a great five-minute conversation with a new acquaintance, but if they check out my blog, they can learn so much more about me and our common ground than we can find out in hours of interaction. Social networking tools help me get to know and keep in touch with many more people than I might be able to meet or talk to, and they scale up the effort that I put into them. 

Be human. Sharing and archiving scares a lot of people. They’re afraid of making mistakes or changing their minds, and having the infinite memory of the Internet used against them. I think learning is one of the best parts of life, and you can’t learn unless you take risks. Sometimes my blog posts have typos or factual errors. Sometimes my code has bugs. Sometimes I change my mind. This is good. If I didn’t share things, I might have remained quietly ignorant. Life is too short to rely on just my ability to figure things out, or to let other people struggle through everything on their own.

Being human also means making that connection. Don’t hide behind jargon, passive sentences, and text-heavy bullet-points. Tell stories. Surprise people. Provoke them. Help them grow. Connect. If you need to make and communicate tough decisions, take responsibility and show empathy.

Work really changes when you bring your whole self to it. I bring my happiness and passion and enthusiasm to work. It’s amazing to hear from people around the world who get inspired by that – and who then inspire other people around them. There’s tremendous joy in doing great work, and you can have a lot of fun doing so. I started hand-drawing my slides because it was fun for me, and I continued doing it because other people found it fun and engaging, too. I learn and share because it’s fun and it builds on my strengths. I build tools because I love building tools and helping people save time. Find your strengths and share them with others.

So, how did I figure these things out? What’s my story?

Educational and career background

Blogging changed everything, I think. I wasn’t particularly interested in writing until I realized that I could do more than write essays for school.

In my third year of university, while taking computer science, I decided to challenge myself by contributing to open source. One of the projects I worked on was a personal information manager that had a good note-taking feature. I added the ability to publish a blog, and I used that to share my class notes and my notes on open source. I discovered that not only did people read my blog posts, they found them useful, and they gave me suggestions on how to do things better.

My passion for building tools and helping people improve the way they work also drove me to start giving presentations. Here’s what I shared in The Shy Presenter: Why conventional advice on learning public speaking sucks, and how to really get started:

True story. The only reason I got started in public speaking was because some friends of mine were organizing a conference. By the third call for speakers, they sounded pretty desperate. I said, hey, I’m just a student, but I can talk about this if you really can’t find anyone, and I’m playing with that as a hobby. They booked me for two talks. I learned that even as a beginner, you can help other people learn.

I discovered that public speaking was a fantastic way to start conversations with hundreds of people at a time. It was the perfect networking method for an introvert like me. I could write about what I was learning, refine those thoughts into a presentation, prepare and practice my talk, and rely on my passion for the topic to get me through the nervousness I felt about talking to hundreds of people. Afterwards, I didn’t have to awkwardly stand around trying to figure out how to start a conversation – people would just walk up to me and start talking! (This was so cool, I made it one of my key tips in The Shy Connector: How to get strangers to talk to you).

I continued to blog and give presentations as a teacher at the Ateneo de Manila University and as a graduate student at the University of Toronto. Blogging about my IBM-sponsored research into using Web 2.0 to find expertise helped me meet a lot of people who were interested in social networking tools, and I learned about so many resources and tools that I would probably never have found on my own. When I decided that I wanted to continue working with such amazing people, I asked for their help in finding just the right position for me. I joined IBM in October 2007 in a role that was customized for me. Here’s how I got that awesome job.

Writing, presenting, and connecting have helped me learn from, and help lots of people. I still struggle with the idea of starting conversations in hallways or elevators, but I’ve figured out some things that work really well for me, and I look forward to trying more.