Tag Archives: Speaking

Collecting Speaker Tips…

What’s your best speaker tip?

I’m doing a talk on speaker best practices and would love to hear from other speakers as to what their favorite tip is for others. I know I’ve got a few outspoken friends who might have a few thoughts to share.

  • What’s the most important thing about writing an abstract?
  • How do you find inspiration when writing?
  • What’s your writing process?
  • How do you prep?
  • What’s your “pre-game” routine before a talk?
  • What’s your secret to delivering a fantastic talk?
  • What kind of follow up do you recommend?
  • What am I missing?

Josh Holmes with audience in the background

And yes, I’ll consider the comments creative commons and share and share alike with attribution. 🙂

Doing a Demo while Public Speaking

Juggling at nightAs I’ve started writing about public speaking, I have started getting great questions that lead to more blog posts – keep those coming! I was talking to a fellow speaker (who can identify himself in the comments if he so chooses) and they brought up the fact that it’s hard for them to prepare a demo. I can tell you that this is an art form that I still struggle with after 9 years speaking at conferences, user groups and training. Demos are hard because you’ve got two, sometimes competing, motivations behind every demo. First, you have to show someone how to accomplish a given technique and second you have to be able to show someone why that technique applies to them in a given circumstance.

There are two extremes that you can go to. You can either demo just a particular technique in isolation or you can demo a full application/solution.

Demo a technique in isolation
Sometimes this is the easiest thing to do. It requires a lot less code and it’s very easy to walk through. The issue here is that it’s like solving a numeric math problem on the chalkboard. It’s sometimes hard for the audience to connect the dots and place that technique in their own circumstances and leverage it to solve their own problems.

Demo an Application
This is tough. There are two major issues. First of all, you have to have a competed application to walk through. Secondly, and the bigger problem honestly, it’s very hard to walk through just the relevant parts of the application without getting bogged down in the full details of the application. The tendency is for people to spend a lot of time scrolling through code rather than focusing in on the code that’s relevant to the current discussion.

The right answer
The reality is that the answer is somewhere in between. It’s much better to have a well componentized application where people can see the technique in the context of a larger application but you can demo the technique without getting bogged down in the minutia of the application. I’ve not seen a lot of demos that actually do that, which is a shame because it works extraordinarily well when someone does do it.

Building the perfect demo application
At one point in time (many moons ago when I was doing a ton of ASP.NET talks at conferences), I had a built a relatively full featured ASP.NET 2.0 demo application that I used for all of my ASP.NET talks for about a year. It was based loosely on a portal application that I had built for a client. It used themes and skins, user profile information, a little AJAX, user controls, custom controls, login in controls, databinding and much more. But it was built in such as way that it could be demoed feature by feature.

The secret sauce was that I had just enough examples of each technique and it was broken out into many small and manageable projects and files. I could show each of these small files and projects in relative isolation but then show it running in the overall context. My user control demo, for example, was a very simple “Hello World” style button and label but it showed how to build user controls. My personalization demo stored 3 fields and used them in two places. Why two places? Because we needed to see what refresh was like and so on. Why three fields? One was set in a custom step in the login control (because I needed to demo that). The second was to show a technique around defaulting values. The third was used to show how to move a value from an anonymous profile to a full fledged one when someone registered and/or signed in.

This was not an easy demo application to build but it was a great one because it struck the right balance of isolation and in situ so it was easy to walk through and still showed the context of where and how to use it.

This is even harder when trying to build for a technology that you’re not comfortable with. In a previous post, Prepare Yourself To Give a Great Talk, I mentioned that people can stretch themselves and give a talk on a topic that they don’t have completely mastered. This is always going to be the case with emerging technologies (Such as technologies that are in CTP or early Beta), but it can even be true with existing technologies if you haven’t spent a lot of time with them. Actually, I think this is a great way to force yourself to learn a new topic.

Two examples of a stretch goal paying off
Jeff Hunsaker recently did a talk on Entity Framework at Central Ohio Day of .NET. He learned a ton about the topic and gave a good talk. He’s been very critical of himself since then, but all reports I have heard was that he was fantastic. That’s a technology that’s in CTP and there are VERY few people well versed in it at this point. It’s hard to even get help. I didn’t see his demo, so I can’t really comment on it but he did tell me that this was a tough thing to pull together.
When I got a speaking slot at eRubyCon, which I hope to see you all at this year, I was thrilled and panicked at the same time. I knew Silverlight, which is what my talk was going to be in, but I wanted do my talk with Silverlight running on Rails so I had to learn Ruby and Ruby on Rails and put together a talk. I set about writing a demo application to learn the technologies and that helped me write my talk. I wrote a simple motorcycle sales showroom application in Rails and front ended it with Silverlight. It was a fun demo to do and it showed just enough Rails and Silverlight integration that everyone knew that I hadn’t faked it. Little did they know that I had only been playing with Rails for about 2 weeks.

I’m working on building that comprehensive of a demo for Silverlight 2, WPF, WCF, Entity Framework, ADO.NET Data Services, ASP.NET MVC Framework and more. Already you can see part of the issue. There’s too many technologies to demo so we end up trying to isolate each of the technologies in a small demo so that we can explain it easier. The issue there is that people lose sight of the integration and the workflow of the different technologies.

I’m not going to lie and say that this is ever going to be cake, but I will say that it becomes easier as time goes on. Creating decks, demos, preparing, movement on stage, delivery and all the aspects of becoming a great speaker take work and practice. Like the guy juggling, the more you practice, the easier it becomes. However, this is juxtaposed with the desire to do harder hitting, meatier talks and demos.

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Prepare Yourself To Give a Great Talk

Curt, Greg, and the longest play I've ever seenPreparation is key in giving a great presentation. Apollo Ideas has a great blog post about the speech spectrum. There are basically 4 ways that you can give a talk.

*Warning – gross generalizations ahead*

1. Completely written out word for word and read of the script. For this, you can think about your basic graduation speech.
2. Just outlined but not rehearsed. I see these too often. This is where someone has had an idea for a talk but is not able to prepare properly. Or someone got a deck from someone else and presents it cold without really making their own. In this category, there are a lot of sales decks and user group talks done. It’s a shame because they could be so much better.
3. Outlined and well rehearsed. This is where the majority of the good conference talks lie.
4. Completely written out and well rehearsed. In this category, you can put the better political speeches or talks from really high end conferences such as TED. Think JFK’s Inaugural Address, Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech or any other political speech that motivated a nation.

I’ve heard the argument that you don’t want to sound “too rehearsed”. However, the real danger is coming off as unprepared or reading from the script. Either of these are monumentally bad compared to over-preparing. Really the “too rehearsed” script is the one that you’re not willing to deviate from when there’s a good question or unexpected audience reaction. I’m striving for that right blend of well prepared and rehearsed contrasted with the ability and willingness to improvise.

You can also equate these with musical performances. Singing in church, while often beautiful, is often far from a professional band. But if you look at Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Great Big Sea, Harry Connick, Jr. or any number of other groups that put on an amazing show. That show is completely scripted and rehearsed until people are ready to drop to prepare for getting on stage. Yet, nobody complains that they are “too rehearsed”.

I know that I’ve gotten lazy in the past and have neglected this preparation in the past.

How to Prepare

Know your subject. First and foremost, you have to know what you’re talking about. Or at least know what you don’t know. Honestly, one of my favorite talks was at the first Day of .NET. I was on a call with Jason Follas who was coordinating speakers and he asked me what I was talking on and I said “Something cool and ASP.NET”. So that became the talk. I had no slides, no code, no preparation. I just got on stage and asked the audience to ask me questions. I loosely organized that into an outline and started talking. It was great but I could only get away with it because I knew my topic, ASP.NET, as well as I did. I had been doing leading 5 day training sessions on ASP.NET for several years so I knew the ins and outs of the technology extraordinarily well.

On the other hand, I’ve seen speakers get up and say that they are an enthusiast verses an expert (nod to Alan Stevens and Michael Eaton) and I think that’s awesome. They are stepping up and stretching themselves. But, they are not getting up blind and pretending to be an expert. They state very clearly what they know and don’t know. 

Know your audience. I tell very different jokes and even use a different cadence depending on who is in my audience. If I’m talking to 100% technical people, I can tell jokes about management or process or self deprecating humor about geeks. If I’m talking to people in the south, I relate to the cooking, fishing, hunting and other cultural things that I grew up with in Arkansas. If I’m in Ohio, I don’t mention Michigan if I can help it and vice versa. 🙂 Know the team rivalries, local economy and other hot buttons. For example, in Michigan, I don’t mention unions. In Houston, I don’t even pretend to know anything about aeronautics or say anything about gas prices.

How receptive will your audience be to your message?
Are they “ready for action”? If so, they just need to be motivated into action. You can bring out the big brass marching band and getting everyone singing the fight song and stomping their feet. It’s a lot of fun to give these speeches.
Are they supportive? If so, then you need to clearly lay out the arguments and call to action.
Are they neutral? If so, then you need to persuade them to your side. This is accomplished through solid information and personalizing the message to the audience in front of you.
Are they hostile? Here you need to understand the FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt). This is a tough thing to do because the balance of dispelling the FUD and not attacking is a fine line.

As a Microsoft Evangelist, I’m VERY often in the situation where I’m speaking to a non-Microsoft friendly crowd. It’s not often overly hostile, just not friendly.

Give your talk out loud. Two weeks ago, in preparation for the West Michigan Day of .NET, I was writing a new talk. I knew roughly what I was going to say. I had the deck pretty close to finished and was just polishing things up. But I had dinner with Dan Hibbits and decided on a lark to run through my deck once with him. He didn’t even have to say anything but as I went through my pitch I realized that major parts of the talk didn’t work. I immediately restructured the talk and gave a much better talk the next day. I would have realized that about 15 minutes into my talk if I had not practiced it out loud with Dan the night before. Practice in front of the mirror, or run through your talk in your head as you’re on the airplane or in the car on the way to the venue.

The call to action here is simple. Set yourself up for success by preparing to give a great talk. The better prepared you are, the better the chances are that you’ll get your message across and really knock it out of the park.

* Update – Thanks to Bill Wagner for pointing out a clerical error or two on my part… Fixed now *

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Public speaking and movement onstage

Playing God - fight sceneMovement when speaking is very important.

“Acting is, therefore, the process of illustrating the dramatic action – through activity. Activity is the how; action is the what” – Play Directing by Frances Hodges

For those of you who don’t know, I was a theatre major in college. Specifically, I studied directing. I was a decent actor but directing was what I really enjoyed from light design to directing actors and the full blown play. For a ton of reasons, I ended up with an English degree with a minor in Drama and a minor in Communications.

Recently, I was asked to critique a talk by a friend of mine. One of the pieces of feedback that I gave him was that he wanders while speaking. I expressed it as it drove me nuts, but I didn’t really go into detail so I’m going to do that here.

I chose the word wanders for a reason. I started thinking about how I would have directed the talk if it were a play and I was directing him. The blocking (movement that the director lays out for the actor) is very important as it emphasizes the meaning of what’s being said (or not said) at the moment. One of the many exercises that actors and directors go through when preparing with a script is to tear apart the script line by line, sentence by sentence and assign verbs to those lines. Every line in the script has a verb and action.

“If you can sense the action, the verb will come easily to you” – Play Directing by Frances Hodges

Thinking about the first quote – if the action is the what, the action is what you are trying to get the other person (in public speaking this is the audience) to do or feel. The activity (movement) is how you conveying that to the audience. When you are giving a talk, you are typically trying to convince the audience of your ideas and thoughts around the given topic. To do that, you have to be careful about how you convey your thoughts on stage. Think carefully about each thing that you are saying and what you are trying to get the audience to do or feel with that and what verb and activity should go with that. Are you going to threaten the audience? Retreat from the audience? Are you going to ignore, shame, beg, torment, entrance, lead, relax, motivate, berate the audience? These are verbs and you should think about everything that you say in a talk as conveying some verb. Once you understand the Action and Verb, the Activity, read walking or gesture or other visible motion, that you make on stage will become obvious. Each and every activity is there to illustrate the verb to the audience. It’s extraordinarily difficult to motivate an audience while sitting. On the other hand, if you are leaning back against the front of the table, it becomes easier to relax the audience.

The reality is that it’s the same in public speaking. It kills me to see someone walking backwards or sideways or heading back to the podium when they are making a big point. What this says (yells, screams…) to the audience is that they don’t believe in this point because they are retreating from the audience. As this poor soul gets to the podium and finish the point as they get there – right when they put a large obstacle between themselves and the audience. These are not things that the typical audience member will consciously pick up on, but they will on a subconscious level. If they didn’t, directors could go home and actors would wonder aimlessly all over the set. When someone is pacing aimlessly back and forth on stage, they are wandering or lost in thought and pontificating so the audience will automatically start to wander in their thought train as well.

The solution is to block out your session. In other words, choreograph your talk so that your movements match the verbs that you’re trying to convey. I’m not going to pretend that this is easy. Especially since many talks have a decent amount of improvisation in them. The trick is to figure out what your big points are and make sure that you nail those.

One way to get started is to pick two spots that you are allowed to be at in the room. Call them home and away. Home will be placed somewhere in the middle of the stage with easy access to your laptop and your water. Away will be closer to the audience and slightly to the right or left of center of the stage. While you are at home – pretend that you a playing basketball and you have to keep one foot planted. You can move your upper body all that you want to but the lower body has to stay still. Only after you have decided to really make a point will you start moving and it will always be movement the the away spot and it’s the build up to a point. While making your point, plant on the away spot with both feet square to the audience, shoulders back and speak clearly in a loud firm voice. Hold that position for as long as you need to for the point to really sink in. I’ll often make a point and then wait 10 or more seconds for it to sink in. Maybe I’ll even wander back to “home” and take a drink while letting it sink in. And then you slide back home to reset before your next point.

As you get comfortable with that you can start getting fancier and start doing more and more.

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