Toastmasters and speaking at technical conferences

| toastmasters

Being a Toastmaster has disadvantages
after all. I now really, really hate it when I give a speech that’s
nowhere near good or even satisfactory. Although two people came up to
me afterwards and told me the workshop was great, I sooo want to make it even better!
Today’s speech had none of the ease or energy of my Toastmasters speeches.
And worse: I wasted the time of two people who squeezed a break into their very
busy schedules to be there.

Toastmasters has woken internal monsters. My inner “ah” counter who
would’ve just tsk-tsked at all of the filler words and repeated
phrases I used. My inner speech evaluator would’ve tried to find a
nice, supportive way to tell me to improve my eye contact and speech
organization. My inner audience would quietly pass along scribbled-on
evaluation sheets telling me I lacked my usual energy and enthusiasm,
and that I used too much jargon.

My friends from the Philippines would’ve dragged me off for some hot
chocolate to help me recover.

It was tough. I felt so drained on my way home. Hmm, that could also
have been due to lack of sleep. (Another thing I needed to fix!) I
can’t really blame the audience or on the topic. I just have to become
a better speaker.

And I _really_ wanted to get people hooked on social bookmarking! I
think it’s a mind-blowing thing for discovering, organizing, and
sharing new websites. THIS IS A COOL IDEA! I want to evangelize it!

Siiigh. So I’m still crappy as a technical speaker. The wearable
computing talks I did before were pretty okay—I was happy about
those—but then again, I did _those_ four or five times. This one was
a first run (second, if you count my tagging speech at Toastmasters),
and it was really, really rough.

It was so rough that I briefly considered hiding under a rock and not
speaking tomorrow. But then, how am I going to learn if I don’t get
out there and try it out?

I didn’t know what to do, so I called my mentor, Paul Wilson.
Toastmasters International is really big on mentoring.

Paul was _amazing._ He let me blubber about the speech for a minute or
two, a tangled mess of nerves and stress and self-doubt. He then
gently helped me sort out my main issues. Here’s what was bothering me:

Low energy. I was a little drained because I slept late and I

got up earlier than I really needed to. I started off with a bit of
energy and passion, but I couldn’t sustain it long enough to warm
the crowd up. I know how to deal with this one: sleep early!

Low audience attentiveness. Perhaps it was a matter of

drinking water out of a firehose: too many good ideas in too short a
time meant that people were still trying to absorb the idea of blogs
and wikis when I started talking about social computing. Perhaps it
was a matter of low energy. Three hours is a long time to sit still,
even if you’re doing demos…

Uncertain time. Being the last presenter meant that I had to

make up for any shortfall in the schedule. I dropped a lot from my
presentation, but I still went overtime. I also caught myself
getting slightly agitated while waiting, and then repeating some
points because of stress.

Long waits for website response. I depended too much on being

able to interact with (After all, it’s a hands-on
workshop! People are supposed to be able to play with it!) I wasn’t
sure if people really played with it in the end, as they were
probably frustrated by the time it took for to respond.

Paul was totally awesome. He didn’t just pull up a few websites for me
to read. No, he shared stories from his personal experience. He’d been
there. He’d done that. _And_ he showed me how I could do it too. He
pointed out the good stuff in my previous speeches, the strengths I
could tap to address the challenges I face tomorrow. As I listened to
him share tips on how to get over those bumps, I realized that _this_
is what mentoring is.

It’s an awesome experience.

Here’s what I learned from him:

Variety. If I’m worried about people’s energy level, I can

open with a physical activity. If I think people’s minds are
drifting, I can change gears to help them pay attention. They _want_
to pay attention, so I need to make it easy for them. (He had a
light, endearing opener that I think I’ll steal…)

Story. Stories are good. Stories are a powerful technique. In

particular, stories might be better suited to my speaking style. I
learned that people like my stories more than straight
information-dense speeches by speech #2. I was worried that people
would expect and need straight technical speeches at CASCON, but
maybe I’ll actually be better off focusing on one clear, simple
message and telling a real story around it.

Humor. I had a lot of fun with wordplay and surprise during

my speech on procrastination. I learned how to ‘set up and punch’,
as Greg said. If I can find places to use surprise in my speech,
then it’ll be a lot more fun.

See, I _know_ these things on a surface level. I read books and blogs
about public speaking. But hearing them from a mentor who cares about
helping me succeed, who’s heard me speak before, who knows my
strengths and weaknesses and goals…


I’m going to keep learning. I’m going to keep trying. And someday I’m
going to Figure This Thing Out.

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